Answer this: How are aspiring white supremacist Hal Haterman, ultra-right-wing operative Drake Sutherland, Christian headbanger Chad Sin-No-More and teen abstinence educator Quentin Smalls connected to each other? Sorry, it's a trick question: There is no connection. They are not in any way some of the fake personas that Harmon Leon has donned while invading what he calls the "sacred institutions of everyday life." You must be mistaking him for somebody else. Some kind of queer-loving, bleeding-heart, whiny-baby liberal who lives in godless San Francisco and makes his living by poking fun at EVERYTHING THAT MAKES AMERICA GREAT!
But Leon, the ubiquitous author and standup comedian known as The Infiltrator, who has written for the likes of Salon.com, Details and SF Weeklyand has appeared on NPR's This American Life and The Howard Stern Show, can't hide anymore behind glued-on facial hair and his stable of alarmingly enthused characters. His disguise has been removed! His bare face is exposed! There he is, on the cover of his new book, Republican Like Me: Infiltrating Red-State, White-Ass and Blue-Suit America, standing naked on a sidewalk with a grimace on his face and the good ol' U.S. of A. flag unfurled before his mid-section. And that's not the only public stripping that Leon will undertake. He'll discuss and sign his new reader at the Tattered Cover on Tuesday, November 8 (and again in Boulder on November 10 and 12), fully unmasked for the masses, he promises, sans beard, camouflage or aviator glasses. Or willhe?
It's hard to know what to expect from a guy who once arrived at a pro-life rally in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic wearing an elaborate outfit consisting of tiny baby dolls taped to his shirt, with one of them floating in a jar that had the words "Stop Now!" scrawled on the outside. He writes all of his accounts in the first person, but unlike journalists or anthropologists who strive to maintain a distance from their subjects, Leon considers his infiltrations as more of a performance, "to attempt to become one of them and understand what they're all about," he explains.
"There's a different level when you're a reporter and you have that professional interaction with someone. But you get a completely different response when they think you're some sort of wacked-out peer," he laughs. "And you seem to get more genuine reactions from them. You get inside their mindset a bit more."
Leon's exhibitionism began at the widely beloved (but currently deceased) satirical publication Might Magazine, founded by literary superhero Dave Eggers. It was here that he took his first challenge: Get hired and fired from a Jack in the Box restaurant within three hours, then write about the experience. He continued the technique for his first book, The Harmon Chronicles, in 2002.
"I just think there's plenty of absurdity in the real world," Leon says. "My point is just to point out the ridiculousness of people who take themselves too seriously." But in his new work, it's clear he has bigger fish to fry: "With the political climate of today, it's ripe for this type of satire. They say that comedy is the weak taking on the powerful, and right now in this country, the powerful are the Republican, conservative, red-state-type people." For Leon, this means going undercover to attend a recruitment meeting for a white-supremacist group -- at an Applebee's. Or taking a job as a night security guard at a Denny's in Oakland by posing as an incompetent wannabe kickboxer. There are also plenty of Christians, ex-gays, gun-rights fanatics and some Vincent Gallo thrown in for good measure. In other words, there's a little something for everyone. Or is there?