Campaign Trail: Jabberwocky Is Hard at it Again with News Team

By TOM DUNLOP

NEW YORK CITY - After the unfortunate sporting events of last week, this town needed a reason to believe in life again, and to laugh. On Monday night it got both.

In one of those sleek studios with concrete floors down in the West Village, 300 people jammed into a white room with tall, narrow windows and caught a 25-minute glimpse of a new film being made by disabled adults.

The movie is called How's Your News?: On the Campaign Trail, and those who know anything at all about Camp Jabberwocky, the summer camp for physically and mentally challenged adults and children in Vineyard Haven, will recognize the franchise name of the film, the actors in it, and what they might be up to as this election year reaches its own dramatic crescendo.

The How's Your News team - introduced to the world in early September 2001 when the original How's Your News documentary was screened to sold-out houses at the Toronto International Film Festival - has grown from five actor-journalists to six. But the point of the new political documentary is the same: to record how people react to a team of disabled adults armed with television cameras, microphones and a ledger full of discombobulating questions. "How's your news?" is one of the easy ones.

Okay, we'll back up a bit.

The whole idea for How's Your News got under way when Arthur Bradford, fresh out of Yale, came to Camp Jabberwocky to serve as a counselor in August 1993. Counselors, all of them volunteers, are expected to bring their interests and skills to camp and teach them to the campers, whose difficulties run the physical, mental and neurological gamut. Mr. Bradford, now 34, had produced a weekly man-on-the-street interview show, Street TV, for the public access channel in New Haven. He decided to try the same thing at Jabberwocky, with campers interviewing campers.

"I didn't know how that was going to go at all," Mr. Bradford said in 2001, just before the How's Your News feature premiered in Toronto. "Those first video classes - I was totally freaked out. The campers arrive; that's such a weird moment for any new counselor. I had no idea what to expect."

But it worked. Diffident campers became bold interviewers; bold campers became majestically bold interviewers. Visitors to the camp - among them Walter Cronkite and Patricia Neal - were interviewed and cajoled into doing impersonations, singing songs and acting scenes from Hud and daytime television. The news team soon ventured onto the streets of Vineyard Haven, scampering and rolling after reluctant tourists, nailing drivers trapped in standby at the Steamship Authority, even infiltrating White House press conferences during the Clinton years.

Tapes of the How's Your News interviews eventually reached Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the television series South Park on Comedy Central. Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone financed a How's Your News expedition from Maine to New York in 1998. That worked, too. So the next step was to make a feature film that took the campers from New Haven to California.

En route they interviewed country music fans in Nashville, alligator wranglers in Amarillo, and taught passengers on a Greyhound bus how to sing the How's Your News theme song as they rolled through the high desert from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The documentary played film festivals in Toronto, Mill Valley, Austin and Amsterdam. It was broadcast on Cinemax in January 2002. And it inspired a second movie on the political campaign, which is now being filmed.

"The trick is, we have to make something that's relevant after the election," Mr. Bradford said Monday night in lower Manhattan, after the screening. "We don't know if we can pull that off. I think we can do it." The early footage covers the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; in both cases, the How's Your News team secured credentials at the eleventh hour. In a time of unyielding security and political enslavement to scripted events, the How's Your News crew appears to have been given enormous latitude to wander the floors and corridors of the Fleet Center and Madison Square Garden in search of politicians, television journalists, movie stars and delegates to surprise and grill.

The cast includes Bobby Bird, Sean Costello, Susan Harrington, Larry Perry, Ronnie Simonsen, and a newcomer to the investigative news team, Jeremy Vest.

The screening Monday took place at the Gavin Brown Enterprise on Greenwich street, just a few blocks north of the World Trade Center site. An audience of mostly young, thin, shaggy people filled every seat, lined the walls and sat cross-legged on every square foot of the floor. Most knew the original film and the journalists well, greeting the opening song and first cinematic images with a roar and smothering long segments of the movie with hoots and laughter.

They stayed on after the film segments to sing and dance to a concert, which the How's Your News team often stages live after a screening. The tunes come from the movie and are written and recorded by the campers themselves. The songs are often inspired by places that leave a strong impression on the news team, and tend to be either site-specific (Amsterdam, California), quite site-specific (N.E.W. Y.O.R.K.), or incredibly site-specific (Hotel Bobby).

As with the first movie, the charm and power of the early footage comes from the way the camera, microphone and Jabberwocky logic of the interviewers upends the unsuspecting interviewee and annihilates the pompous. It levels the playing field between the worlds of us and them:

Mr. Vest (Williams syndrome: mildly retarded, eagerly sociable, gifted musically, the attention span of a June bug) listens to a long homily from a pro-life demonstrator and says: "Mm-hm. Do you have any favorite bands that you listen to?"

Ms. Harrington (legally blind, mildly retarded, genially narcissistic) sings the How's Your News theme song to Peter Jennings in her Beverly Sills opera voice. Asked whether she's excited to be at the Democratic convention, she tells Mr. Jennings that it's "probably a two-way street."

Mr. Simonsen (cerebral palsy, retarded, a soap opera fan with a Chad Everett fixation) does his Richard Nixon impersonation for G. Gordon Liddy, greets Rob Reiner with the cry, "It's the Meathead!" and persuades Mr. Reiner to join him in a verse of the All in the Family theme song.

There's still a great deal for the How's Your News team to cover - the crew is now in Ohio en route to Florida to monitor the vote and the almost inevitable recount. It hopes to complete the film by covering Inauguration Day, if we ever get to Inauguration Day. But the footage shot so far promises even better things than the first film. The political season imposes a dramatic arc missing from the transcontinental journey of the original. And the stakes are higher, because this time it's politicians and media stars trying, sometimes easily and sometimes rather desperately, to deal with the unscripted logic of a How's Your News interview.

The people who manage it on a human level are the ones who walk around with their eyes and ears already open: Bobby Bird (Down's syndrome, incomprehensible and unaware of it) has this exchange with Al Franken after Mr. Franken asks whom he has interviewed:

"Boo-yah."

"Boo-yah?"

"Boo-yah. Boo-yah, yamity-yah, a-mah, moo-yah, ah-shah, amity-yah, boo-yah, boo-yah."

Mr. Franken looks at Mr. Bird for an owlish moment, and then says: "You know, I couldn't agree more."