Harmon Leon is a standup comedian. His shtick is aping certain personalities—usually ones far flung from his urban, liberal, hipster real self—and "infiltrates" the other cultures of America. He volunteers for security detail during the Arnold Schwarzenegger gubernatorial race. He meets up with a white supremacist group in northern California as an eager recruit. And he sends his sophisticated San Franciscan girlfriend to try out for the Raiders cheerleaders. He is a devious chameleon.
Leon writes a regular column about his exploits for San Francisco Weekly, taking on a few dozen personalities each year. His latest book, Republican Like Me, collects more than 30 of these journeys. On Thursday, Leon will be at Powell's to read from his book—and doing what he does best, standing up in front of people and recounting his coups, as if he were smirking spy returning with tales from the dark side.
At its best, Republican Like Me falls at the nexus between Ashton Kutcher's Punk'd and Michael Moore's documentaries, simultaneously providing insight and mockery of America's conservative organizations and groups. But like most comedy routines, Republican Like Me is inconsistent. At its lamest, the book is too glib and spends more effort ridiculing, rather than trying to understand.
Perhaps the strongest section in this collection is "Bad Jobs That Involve Wearing Costumes," where Leon takes on a variety of minimum wage jobs—from working as a "scary clown" at a haunted house to playing the elephant mascot for the Modesto Nuts, a California minor league baseball team. The point? These are the jobs that the Republican leadership is leaving Americans. The most poignant job is when Leon dresses up as an Uncle Sam for a fledging tax accounting firm. Eventually, Leon puts down his sign and hands off his costume to a homeless man. The humor in this piece cuts on so many levels.
The Mercury recently spoke with Leon and asked him for a few pointers on infiltrating the other side.
How's the tour going so far?
Great, I've been to Boulder and Seattle. And this Thursday, Portland.
Those seem like fairly safe cities for you. Do you ever consider taking the book to the very people and places you're making fun of? You know, like when the Sex Pistols first toured the US, they only chose to tour cities in the Deep South where they would be hated?
Actually, I was just thinking about that. From a pure marketing standpoint, it is easier to go to the liberal hotbeds. But I'm all for sending Bill O'Reilly a copy of the book to get backlash. Why not take it to the other side? This is a book people really like or really hate. I'm going to be on this conservative radio show soon. It is one of those shows where they will be screaming at me a lot.
Now, you have a background with standup comedy and one-man shows. Is it tough translating your humor from a stage performance to the printed page?
No, no, no. I think that having a performance background helps. I know the right rhythm of sentences, and when I'm writing, I'm playing to an audience of myself. And the book tour is great. Book stores are very conducive. People come to listen and they laugh at all the appropriate spots.
Who is your favorite character that you create in the book?
Funny wise? Hal Haterman, the new recruit for a white supremacist group [who started by hating Canadians but expanded his racism]. But I also really like the abortion protester with great skill for arts and crafts [and who shows up to protest with plastic babies taped to his clothes]. Another one of my favorites is John Kimble, who volunteers for the Arnold Schwarzenegger campaign and gets a top job with security detail. [John Kimble is also the name of Schwarzenegger's character in Kindergarten Cop.] I like him because he doesn't know much about politics but he can spew a vast amount of information about Kindergarten Cop.
Were you ever afraid that you would get caught—or worse?
With the white supremacists, I was initially afraid, given what we've been told about them. The image that the media creates gives them power. But then I show up and it's this woman that's a child development specialist, and a guy who's a computer programmer, and another woman is a soccer mom. The point I'm trying to make is that if you can laugh at something you can take away its power. That they were these floppy-shoed racist clowns takes away their power.
By taking on these roles and getting to know these people, do you ever start to develop empathy or lose yourself a bit?
You do understand where they are coming from. Or at least you have their thought process there. The group that I understood the most was the Christian Wrestling Federation. They were very earnest. Yes, it's strange: They are body slamming for Jesus. For two hours they are being hit on the back of head and diving off the ropes, and then for the last 20 minutes they all get really serious and start preaching, where 10 minutes ago, they were being leveled hard on the back of the head with a chair. But I understood their way of thought: It was a pulpit to get attention.
Do you have recommendations for people who want to infiltrate conservative realms?
Yeah, have that wide-eyed, naïve sense of enthusiasm. A lot of these groups are really, really happy to have new members. You go into a scenario like the Silicon Valley Young Republicans and they only have 12 members. They are excited to have you. You know, if you act a bit lost, they want to take you under their wing.
How do you blend in?
Read their website and study their materials and then spew that back at them at level 11.
What about dressing the part?
Again, just observe them. But exaggerate it a bit further. Not to the level that it seems absurd. Push it, but don't push it way far, so that they think, "this is someone putting me on." You don't want them to think that you are goofing on them.
Harmon Leon reads at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne, Thurs Nov 17, 7:30 pm, free