"I fired a manager after he said to me, 'Do something crazy and it'll get on YouTube and your career will take off!'" comedian Christopher Titus told me in an interview this summer. "I looked at him and was like, 'Really, that's your plan? Really?'"
While Titus may be cynical about creating a phony exhibition as a method of infiltrating the public consciousness, media-savvy Republican Senator Ted Cruz found success using the same tactic last week when he staged what could be mistaken for a post-modern performance-art piece on the the Senate floor, but has become known as his "faux filibusterer."
Just like sex scandals, weird religions and criminal investigations, the political media machine loves a good filibuster. Jimmy Stewart turned the bureaucratic protest into an act of humble heroism in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and it has since been used as a dramatic plot device on The West Wing and for comedic tension in Amazon's new Alpha House series. Non-stop speeches with no breaks for meals or bathroom visits, filibusters have been championed as a somewhat demeaning physical challenge. Senator Strom Thurman currently holds the record with his 24-hour monologue against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, a feat that was nearly duplicated by Cruz last week with his 21 hour rant -- if only he were performing an actual filibuster.
But he wasn't. All the ingredients were there -- the passion, the media attention, the marathon of devolved, nonsensical babbling -- but the context was missing. He wasn't delaying a vote, only commenting on something that had been voted on almost four years ago. And with this stunt, Cruz divided his party, fanned flames of a government shut-down, and somehow lowered public regard for the U.S. Senate even further than its previous resting place. And yet, it was a total success.
Titus's former manager may have been a shallow moron, but he wasn't wrong in his suggestion that a little synthetic drama goes a long way. Titus assumed that the public was far too intelligent to believe in a staged drama, filmed on an iPhone and placed on YouTube, but he was giving the public far too much credit. Even though the two have nothing in common, the words "filibuster" and "Ted Cruz" can currently be seen in headlines and tweets across the Internet. And even though he offered nothing new in the debate against Obamacare, and probably even hurt his party's chance at effecting change on the issue, the Senator himself was a featured profile on Sunday talk shows and is being hounded about a possible 2016 run for the White House.
Like Miley Cyrus twerking on a Beetlejuice-attired Robin Thicke during the VMAs, Cruz's exhibition was a meticulously constructed media-grab, replete with SEO-friendly pop-culture references and Obama-is-like-Hitler sensationalism. Exchange the word "filibuster" with "meltdown" and it's no different from any other hysterical talking point on the E! Network.
Comedians deal with this conundrum all the time. Dave Chappelle would probably still be regarded as a comedy legend if he'd never gone off script and insulted his audience on stage, but he wouldn't have received half the media attention that he has. While the incidents that have been reported with the word "meltdown" next to his name were probably unstaged, it would've made a certain sense if they had been. Former SNL Goat Boy Jim Breuer certainly had few qualms about manufacturing a breakdown on the set of a Pizza Hut commercial in 2009. I spoke with Breuer about this just last week; the interview had run long and this segment of our conversation never made it to publication, but about 45 minutes into our chat, Breuer confessed that the semi-viral YouTube video titled "Jim Breuer flips out on Pizza Hut commercial shoot" was 100 percent staged. While he had actually been commissioned for a celebrity endorsement on a Pizza Hut TV spot, halfway through shooting the marketing directors behind the restaurant chain had a clever, yet wildly unoriginal, idea for boosting the SEO factor of their brand.
Jim Breuer: Pizza Hut, in the middle of the shoot, approached me and said "Christian Bale has this viral video where he snapped. We think it would be great if we created a viral video. We want you to snap." I wasn't comfortable with it, I didn't think anyone would buy that Jim Breuer from SNL would snap. However, it came with a boatload of cash. . . . So Pizza Hut paid me to create a fake viral video, so they can sell more pizza. My hat's off to them because it got people talking. You'd be shocked how many people think it's real.
Unfortunately, I am not shocked that so many people bought this poorly crafted, non-nonsensical video as a legit piece of undercover footage. Just like I'm not surprised that so many people are awarding Ted Cruz a place in the annals of filibuster history. These are the same people who think the commercials where a camera crew surprises "real people" on the street to ask them about Bing or Downy are legit situations.
I would like to live in Christopher Titus's world, where the public is too savvy to buy these scenarios as anything other than shameless grandstanding in hopes of tattooing a name onto your consciousness. But the fact that, as I type this sentence, Ted Cruz's face beams from a cable news station on the TV behind me -- as it has all day -- reinforces my deep-seated belief that most of the media-consuming public are as gullible as a cross-eyed cat chasing a laser pointer.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.