In the News
The documentary "How's Your News?" explores the funny, wonderful life of a group of disabled amateur journalists.
12:00 AM, Jul 23, 2004 • By DAVID SKINNER
ARE MENTALLY or physically disabled people funny? A dimwitted hunchback like Igor the lab assistant in Young Frankenstein is, sure. But what about a real-life disabled or differently abled person? Take Ron Simonsen in the documentary How's Your News? Watch as Ron flops his slightly lame body onto the side of a motel bed and says his prayers. Surely, this is not funny.
"Now I lay me down to sleep," says Ron, "bless Mummy, bless Daryl, bless Jake, bless Wendy. . . ." Ron's prayer goes on and on until you're certain he's going to name every last person he can think of, which finally includes some you recognize, "Kate Jackson, David Hasselhoff, Vanna White, Suzanne Somers . . . Brother Chad Everett."
Would you even think of laughing? Not maliciously, of course, but because of the tingling awkwardness of listening in on this man's quiet, private prayer, and because it makes, unintentionally, a good setup for a hilarious punch-line. Of course, it's not meant to be a joke per se, but the David Hasselhoff part is undeniably funny. Also, the scene helps accomplish the documentary's unmentioned agenda of introducing viewers to the loving and holy lives of the disabled--people like Ron with his weird and generous request that God bless a handful of people so much more fortunate than himself.
How's Your News? follows five disabled adults, including Ron, as they cross the country, doing news features and man-on-the-street interviews. These unusual journalists come from Camp Jabberwocky in Massachusetts, where they first took up video cameras in 1993 as simply an activity, not unlike arts and crafts. Two of the team (one of whom can't speak) have Down's Syndrome, another has severe cerebral palsy and has great difficulty being understood, and the last two campers fall best into that old-fashioned category of being, well, just, different.
When reporting was still a mere "activity," Camp Jabberwocky's director, Arthur Bradford, made tapes compiling all the segments and gave them out to camp family and friends. Ultimately, these tapes emigrated far beyond that community to become an underground hit. One day Bradford received a call from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, soon to be of South Park fame, who said they loved the Camp Jabberwocky videos and wanted to contribute money to help the camp shoot a half-hour film. This "pilot" was submitted to, but not always accepted at, film festivals. It did, however, catch the attention of John Pierson, a producer for the television show Split Screen, whose own production company helped bring about the cross-country, 82-minute documentary being released this week from Shout! Factory.
The film opens with the How's Your News? news-team taking leave of their guardians. These efficient little character introductions give a sense of everyday life, as some of the parents testify to a closeness almost unimaginable in other families. The mother of Larry, the cerebral palsy victim, says she gave birth to her son when she was still very young, so the two of them grew up together. "If I had it to all over again," she says cheerfully, as her son sits in his wheelchair writhing, "I would do the very same thing." A papal committee of theologians could hardly craft a more pro-life statement.
But How's Your News? does not stoop to anything so mundane as political statement. Any reflections of this order are simply the consequence of seeing such happiness and camaraderie among a small group of people who lack so many things one otherwise considers necessary for the pursuit of a good life.
The reporting pieces themselves are not incidental to the documentary, and these interactions are anything but superficial. Whether Susan, the most articulate of the five, is interviewing a down-and-out veteran or Larry, the cerebral palsy victim, is hanging like fish bait from his wheelchair, parked, unaccompanied on a corner near Lincoln Center waiting for someone to speak to him, the news footage is always interesting. The fiction of ordinary local-man interviews is that talking to someone wearing television makeup and followed around by a camera man is perfectly normal. These interviews make the meeting of strangers the event, the subject, and an impressive variety of interactions results.
The news-team also finds legitimate stories. They catch a glimpse of a passing era in an old Nashville honky-tonk that's being closed down. In Texas, they visit a steerage auction and interview the auctioneer. As good as these segments are, the journalists themselves remain the most compelling story element. In Hollywood, Ron finds the sidewalk star of his hero, Chad Everett, a soap opera actor. He gets down on his knees and kisses the star of his "spiritual brother," who once sent Ron five photographs in response to a fan letter. They don't do this on 60 Minutes.