"Comedy," Sid Caesar once said, "has to be based on truth. You take the truth and you put a little curlicue at the end."
Or you can put a bland suit and dorky glasses on it, and shave its head into an old-school gym teacher's buzz cut. That was Drew Carey's shtick, and it was brilliant. In that thrift-store costume, he both mimicked and refuted the most successful comedian of his generation, Jerry Seinfeld. Both men crafted real-life caricatures out of their own personalities and backgrounds. But where Seinfeld mined New Yorkers' reputed neuroses and self-absorption for Seinfeld, Carey went another direction entirely with The Drew Carey Show, fashioning himself into a portly poster boy for his fellow Clevelanders, earnest but hapless, loveable but hopelessly unhip.
Both shows lasted nine years. In comedy, stereotypes work.
Today, in addition to hosting The Price Is Right, Carey offers us a different stereotype: the celebrity who feels that we all really need to hear about his politics. And just as he took risks with his sitcom — attempting live shows, musical numbers, even a cartoon-character cameo — Carey one-ups openly liberal actors like Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen by deigning to share with us, his fellow Clevelanders, a step-by-step plan for saving this famously struggling town.
Carey and the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based libertarian think tank, have teamed up to produce "Reason Saves Cleveland," a series of short videos tackling, and ostensibly solving, our city's most pressing problems. From Los Angeles, where both Carey and Reason are based.
If it's all an elaborate hoax meant to satirize the breathtaking arrogance of celebrities, then Carey is a far greater actor than I ever imagined.
"I know that Cleveland is broke," said Carey in a phone interview with The Plain Dealer, whose fawning, Sunday front-page promotion of the video series made no effort to analyze its messages. "It's like one of the poorest cities in the nation right now. And I was like, 'What the hell, man?'"
Judging from the three episodes I was able to watch before press time, "What the hell, man?" is indicative of the level of insight. Libertarians aren't stupid — and they deserve credit for ignoring their conservative cousins' obsession with the so-called culture wars — but they have a bad habit of peddling simple, quick-fix solutions to complex, longstanding problems. And their solutions almost always involve the supposed wisdom of market forces — the "invisible hand," as it's sometimes called, a term Carey uses in an interview.
The introductory video opens with a jaunty theme song and shots from around the city, everything from PlayhouseSquare marquees to boarded-up homes. This leads into a quicky history lesson, beginning post-World War II, when Cleveland was the sixth largest city in America and its "economic strength was mirrored on the playing fields of the NFL and Major League Baseball." As if the two have anything to do with each other. But the narration — by Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of reason.com — continues in that vein, like a slapdash movie adaptation of a richly detailed novel. The montage of the supposedly idyllic '50s even includes a clip from a cheesy film reel of the period, and I don't think I've ever seen such footage used without irony. The obsequious, chipper narrator lilts, "Almost two million people live and work here, and recognize this area as 'The Best Location in the Nation.'"
Staggering pollution? Blatant segregation? Ingrained corruption? Sorry, no time for that, there's a point to be made! Cleveland was a capitalist's and worker's paradise, and now it's a ghost town. Gillespie gets from Point A to Point Jeez by sprinting through decades, stitching together disparate incidents — the Hough riots, the Cuyahoga River fire, school busing protests, "Boy" Mayor Kucinich's default, even The Fumble (again with the strained sports metaphors) — into the ugliest patchwork quilt you've ever seen.
But the doom and gloom is just the opening act. "Is a Cleveland renaissance possible?" asks Gillespie. "Of course it is." And that's where the real fun begins.
The PD gave Carey a pass on the political agenda at work here, but make no mistake, these are not mini-documentaries so much as elaborate campaign commercials, selling an ideology instead of a candidate.
The installment on schools, for example, cherrypicks facts with aplomb. "Only 12 percent of Cleveland's district and charter schools merit a state rating of excellent, or even effective," says Gillespie. "Any plan to revitalize the city must radically improve K-12 education."
So far, so good. But the report offers just one solution (market-based, of course): charter schools. Gillespie examines two successful charters, one in Oakland and one right here, Citizens Academy, and touts them as models for public education. But he never mentions that in Ohio, for every inspiring success story like Citizens Academy, there's been at least one crushing disappointment, like the International Preparatory School, the subject of a 2005 Scene investigation, or White Hat Management's many for-profit schools, which The Plain Dealer examined in 2006. And as Cleveland Free Times reported in 2007, when White Hat found itself at odds with some of its own schools' boards over dismal test scores, it got its friends in the state legislature to change the law and diminish the boards' power.
Decentralize control, and let smart, motivated principals, teachers and parents decide what their students really need — on its face, it makes a lot of sense, and sometimes it works brilliantly. Sometimes. The Reason video blithely ignores the obvious, market-based question — if charters are so great, why aren't they rapidly replacing traditional public schools everywhere? — and even implies that teachers' unions are to blame for keeping this revolution in check, without ever presenting their point of view.
The next installment presents another libertarian hobbyhorse, privatization, and pretty much dispenses with even the pretense of balance. Gillespie makes the case for selling two regional gems, the West Side Market (because some vendors complain about the facilities) and the Metroparks' public golf courses (because the owner of a private course says his is better, and a couple guys in a bar agree). Seriously, the case is that thin. But that doesn't stop Gillespie from lobbing this softball to Carey in an "interview" (probably conducted in L.A.): "Is it surprising to you that the publicly owned and operated markets and golf courses are inferior to the privately owned ones?"
"Does it surprise you?" responds Carey with a smirk. Thought-provoking, no?
From there, we are treated to several more minutes of unbridled cheerleading for privatization. Every interviewee lauds the private sector's unquestioned ability to deliver services better and at less cost than any government. There's a quick, positive review of Chicago's privatization of parking meters — they're solar-powered! They accept credit cards! — and for balance, we get a three-second shot of a newspaper headline ("Meter Meltdown: Chaotic changes — and higher rates to boot"). Again, no time for details that might slow down the narrative. "Critics" are marginalized as selfish, paranoid union members. West Side Market manager George Bradac is made to look like a fool.
It all sounds great, right up until the point you remember the last time you reviewed your options in the midst of a problem with — or just had a question for — your bank, or your credit card company, or your insurer, or your cell-phone provider, or your cable company, or a private utility company. Or just the last time you stood in line for 20 minutes in Wal-Mart or Marc's because there was one cashier on duty on a Saturday afternoon. Or paid $20 to park downtown and had to walk three blocks because when you made your dinner reservations, you forgot that the Browns or Cavs were at home that night.
And let's not even get started on Enron or oil price spikes or the financial meltdown that triggered the Great Recession. Your private-sector dollars at work.
Reason is doling out new videos each day this week. And I admit that I'm curious to hear what they have to say about using public money to build sports arenas and convention centers (and, presumably, "medical marts"). On that topic, we might find some common ground. But that won't blunt the stunning arrogance of Reason and Carey's stunt. The whole thing drips with condescension. It's one thing to promote your ideas; it's quite another to wrap them in your own press releases and present them as a gift of value beyond measure.
A Cleveland boy — even a Cleveland boy made good like Drew Carey — should know better.
Mayor Frank Jackson, predictably, has played it safe. "The people of the city of Cleveland will save Cleveland," he told the PD. "And we welcome all suggestions as to how we can move in that direction and all assistance that can come along with it."
But Jackson's right about being our own heroes. No think tank or celebrity will save Cleveland. The city's best hope lies in each resident breaking off a piece of one of the massive problems, as much as he or she can handle, and trying to fix it. One child, one abandoned building, one teetering community, one council ward at a time. Cleveland is what we make it.
So here's my suggestion for Drew: If you care about Cleveland as much as you say you do, if you really want to make a difference, then don't just preach from the safety and luxury of sunny California. Get off your trademark fat ass and do something. Give up the panache of L.A. and the easy money of The Price is Right and move back to Cleveland. Start a production company, open a comedy club — hell, run for office, the race for the new county executive position is wide open. Do something. Or shut the hell up.