April Benavides speaks with The Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, about their inspiration and purpose in staging pranks on the world, and their movie, THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD.
And if you’re looking for a way to spend April Fools Day in New York, Andy and Mike will be appearing at the 86th St. Barnes & Noble tonight. Stop by and celebrate with professional pranksters! They should be on their best behavior.
Barnes & Noble
150 East 86th St. at Lexington Ave.
Thursday, April 1, free, 7:00
April: Welcome to The New Video Download, I’m April Benavides. You can also hear the show at Blog.NewVideo.com.
My guests have been the subject of international news coverage for what they call “identity correction.” A representative of HUD [US Department of Housing and Urban Development] once described their work as “a really sick, twisted—I don’t even want to refer to it as a joke.” They are The Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. In 2004, Andy posed as a representative of Dow Chemical to a TV audience of 300 million and falsely announced that Dow would compensate victims of the horrific Bhopal disaster. Dow’s stock instantly plunged $2 billion. The Yes Men’s brazen stunts are captured in their latest film, The Yes Men Fix The World, which premiered to a standing ovation at Sundance and was called “Outrageously entertaining” by New York Magazine. Andy and Mike, Welcome!
Andy: Thanks, April!
April: You’ve both pulled stunts, separately and now together for years. How did you fall into this line of work?
Andy: One thing led to another, I guess, you might say. We just jumped at opportunities to try to make a difference and sometimes, we found that, we are making a difference. [both laugh]
April: Were there people that inspired you in your work. Like other activists and, maybe, other comedians?
Andy: Nope. [both laugh]
April: So nobody was inspiring you? You had to step in?
Mike: No, absolutely not. Especially not, like, the Yippes, or, you know, the Diggers…
Andy: Daniel Defoe, in the 17th century…especially not Michael Moore or anybody like that…
Mike: Useless, useless…
Andy: Definitely not.
Mike: And even some of our contemporaries, like Ali G, who—we were already doing some of the stuff we were doing before we saw him, but then—just totally uninspiring.
Andy: He definitely didn’t inspire us. Or Alan Abel or Joey Skaggs—or any of them—no, totally, totally not inspiring. We are totally original.
April: [laughs]That’s a great list of people that were truly of no inspiration at all. Dow Chemical lost $2 billion from your stunt, you’ve been the subject of a lawsuit or two—do you find that you make people—or companies—very nervous?
Andy: We hope so. We make ourselves really nervous doing this, so we better make them nervous.
April: And, personally speaking, in seeing the film, Andy, you look a little nervous on your way to the BBC.
Andy: A little [laughs].
April: And that’s this great moment in the film, to see that you guys are able to pull this stuff off even if it’s maybe a little nerve-wracking.
Andy: Yeah. No, it’s just a kind of: you gotta keep going. When we’re doing these things, seriously, we actually feel like we’re on a mission—like: we’re gonna change the world. And, in a real way, I think, it’s true. If you stand up and do something—even if it’s as stupid as the sort of thing that we do—you’re contributing to changing the world, which isn’t exactly what I meant to say, but..
Mike: I like it though, I was going, “Yeah, right on, I’m with ya…”
Andy: Well, that’s good. Okay, see, suspension of disbelief. People are gullible, people just believe anything.
April: You are calling your film The Yes Men Fix The World, so I think that that message is there.
Andy: Yeah. No, it is. And one of the core messages of the film is: you gotta do something, you just have to. You can’t sit on your ass, you can’t just sit there while things go to pot. You’ve got to try to do what you can. And what you can do, like us, is do funny things and tell jokes and make journalists laugh—or whatever it is that we do—you gotta do it. And we found ourselves accidentally bouncing into this sort of activity. And we’re delighted that, at times, we have made a difference. Like that BBC thing got 600 articles written in the U.S. press about the Bhopal catastrophe, and about Dow’s responsibility, and helped to build the pressure against Dow.
April: Well, to that point, the media loves covering you but you also target them occasionally. How do you perceive your relationship with mainstream media?
Andy: Mostly, we collaborate with them. They want to write important stories about important issues. And we give them the excuse to do that, basically. For some reason, it’s not enough that 20,000 people died because of Union Carbide’s inaction and criminal neglect in India, and that Dow, which bought Union Carbide, refuses to do anything about it. For some reason, that isn’t an important in itself, you have to have a funny story to write about that. So we give them that story and the journalists themselves are delighted. I think journalists like us, even though we sometimes pull the wool over their eyes. They really understand why we’re doing it and that, ultimately, we’re giving them the excuse to do their job.
April: Good point. You know Roger Ebert, in talking about the film, pointed out that it’s surprising that you’re not recognized when you’re performing some of these identity correction acts. And also that a lot of the business people at these conventions regularly accept your proposals, things like the Survivaball. Is there a secret to selling the hoaxes or have you found that people are just really that dumb? Or gullible?
Andy: Oh, it’s not dumb. It’s that people are built to believe things, I think: we’re gullible. We’re supposed to be gullible. We have this great capacity for suspension of disbelief, which enables us to read a book or believe in angels or whatever. (Not necessarily that we should believe in angels. Probably not.) But we can read books and that is good. And we can watch movies and enjoy them or see plays—if we didn’t have those things [Mike laughing], it would be really sad. And so, it’s not like we’re against that, we’re just against people believing something is happening and not being angered by it if it’s terrible.
April: Right. While bringing attention to the serious issues, your stunts are just also, basically, very funny. Who and what—if anyone—makes you laugh?
Andy: Nothing makes me laugh.
April: No one inspires you and no one makes you laugh.
Mike: I guess, again, it’s one of those cases where there are a lot of unfunny things in the world. Like, Monty Python, for example. Total downer, you know? You can turn that on the telly and be bored out of your skull.
Andy: Yeah. Same with, like, Penn and Teller. Or, god forbid, like, Andy Kaufman. Or, oh god, Richard Pryor.
Mike: Chris Rock—
Andy: They’re totally not funny. Like, nobody. Just: nobody, pretty much.
April: I know that, especially lately, you’ve been encouraging others to perform identity correction and help fix the world. And, to your point, we should all be doing what we can. What are your top pieces of advice you’d give to a Yes Man or Woman in training?
Andy: Gosh. If you wanna do a Yes Men-style thing, you’re insane. But the way you do it is that you think of a funny story—something that will make people laugh about a very serious subject. Unless it’s too serious, unless it’s like…people have died in an avalanche—you don’t want to joke about that too much. But, if the death is once-removed, so you can’t actually see it, it’s not like, let’s say Exxon-Mobile has gone out with machine guns and slaughtered a bunch of African villagers. That’s just—you can’t really make a joke about that. But you can make a joke if Exxon-Mobile is indirectly slaughtering the entire continent of Africa. Now, that’s funny. [Both laugh] Complicated, but it’s true. I don’t understand it myself but it’s true.
April: So, death once removed, in some way…
Andy: Yeah, death once removed is okay. And basically what we do is make jokes about things that enable journalists to write stories. So, you come up with a story that’s funny, a funny angle that you created, you create the scenario, you create the story that, if journalists report it, they’re also going to have to report a very serious, important issue that you wanna highlight. And then you do the thing and then you send out a press release about it, with documentation. So it’s a three-step process: think of the thing, do the thing, and tell about the thing.
April: It’s the secret formula.
April: Well, I’d ask you about what you’re working on next, but I doubt you’d share that with me. I’m sure it’s pretty secret…
Andy: Well, we would! We’re launching what we’re calling “A Yes Lab,” which is, basically, an institute to generate Yes Men projects in collaboration with groups and other activists that want to do the sort of things that we do, or improve on them. So we are already starting to workshop projects with three different activist groups and we hope to up the level considerably and almost create a factory for creative projects that draw attention to important issues. We haven’t really discovered anything new, doing this, but we have discovered that it’s relatively easy to get press attention for important issues using funny techniques and we have gotten to know a few ways of doing that. So we wanna help others to do the sort of thing that we’ve been doing for a while.
April: Well, great. Many thanks to The Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, for joining us to discuss their exploits and latest film, The Yes Men Fix The World, available on DVD from Docurama Films.
Andy: Thank you, April.
Mike: Thank you, April.
April: That was really fun, thank you, guys.