How's Your News?
By Ryan Bartelmay

How’s Your News? is directed by Arthur Bradford (author of the short story collection Dogwalker). It features five disabled newscasters, Bobby Byrd, Sean Costello, Susan Harrington, Larry Perry, and Ronnie Simonsen (read about each of their bios at, whom Arthur met while working at Camp Jabberwocky, a summer camp for disabled adults. This unlikely group sets off on a cross-country adventure from Massachusetts to Los Angeles. Along the way, they stop in such places as a Nashville honky-tonk, an alligator farm, and a Texas cattle auction, and randomly interview those they encounter for the television show How’s Your News?. (Originally, How’s Your News? was going to be a pilot for Comedy Central.)

Here’s the strange thing, How’s Your News? isn’t really a documentary. Well, it is a documentary (it’s documenting this road trip), but it isn’t a documentary in the traditional sense. (If you are familiar with Arthur Bradford’s fiction, then you’ll know that traditional isn’t an adjective that fits his vision.) The newscasters are performing, and some of the interviews are obviously set-up. What makes the movie endearing (and sometimes difficult) to watch is the interaction between the disabled interviewer and the interviewee. I know having disabled adults interview people on the street may sound exploitative, but there’s tenderness and respect in the way Bradford treats his interviewers. Also, the newscasters approach their role with an amazing amount of passion and seriousness. The film is touching and beautiful and candid in its humor—lending an authenticity to the film. In the end, the audience gets to know these interviewers not for their disabilities but for their vibrant personalities.

I recently had the opportunity to e-mail interview Arthur Bradford about How’s Your News? after seeing a screening in New York.

How did this movie begin?

This was an idea which began at Camp Jabberwocky about eight years ago, in 1993. I taught a video class to the campers and each year they produced videos which would be screened for the parents and friends of the camp at the end of each summer. These videos often featured segments during which the campers would venture into the local town and conduct interviews with unsuspecting passersby on the street. In 1995 they made a short documentary about the camp which included a few of these interviews. This video was copied and passed around from friend to friend until it reached the hands of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Stone and Parker enjoyed the video so much that they contacted me and said they would like to fund a project outside of the camp. A few of the counselors got together and came up with the idea for a news show. We bought a run-down van and created a short How's Your News? "pilot." This pilot played at a few underground festivals and attracted the attention of John Pierson, creator of the TV show "Split Screen." He and Parker and Stone got together to fund the feature length How's Your News?

Out of all the people you worked with at Camp Jabberwocky, why did you choose Ronnie, Bobby, Sean, Larry, and Susan?

Enthusiasm and an outgoing nature were really important. They couldn't be shy or self-conscious because most of How's Your News? involves approaching strangers cold on the street. We wanted people who were kind of quirky too, and had good senses of humor, the ability to crack jokes and laugh at themselves. It's funny because when I look back on it now the selection seems to make so much sense, these five people seem just right. I guess they all had this real genuine quality, the ability to make friends with people quickly. It was also important for us to be able to represent a wide range of disability. Larry was the only one in a wheelchair and he's very small and light, so that made it easier for us to travel with him. He's also super-enthusiastic and courageous. He's up for anything, really. Some of the campers who would've made great reporters were just too difficult to travel with in this manner. So mobility and flexibility were a big issue as well. Lastly, and most importantly, each reporter had to have a family which would understand and support what we were trying to do.

Was it difficult to get the guardian's permission to take the newscasters with you?

In some cases yes. I can think of two campers in particular who we really wanted to come with us, but their parents or guardians were just too skeptical of the whole idea. I find this totally understandable. It always made me nervous approaching the parents and trying to explain How's Your News? I just tried to be very up front and honest. All of the parents had known us for years from the camp and they'd seen the videos we had made, so we had some trust built up already. But it basically took a lot of faith and trust on their part. They had to trust us to take good care of their offspring, and also to make an honest and non-exploitative film.

I'm sure when you're giving interviews the 'exploitation' thing comes up frequently. But, I'd like to know why you don't believe this film is exploitative? Aren't documentaries, by nature, exploitative?

Yes, this issue does come up a lot, and I really welcome the discussion. I suppose some might try to say that the subjects don't realize what they are doing or the significance of their disability, but I think this argument really does them a huge disservice. It suggests that they are not capable of judging themselves, that they shouldn't be in control. And they should be in control. It really ticks me off to think that anyone else would feel they are better qualified to judge. To be honest, I get sort of worked up when this issue comes up. I truly feel that to watch this movie and conclude that it is in some way objectionable is really oppressive thinking. It suggests that people with disabilities don't belong on movie screens, that their mere presence is somehow offensive. Or perhaps it suggests that the only way they can be portrayed is with a very soft lens, that there should be no humor and joy involved because disability is some kind of horrific tragedy. Or perhaps it suggests that they shouldn't be shown trying to conduct interviews because their interviews are somehow inferior and objectionable. I believe How's Your News? empowers it's subjects.

As for all documentaries being exploitative, I disagree with this quite strongly too. In my view, a good documentary always treats it's subjects with respect. I think this "exploitation" argument doesn't give the subject enough credit. It suggests they don't understand what is happening to them, and I'd say in most cases they do.

In the prep stages I'm sure that this 'exploitation' was discussed. What ways did you consciously avoid exploitation?

Yes, we definitely discussed this. It was very important. Ultimately though, you just have to trust your motivations. Almost all of the people who worked in important roles in this film had known the reporters for many years. We were all friends from the camp and we just knew in our hearts that we had respect for them. We weren't interested in making them look silly or bad. At the same time, we all felt strongly that the traditional film treatment of people with disabilities tends to be pretty sappy. We wanted How's Your News? to be accurate, to treat these people like everyone else, not with kid gloves and violins playing in the background. Humor was important in all this. Humor is so important when you live and work with people with disabilities. It really helps you get through the day. And we wanted to show that. Another important place where we were able to make sure our intentions were clear was in the editing room. Mike Lahaie, the editor, and I spent a lot of time discussing what was right for the film and what wasn't. Every single shot in this movie has been thought about. I think we owed that to everybody involved. We knew we'd have to defend our choices. Basically we just asked ourselves, in our hearts, why is this shot important? Why is it informative, or funny? Does it show the subjects in a respectful light? In the end it came down to instincts, and I have full faith in my instincts here. I know where my heart is.

I think it's interesting that the newscasters, especially Ronnie and Susan, take on 'newscaster' persona when the camera is turned on them. In the van, when the camera was off, did they also act in this way? Can you account for the change in persona with the camera present?

All of the reporters took their jobs very seriously. They understood that we were making a movie and they liked to ham it up for the camera. Of course they did not always act like newscasters off camera. I think everybody changes a little when the camera is on. But what is nice about the HYN reporters is that they still seem pretty genuine even when they take on that persona. Their personalities still shine through. This is part of what I love about their version of the news: it lacks that rehearsed, sterile quality we tend to see so often on television.

How about Ronnie? Is he as obsessed with Hollywood figures (Chad Everett, etc.) without the camera on him?

Yes, definitely. You know, we've been taking the reporters to most of the festival screenings this year because I think it really adds a lot to the experience when the audience gets to meet them in person. They do these great Q&A sessions after the screenings. It's great for the reporters too, because they get to receive feedback about their work. If you were to meet Ron, or any of the reporters, in person, you would find that they carry the same obsessions offscreen. I really feel that you get to know them pretty well through this movie.

On the HYN website, you've written that the movie, "...proved that people with disabilities could make a great show and that their perspective is original and humorous." I'm interested in a few things here: "great show"—were many of the situations set-up to be a 'show'? And if some where set up, then where do you perceive the line between fiction and documentary?

Well, by "show" I actually meant "TV show," as opposed to a film. I guess that wasn't clear. I'm a little self-conscious about that remark because it comes off like I'm tooting my own horn. But, that said, I do think that this movie, and, in fact, the whole How's Your News? experience, is only part documentary. It is more of a show. The best way to see this movie is with the cast present, so that you meet them afterwards and interact with them. They've presented the movie in Austin, Toronto, New York, and Amsterdam so far, with more to come. After the screening, we put on a special live music show where the cast sings original music they wrote inspired by their How's Your News? experiences. It's really good music, performed with a tremendous amount of heart, and we, the film crew, are part of the band. So at this point it really isn't a documentary at all. It's more of a "show" and of the subjects as a sort of "cast".

Did you ever find yourself feeling uncomfortable while filming this movie?

Yes, definitely, but not so much because I felt what we were doing was wrong. It's just hard approaching people on the street. I wanted to keep the interviews "pure" so I liked it best when the reporters approached people themselves, without my introducing them. This meant that a lot of people would reject them to their face. But it wasn't necessarily because they had a disability, some people just don't want to be interviewed. This was hard for the reporters though and we had to keep their morale high. Ron, who is a large man, has balance problems, so he would often lean on the person he was interviewing, literally. He'd put his hand on their shoulder and lean hard. I was often worried someone would get upset about this, but for the most part everyone was understanding. This sounds a little gung-ho and sappy, but I really believe that America is a kind, open-hearted country, on the whole. People treated us nicely.

I think you've made a touching film, but I'm not sure why it's so touching—and not exploitative. Do you have any idea why people are touched by this film?

I think it's because the reporters, the cast, have so much determination and heart. They are really enjoying themselves and challenging themselves too. We tend to think of people with disabilities as worthy of our pity, but in How's Your News? I think they earn our admiration and respect. My favorite part of the movie is when Larry gets out of his chair and rolls down the hill in Tennessee. You see that this is something he wants to do, and he is in control of his movement. He's really going for it. I find that touching.

In documentary film, often times the goal is to portray a person(s) honestly, and sometimes the subjects will deliberately hide aspects of their personality from the camera. I didn't feel this at all while watching your film, and I think this is one of the reasons the film is so touching. Can you account for this?

I think this happens for two reasons. One is because we built up a high level of trust with the cast. I think this is really important in documentary films. I believe a filmmaker should really get to know his subject well before turning on the camera. In this case, we'd known them for many years and we had close relationships which would have been there without the camera. During the filming we tried to keep things very loose and lighthearted so that what you'd see was the interaction between close friends. The film crew, for the most part, was chosen for their ability to relate to the reporters. The filmmaking experience was secondary. The other reason for their openness is simply that the cast is unpretentious by nature. They don't hide much in general. This is a quality I've found in a lot of people with disabilities. They don't have time, or the desire, to put up some kind of a front. A lot of the people at Camp Jabberwocky, they can't go to the bathroom without someone's help. It's not possible. Many of them can't eat without someone putting the food in their mouths for them, and even then it often ends up coughed up or dribbling down their chin. Under these circumstances, when do you have time to worry about being cool? You just have to hope people accept you as you are.

How’s Your News? makes it television debut Tuesday, January 29, at 7:00 on Cinemax.

Also, for information on upcoming cast and crew appearances and screenings please visit the How’s Your News? website at: