Arts: Guys and dollars

With no more than wit, guile and a TV camera, Michael Moore defends working-class Joes against big US corporations. So why does he have time for Rupert Murdoch?
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The Independent Culture
It's never enough for Michael Moore simply to fight the underdog's corner; the 43-year-old television satirist likes to run circles round the opposition. In the first show of his new Channel 4 series, The Awful Truth, the softly-spoken Moore champions a diabetes sufferer whose medical insurers have denied him the funds to go ahead with a life-or-death pancreas transplant. When the insurers refuse to back down, Moore and the claimant turn up at their headquarters and stage a rehearsal of his imminent funeral. Within a week the insurers lose their corporate bottle and capitulate.

"I really think that humour can be an incredibly effective weapon to combat things that we think are wrong," he says. The same belief led to Moore's breakthrough film 10 years ago. In the late-Eighties, General Motors initiated a devastating series of plant closures in Moore's birthplace, the one-company town of Flint, Michigan. Roger & Me followed the former editor of the Michigan Voice in his pursuit of an explanation from Roger Smith, the chairman of GM. It was a David's-eye view of corporate Goliaths, as hilarious as it was incensed.(If anyone doubts Moore's influence, take a look at Mark Thomas's Comedy Product which follows The Awful Truth tonight.)

"All the best comedy is always borne out of serious anger at the social and human condition," notes Moore, tracing a genealogy of America's angriest comics: Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy. And the late Bill Hicks? "Oh, definitely Bill Hicks. That's somebody you guys know better than Americans do."

Moore, too, knows what it's like to be a satirist without honour in your own land. His last series, TV Nation, took up where Roger & Me had left off, irreverently wrenching stories from the stern grip of the hard-news media. In its ever-popular Corporate Executive Challenge, for instance, CEOs were called upon to carry out the most basic relevant task: for example, could the head of IBM format a floppy disk?

In 1995, Fox TV canned the Emmy award-winning show in America after just two seasons. Since then, Bravo, a cable channel reaching just a million homes, has proved the only channel gutsy enough to pick up his latest series. In Britain, meanwhile, the BBC (who had previously nabbed TV Nation) and Channel 4 went toe-to-toe for the rights to broadcast The Awful Truth.

The irony is not lost on Moore. "Every week I was on the air [with TV Nation] it was the No 1 rated programme in that time slot with that young adult male demographic that they want to sell Budweiser and MacDonald's to," explains Moore, mystified. "You see [commercial TV executives] aren't like us. We make our decisions based on how we feel, what we believe in politically. They have one overriding value: the bottom line."

Had Rupert Murdoch asked him to prove that TV Nation's 15 million weekly viewers weren't a fluke, though, he'd have jumped at the chance to go back to Fox. Hang on a minute: the people's champion cosying up with one of the world's biggest media moguls? He may not be back on Fox but he's signed a book deal with HarperCollins. "Even though Murdoch and I may disagree politically in terms of the issues, at his heart he's a populist. He likes the fact that he puts out television shows and newspapers that appeal to the working class. I would guess his British experience did not endear him any more to the elites that run this country." You don't need Moore to spell out his own dislike of unearned privilege.

His lumberjack shirt and trademark baseball cap is the uniform of America's honest-to-goodness heartland, a heritage he's proud of. "It's very rare, you know, that any of us get on TV. We don't get TV shows, the working class." And even though Moore now lives in sophisticated New York, he misses Michigan's blue-collar progressiveness. He says of New York: "I'd never lived in a city with a Republican Mayor, a Republican governor; a state that has the death penalty; a city where the cops have killed 100 people since Giuliani became Mayor."

Flint, on the other hand, was the first city to elect a black mayor. It even, claims Moore in a lengthy encomium of his home town, doubled the deposit earned on a soda bottle: "So you go up and down the highways of Michigan, there's no litter!"

Moore has just delivered the sort of earnest sermon he's careful never makes it on to his shows. "If you try to have a straight argument or discussion with [the big corporations], they'll have all their standard one-liners. So you kind of disarm them with their weakness - their inability to laugh or have a sense of humour. It's like the difference between judo and karate - there's no way you're going to win with a karate chop to the neck of corporate America." It's a lesson Moore learnt early. At 16 he attacked a national business guild's racist membership policy in a speech contest sponsored by the very same guild. Moore took first prize and helped end the policy in question.

Two years later, he became the youngest person ever elected to political office in the United States, winning a seat on his local Education Board while still at school and eventually getting his old high school principal the sack. Today, Moore says he's no political activist: "`Citizen' means `a political activist'. But it's not something I want to do full-time - [The Awful Truth] is my contribution."

This time round, Moore is joined by more than a few standers-by in Manhattan, linking the packages instead before a sizeable, live, American audience. "I wanted the people at home to see that it's not just me and couple of crazy people in Times Square that believe in these things. It's like a big town meeting - 1,000 people in the room and they're all hooting and hollering and mixing it up. I like that."

Otherwise, The Awful Truth is business as usual, if a little edgier and more confrontational. Big business and bigots beware. "It's like The Wizard of Oz where everybody's afraid of the Wizard until Toto pulls back the curtain and reveals that he's just a frightened little man. Our show is kind of like Toto - pull the curtain back and show that these companies are not run by big bad wizards, they're actually just normal people. And some of them aren't too bright."

`Michael Moore: The Awful Truth', tonight, 10.30pm, Channel 4