At a time when many artistic endeavors even remotely
related to disability are either stiflingly “politically correct”
or blatantly offensive, How’s Your News? is a breath
of fresh air, a humorous documentary starring disabled folks that doesn’t
pander to cookie-cutter heroism or make fun of its subjects.
Satya contributor Lawrence Carter-Long, who
has cerebral palsy himself, discusses the quirky appeal of How’s
Your News? with Arthur Bradford, the film’s
director and author of the book Dogwalker (Knopf).
Tell our readers about the cast and, well, how How’s Your
News? came to be?
How’s Your News? (HYN) is a news program which
features a team of reporters with mental and physical disabilities.
We’ve put together a bunch of different projects, but the most
visible and exciting one has been our full-length movie about a trip
across America with five reporters with disabilities. We all traveled
together in one vehicle—an RV—and the reporters interviewed
pretty much everyone we met along the way. The interviews are often
funny, but in a good way. The HYN cast consists of four men
and one woman. They have disabilities ranging from Downs Syndrome to
Spastic Cerebral Palsy and their ages range from 35 to 58.
HYN began at a summer camp for people with disabilities. I’ve
been teaching a video class there for 11 summers now. When I first started
working there I had no idea how to make videos with people with disabilities.
There were people with wildly different levels of ability, some who
couldn’t talk, some who could not stop talking, and some who couldn’t
successfully hold a microphone in their hands. We tried a lot of different
approaches but the one that seemed to work best, to be the most watchable
and inclusive, were the news reports, especially the interviews. We’d
have the campers interview each other, and then one day we decided to
go downtown and try some man-on-the street interviews. Those interviews
became the basis for How’s Your News?
You’re at Camp Jabberwocky now. Camps for disabled folks
are somewhat controversial in some disability rights circles. What would
you say to those who question the benefits of camps like Jabberwocky?
I can’t believe anyone would be able to spend a few days at a
camp like Jabberwocky and not see that it’s a good place. To be
honest, I’m not familiar with the line of reasoning which suggests
summer camps like these are somehow unhelpful or wrong, but I can’t
imagine that this argument would hold much weight with the people who
attend such camps and their families. Who else but them should be the
judge of something like that?
What were/are your goals and expectations behind making HYN?
Have they been realized?
How’s Your News? was made by a group of close friends.
We’d been interested in the idea of a long road trip for some
time and this movie idea seemed to be a way to facilitate it. In a way,
the moment we got in the vehicle and began to drive, our goals were
realized. When we reached California we felt triumphant. It was hard
enough traveling with this crew. We had medications and wheelchairs
and emotional issues to deal with. Even if no filming were involved,
it would have been a challenge. But we thought it would be fun and it
really was. I suppose the purpose of the film was to show that such
a trip can be fun, that life with a disability, and spending time with
people with disabilities, can be quite enjoyable and entertaining.
All of us are probably familiar with the classic disability film, something
which is all about the triumph of the human spirit and you can just
hear the violins soaring in the background. We didn’t want anything
like that. Personally, I think that’s pretty boring. We wanted
to make an honestly entertaining movie, not just in light of its subject
matter, but also just downright fun to watch. I think if you set out
to make a film with some kind of social agenda foremost in your mind,
you will run the risk of making a preachy, boring film. I hope our movie
is nothing like that.
How’s Your News? has achieved
something of a cult status at film festivals and since it aired on HBO/Cinemax
last year. Given that HYN features a group of disabled adults—subject
matter not widely seen, at least in a humorous and sympathetic but not
overly sentimental light—have you been surprised by the reaction?
I love the reaction our film gets when we screen it for big audiences—especially
when the cast is present. We try to have them come to most of the festival
screenings and they do the greatest Q & A sessions afterwards. They
are very proud of what they’ve done. It feels incredibly good
to see them get standing ovations from the big audiences in places like
the Toronto Film Festival. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how
enthusiastic fans of HYN have been. They write to us and ask for pictures
and autographs. That’s pretty funny. But to be honest, I had always
hoped we’d get a reaction like this. It took a long time for HYN
to be accepted by the powers that be in the film community—festivals
were uneasy, distributors weren’t sure of our motives, things
like that. But once audiences actually saw it, they understood right
away. My experience has always been that it’s an incredibly gratifying
and joyous experience to see people with disabilities truly enjoying
themselves and understanding the importance of humor. I figured if we
could capture some of that on film people would respond in a positive
What factors do you think contribute to the film’s popularity?
HYN is a little different than most films which feature people
with disabilities. I don’t want to sound like I’m tooting
our own horn too loudly. There are a lot of better films out there than
HYN. But it’s got a lot of spirit, and it’s funny too. Everyone
likes to laugh.
HYN has virtually no narration—that
is somewhat unique for a documentary film. Was that on purpose?
Yes, I worked very hard with the film’s editor, Mike Lahaie, to
make sure that this story was told as honestly and unobtrusively as
possible. Narration in a documentary is a tricky thing and it’s
pretty hard not to influence the way the film is viewed with that kind
of thing going on. With this subject especially, we wanted to let the
people in the film tell the story themselves.
Is it true that the Sundance Film Festival refused to screen
HYN because of the ‘subject matter’? Why do you feel the
film spooked them, if so? Do you feel vindicated by the film’s
I’m not really sure why Sundance didn’t take us. It could
be they just didn’t think it was a good film. But I think it’s
also possible they were concerned about how people would perceive our
intentions. I know many festivals had these concerns. They didn’t
want to be seen as promoting something out to have a laugh at the expense
of people with disabilities. But I wish these festivals would have had
a little more backbone. HYN was shown to the cast and their
families first and foremost, and if they’d had problems with it,
we would have addressed those right away before showing it to anyone
else. The cast and their families are all so proud of this film, it
makes me a little upset to think that someone who doesn’t even
know them would say, “You know what, this here is exploitation.”
I can get pretty riled up on this subject, but basically I’d like
to say that I really question where those people are coming from. Are
they suggesting people with disabilities shouldn’t be on film?
That they should not be allowed to make mistakes and laugh at them like
everyone else? Since HYN’s release we’ve had our strongest
most positive responses from people with disabilities, their families,
and groups set up to offer them support. The film is now used as a training
video nationwide and has received awards from disability rights groups
all over the world. So if Sundance or anyone else really had a problem
with the subject matter and the way we handled it, I guess I’d
feel pretty vindicated, but I’d also feel sad, because I know
audiences there would’ve liked us, and we would have liked them
too. Maybe next time.
You detailed in Vice magazine your reaction to Howard
Stern’s use of the HYN theme song, which is performed
by the stars. Explain that a bit.
Howard Stern started playing our film’s theme song over a year
ago. They use it almost every day now as an intro to the news section
of their show. It’s a good song, sung with uninhibited exuberance
by the film’s cast. I spoke with the Stern show about it after
they began playing the song and sent them a tape of the film so they’d
know where it was coming from. We’ve gotten a lot of attention
because of this, not all of it good, but I’ve never told the folks
at Stern to stop using our music. Basically, I think the Howard Stern
show is pretty funny. It’s not always funny, and it’s sometimes
downright wrongheaded, but it’s my belief that people should listen
and judge for themselves. Howard Stern has many guests on his show who
have a disability of some sort and I think this is great. Most major
media outlets would be too afraid to do this. Howard Stern has asked
the cast to come on his show numerous times but we’ve declined.
I think Howard and especially his crew could go a few steps further
and think harder about what they find so funny about these guests. People
with disabilities are not funny just because they have a disability.
Not everyone with a disability is funny. But if someone with a disability
has the ability to make us all laugh, then we shouldn’t discourage
that. Howard Stern understands this and I commend him for that. Basically,
he just needs to figure out a better word than “retard”
for someone with a disability.
Culturally speaking, why can’t disabled people be funny?
Do you think/hope your film will, in part, break that taboo?
We didn’t really set out with a social agenda, but I think we
hoped that would be a byproduct of the film. Personally, I’d like
to see more people with actual disabilities playing people with disabilities
on film. Who is it in Hollywood that thinks people with disabilities
can’t act? Especially in roles which involve humor? I’d
like to see the conventional wisdom stop commending these big-time Hollywood
actors for taking on the “challenging” role of someone with
a disability when there are plenty of people with true disabilities
out there who could give far more accurate and compelling performances.
Get with it Hollywood! Seriously.
Speaking of humor and disability, Trey Parker and Matt Stone,
of South Park fame, are listed as two of the film’s producers.
This should come as no surprise to those familiar with the funny and
not-at-all stereotypical disabled characters Timmy and Jimmy on their
show. What has their involvement been?
Matt and Trey saw some of the original videos we’d made at the
summer camp back in the mid-90s. We stayed in touch and traded tapes
over the years and when South Park hit it big, they offered to fund
a video project. That’s when we came up with the idea for How’s
Your News? Matt and Trey have been extremely supportive and hands-off
in a good way. They provide funding and feedback, and let us do what
we want. At one point they offered to keep their names off the film
because they thought it might taint people’s perceptions, but
we didn’t want that. We’re proud of their involvement and
I wish more of the successful film-world players would show such support
for projects they believe in.
Giving disabled folks microphones and pointing cameras at them
as they interview people seems to counter-balance their status as, well,
outsiders. Why do you think that is?
When you give someone a microphone an interesting transformation occurs.
We automatically assume that that person is in control. I like this
in the context of HYN because it’s rare that you see
someone with a disability in the position of authority, especially someone
with a mental disability. It’s an interesting situation, sometimes
awkward, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant.
People with disabilities are often kept on the margins, shuttled about
on busses and encouraged to keep away from the rest of the population.
When we made HYN, we were doing just the opposite. We were
encouraging interaction. The reporters for HYN are all gregarious
people. They like to meet strangers—they’d be going up to
talk to people even without a microphone.
What has happened with the cast since HYN was completed and what is
next for you and the HYN crew? Can we expect an update or,
perhaps, sequels in the future?
The cast have been very involved in the promotion of the feature. We’ve
gone all over, screening at festivals in Europe and North America. They
do great Q & A’s after the screenings. We’re all together
now at the camp where we met. Everyone’s doing well. We’ve
started filming new material as well. Ron finally got to meet his lifelong
idol [actor] Chad Everett. They did a great interview and that’ll
be on the DVD, which is coming out this winter. We’re putting
together material with some new reporters and different kinds of segments
for a half-hour pilot we hope will generate interest in a future series.
Everywhere we go we get parents or friends of people with disabilities
coming up and saying, “I think my son or daughter or friend would
be a good HYN reporter.” I’d like to tap into some
of this new talent soon.
To learn more about How’s Your News? and its cast,
or for information on screenings and the upcoming video and DVD releases,
or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. A CD of songs by the film’s
cast is also scheduled for release. Give it a look or listen. WARNING:
You won’t be able to get the title song out of your head for days…