A new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, reveals the revolutionary simplicity of a children’s TV icon who redefined “authenticity” in a way that Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G, Borat, Bruno), Nathan Felder (Nathan for You), Michael Dapaah (Big Shaq) can only spoof.
The entertainment world is overrun with “real” characters—that is, fictional constructs that pretend to be authentic, in order to mess with people’s heads. Or reality TV stars who are posing as presidents, or climate change deniers posing as environmental stewards, or serial perjurers posing as attorney generals, etc. The genre probably started with Andy Kaufman and his whole pro wrestling shtick (was it real? was it a spoof? what is reality? who am I?). Here is Kaufman in 1981, making a convincing case that he is really wrestling this 327-pound woman.
One could also argue that conceptual artist/photographer Cindy Sherman had a hand in this blurring of reality/artifice, with her transgressive projects such as “Bus Riders,” which she began in the late 1970s and “Sex Pictures,” a 1990s’ project. Here she is explaining why she does what she does:
However, Sasha Barron Cohen refined this sort of quasi-immersion technique to such a degree with Da Ali G. Show (where he also debuted the “real” characters Borat and Bruno), that he created a separate genre known as “cringe comedy.” The reaction to such comedy is to simultaneously laugh and gasp in horror, probably because “you” are “in” on the joke—that is, “you” are not the one being humiliated. Granted, Cohen’s work was hilarious in small doses (especially his ability to con blowhards like Newt Gingrich into sitting for interviews). But you ended up feeling bad for taking such humor at the expense of the boobs he had fooled.
Here is “Ali G,” fake talk show host, interviewing another fake character, Donald Trump, back in the days of his failed “Trump Airlines”.
Here is Cohen, as “Borat,” turning the tables of another talk show host, David Letterman, who doesn’t seem to know what to make of it all:
More recently, we have Nathan Felder (Nathan For You) and Michael Dapaah (Big Shaq). Both are talented, straight-faced actors portraying characters that enter the “real” world, with often disastrous or dysfunctional results. Nathan is probably best known for his Dumb Starbucks ruse.
Dapaah is a one-man Spinal Tap for hip-hop, having created the Big Shaq character whose videos went viral because listeners and viewers took them seriously. Here he is, having somehow talked his way on to a BBC Radio program:
One person who charted these waters long before most of the above people were born was Fred Rogers (1928-2003). There was a twist, however. He was exactly the character he portrayed on the TV screen: the kind and gentle host of the long-running PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for three decades. He once said, “I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.”
A new documentary, which premieres on June 8, tells us why we need the late great children’s television icon more than ever: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Here’s the official trailer for the film, which was directed by Morgan Neville, who also made the Academy Award-winning documentary about backup singers, 20 Feet from Stardom.
Warning: This is one of the few trailers that will 1) make you weep; and 2) actually provoke you to see the whole film.
Something tells us, here at PKM, that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? may break all box office records for documentary films. Part of this is its subject—an authentic person, a real character, a revolutionary force for children’s well-being—but part of this is as an antidote to the hatred that courses through America’s bloodstream these days.
If Fred Rogers, a mild-mannered ordained minister turned TV star, can change the world in 2018, then maybe there is hope for humankind. And maybe zippered cardigan sweaters and tennis shoes will come back in style.
Mr. Rogers sings “What Do You Do With The Mad You Feel?”