In 1993, Paul Rudnick’s play Jeffrey debuted off-Broadway. It’s a satire about gay life in the early 90s, a strange period where fear of AIDS, and awareness of its toll, remained high even as the emergence of AZT and other antiretroviral medication was beginning to create a world where the disease wasn’t an automatic death sentence. The play’s kind of all over the place, but it contains one section of brilliant, concentrated comedic fury. The play’s protagonist, the eponymous Jeffrey, is falling in love with a man who’s HIV positive. Unsure how to act on his feelings, Jeffrey seeks guidance by attending a talk by a guru named Debra Moorehouse. It turns out that her advice boils down to self-help pablum along the lines of “love yourself and you’ll never get sick.” It’s advice which, if followed by his HIV positive friends, could easily get them killed – could easily get him killed – and he realizes to his horror that Moorehouse is too busy with her grift to care.
Jeffrey did very well for itself – astonishingly well for a satire, that genre famously defined as “what closes on Saturday night.” Its initial production moved to a long commercial run, and it’s had countless subsequent productions throughout the country. It won Obies. It got made into a 1995 film – an actual movie! With Patrick Stewart and Steven Webber! And in the role of Moorehouse, it features a cameo appearance by Sigourney Weaver that’s a masterclass in the art of satirical acting. (Seriously, watch this before we go any further.) As for Rudnick himself, he’s gone on to a long and successful career as playwright, essayist, and screenwriter.
And the object of his satire is now a candidate for the Presidency of the United States.
Marianne Williamson, in the 90s, was the most prominent of the new-age gurus promoting precisely the sort of anti-medicinal self reliance that Rudnick quite understandably takes to task. (And Weaver’s performance is a dead-on channeling of her style, voice, and mannerisms.) She’s held anti-science views for decades; once someone recommending that the HIV positive avoid life-saving medication, nowadays she's one of the voices questioning the need for and safety of vaccinations. (For an overview of her career, check this out.)
Does over-medication exist? Of course. Do the unscrupulous profit from it? Sure. But to extrapolate from that that all medication is dangerous, and that one’s own self-help dogma – currently available for purchase at your local bookstore – is the ideal substitute for it, is the mark of a grifter. She should be called out for it.
Which Rudnick did, over a quarter century ago. And yet, here we are.
And of course, all of this applies, on an exponential level, to the guy Williamson is trying to replace. The first criminal complaints against Donald J. Trump date from 1973. Journalists and politicians have been documenting the case against him ever since. And for decades, he’s been a satirical target. Spy magazine took him apart with regular aplomb. He was an object of ridicule in countless movies, plays, you name it. Hell, even Sesame Street took him down. Anybody consuming any media over what is very nearly the last half-century should have received the message, in no uncertain terms, that this Trump character was up to no good.
And yet, again, here we are.
Obviously, we’re going to have to speak out against these kinds of charlatans, wherever they fall on the political spectrum. But my fear – the thing weighing on my mind as I write this – is that we artists need to rethink our tactics. Satire alone isn’t working. The light of exposure and the sound of ridiculing laughter doesn’t seem to be stopping these guys. Hell, it seems like their numbers are multiplying, and they’re getting stronger.
That doesn’t mean we stop fighting them. But we have to be smarter about how we do it. I’m not sure what new approaches would work better, but I’d like to find out what they might be. Paul Rudnick, if you're reading this, I'm open to suggestions.
Preferably before September. There’s another debate scheduled then.