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MTV brings subculture to mainstream

TUESDAY, FEB. 10, 2009

‘How’s Your News?’ puts disabled, disadvantaged in reporters chair

Groups who were once stigmatized can try to shed the stigma by morphing into a subculture or a “community,” or, if politically oriented, a movement.

It’s happening, or has happened, with old people, fat people, transsexuals and countless others.

In that spirit, MTV’s new “How’s Your News?” show can be seen not as exploitation of people who have mental disabilities, but rather as the expression of a subculture that has much to contribute to the mainstream, but never had much of an opportunity.

“Can be” is the operative phrase, because some people might still see the half-hour program – which premiered Sunday night (10:30 p.m., cable channel 63 in Spokane, 43 in Coeur d’Alene) – as some sort of condescending abuse, especially because the executive producers are Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the smart-alecky pair who turned children into foulmouthed cynics with their “South Park” cartoon.

But “How’s Your News?” is clearly not in the “South Park” vein. It’s upbeat and moving, and the disabled or disadvantaged people who star in the program appear to exert enough control over the content to dispel charges that they’re being used.

An informational magazine rather than a true “news” show, the program offers a free-form mish-mash on random topics that seem to have popped into the heads, singly or collectively, of its unique cast of reporters, who ride around in a bus looking for suitable stories or waiting for stories to come to them.

The premiere was made up mostly of celebrity interviews with the likes of Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana, of course), Jimmy Kimmel (who fantasizes about being a cable installer), comic Sarah Silverman (“you always make me cry,” she tells one member of the troupe) and the rock group Plain White T’s.

John McCain was glimpsed briefly, talking casually with one of the disabled reporters as if hobnobbing with any other constituent.

Likable John Stamos pretended to be a hitchhiker picked up by the “How’s Your News?” bus. Surfers, skateboarders and the very available Ben Affleck also showed up.

Just as viewers are invited to laugh with the reporters rather than at them, the nondisabled people who appear on the show have fun with them rather than make fun of them.

Contrary to typical dramatic depictions of “special” souls in supposedly sensitive movies, these disabled folk have senses of humor even about their own situations and circumstances. They are in on the joke; they are telling the joke; they are part of the greater joke being played on us all.

According to a network spokesperson, the reporters are being paid for their work, and thus not being exploited in that way, either.

One of the stars of the group is Bobby Bird, a man with Down syndrome who is in his 50s and who speaks in a private language that to others sounds very close to meaningless babble.

He seems to know that’s how people respond to him, however, and has fun with it, turning the tables in a way that makes a supposedly normal person feel isolated and out of it – ostracized, as mentally challenged people often are.

Once he lights up, Bird isn’t always easy to turn off. In a sequence taped on the red carpet at the Grammy Awards, Bird charged up to anybody and everybody and laid some of his infectious gibberish on them, to the point that we heard one of Bird’s colleagues saying “Bobby, stop” in an effort to get the interview back on track.

“How’s Your News?” is the fruition of a project that goes back a decade or more to Camp Jabberwocky on Martha’s Vineyard – a place for those with physical as well as mental disabilities.

Arthur Bradford, a video enthusiast who worked at the camp, introduced TV cameras into the curriculum, and was delighted when the campers responded energetically.

Taped sequences were turned into a documentary, which became a feature film, which was shown in 2003 on HBO, which has evolved into the MTV series. Only six episodes have been produced so far; more will follow if the show catches on.

It’s being lumped in with three other new shows that constitute a revised Sunday night block. “How’s Your News?” should fairly easily outshine the others because it truly is different and because it offers a perspective unavailable anywhere else.

Will some of the same kids who jeer at the disabled among them tune in to laugh at those appearing on the program? Maybe, but the last laugh will probably belong to the reporters.

The show isn’t really “about” mental disabilities; it’s just a chance to look through someone else’s eyes and see the world in ways you’ve never seen it before.

It’s also a wickedly entertaining half-hour, one you’ll never regret having surrendered to your television set.

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