YES MEN were founded by Mike B, who lives in Scotland, and Andy, who lives in Paris. Their pranks on global corporations are legendary, captured in a feature film. [More info at www.yesmen.org]. Interview by V.Vale.
V. Vale: Well, thanks. The Yes Men seem to have figured out how to do pranks and get them into the mass media so that the ideas get out there and spread, like a meme or a virus. The whole idea is to inspire people to do something imaginative and funny–
Mike B: It comes out of the recognition that there is this huge problem in the world, stemming from communication being at the scale of one’s wealth, where entities with more money can speak at higher volumes because they have the access to all that media. It’s not like there are just these megalomaniacs at the top who want to dominate everything, but there is this whole complex machine that all kinds of writers and editors are involved with. I think most journalists want to investigate and write interesting, strange and unusual stories. However, they aren’t given the opportunity very often to write about, say, countercultural interventions. But when they do, they really eat it up. So we try to make these stories available to them, with enough humor to get them past the editors as well–
V: Humor is the camouflage that sneaks the message under people’s noses–
MB: It’s been key to everything that we do. If you tell a funny story, other people want to retell it; the humor is part of what makes it contagious. It’s like the jokes that get passed around. If you tell a really dire, serious story; if it isn’t monumentally tragic or unusual, it doesn’t get passed around. Humor is a really good strategy for getting into the media ‘no fly’ zone.
V: What do mean by that?
MB: There are places where ordinary citizens are not allowed to go. For instance, you normally wouldn’t be able to get something published in the New York Times unless you are an important celebrity, respected politician or a captain of industry. Humor is a smokescreen that can disguise who you are and allow you to slip some things in there. Another way is to do something really horrific, like put on a trenchcoat and go to your high school and mow down a bunch of your classmates. But that is a really repugnant way to go about venting your frustrations.
V: I don’t think the Columbine teen-killers even left behind an enlightening suicide note.
MB: No, that’s a really sad tale. Nothing good could possibly come of that sort of action.
V: If only they had figured out how to channel that anger in different ways–
MB: Maybe if they had a little more guidance and a little less ‘gun’ in their lives. If only they had had a more creative way of engaging their community–
V: Well, it seems like most mainstream media are trying to implant everyone with just two emotions: fear or pity. Hardly anything else. Supposedly, those are the two principal emotions that Shakespeare was dealing with in his tragedies.
MB: Well, you certainly aren’t going to see a lot of pleasure in a tragedy.
V: Shakespeare saves that for his comedies.
MB: Exactly. What we often are trying to do is to peddle pleasure with a larger message of tragedy. [!] That’s really it. What’s happening in the world with something like global trade is a tragedy. For a lot of people who are on the receiving end of the big stick, it’s kind of nasty. But we try to ‘frame’ a problem like that with a little bit of humor so that people will want to keep talking about it and try to figure out what is going on. Right now we’re working on a film that is about disasters. It starts with a relatively small disaster that also happens to be the worst industrial accident in history (according to some sources), the Bhopal catastrophe. Eight thousand people died on the spot, and in the long run it has been estimated that twenty thousand people died. People are still dying today because of contaminated water–they never cleaned up the mess So we are making a black comedy about Bhopal.
Hopefully, through the repetition of people communicating with each other, some kind of change might occur. It’s hard to see what’s going to happen with our future; it seems kind of bleak because of all these things like global warming, which are these unstoppable inevitabilities that are going to be incredibly catastrophic and weird. We are going to plunge civilization into some strange New Dark Age…