Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Carlos Mencia Just Said That

As ‘Mind of Mencia’ starts its third season, the comedian keeps his vow to unite people by outraging everyone
By Carl Kozlowski

It’s a July night in 2004, and comedian Carlos Mencia is in rare form, pacing a stage with manic energy and unleashing a withering comedic assault that will leave no corner of the audience before him unscathed.

“Having people do the Tomahawk Chop at Atlanta Braves games is like having a team called the Wetbacks, and pretending to jump a fence every time they score a touchdown.”

The words come fast and furious, and the response from the crowd at the Brea Improv in Orange County is an amazing display of human psychology. The packed house of 300 people inhales a collective, highly audible gasp, stares at each other in “Did he just say that?” mode, and then bursts into a roar of laughter – all within a split second.

Yes, Mencia just said that.

“Everyone’s got their nasty prejudices they bury way down; the old names never die. On September 10, 2001, niggers and Spics were it. But on September 11, it was a game of tag, and Arabs were finally it. Olly olly oxen free!”

The crowd displays another mix of shock and awe. For nearly two and a half hours, far beyond the 45 minutes most comedy-club headliners take, Mencia offers his own personal State of the Union address. His mix of social, political, racial, and sexual observations are all over the map and impossible to define as either conservative or liberal, but they all come together in a coherent worldview that seems to say, “I may offend all of you, but at least this way, we see we’re all alike.”

And sometimes, he just wants to make his fanatical followers think.

“We’re sending our soldiers to die for freedom of speech, but you have to be afraid to repeat my jokes at work tomorrow? Let’s have our soldiers die for something more important than McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and oil.”

These are the kinds of things people aren’t supposed to get away with saying after two decades of “political correctness” that scrubbed American public discourse into a bland sense of propriety. But Carlos Mencia’s determination to speak his mind – loudly, proudly, and publicly – helped him build a career that rose from plum late-night spots with Letterman, Leno, O’Brien, and Ferguson, to his HBO specials, to, most significantly, his own show on Comedy Central.

“The network wants to call it Nothing Sacred,” says Mencia after his Brea Improv tour de force. “But I wanted to call it You Think It, I Say It.”

Both sides ultimately settled on Mind of Mencia, which debuted in 2005 and will start its third season this Sunday, April 1. The show has proven to be a ratings winner for Comedy Central, helping to soften the blow the network suffered when previous ratings winner Chappelle’s Show collapsed after star Dave Chappelle walked out. Mind of Mencia’s success has solidified the journey the 39-year-old comedian has made from ? the barrios of East L.A. to his current home, the proverbial “mansion on the hill” overlooking the San Fernando Valley from a perch high above Encino, and he offered CityBeat the chance to come along for the whole ride.

Back in the Day
Mencia’s been building his following for more than a decade, since his surprising start at a Laugh Factory open mike night. He was then Ned Holness (that’s his given first name and his biodad’s last name), an accountant trapped in corporate-America hell, but his fast-and-funny mouth kept his coworkers daring him to hit a stage and see if he could really bring the heat.

He blazed through his set, whipping the audience into a frenzy before stopping at three minutes because he was secretly nervous and blanked out on more material. But his timing was perfect – three minutes was all the time the club allowed newcomers anyway. Soon he earned the attention of Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore, and a month later he made the leap to a prime weekend shot there. Not long afterward, she convinced him he needed to change his name if he was going to be regarded seriously as a Latino comic, so he adopted his mother’s maiden name of Mencia for his stage persona.

From there, he soared quickly, but it was still the mid-’90s, and mass audiences weren’t ready to embrace a Latino as the center of a sitcom or host of a broad-based talk/sketch show. Much like Chris Rock after he left Saturday Night Live, Mencia realized he was at risk of never attaining a true career breakthrough – so, also like Rock, he made a conscious decision to stop playing the TV game and instead reinvent himself in the clubs. Any club, anywhere, any time – playing all 50 states as he honed his voice and learned to be utterly fearless.

“I went everywhere from Alabama to Alaska, and that teaches you how to make people laugh, period,” explains Mencia. “I learned how to make people roll with anything I said, no matter how pissed off they would normally be at hearing the kinds of things I was saying.”

It was a risky move for a man who, with his Tonight Show appearances, had already gone far past the wildest dreams of his hardscrabble youth in the working-class neighborhoods of East L.A. His Honduran-born father and Mexican-born mother had 11 girls and six other boys besides Ned, which led to an upbringing that wouldn’t be out of place in the odd families of John Irving novels. But, as he rolled through his old neighborhood in his black Mercedes on another hot day in that summer of 2004, nervously awaiting word from Comedy Central about whether he’d even get to shoot a pilot, it was clear that his risk paid off.

“My birth father had built our little house behind a bigger house, further back up the driveway,” says Mencia, pointing out the two homes in question. “But my uncle and aunt lived next door, and they weren’t able to have children, so my birth mother gave me away to them, since their own house was so packed. I was the only child in my uncle’s house, but I grew up with two moms and two dads, all next door to each other.”

One might think that unusual situation would be the spark that inspired Mencia’s comedy, but he didn’t see much funny in his childhood. It was happy enough, but it was also rough growing up Latino and being looked down on in a Caucasian-controlled society. In those days, he recalls, each racial and ethnic group kept to its own unspoken boundaries, and even crossing into another neighborhood seemed like a journey to another world.

“We would be amazed one night a year, on Halloween, when we would cross over a hill to get to the houses that we thought were mansions in the Asian area and get some real candy, like Snickers, man. The rest of the year, you were the man if you could even get a piece of Brach’s candy, because we were stuck with the fucked-up Mexican shit like Chiclets!”

The keys to his understanding the outside world were the trips he took to the neighborhood Jack in the Box with his birth father, “because it was my one connection to the world that I saw on TV,” he says. “It wasn’t the burgers that mattered, it was the idea that we were sitting where the rest of the people got to go on TV.”

As he cruises past the area’s countless elementary schools – “It’s because of all the damn kids! These families are still huge!” – he thinks about how much things have changed, for himself and for this new generation of Latino kids. Mencia lives in a mansion now, with marble tile floors and a pool overlooking a canyon.

In that house, he sits and almost obsessively watches cable news channels with what little down time he has, always searching for the truth that lies somewhere between CNN and Fox News Channel. What’s surprising, as he mentally notes stories to make fun of, is how quiet he is while doing it. In fact, he is quiet much of the time in private, seeming to save his fire almost exclusively for comedy-club stages and TV studios.

It’s the quiet, family-man Carlos who married Amy, a statuesque former model, in December 2003 after they’d spent nearly nine years together, and they have a baby son. He could be forgiven for choosing not to return to the scene of his hardships, but he doesn’t forget where he came from – and all the memories of division help drive him as he strives to bring everyone together by taking them all down a step or two on America’s social ladder.

“When white people killed all the Indians, who did all the work? Go get the niggers! Then, in the ’50s, they finally said, ‘Hey, I ain’t doin’ shit for you motherfuckers no more.’ And The Man said, ‘Fine! We’ll call Julio and give him a quarter to come pick our fields,’” he said back at the Brea Improv.

It’s a harsh assessment of life that still holds true to him three years later, as he ponders the lessons he’ll offer his own son about life in a capitalist America.

“I’m gonna be honest, that he’s lucky to be my kid,” Mencia admits. “He’s not going to have to fight the way I fought. My kid’s going to go to school, and kids will be like, ‘Is your dad Carlos Mencia?’ That’s a pressure, but you won’t have to live in projects, and all those hardships. The hard part for me is giving my kid perspective, saying, ‘You’re lucky,’ and that there are a lot of people who don’t have our lives. We’re going to have to visit poor people in our family, in Honduras and Mexico, to give him a perspective on life and not have a sense of entitlement.”

A Much Bolder Show
Now it’s early 2007, and, surprisingly, Mencia hasn’t had to tone down his signature foul-mouthed comedic rage on the TV show. In fact, the incessant bleepings Comedy Central is forced to apply to his opening monologues only add to the funny, due to their sheer absurd constancy. And the swearing creates its own built-in bonus material when the seasons come out uncensored on DVD box sets.

Mind of Mencia has built its following around an unrelenting willingness to gleefully offend people of all stripes. Many dismiss it as sophomoric, but it’s worth nothing that the show is executive produced, not only by Mencia, but by Robert Morton, who earned a place in TV-comedy royalty through a 14-year stint as David Letterman’s producer.

Morton’s services – not to mention his endorsement – are hard to come by, but he sees numerous parallels between Letterman and the Latino firebrand.

“They are two of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen in the business, they pay attention to detail like no one I’ve seen, and they’re both extremely funny first and foremost. They understand their audiences,” says Morton. “He’s got a power you don’t see in standup comics very often. He’s got an electricity he’s able to create. He never deviates from that point of view and that voice.”

Thanks to that strong voice, Morton found that the key to the show lay in reflecting Mencia’s standup “or, as we often say, dressing up the pig.

“Watch any bit,” Morton continues, “and it’s an excuse to get him to do his standup. Sometimes it’s man-on-the-street, sometimes fake news or doing a song, but essentially he’s always doing his act. But when we started, we kept things relatively small until we realized what he’s capable of doing. Now we do more commercial parodies, have different types of monologues, and he’s become a great actor as well. Everything, from his instincts onstage to his television instincts, are much better and are now impeccable.”

Indeed, the March 15 taping of the third-season premiere revealed a much bolder show. But, even as Mencia dressed up as a dinosaur for a wicked children’s-show parody, and a video elaborately spoofed high school sports films, he saved his main fire for his monologue: a viciously funny take on the death of Australian “crocodile hunter” Steve Irwin and how white people seem to be the only ones who go out of their way to mess with deadly animals.

By the end of his typically feisty monologue, a good number of Mencia’s staff was laughing and cheering, even when well out of hearing range of the boss and without knowing a reporter was in their presence. It was a rare moment, not only for bitter Hollywood but for the work world in general – when’s the last time you gave your boss a fist pump and a “whoop” when he did something you liked? Spotted among the 10 writers were people who epitomized Mencia’s loyalty to friends, such as ’80s MTV favorite Ken Ober (host of Remote Control) and Brad Williams, a vertically challenged comic who was plucked out of obscurity at a Mencia road gig after someone in the crowd thought he might have a beef over Mencia’s humor regarding his height.

“I just laughed at the idea, and I knew then that I wanted to do standup,” recalls Williams. “And the idea that he called me out of the crowd expecting trouble and wound up hiring me just shows he knows what’ll work, and he sticks with you.”

Mencia’s loyalty to his friends and his low-key, everyman exterior are the same now as they were in 2004. Yet there is a noticeable difference between his life before the series and his current existence. He still greets coworkers and visitors alike with hugs and hand bumps, but he’s part of a big machine now, more beholden to deadlines and promotions. He spends his days in a suite of offices on a Hollywood studio lot rather than at home, and he is no longer able to take a day off to cruise around L.A. But the added responsibility is a tradeoff he’s gladly made.

Of course, as genuinely approachable and even kind as Mencia seems behind the scenes, he’s been a polarizing public figure from the start. His website even shows his favorite pieces of hate mail from people who can’t stand how openly he airs America’s racial dirty laundry. Surprisingly, however, he notes that the angriest people are folks from places like Ecuador, who rush up to him in public or send notes complaining that he’s never made fun of their ethnicity. And he also feels that he and his show have been misunderstood by many who take offense.

“My show is backyard – you and your friends hanging out in the backyard after a barbecue and two beers. It’s the shit you would say. And I think that people recognize that I’m not being mean, I’m not being vicious,” he explains, sitting in his spacious office. “You mean to tell me that black people don’t do white jokes, and Asian people don’t do Hispanic jokes? We all make fun of each other – that’s just the way it is.”

In fact, Mencia feels that, by tearing each other apart with laughter, his show has enabled people to come together.

“I can’t be the black show. I can’t be the white show. I wouldn’t know what to do there, but I can do a show as an American who sees all that stuff and laughs at it and says ‘Hey, it’s OK to laugh at this whether you’re black or white or Hispanic,’” says Mencia. “And another thing that the show has done is allow a lot of white people to laugh at this stuff, when most of the time they’re told they can’t say or laugh at things anymore. This show is for everybody, so laugh your ass off. We get calls all the time from people thanking us for that.”

One particular part of his act does seem to get singled out more than most, however – and it isn’t a racial thing at all. It’s his portrayal of “stupid” people, and his mocking their speech patterns with a “dee dee dee” that many interpret as a mockery of the mentally handicapped. But even with this, Mencia claims that the increased visibility he’s received from doing Mind has resulted in some odd responses.

“It came from a joke where I was making fun of stupid people – normal stupid people, and how they fuck everything up,” he explains. “Everyone has a moment where you see a couple you’ve never met and you think, ‘I hope they don’t have kids.’ Why? Because he’s ‘duh,’ she’s ‘duh,’ and then their kids are ‘dee dee dee!’ In the end, it’s not about the mentally retarded, and I know people who are mentally retarded, and now they say it. Slightly retarded kids from schools tell me, when they’re in class and other people get the answers wrong, they go ‘dee dee dee.’ And I’m saying this to kids in special-ed class who are mildly retarded! But they get it, and that’s all that matters.”

‘You’re a Fucking Thief’
Some others don’t “get” Mencia’s success, however. Two people who seem particularly annoyed about it are fellow celebrity comics Joe Rogan, of Fear Factor hosting fame, and ABC sitcom star George Lopez, who are the loudest among many comics who have accused Mencia of stealing jokes from themselves and others.

In fact, a story has entered into comedy folklore that Lopez once found Mencia at the Laugh Factory and grabbed him by the neck, slamming him against the wall while threatening him due to his belief that Mencia had lifted 13 whole minutes of his act to use in an HBO special. Yet Lopez did not return CityBeat’s calls asking about Mencia, and the idea of HBO executives – certainly savvy tastemakers in American comedy – not noticing that much material being stolen defies logic.

Mencia’s friend and fellow comic Ted Sarnowski, who drove Mencia around back in their earliest days as comics in 1988 and was rewarded nearly two decades later with a writing job on Mind, claims to have a crystal-clear recollection of how the feud with Lopez began.

“I did a radio show with Frazer Smith on KLSX, and Lopez was the resident comedian, and I had a joke about the enchurrito – did an enchilada fuck a burrito, and there’s the enchurrito? Unbeknownst to me, George Lopez took that joke and was using it without my permission, not knowing I’d given the joke to Ned, saying it was better for him,” says Sarnowski. “This was back in ’88, when they all first started. I never gave Lopez the joke; he took it from me after I did it on the radio. I gave it to Ned, and that’s where George started his whole ‘You’re a fucking thief’ [thing].”

A more direct attack on Mencia’s credibility has been waged by Rogan, who established himself as a headliner through years in clubs as well a major role in the long-running NBC sitcom Newsradio. Rogan is also a master martial artist and a commentator for Ultimate Fighting Championship telecasts, and on the night of Saturday, February 10, at the Comedy Store, he apparently decided to blend those two worlds by staging a verbal battle royal over the issue with Mencia, who was also at the club.

Thanks to Rogan’s cameraman friend named Redban, who constantly films his public appearances for Rogan’s website as well as for Redban’s own, the footage hit the Web and created a sensation. In it, Rogan loudly brings up several examples of jokes he claims Mencia stole, with Mencia denying all the claims, even as a third comic, Ari Shaffir, shows up to claim Mencia stole a joke from him as well – and then there’s a clip of Shaffir telling the allegedly stolen joke on a TV show in 2004.

The joke is about the idea of creating a wall along the Mexican border to keep Mexicans out – and then wondering how to create that big of a wall without using Mexican labor. Here again, the claims against Mencia don’t seem to hold much weight.

For one, the normally outspoken Rogan ignored two attempts to discuss the issue with CityBeat. And secondly, Shaffir’s claim on the joke is unfounded. I heard Chicago comic Tim Joyce tell the exact same joke and saw him receive a standing ovation for it at a showcase for producers and network executives at the former club Moomba in fall 1999, a full five years before Shaffir claims to have invented the joke.

In other words, despite Rogan’s pages of ranting about the issue at, the best example he and his cohorts can think of is one they patently didn’t create, either. When dealing with topical, news-related humor, jokes can often cross over into the realm of the meme, becoming a common thought that anyone may share with countless others.

Ultimately, the entire incident backfired on Rogan, according to Comedy Store talent coordinator Tommy Morris, who says Rogan has been asked to stay away for a while, while the stage remains open to Mencia.

“The thing being misconstrued is that we chose Carlos over Joe, but the whole issue really has to do with Joe Rogan illegally taping inside the club,” explains Morris. “Joe went onstage and was fighting a beef that had been going on for years, so we let it go for a few minutes. We ran around the room asking people to turn off cell phones to avoid another Michael Richards incident,” in which competing club the Laugh Factory was spotlighted as the location of Richards’s racist tirade last November, thanks to cameraphone footage taken by audience members. “We didn’t realize that his cameraman had run out, grabbed a camera, and was filming from around the doorway.”

According to Morris, Rogan had already been banned from filming at the club, because “he was putting outlandish stuff on his website. We told him we’d love him to perform here, but just not to tape here, and that was established months and months ago.”

So Rogan was asked to “take a break,” which Morris said was clearly explained as not being a ban from the club, “but Joe is the one who came back on the Internet and got ugly. And if you project negativity, you’ll get that right back in return.

“I know what they say about Carlos being a joke thief, but isn’t that the oldest fucking issue in the history of comedy? Robin Williams, Jackie Gleason, Jerry Lewis – all called joke thieves, but all are among the greats,” continues Morris, his voice rising in frustration over the whole situation. “Joe can say we’re going down without him, but the truth of the matter now is that we’re doing better than we have in years. Joe’s actions don’t reflect the respect he claims to have for us in words. He does care about Mitzi, she cares about him. I want Joe here, I want balance in all of this, but it’s gonna be a while.”

For his part, Mencia attributes the accusations to “jealousy, and it’s part of the way it’s always been,” he adds.

“You name me a comedian that becomes popular, and [others will] say that’s hacky bullshit. It comes with the package,” he says with resignation. “As soon as I started getting fame, I knew I’d be representing people regardless of what they think or don’t think. I have a good heart, I’m a good human being and a nice person, and I’m gonna try and be that person for the longest time I can. You might not understand everything I am, you might not like my cussing, but would you like to have a kid who takes care of his family, who’s responsible and spreads laughter and life lessons through his TV show? If my kid turned out to be exactly like me, I would be proud.”

Nice and Twisted

Comedian Dane Cook has learned the secret to getting away with anything

By Carl Kozlowski

Hanging out with comedian Dane Cook can be a dangerous proposition. By his own account, he estimates, “At least 15 of my favorite restaurants have closed after I started going there.”
The closings weren’t by order of the Health Department. Rather, they’re just another part of the bizarre, unexplained events that seem to follow Cook everywhere he goes – whether his life is being threatened by a fellow customer for cutting in line at Rite Aid, or he’s getting caught in the middle of a gang fight at the Sunset Strip’s dearly departed “Rock ’n’ Roll Denny’s.”

“I was sitting there with four of my buddies from Boston,” says Cook over a long lunch at a different Denny’s. “I had just said, ‘I haven’t had such a good time in a long time,’ when suddenly 12 guys pull up in Escalades, come in, and immediately start throwing ketchup bottles at this group of guys who look pretty shady themselves. Every patron immediately went for the kitchen, because they were blocking the [exit] doors and whipping ketchup bottles, and at that moment I knew what the passengers of the Titanic felt like.

“But after it was over, I felt like, ‘What a rush!’” He laughs, swigging a Coke. “But we should be scoping out places to hide right now. It’s part of living in L.A., dude.”

Cook’s mix of comedic storytelling, manic energy, and self-deprecation has earned him a rabid following in both his native Boston – hometown of Jay Leno, Denis Leary, and Steven Wright, among many others – and his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. When his name is announced during his regular weekend gigs at the Laugh Factory, the crowd erupts in the kind of cheers normally lavished on rock stars – replete with squeals from female fans pleased to find in Cook a comic who resembles Ben Affleck more than Jon Lovitz.

Cook’s career got another boost on Tuesday, when Comedy Central Records issued his new CD, Harmful If Swallowed, the inaugural release from the cable network’s new label. It comes with a DVD compilation of his Comedy Central appearances, including the uncensored hour-long version of his 22-minute televised special. This fall, he’ll appear in both the Farrelly Brothers’ Siamese-twin comedy Stuck on You and the Ice Cube action flick Torque – and he’s developing series ideas with UPN.

The release of Harmful also represents a vindication of Cook’s lifelong comedic dreams. He grew up listening to Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, and wishing he could duplicate their magic, but he might never have made it onto any stage, thanks to a crippling series of childhood panic attacks.

Cook literally had to pretend he didn’t exist in order to survive his first performance. While trying to work up the courage to do his own material, he’d watch other Boston comics at an open mike hosted by a pre-fame, pre-Mr. Show David Cross.

“He kept asking for ‘Ernest Glenn,’ so my hand shot up on his fifth try of the name,” Cook recalls. “I went onstage as Ernest Glenn and scored a laugh with my first joke. It was about a tabloid headline that read ‘I Was Raped by a Snowman.’ That’s not part of my repertoire now.”

What is part of his repertoire now is a freewheeling style that can have Cook humping a sidestage mirror or cracking jokes while performing handstands by the end of a set. He veers wildly between innocuously goofy ideas, such as wondering what it would be like to have a pet ram, and comically graphic tales of sexual embarrassments. Sit too close, and you might find him singling you out as someone who’s just as twisted as he is.

“My being aggressive onstage now is all a put-on, because I used to be the most introverted guy in school,” Cook says. “I would get sick if I had to talk in front of the class. Then I’d go home and tell my dad I wanted to be a standup, and he’d say, ‘Whoa, then you’ve really got to find your voice, to talk to people.’ Once I figured this out, standup saved my life and gave me a life. I’ll always support it and do it, no matter where my career takes me.”

One place his career has taken him is to the hallowed stages of the late-night talk shows. He was thrilled to land a spot on the Late Show with David Letterman, but that evening he got an even greater surprise upon learning in his dressing room that Letterman was sick, and the backup host would be none other than Cook’s childhood hero, Bill Cosby.

“I couldn’t believe how nice he was,” Cook says. “He came into my room, where I was sitting alone waiting for my family, and talked to me for a half-hour about comedy, and made me feel like I was special, just saying my name over and over, like ‘Dane Cook! Dane Cook is in the house!’” He slides into a pitch-perfect rendition of the comedy legend. “Then, as I was about to start my routine on the air, he came up and hugged me and whispered, ‘Massachusetts, baby! Go get ’em!’ and I had the best set of my life. Because what could go wrong after that?”

Indeed, not much has gone wrong, and these days each show Cook does seems like smooth sailing. The key to his success, he explains, lies in an old Redd Foxx quote.

“Years ago, Redd said one of my all-time favorite comments in comedy: ‘If you’re likable, you can get away with saying anything,’” he says. “I realized I was likable, and I decided to see how far I could push people, and how much I could get away with. I love dark and Evil Dead ideas, and those go through my brain, so I feel I can go from friendly, warm, and relatable to bizarre and twisted, and people will go along for the ride. Thankfully, they have.”

Sick of the system

Michael Moore takes aim at America’s deadly health care industry By Carl Kozlowski

The doctors are in: Michael Moore and LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa offer their prescription for a healthier city

Think of Hollywood movie premieres and images of red carpets, glamorous celebrities and paparazzi will likely come to mind. Michael Moore had an entirely different idea in mind for the Hollywood debut of his new film “SiCKO.”
The rabble-rousing populist documentarian, who previously took on
automaker General Motors over massive corporate layoffs in “Roger & Me,” confronted America's gun and media culture in the Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine” and exposed the horrific handling of the War on Terror by the Bush administration in the 2004 smash hit “Fahrenheit 9/11,” actually did have a fancy premiere in Hollywood Tuesday night.

But on Monday he took his movie to the streets of downtown LA — literally.

In one of the more surreal movie events ever to hit Los Angeles, Moore arranged for a full-sized movie screen to be set up on a Skid Row street in back of the Union Rescue Mission and unspooled the film before a raucously appreciative audience of hundreds of homeless people, complete with popcorn and Pepsis.

With LAPD officers posted near the screen, the roar of police helicopters occasionally scanning from the skies and the sound of sirens passing rapidly in the night, it was an occasion vastly different from the staid critics' screening held the previous Thursday at The Grove's movie theater on the West Side.

But make no mistake, the chance to sit among the poorest of the poor as they watched a famous man actually show up and advocate for their needs was a powerful experience.

As Moore strode from behind the screen toward the crowd in his trademark baseball cap and sneakers, dozens of people in the audience leapt to their feet spontaneously, pumping their fists in the air and screaming his name while others ran toward him to shake his hand or attempt to hug him.

It was clear that this was no mere publicity stunt. The only press around was a cable movie channel and a crew from Noticias television, leaving the Pasadena Weekly with a citywide exclusive interview with Moore, thanks largely to the fact that that same night Moore abruptly called off the next day's scheduled press events in Beverly Hills in favor of participating in a health care reform rally at Los Angeles City Hall.

“I said to Michael I want people who are in the street and in the movie to see the movie, and asked if he could do a premiere on the streets of Skid Row. He loved the idea and made it all happen,” said Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission. “I've seen the film four times at other cities' events and I think it will get people talking — and hopefully it's his goal too to move us from me-centered to we-centered society and make sure everyone has health care.”

Children of God
Indeed, “SiCKO” is a film that speaks squarely to the concerns of the poorest members of society, as when Moore tells the story of a 63-year-old homeless and disoriented woman named Carol Reyes, who was dumped off by a taxicab in front of Union Rescue Mission in March 2006 after officials at Kaiser Permanente's Bellflower hospital decided that caring for her had become too costly.

Moore shows the incredibly sad footage, taken by the Mission's security cameras, of Reyes pacing lost and alone and wearing only a thin hospital gown on the street. She had long lived in a public park in far-away Gardena and had no idea she would be dumped in downtown's Skid Row, leaving her in danger until Mission staff went out to see what was wrong.

Initially, it was impossible to determine which hospital she had come from because the names of two different hospitals had been rubbed out from her patient wristbands. But eventually the Bellflower hospital was pegged as the culprit, and public outrage forced officials to do their jobs.
Criminal charges were filed against the hospital's officials and Kaiser was forced to pay a large class-action lawsuit settlement designed to stop the practice of patient dumping from occurring again.

“These corporate hospitals like Kaiser take patients who can't afford to pay their own hospital bill in cabs and dump them like they're garbage in front of these buildings, when they're human beings created by God,” says Moore, speaking from behind the giant movie screen on San Julian Street as “SiCKO” was shown.

“It's a travesty, and I'm so grateful to the people here at the Rescue Mission and Andy Bales because day after day, week after week, they saw sick people dumped here and one day they said ‘enough is enough' and they called the police on the hospital, and the police and city attorney filed criminal charges. It was a rare moment when the rich faced arrest for their treatment of the poor.

“When somebody is left to die in an ER or on the streets of LA, you should call 911 and report an attempted murder: murder by the hospital, murder by the health insurance company, murder by the pharmaceutical company, because that's exactly what they're doing.”

Reaching out
It may sound like Moore is merely unleashing his usual righteous indignation, but the surprising thing about “SiCKO” is the fact that he lays out his arguments in a relatively subdued fashion. This isn't the Bush-bashing spectacular of “Fahrenheit,” and he's not pulling a string of pranks to get his point across like he did on his two Emmy-winning 1990s TV series, “TV Nation” and “The Awful Truth.” He doesn't crash the offices of any health care company to subject CEOs and their public relations shills to hilarious humiliation.

Instead, Moore realized that even as “Fahrenheit” exploded to set the all-time gross record for documentaries with its $120 million take, he had become such a polarizing figure that he risked having half of America tune him out completely on the subject. So he decided that — just as the best legislative progress comes from bipartisan cooperation — he too had to reach across the ideological divide and point out that the American health care debacle is no single party's fault.

He even takes his biggest slap at Hillary Clinton, pointing out that she sold out over the years between her 1994 efforts to create universal health care as first lady and her current status as Congress's second-largest recipient of health care lobbyist donations.

Moore's new approach is a decided attempt to have the issues take center stage, rather than his own controversial image, which was burned into the American psyche at the 2003 Oscars ceremony when he went on live worldwide television to warn that the rationale for the then-impending war in Iraq was built on lies rather than any genuine threat to our national safety.

“But people should ask why I'm controversial. I told the American people from the stage of the Oscars that we were being lied to about weapons of mass destruction and I got booed,” he recalls. “These days, I get a lot of Republicans stopping me on the street and apologizing to me. They now see I was trying to warn them the Emperor has no clothes, and I'm now in the middle of mainstream America.”

It's middle class, mainstream America that Moore really focuses on in “SiCKO.” He realized that the media had long informed Americans of the fact that more than 50 million people lacked health coverage in the US, so he decided to turn his attention to those who are ostensibly covered and still get screwed through payment denials, refusals of life-saving procedures and insanely high premiums.

One particularly sad segment of the film spotlights the tragedy of Dawnelle Keys, a Los Angeles woman whose

18-month-old daughter Mychelle contracted a 104-degree fever, vomiting and diarrhea on May 6, 1993. Keys tried to take her toddler to the emergency room at King/Drew Medical Center and found a doctor who said Mychelle had a bacterial infection that needed immediate treatment with antibiotics.

Yet because King/Drew was considered an unaffiliated hospital under Keys' Kaiser Permanente health care plan, the insurance giant refused to approve the medication and attendant blood culture, forcing Keys to spend hours begging for an ambulance to take her daughter to a Kaiser-approved hospital.

By the time Mychelle was finally taken to the approved hospital, she was in need of resuscitation. Within 30 minutes of arrival at the “correct” facility, the child was dead.

“She would have been 15 and a half years old now,” said Keys at a health care-reform rally Moore attended at Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday morning.

Horror stories
Other victims depicted in the movie include a retired couple who were forced to move into a relative's storage room when health care costs forced them to sell their house, and a woman whose husband died on her birthday because the health insurance company she worked for refused to approve a bone marrow transplant from his own brother.

Moore collected the tragic tales after putting out an open call through his Web site,, for people to submit their health care travails. Within a week, he had received more than 25,000 emails on the subject and that total continued to grow exponentially.
“Over the past few decades, the pharmaceutical companies have done an excellent organizing job for us. They have so abused the people of this country, even those who have health insurance, and the people who think they're covered find that the whole point of the companies is to see how little of the bill they have to pay,” Moore said from the podium at the same rally.

“Health insurance in this country is a racket; it's Vegas, and the house always has to win. It's a system based on figuring out what the odds are and that's why they don't wanna insure people who might get sick. They send out investigative teams to find out if you had pre-existing conditions so they can get their money back.”

“SiCKO” offers damning testimony from former insurance corporation employees who blow the whistle on the corner-cutting prevalent in the industry, with one woman showing that her former employer would refuse anyone who had any pre-existing condition found in a 37-page list. But the climax — and the film's sole problem-solving prank — centers upon the plight of volunteer 9/11 rescue workers who now suffer from life-threatening illnesses that the government won't cover because they weren't on the public payroll.

In a brilliant move, Moore rents three boats and fills them with the sick volunteers before making a hilarious trip to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The reason for the excursion is that the US-run base houses accused terrorists, who, officials at the prison facility have openly bragged, receive the finest medical care possible.

Moore decides to take the rescue workers there in hopes of enabling them to receive the same quality care as our alleged national enemies. Instead, they wind up receiving the care they need and huge supplies of medicine from a Havana hospital, but the trip has nonetheless resulted in the US Commerce Department investigating whether Moore broke laws in defying the government's embargo against the communist nation.

“Sixty-two percent of the American public now is opposed to the embargo against Cuba. The American people have had it, and are tired of being told who the enemy is. The American people fell for that when we were told Saddam was going to attack us,” Moore says at the Skid Row screening. “We don't wanna listen to anyone else in the government telling us who our enemy is, whether it's Saddam or Castro or whatever. We as human beings wanna live in this world with other human beings, and the people in Cuba are human beings and we want them to share with us and we will share with them.”

Furthermore, Moore believes that government outrage over his trip is yet another sign of the Bush administration's efforts to quash dissent in the post-9/11 world.

“The Bush administration is coming after me because this film is an embarrassment to them. I pointed out how the detainees we have at Guantanamo Bay are getting better health care than the 9/11 rescue workers who ran down to Ground Zero to save peoples lives,” says Moore. “That is so wrong on so many levels, so they're going after me because I point out the truth to people. What kind of free country is this anyways, where you make a documentary and you've got the government investigating you? What kind of free country is it where you can't travel where you want to travel? I'm just grateful the Bush administration is showing the American people exactly how free we are.”

But what of those critics who point out that Cuba's health care system is ranked 39th in the world by the World Health Organization, two places behind America's supposedly hopeless system? The movie shows the list, but Moore himself doesn't discuss that salient point in the film. He had no problem laughing off the critique in his Skid Row interview, however.

“We're paying 60 times as much as the Cubans are,” he says, shaking with laughter. “And we're only two steps ahead of them. I think it's pretty funny.”

‘A Christian thing to do'
While the American way of life deteriorates at home, Moore shows that the quality of life in some other nations is vastly better. He takes the audience on a European vacation to England and France, revealing societies that are stable democracies with full speech and press freedoms and well-off families. In Paris, he joins a dinner of American expatriates who speak with awe at the services that French society provides, extending far beyond free health care to include 24-hour house calls from doctors, free college education and even free laundry service.

Yet the Americans stress that the tax rates in their adopted society don't cramp their dreams, pointing out that they have good homes and cars to go along with their lack of worry over basic survival.

And in England, he spotlights a doctor who still manages to own a new Audi and a million-dollar home on his government salary. Moore sums up the travelogue by questioning whether we're taught contempt for the French simply because the government doesn't want us to be jealous and start getting any ideas about free quality care for ourselves.

“These are countries that say we're all in the same boat and we sink or swim together. Countries that live with the concept of ‘we' and not ‘me.' It's not ‘me me me' in these other countries, it's ‘we,'” says Moore. “And if we allow too many people to slip between the cracks of society, we all suffer. Not just those who slip between the cracks, but all of society is ruined. All the rest of the world's 25 leading industrial nations provide health care as a basic human right. Could it be that maybe they're right and we're wrong?”

Despite all the sadness spotlighted in the film, Moore finds hope in the fact that the majority of Americans are finally getting fed up. While he argues that most Americans are brainwashed by newscasts often funded by pharmaceutical commercials, he also feels the true need for a better way is starting to break through the ad clutter.

Moore also said he was encouraged by California having two competing health care reform proposals working their way through the halls of government in Sacramento. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is touting a plan that mandates that all Californians purchase health insurance from a private carrier, but places few controls on the price and quality of the coverage. Businesses would be forced to spend 4 percent of their payroll costs on providing insurance to employees or paying into a state fund for uninsured workers.

Meanwhile, two competing Democratic bills offer their own distinct visions. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez has a bill that would cover all children, but would not cover single, childless and unemployed adults and would exempt the self-employed and businesses with payrolls less than $100,000 per year.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata would also exempt the self-employed, but according to a report by the Los Angeles Times, would mandate health insurance for individuals making at least $40,840 per year and families of four with earnings at or more than $82,600.

But Moore believes that it's the federal government that needs to come up with one overarching piece of legislation in order to prevent a morass of 50 competing state-level bills, and he heartily endorses HR 676, a comprehensive health care bill co-sponsored by US Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich and his fellow Democrat John Conyers.

Moore firmly believes that true and lasting reform is coming to America as soon as the current White House resident is shown the door at the end of 2008. But until then, he has three last things for all of us — especially the enemies who like to toss epithets such as “communist” at him — to consider.

“Go for a half-hour walk each day and eat some fruits and vegetables. Take care of yourself, and that's what I need to do,” says Moore, who has lost 25 pounds and counting on a diet and exercise program. “Second, demand that the candidates running for president next year make a pledge to support universal health care for all, and it's not enough to say they want it — they need specifics in the plan.

“But behind it all, we need to realize that if we say we're a Christian nation, providing health care for every American is the Christian thing to do,” concludes Moore, a Catholic who embarked on his quest for social justice after opting not to become a priest.

“I don't know why we call a Christian act socialism. I think Jesus would want for every one of us to take care of human beings and guarantee it for everyone.”