Inside the Soap Box

Michael Moore often worries about being seen--and worse, dismissed--as the plump, ball-cap-wearing windbag who barges into company headquarters, demands to see the chairman of the board, then gets kicked out or even arrested. He frets about being reduced to a stuntman of shtick, Captain Ambush, the guy called upon whenever a TV talking head needs a pissed-off pundit to rant and rail against corporate corruption. He fears that appearing on too many episodes of Politically Incorrect or in too many films like Ron Howard's silly satire EDtv or directing too many Rage Against the Machine videos will render him nothing but a worthless, two-dimensional caricature. Such are the curses of success, the price of fame and achievement in an age when even a million-dollar mannequin like Darva Conger is a household name.

At the age of 18, just as he was planning to leave his hometown for college, Moore was elected to the Flint, Michigan, school board on a single platform: Fire the principal at his high school. Within nine months, he had succeeded, though he would never go to college. Seventeen years later, in 1989, he made a film called Roger & Me, which documented how arrogantly and how easily General Motors disposed of 30,000 employees in Flint--and destroyed a city by doing so. For years after that, GM could not close a plant. The spotlight was too bright, the ignominy too overwhelming.

Then, in 1997, Moore made a film called The Big One, which shamed Nike CEO Phil Knight into abolishing child (i.e., slave) labor at his company's manufacturing plants in Indonesia. And only last year, he used his television show--The Awful Truth, which began its second season on Bravo last Wednesday night--to shame Humana into giving a dying man a transplant after the HMO originally rejected his claim. He did so by inviting Humana's PR flack to the man's mock funeral--complete with coffin and hearse.

Stripped of the artifice of the hype machine, Michael Moore is perhaps America's most triumphant activist--a man who shows up with his camera crew, then digs in his heels until the system cries "Uncle!" But Michael Moore--filmmaker, author, and onetime editor of a small alternative weekly newspaper in Flint--is also an entertainer, a man who can be seen weekly on television stranded inside a tiny box. And because of that--because he has become part of an industry that can absorb, consume, and even destroy the most sincere and politically minded and render them vapid celebrities--Michael Moore suffers from the satirist's greatest malady: the fear of not being taken seriously.

"I'm not a celebrity," he insists, speaking hours before last week's debut, waiting anxiously as Bravo's legal department reviews the first of this season's The Awful Truth. Moore is anxious, breathless, giving not an interview but a monologue.

"I don't see myself that way, and, yet, once you put yourself inside the box--the tube--it's very different. People come up to you on the street, and they think they know you. It's a very, very odd thing. They have no idea who I am. But I don't consider myself an activist, I guess. I've never used that term. I consider myself to be a citizen of a democracy, and a citizen implies activist...I am just one of many people in this country who is concerned about things that are going on. I want to use whatever bully pulpit I have here in the shape of the show or my books or films to make my contribution. But it's only a small contribution, and if everybody else doesn't make theirs--if they're looking for their leader, if they're looking for Michael Moore to come up with a solution or take them to the promised land--then nothing's ever gonna get done, because I'm basically a pretty lazy person who doesn't like to do a whole lotta work."

To that end, Moore and his wife Kathleen, the show's executive producer, actually struggled with the notion of bringing back The Awful Truth for a second season. Moore would prefer to make another film or write another book--anything but be part of a medium he despises so vehemently. Indeed, his Web site,, contained an essay from Moore last week that began, "Dear friends, TV sucks." He watches almost no television himself, save for news programs and a handful of shows, and abhors the notion that his mission in life is to "unsuck" the medium. But Moore also understands that reaching a little more than one million viewers a week--which is what The Awful Truth averages, since Bravo can ill afford to spend money promoting it on the major networks and in print--makes the show worth doing.

He also understands that television, unlike film, is a reflexive medium, the pastime of the lazy, the remote-control junkie scanning 170 channels in search of a quick, vacant diversion. Moore worries that The Awful Truth will be perceived by channel-changers as nothing but more empty, meaningless entertainment--a hollow chuckle. He will always prefer writing books or making films to doing television; they demand that people take time out of their lives to read or hire a sitter and drive to the theater. But how can he pass up the opportunity to address a million people each week, even when he must do so from the confines of a 27-inch box?