The premise of How’s Your News? seems utterly ridiculous. Take five people with disabilities ranging from cerebal palsy to mental retardation and watch them travel coast to coast, stopping in cities to interview people in a “man on the street” style of news reporting. Sounds like a bad joke, doesn’t it? But the execution of this documentary proves that the punch line isn’t always where we expect it to be.
The first thing that must be said about How’s Your News? is that the cast is quite unique. Ronnie Simonsen suffers from cerebal palsy and has a mind for television trivia that would put the Cinema Blend Boob Tubers to shame. Susan Harrington is legally blind, and has a mental condition, but attacks news reporting with a passion. Sean Costello has downs syndrome. Robert Bird also has downs syndrome, and was born with a condition that makes his words sound like gibberish. Finally Larry Perry has severe spastic ceberal palsy which means he can’t speak and is only mobile with assistance from a wheelchair. None of the five is what would be considered your typical newsman, but that doesn’t keep each one of them from trying in his or own way.
As a documentary, I’d be lying if I said the film doesn’t have an agenda. However, in a manner more popular documentarians could learn from (Michael Moore, I’m looking in your direction), the agenda of the film is so subtle, one could easily end a viewing of the movie wondering “What did I just see, and why?”. Rather then hit you over the head with his message, new director Arthur Bradford lets you draw your own conclusions, even if he does give you some subtle nudging.
So what are those messages? Well, when you see Larry holding a microphone in the middle of a New York sidewalk you can’t help but notice how invisible he is as everyone walks past him, often not even offering a glance in his direction. As Susan ends every one of her segments with a perfectly placed “Live for How’s Your News” you begin to realize how similar she is to anyone else who’s striving for excellence in their work. And as Ronnie works in some obscure television reference to a conversation, you start to learn it’s okay to laugh. Along the way you see the people interviewed by the How’s Your News team and are reminded that weirdness doesn’t just come from mental retardation (or as one of my friends put it: “They’re disabled - what’s your excuse?”).
How’s Your News? does draw a line between laughing at our heroic reporters, and laughing with them, but that doesn’t mean we don’t laugh at them at sometimes. Over time what you start to realize is you aren’t laughing at their disability, but at the absurdity of their situation, and sometimes at things that have nothing to do with their disability, such as Ronnie’s infatuation with actor Chad Everett. Prior to making How’s Your News?, Bradford spent many years at a summer camp for people with disabilities and has learned that part of having a disability is having the ability to laugh, both at yourself and at your surroundings. To me, How’s Your News? is Bradford’s attempt to teach that lesson to the rest of us.
So despite having two of television’s most offensive people at the helm (“South Park's” Trey Parker and Matt Stone) How’s Your News? really strives to be serious, while at the same time teaching us it’s okay to not always be so serious. Sure, it’s not for everyone, and undoubtedly some people will be offended by it which is a real shame, because those are the people who would gain the most from watching it. If you can get past appearances (as well as some of the frequent singing) you’ll probably find some enjoyment out of How’s Your News?
One of the things that weirded me out most about How’s Your News? is that about 20 minutes into the movie they’re in my hometown, about half a mile between where I work and lived at one point. It was really cool to see on screen and put a personal touch in the movie for me that this traveling documentary practically was filming in my backyard. However right off the bat the disk loses points for misspelling my city’s name in the scene selection. It’s a mistake that’s easy to explain, and is representative of the problems that pop up in the disk - stuff that’s well intended, but not as well executed as it should have been.
First off is the main option page, which gives you an odd selection of choices, all while playing the somewhat harsh on the ears “How’s Your News” theme song. You have your standard “Extra Features” and “Scene Selection” options, but instead of just playing the movie, you get a “Play All” option. If you aren’t paying attention, this causes an odd reaction because when the movie ends, stuff keeps showing up on screen. There actually isn’t an option just to play the movie. It’s “Play All” or play none.
The original pilot of How’s Your News? makes a “rare” appearance. This was the 30 minute version of How’s Your News? that sold the concept in order to get funding for the whole picture. Other then hairstyles, it’s pretty much the same thing as the movie. Also included is footage of the HYN team at film festivals and “concert footage” of the HYN team performing songs they wrote as they traveled making the movie. The songs were probably my least favorite part of the movie, so you can guess where the inclusion of concert footage fell on my list.
Some of the highlights of the extras are the HYN team doing what they do best - interviewing people. In this case Susan Harrington and Sean Costello interview exec-producers Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In these interviews we find out Parker and Stone’s reasoning for backing the movie and how they found out about the project in the first place. It puts a very positive face on two men who are smarter then they let on. Unfortunately it’s not the best conducted interviews as Susan asks all the questions and as she leaves Sean gets the mic only to ask... the same questions. Better editing would have helped this interview look a little better. Nothing however can touch the exciting interview Ron Simonsen gets as he meets his lifelong idol Chad Everett. It’s a very touching moment, and an odd but interesting interview between hero and fan.
For those like me who are more interested in the story behind the documentary, there’s a few extras there as well. The Independent Film Channel’s “Split Screen” episode that focuses on the movie is included, as well as a radio interview with Bradford as well as Ron and Susan. Most interesting, but again not up to par with where it could have been, is the commentary track. The commentary track primarily focuses on Bradford who gives more insight into the process of making the movie. It does include the entire cast, although not consistently. Susan jumps in whenever she makes an on screen appearance but rarely adds anything other then describing what we see her do on screen. Robert and Larry also chime in when they appear on screen for an extended period of time, and Sean and Ron tend to stay quieter then the audio of the movie. So basically you have Bradford speak for a period of time at which point he’s interrupted by whoever is on screen, and when he tries to involve anyone but Susan you can barely hear them. All in all it’s a real disappointment, although Bradford does manage to get some interesting information out there.
How’s Your News? is not going to be for everyone, and those who don’t enjoy the movie won’t appreciate most of the extras. The film could easily be seen as exploitation, but at heart it has a good message that may not be immediately evident but will get to you eventually.