The trailer for "Vice-Precedence" knocked my socks off. The film deftly mixes the genuine history of the VPs, much of it astounding and weird as hell, with witty commentary, the best combination for a film on a serious and absurd and seriously absurd subject. I laughed out loud a bunch of times; that doesn't happen often enough in documentaries. I cannot wait to see the finished project."The quote is from an icon of my childhood, a man who mixed humor and science in the most creative way since Mr. Wizard and who has inspired some of my best-received material. Paul Zaloom, a well-established political satirist, played the title character on the comedic children’s science program “Beakman’s World” in the nineties, and was kind enough, recently, to check out the existing materials for Vice-Precedence. Needless to say, I was floored.
After all, this is the guy who made science funny, after Mr. Wizard made it fun. This is a guy who The New York Times called "One of the most original and talented political satirists working in the theater." Part of Paul's kind quote about our film begs a particular question – why don’t documentaries make you laugh often enough? Surely, Michael Moore is a genius at making pointed, dark statements in such a way that you can’t help but laugh, even given his typical dark subject matter. But does a documentary, in general, need to be “dramatic?” Most historicals are, but there’s an understandable level of success as a result of the serious tone most docs take on. Ken Burns wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for the existence of somberness. Yet, at the same time, he’s also been known to brilliantly work some irony out of history that makes you wince and laugh at the same time. (Irony, despite what some might have you think, is a tool exclusive to comedy. You’re being funny, if you’re being truly ironic, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)
The question is why can’t you laugh fairly consistently through a documentary and have it punctuated by moments of somberness? Surely, you could make a documentary with a comedic bent about any subject, provided it was called for, provided those somber moments hit at the appropriate time. And that’s been our goal all along. We want to create the first “Slapstick Documentary,” without forgetting the basic skeleton of the entire project – facts. Not just facts, mind you, but some of the most hilarious, staggering historical facts you’re likely to hear bunched up in one place. This is why I think documentarians generally can’t but be somber. Rarely are the facts on any one subject, sweeping or pointed, as strange as they are about the Vice Presidency, most likely because these facts are new to the majority of Americans. We all know that more Americans were killed during the Civil War than in all other American Wars combined, but few of us are aware that the Vice Presidency has been vacant for 16 percent of its existence as an office.
It’s about time that documentaries were made to really fit their subjects. Instead of denying a bias, filmmakers should examine those biases as they make the film. In making our “sizzle reel” for Vice-Precedence on William Rufus De Vane King, we played with the fact that the first thing to stand out about the man was his likely homosexuality. We took the opportunity, then, to make the whole sequence SEEM as though it were one big gay joke. But if you pay attention to intentional over-acting and effeminate portrayal, you’ll notice that we’ve actually just assailed you with brand-new facts. Hopefully you’ll be laughing, but, equally as hopefully, not because King was probably gay. Ideally, you'll be laughing around it. You can see for yourself below.
The sooner you embrace your bias and examine it, the sooner you will probably see your subject matter for what it is - as flawed as you are. People are people, even when they have larger-than-life or superhuman titles. The American Presidents have been America's Supermen, standing for truth, justice and the American Way for over 200 years. And its time for the story of the Vice Presidents because they've been the bumbling, silly, human face of potential power that no one ever sees. They've pretty much been Clark Kent the entire time. And not just because you never see the two of them in the same place at the same time.