October 21, 2001
Satire Under the Flag
by Mark Kennedy
These are not easy days for satire - especially the political kind and especially in New York City. Will New Yorkers have the stomach to watch political leaders lampooned? Can there be an audience for a singing Jesus in spangles? Will anyone laugh at over-the-top violence, including cannibalism?
Dan Studney, Andy Fickman, and Kevin Murphy hope so. They're betting audiences will enjoy a little theatrical satire a few blocks north of the rubble in lower Manhattan.
The trio are behind the off-Broadway musical "Reefer Madness," a show partly about the drug scares of the 1930s but mostly about authority figures who wrap their agendas in the American flag.
After Sept. 11, that message has a new, uneasy meaning.
"I'm not trying to lampoon the United States government," says Studney, who wrote the music and co-authored the book. "I'm trying to lampoon everyone and everything. This show is an equal opportunity offender."
The show takes its cue from a 1936 propaganda film of the same name, which warned that marijuana should be considered public enemy No. 1 - "a violent narcotic" leading to "incurable insanity."
To prove its point, the film traces the decline of two fresh-faced kids after smoking marijuana: One puff and both are hooked, descending into lasciviousness, bad grades, and erratic driving. Meant to be a cautionary tale, the film was screened in high schools until the 1970s and was considered a cult "midnight movie" classic.
Studney and Murphy decided to put it to music.
" 'Reefer Madness' just happened to be a great story that ultimately Kevin and Dan found a great way into it and made it funny and universal," says Fickman, the show's director.
In their hands, the film's message is stretched until it explodes from within. As the cast sings in the opening number, reefer is "Voraciously devouring/The way things are today/Savagely deflowering/The good ol' USA."
The two fresh-faced teens are back, and with them: ax murdering, domestic violence, sodomy, baby peddling, and a case of the munchies that involves human flesh. The American flag is used as a prop, while Jesus, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Satan make cameos.
"It's not a show that's anti-Jesus, it's not a show that's anti-flag, it's not a show that's racist, it's not a show that's ageist, and it's not a show that's homophobic," says Studney.
"But all those things are laid out. Ultimately, the truth is we're against people that use the flag or Jesus or fears of homophobia or racism to force you to do something."
First performed in Los Angeles, "Reefer Madness" won five Ovation Awards and seven L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards. The pro-pot High Times magazine lauded it as the theatrical production of the year.
All this for a musical that in many ways is not about marijuana at all. It is about scapegoating and could have been about Gangster Rap Madness, Cholesterol Madness, Death Penalty Madness, or even Columbine Shooting Massacre Madness.
"When Columbine happened, I walked into rehearsal and said, 'This is what this is about,'" says Studney. "It's about a little man standing behind a podium, with a CNN camera on him and taking the chance to jump into the spotlight and push through an agenda.
"With Columbine, it was, 'The children are dying! So we have to ban video games! The NRA is to blame! The children are dying! Violent Hollywood movies are to blame! Violent song lyrics are to blame!'"
A few months ago, putting such a stubby finger in the eye of authority was fun. Can it be now, especially since CNN is broadcasting a new and terrible topic? Especially now that there's a new public enemy No. 1?
"It's obviously affected the show," says Studney, who spent the first few days after the terrorist attacks in a state of shock, unable to focus on the production. Everyone soon realized the message of "Reefer Madness" was needed more than ever.
"We're doing something that we didn't set out to do, which is important, which is to provide a respite from fear," says Studney. "By laughing at it, you disarm it. You become better than it."
Even extensive editing of the show was considered - then rejected.
"I think it's in the nature of this type of show that it will never appeal to everyone - and that's fine," says Fickman. "If we were to take a list of what people would want edited, I think it's all different. I think we would end up with a solid six minutes of entertainment."
Instead, the group pressed on. Murphy, the lyricist and co-author, says he gained new appreciation for the power of satire as smoke from downtown Manhattan swirled around the theater.
"In terms of the tragedy, what is wonderful and unique about this country is the fact that you can poke fun at the institutions, at the ivory towers, and you don't get thrown into prison and you don't get shot and you don't get ostracized from society," he says.