Punk the Power: Twenty Questions With The Yes Men

Marrying Swiftian satire with hi-tech saboteurship and the good ol' art of the con, The Yes Men are an infamous group of agitprop pranksters who've emerged as cable news darlings and mini movie stars in their own right. Just mild-mannered and vaguely authoritative enough in demeanor to slip through security cracks, The Yes Men -- aka Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno -- assume the identities of everyone from big oil and chemical execs to World Trade Organization officials to representatives of the U.S. Government, mounting bogus press conferences and lecture appearances to make their point. (At a Canadian oil conference, for example, they posed as ExxonMobil reps, telling 20,000 industry workers they've devised a new technique that would turn the human victims of their irresponsible practices into an oil substitute called "Vivoleum.") It's all part of their all-out, highly entertaining battle against what they finger as the U.S.'s most dangerous enemy: disaster capitalism. Their second film, The Yes Men Fix the World, expanded its release last week -- a full list of theaters showing the movie is here. Movieline chatted with Bichlbaum recently about his life's mission of punking with a purpose.

MOVIELINE: I just watched your most recent prank at the Chamber of Commerce. I wonder if you could pull back the curtain a bit and explain how a prank like that gets off the ground?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: It turns out to be ridiculously easy if you have smart people setting it up for you. We worked with these people in D.C. who decided the Wednesday before the action to do it. They rented a room at the Press Club and said they were the National Council on the Climate. They prepared a press release. I bought chamberofcommerce.us.

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Do you always buy a URL for your fronts?

Yeah, pretty much. I mean, if you're sending out a press release you should send it out from somewhere where you can get mail back.

And chamberofcommerce.us was available?

Yeah. Weird. I was surprised too. That morning we sent out an advisory to a bunch of media that there would be a press conference. But because there was such a high chance that a reporter would call the real Chamber of Commerce, we started blasting the phone lines and got people to call them relentlessly. It stopped reporters from being able to call.

How many people in that room were plants?

Maybe half. There were about 20 people there. We just wanted to be sure to have good questions after, and wanted the first question not to be hostile.

Did you anticipate that that guy would storm in?

No. That was an amazing coincidence. There was a reporter who got the advisory, and didn't read the location, which was the Press Club. She just automatically went to the Chamber of Commerce itself. They said, "What press conference?" of course, and that's how they found out about it. She showed up, then he did shortly afterward.

His reaction was so overblown yet utterly impotent. It was almost like a comedy sketch. You must have been loving it.

Totally. It was a shock at first, but then it was amazing. It made it onto CNN and MSNBC. If he hadn't come on it wouldn't have been as dramatic.

How did you get started in prank activism?

In 1999, we wanted to go to the Seattle protests, but we couldn't make it. So we set up a fake WTO website, and accidentally started getting e-mail to it. One day we got an invitation to a conference. We took a camera just to film whatever mishaps might happen, because we prepared this really offensive talk as the WTO, and we figured people would react badly. They didn't. They just sat there and applauded. We had lunch with them afterward. Then we kept getting invitations, and we started to bring a movie crew along. We never anticipated that we'd get the reaction we did the first few times -- otherwise we would have brought more cameras.

You never expected people to accept it. Is it because people aren't listening? Or they're just trained to accept something if it's delivered at the proper, authoritative cadence?

I think what we say is basically normal to them. Like at this Halliburton conference, I say "disaster can be an opportunity. You need to seize the day. The Black Plague was a great opportunity and so was the great deluge." That's actually what they're saying. We just make it so clear that it's absurd to the rest of us. To them, it's what they hear. Disaster capitalism.

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