Comedy Central’s newest primetime offering, Dog Bites Man, appears to be from the same comedic mold as The Office — except that, instead of dealing paper products, the characters peddle the news. And instead of being set in a small Pennsylvania city, the study of rampant unprofessionalism has hit home in Ventura County.
The mockumentary follows the inept and often misled exploits of a Spokane, Washington-based news team. And what documentary — mock or otherwise — would be complete without the input of a few experts along the way?
On the Comedy Central Web site, the show is promoted as featuring a cast that improvises “while interviewing and interacting with real people who are oblivious to the fact that this eccentric news team is actually a talented group of actors.”
Ben Stilp, executive director of the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance, caught on pretty fast.
In the premier episode, first aired June 7, a racial sensitivity course for KHBX station employees leads the team to realize that they really don’t know much about diversity, and that they ought to do a news piece on the homosexual lifestyle.
Stilp was contacted through a colleague from the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders organization who had been approached by a supposed documentary film crew. When Stilp agreed to an interview, it was with the understanding that the crew was backed by Viacom. Stilp, familiar with the media machine, inquired further (Viacom is a large corporation with many media outlets). He became suspicious of the crew’s true nature when the producer claimed a connection to a Portland news station; Stilp was dubious that Viacom would have such a small local affiliate.
“I literally sat down and said, ‘I have the feeling I’m about to be Punk’d,’ ” he recalls. “They ignored me.”
The interviewing style of Matt Walsh — an alumnus of the satirical news program, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — was a further tip-off: His questions seemed too simplistic, inappropriate and un-researched. While in character as anchorman Kevin Beekin, Walsh follows his producer’s instructions and asks, “Speaking for women, do you think if a woman who experimented with lesbian — lesbianics; I don’t know the word — in college three times, does that make her a lesbian?”
Although in hindsight he wishes he had ended the interview, Stilp decided to play along. He gives credit to his 10 years of media training when explaining his cool-headed response to producer requests that he snap his fingers or add the odd “girlfriend” to punctuate his responses, “Just,” the producer suggests, “to read a little bit more gay for the Spokane audience.”
During the interview, Stilp was told that he seemed “too straight.”
“There’s sort of two camps or two schools of gay people: those who pass, those who really try hard to pass,” he says now, “and then being queeny or campy, and because I was playing it straight-laced, they were trying to get me to act more effeminate.” He took issue with their attempt “to put someone in that position and make fun of their gender expression."
Although Stilp loved the concept of the show, he objected to the execution of it. Not only did the cast members’ misrepresentation of themselves strike him as unethical, but the brand of comedy that Dog Bites Man taps into hints at a deeper cultural backlash.
“People are tired of patent knee-jerk political correctness, so they feel the need to mock it,” Stilp observes. “It’s not acceptable to be outright neo-Nazi hostile, that’s not socially acceptable, but we can still use this backhanded comedy. It still subjugates that minority; it still marginalizes, disempowers them. That’s what I find, in an analytical way, kind of creepy about all this.”
The premier episode of Dog Bites Man features two crewmembers going “under cover” as a gay couple, wearing brightly-lit shirts of questionable taste and regaling a hotel concierge with graphic details of their intimate life together, in addition to asking themselves, “What do homosexuals eat?”
“One of the things I’ve found frustrating is, with this subtle shift and nuance of political correctness, it’s assumed things are OK and better,” Stilp notes, “but it’s not true.”
“It’s disconcerting because, as we continue to play on stereotypes and undermine the legitimacy [of our cause], it just makes the work that much harder to legitimize the needs of our communities.”
Without the magic of editing, Stilp’s interview apparently came across as level-headed; he recalls ending the interview “cordially.” In post-production, the order of questions is changed to add tension. But Stilp was frustrated that none of the show’s representatives ever came clean about their true purpose.
He recalls trying to speak to the cast less than a minute after the interview ended. “They were gone; they disappeared. Literally, they would’ve had to run.”