How two brothers from Kentucky are helping take down big-money politics.
Brooklyn acting-writing-production duo Ryan and Sean Kleier have been filming comedic shorts for over five years, taking on subjects that range from steroid scandals to Independence Day speeches. Now that their production company, Motiv, has been sharing their talents with political advocacy groups, they’re using comedy to highlight the absurdities of American politics. Through the process, the brothers may well have produced the most honest candidate of the 2014 midterm elections. The catch? Gil Fulbright isn’t real. But he’s putting the spotlight on special interest politics and a grassroots campaign for electoral reform. We recently chatted about Tea Partiers, cheese, lobbyists, Waterworld—and how much humor it might take to achieve political reform.
BLUNDERBUSS MAGAZINE: So tell me about your foray into political humor. How did you parlay your skills as actors and producers and writers into a full-time political gig?
SEAN KLEIER: I was down at Occupy for a while; the trajectory of motive is so long and twisted. I was at Occupy and I was doing political humor and then that transitioned into volunteering for various organizations dealing with money and politics. Our talent as writers and video creators was helpful for Represent.us and they needed people to do that full-time.
RYAN KLEIER: Represent.us is a nonprofit that is working to get a series of standards passed into law—federally but also on a local and a state basis—that put limits on campaign contributions and makes things more transparent, creates a rebate for regular people to donate to politics and then get that money back in their taxes—to encourage spending from normal people that wouldn’t hurt them financially and drown out some of the big money that comes from companies.
SK: In layman’s terms: getting money out of politics; putting the power back in the hands of the people.
BbMag: So trying to dismantle this “lobby lifestyle”?
RK: Exactly. That has been Sean’s main thrust of being politically active at all—that’s what he wants to do and everything stems from that. With the environment and healthcare reform and financial regulations and all these things that Occupy was into, Sean said, “If they don’t come down on one issue and that issue is money and politics, I don’t understand how it’s going to do anything.” So with him being down there and me making videos, we eventually got hooked up with this Represent.us crew. They said, “There are a lot of ‘shit people say’ videos and we want a ‘shit lobbyists say’ video.” So we wrote some jokes, went around town, and filmed it. I found through a friend of mine this actor, Frank Ridley, to play this old-school lobbyist, and we’ve got Sean the handsome young douchebag lobbyist. But it’s just like the “shit people say” sort of meme—you know, people walking by saying “well, yeah, that causes cat cancer but not people cancer,” and then we cut to the next thing.
SK: The way he delivered that was amazing.
RK: It was great.
SK: Frank was so good.
RK: So we met Frank, we loved working with him—he walks into a room and everybody looks at him because he’s got a big personality and is a funny-ass human being. That was 2012. It was maybe a year or two later that Represent.us called us again. So then we wrote the restaurant sketch “A Lobbyist and a Senator Walk Into a Restaurant” (we called it “Feeders”), which was based off of a sketch that Sean had done in college with some college friends: everyone’s just talking about the night before and feeding each other food. Nobody puts food into their own mouth; it’s always from their plate to somebody else. That was the rule.
SK: Which is funny on its own, but it was so appropriate for our political atmosphere that we said, “Yeah, we definitely have to revisit this.”
BbMag: How do you distill down this complex relationship between lobby groups and politicians into something the average person will understand? Because you did that with “Feeders.”
SK: It’s the hardest thing to do.
RK: That’s the hardest thing.
SK: It’s a really nuanced issue and so to make it funny is hard enough, and to make that humor digestible and accessible—it’s just not an easy chore.
RK: You’ve got to give some broccoli underneath all the cheddar at some point. There’s got to be at least one broccoli floret.
SK: I don’t know what you ate growing up, but everything was covered in cheddar where we’re from.
RK: Kentucky. “Covered in Cheese.” That’s our state motto.
SK: The Commonwealth State—Covered in Cheese. A picture of a hot brown on a flag.
BbMag: So you’ve written “Feeders,” you’ve been working with Frank Ridley. What happened next?
RK: So skip forward six months after “Feeders,” and we had this idea for an “honest” political ad. I was like, “This is going to be our big thing, guys.”
SK: I fought him on it, but he knew it was the right thing to do.
RK: You fought a little bit. But I said, “Let’s take this trope, the literal ‘I’m just being honest’ line, and put that in a political context and do it in an ad form.” Because those are the most ridiculous, and because we’re going to be inundated with them all over the summer because it’s a midterm year.
SK: We’re talking about the place where they’re literally saying the opposite of what they’re doing and how they’re behaving. You can’t be honest in a political ad.
RK: So what would an honest politician say? Well: “I’ve sold you out, but I’m being honest about it.”
SK: “To your face.”
RK: “I’m selling you out to your face.”
SK: “I’m bought, you know? Screw it. I’m a mouthpiece.”
BbMag: It’s turned into more than an ad. You created this entire character, Honest Gil Fulbright. You have a platform, a bus, everything. You even campaigned in Kentucky, right?
RK: We went down for Fancy Farm, which was in August. We started this Indiegogo campaign that went crazy, but I knew Represent.us was going to need some extra funding, so we said, “Well, let’s just try this and see what happens. Maybe we’ll get Shepard Fairey to make a poster for us.” And he did! And it went bonkers. It was crazy.
SK: It was a really productive trip. We had people come out to support Honest Gil in the middle of Kentucky. It was really cool.
RK: Whenever press came to talk to him, we’d invite them up on the bus, and we had champagne on ice in there—that we never opened because it was our only bottle—and we had fake money and all this stuff, and we’d usher them in. Because we wanted people to feel like he was actually running for Senate.
SK: Press and everybody involved with either campaign—they already knew. People who were invested in politics already knew about it.
RK: There were plenty of people who didn’t get it—they’d ask, “Wait, wait. Is he Republican or Democrat? I don’t understand.” People who were following the race knew about it; people who didn’t, didn’t. But people who saw the web ads or the TV commercials or the billboard at least got something—if they went to HonestGil.com it was very clear that this is a satirical candidate and we’re talking about money and politics, and he is completely sold out, and so are all your other politicians including your heroes, and maybe that’s something you should think about and sway your vote in the future.
BbMag: What was it like being down there and meeting people during the real political stumping from real candidates?
RK: It was really fun. So fun.
SK: It was fun.
RK: It was the most fun I’ve had…
SK: …Since Watergate.
RK: Since Watergate.
SK: Oh, wait, I meant Waterworld.
RK: I knew you meant Waterworld when you said that, too.
BbMag: Is that maybe the symbol of our generation’s political experience? Conflating Waterworld and Watergate?
RK: I hope not. Because then Waterworld becomes our political future, and nobody wants that.
SK: Well, it’s getting closer and closer, isn’t it? Pretty soon here we’re going to be saying: “We should have listened to Waterworld.” At least Florida will be saying that.
RK: That’s the worst future ever. I would much prefer an actual future that is Waterworld over a future in which we look back upon Waterworld as a teaching moment.
SK: Well, then ignorance will be bliss, because nobody actually saw that movie.
BbMag: What are some of the challenges of running your creative ideas through a particular political organization?
RK: Represent.us is pretty good about everything, actually. They’re definitely the sugar daddy that pays for us to play, and we’re pretty tame, all things considered. You know, fart jokes—okay.
SK: I don’t think we had to censor ourselves a lot, if at all. There are political realities that if you want to address, you have to get into some hairy stuff.
RK: One of the most challenging things has been trying to be politically neutral. Represent.us is strictly nonpartisan. I think that’s the most challenging thing. You have to really make sure of that when you’re presenting issues you might care about. We can’t lean on the environment or healthcare reform; we also have to focus on tax reform and debt management.
SK: All these things are so tied to the money in politics problem, it’s just clearer to see them from a liberal perspective than from a conservative perspective.
RK: And liberals also think they’re better on this. They’re like, “Well, we don’t have the Koch brothers.” Well, there’s George Soros and others, and even though I like what they’re doing…
SK: …You’re still in the game of fighting money with money.
BbMag: Has this partnership with Represent.us changed how you define yourself as a political person in what you thought was your political party?
RK: No, not for me.
SK: For me it has, simply because the traditional polemic just doesn’t ring true for me anymore. Once we did a sketch where I dumped a suitcase full of money on a standing representative.
RK: A suitcase of fake money in a real situation at a real town hall. And Sean was wearing a pen camera. And this guy was not happy.
SK: This is part of why my political views have shifted, because this is a Democrat. He was proposing something that would make taxpayers liable for bailouts should another financial crisis happen; something we just switched in 2010. This thing had no chance of passing. It was actually written by Citigroup lobbyists, because they compared the documents and 80% of it is the same language. But politicians are spending all of their time posturing toward people with money even for things that don’t matter. So we don’t think of that as a big problem, but this guy is in office to do productive stuff with his time.
RK: But Citigroup was his top donor, his top corporate donor.
SK: So this is why my thinking has changed. Yeah, I might agree more frequently with the things that the people on the left are saying, but they have no shot at doing anything about it.
RK: The system is set up so that you don’t have a shot at doing some of this stuff. It rewards polarity and it rewards catering to your donors, who are all of a rich base. It’s not common people.
SK: So there’s nobody who can get on a podium and speak to the American populace that I really feel is worth listening to. Because I feel it’s all lip service. What happens when you’re actually in office is different.
BbMag: How much do you think having essentially a two-party system is to blame? Would more parties solve anything?
RK: I don’t think it will hurt. I think the Tea Party is the closest we’ve had to a third party, but it’s not effectively changing anything. It’s still a polemic; it’s still splitting the vote and no party is representing what people want. There’s this Princeton study that came out looking at public opinion on issues and seeing what happens when Congress decides something on that issue. Do they side with polling or do they side with how their donors want them to vote? And what they found was that 80% of people could want something—across the nation—and it wouldn’t happen unless people who actually donate to politics also wanted that thing. It just does not happen unless donors want it.
SK: That’s in the off-chance that things come to the table that voters care about. They have to draft things at their desk that matter and they know there are things they can’t touch. There are politicians sitting there that know there are things that 80% of us agree on—for example, an assault-weapons ban—and nobody will even introduce that bill.
RK: Because they’ll lose their funding. And that’s a stranglehold on the system. That’s not a system that’s democratic and listens to everybody; that’s a system that’s beholden to its donors and it needs to be destroyed.
SK: And the reason it’s so insidious is because it still leaves room for human nature to feel like we’re doing the right thing. It allows a politician to say, “Yeah, the system is compromised but I’m fighting for this thing.” Maybe they feel good about healthcare reform. So they’ll take money from the military-industrial complex and the NRA, and everybody else, but they’re saying, “I promised my constituents I’d fight for fair healthcare and damn it, I’m going to do it.” And they think, “I’m a good senator. I’m doing a hell of a job.” And they really can justify that they made sacrifices. I’m pretty sure there’s a great Aesop fable that would wrap that up; I’m not sure which one it is. Let’s call it “The Fox and the Grapes” since that’s the only one that comes to mind.[Editor’s Note: It’s not “The Fox and the Grapes.” It might be the modern fable “The Legislator and the Citizen,” whose moral is, “Who sells his influence should stop it–an honest man will only swap it.”]
BbMag: How does humor work to deliver a political message? You do it cleverly without ever having to get serious and say, “Watch out, your politicians are out to get you.”
RK: We get to say that without making you feel like that. We’re blessed that our parents watch the Daily Show on a regular basis, which means that they are already politically informed and believe that satire and humor can change the way that you think about stuff. It’s the cheese to the broccoli; it’s the sugar to the medicine. It’s what makes people change their minds. And I think it’s more effective than telling all the reasons why you’re wrong. Just going up to someone that you disagree with and asking a bunch of questions will get them to reevaluate their own position, but predominantly, humor allows people to laugh and say, “Well, maybe I am wrong.”
SK: Strategy-wise, it’s also about marketing. Are you more likely to pass along an Old Spice video or the “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” video? That somber, sentimental stuff—oh, that guy coughing up blood into his sink. You’re not going to say, “Hey, check this out,” and share it.
RK: For every Kony 2012 there are a million Old Spice videos. And we’re asking why they can’t be the same. Why do we have to take it so seriously?
SK: We don’t have any money, so we have to rely on people’s interest in identifying with our content and feeling like—as Ryan always tells me—it’s a good representation of themselves.
RK: You wouldn’t share anything unless you thought: “This makes me look good to everyone.”
SK: And hopefully our content can make people seem politically aware and show they’ve got a good sense of humor. If it’s funny, people want to share that. And then all of a sudden we can get somewhere.
BbMag: You guys have been in comedy and film for a while. Now Motiv’s been around for a year. You’ve founded a company on the premise of satirical media for political purposes, and it’s actually sustainable for you—how’s that feel?
SK: That is actually the craziest thing to think of. For a long time we were doing stuff that we didn’t want to do.
RK: It was the worst period ever. I got fed up and quit my job and then that week, Josh Silver from Represent.us called me and asked if we wanted to do something else. We had done “Feeders” already. And he said, “Do you want to do this for good?” And I said yes. And that is how Motiv came to be.
SK: I do a lot of the writing; Ryan runs the company and runs the show. He is the company; I write and I’ve performed and been the spokesperson for it in a lot of ways. It’s pretty miraculous when you stop and think, “Hey, we get to make our money doing something that my soul feels pretty clean about.” That’s rare. And it’s also creatively satisfying—that’s really rare. Both of those things combined… I don’t know how often you find that. I think we’re very lucky.
RK: It’s totally stressful. It’s totally insane. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
BbMag: Will Motiv always have a political motivation?
RK: I think that doing work for a cause that you believe in is the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever done, and I don’t want to give that up for a paycheck. I’ll continue to not do that for as long as I possibly can. And also eat.
SK: And we’re working with money and politics. It’d be pretty hard for any industry to come to us and say, “Hey, work with us!” We’d be like, “But you’re entrenched!”
RK: It’s like that James Madison quote: “Capitalism and democracy must live hand and hand.” I’m totally paraphrasing. And they must be a little bit competitive, but they must be equal. And the moment one comes over the other, we get out of balance and we really have a problem. And what you see now is capitalism taking over democracy.
SK: Whereas Madison was shrewd and calculating and probably had a quote that summarized all that in one nice meaty quote filled with vocab words. Ben Franklin walked out of the Constitutional Convention after they drafted the Constitution and everybody wanted to know what they had made, and some woman walks up and said, “What did you guys draft in there? What are we looking at?” And he turned to her and said, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” And he turned and walked off, because he was a pimp like that.
BbMag: Elections are Tuesday. It’s a big day for Gil. What’s next for you?
SK: So what’s next is always problematic because our job is to kind of troll the system and create videos about trolling the system, and make people think that they can get engaged with this issue and do something. The real problem is that it’s not that everybody doesn’t know and care about this issue, because a lot of people do. People just think they can’t get anything done. They’re cynical.
RK: If you ask people if they would support anti-corruption measures, 90% across the board say yes. And when we ask if they think we can get them passed, the number drops. The main issue is that people don’t believe that we can do something. So Represent.us put a measure on the ballot in Tallahassee, Florida—a local amendment, that goes straight to people, like the one for marijuana legalization in Colorado in 2012. Create an independent ethics board, public funding for elections, and add something about disclosure—it was pretty different. It’s polling at like 80% and everybody loves it. And they’re expecting it to pass November 4th. So what Represent.us wants to do is take a page from marriage equality and legalized marijuana—things that pop up state by state that people tend to think are inevitable. Public opinion needs to change, and if it feels inevitable, everybody’s going to get on board. Then you can say, “We did it in all these other places; why can’t we do it federally?” Let’s start passing things on local and state levels that change the political perception about whether this is even possible.
SK: It’s just as much about changing our cultural perspective on it as anything else. We’re not fighting the legislative battle yet, we’re fighting the battle for people’s minds. For people to believe that they can do something about it.
RK: As for Motiv, Represent.us always has stuff that they want to do. They’re trying to get more momentum behind them, push a win in Tallahassee into 2015 and 2016. We have an offer from a human rights group and another client. We have a lot of stuff coming up. We’ve got some other plans for Gil Fulbright, too.
SK: Yeah, we’ve got ideas for Gil.
RK: 2016 is a presidential year and everyone is focused on politics. I really saw this summer as a test run for Gil’s presidential run. It’s so easy to write for him. “Money talks. I listen.” Which is the effect of all the rules that we have that say, “This is completely legal and it’s not bribery, all this stuff is freedom is speech; if you have more money you have more speech.” But in the end is the message: “Hi! I love money and I’ll do whatever for it!” Which is why we were so thrilled to have a company like Magic Closer as a sponsor—If you ever leave the house and you leave your garage door open, if you have Magic Closer, they’ll take care of that for you. It can run on a timer! Order now!
SK: We were pretty compromised by this automated garage door closer corporation.
RK: We put it out there on our Indiegogo campaign that anyone can be a corporate sponsor and that we’d hawk their message.
SK: Corporations reached out and ponied up.
RK: Like five of them did it. Bless them, really.
SK: And had Gil been a real candidate and gotten elected, you better believe that mandatory automated garage doors for every family would have been federal law.