NEW YORK CITY — I watched the first episode of How’s Your News? on Sunday night and am inclined to think that this broadcast may represent the greatest single example of a dream come true that I’ve ever personally witnessed.
As a reviewer for the Gazette, I saw a screening of the first How’s Your News? interviews ever taped at Camp Jabberwocky, the summer camp for the disabled in Vineyard Haven, in August 1993. The old footage may contradict details, but I recall Sean Costello, an apparently diffident young man with Down syndrome, shuffling reluctantly toward a kickball field with a microphone. He was trailed by Jabberwocky counselor and cameraman Arthur Bradford, who was urging Sean to find a player to ask questions of, as if he were a television correspondent.
Rather than pick one standing on the sidelines — and Jabberwocky being the all-in place that it is, there may not have been anyone standing on the sidelines — Sean shambled morosely up to a player (another Jabberwocky counselor playing outfield, I think, looking alertly toward the plate), stuck the mike under her nose and asked, “How’s your sports?” I think the player, cheerful but distracted, declared that the game was going reasonably well, but that she literally had to run, because here came the ball. And as the action wheeled off-camera, Sean was left standing there, head slightly bowed, the mike now under his own nose. And for the first time we heard on tape the sort of thing he’d been muttering indecipherably to himself for many summers at the camp.
It was something like, “This is a stupid game.”
In that moment 15 years ago, the whole ethos of the How’s Your News? television project took form. These journalists would go places regular journalists never think or dare to go (onto the field, during the game). They would ask questions regular journalists seldom think to ask (“How’s your sports?” being the first and best). The interviewees, confronted by interviewers clearly and often brashly different than the norm, would often find themselves either unhorsed or captivated by the questioner and the questions. Either way, the unselfconscious command of the people who now held the camera, the mike and the agenda almost always seemed to provoke the most hopelessly honest, personally revealing and roundly funny answers imaginable.
And since objectivity is — by accident of birth and their own experience in the world — inconceivable to anyone on the How’s Your News? team, the reporters would often conclude the interview with observations and summaries that were just as trenchant and just as funny as the interview itself had been. (Kickball = stupid.)
I saw the short film that came out of the first big trip the How’s Your News? team ever took beyond the Vineyard, a travelogue from Maine to New York in 1998 that included interviews at a demolition derby (Sean again, to a driver: “Why are you doing this?”). For the Gazette, I reported their trip to the Toronto International Film Festival, where a transcontinental How’s Your News? odyssey was shown to sold out, enraptured audiences on the pretty, placid weekend before Sept. 11, 2001. And at a West Village premiere in 2004, the audience of 300 fans now knew the stars and show well enough to sing along as the How’s Your News? theme song played on screen, and there I saw the interviews the correspondents scored — with Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain, a dismissive Tim Russert and with Susan Harrington, an argumentative Wolf Blitzer — after their miraculous accreditation to the floors of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions that year.
At most of these events, I interviewed Arthur Bradford, executive producer of the new series, and each time, he talked about his hope to turn the project into a television series. On Sunday night on MTV, there the thing was, looking and sounding just like the time he followed Sean Costello onto the Jabberwocky kickball field with his video camera back in August 1993. Only this time a good part of the pilot was shot on the red carpet of the Grammys, the team was interviewing the Muppets and the Plain White T’s and the episode was sponsored in part by the U.S. Navy.
No surprise to the interviewers, I’m sure, but I wondered whether Arthur Bradford had ever dreamed of anything quite like this.