Middle-aged readers will remember the popular Saturday Night Live sketch of the 1970s and early 80s-- Mr. Bill. Mr. Bill is an animated puppet with a big white head and simply sketched face that changes expression as Mr. Bill encounters disasters, usually embodied by “Mr. Hands” or “Sluggo.” “Oh Nooooo!” Mr. Bill cries in Hurricane Sluggo (2003) as an alligator opens its big jaws and swallows Mr. Bill while he is waiting on a rooftop in a flooded New Orleans.
That’s right. Mr. Bill imagined being trapped on a rooftop in New Orleans, almost 2 years BEFORE Katrina hit. This prescient animation landed New Orleans native and Mr. Bill creator Walter Williams many post-Katrina interviews. In several of these interviews Williams wears a t-shirt that states, “It’s the wetlands, stupid.”
Wetlands slow down the impact of hurricane storm surge (by more than 1 foot for every 3 miles of marsh), and many people claim that no levee, no matter how tall or how strong, can protect the coast from a category 4 or 5 hurricane without the added resistance of the marsh. Thousands of miles of wetlands have already disappeared in the last few decades. They need to be rebuilt, or at least stopped from disappearing. And they need to be fixed fast…
I am currently finishing an environmental documentary about this crisis situation, much of which has been caused by the disappearance of the Louisiana wetlands. These wetlands have been crisscrossed with hundreds of oil canals as well as by ‘Mr. Go’ — the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet — which was built to make shipping commerce more cost effective but which has accelerated the erosion of the plant life that is crucial for maintaining the marsh. Other issues (development, drainage, Army Corps levee-building) have also contributed to the loss of the wetlands, so there is a legal and public relations battle going on between the oil industry, politicians, and environmentalists over how much responsibility the oil industry bears for Louisiana’s land loss, and consequently, how much everyone should pay.
I came across a series of Mr. Bill public service announcements connected to the wetlands while doing other research, and immediately thought they would be perfect to include in my film and as part of our educational outreach. Why? Because the disappearance of the wetlands isn’t a very funny subject. Saving the Louisiana coastline will cost billions, not millions of dollars. Amounts that are no laughing matter...
But audiences, particularly young audiences, often respond to laughter or to unpredictable approaches for political issues. The popularity and political impact of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report or even South Park has yet to be fully examined, but I do know that these shows influence young people's opinions on current events. (I can’t get my teenagers to read a daily newspaper yet, but they watch these shows…)
If humor and satire are important for generating interest in subjects, then Mr. Bill’s PSA's are a good start. In Heck Yeah - Shell Cares! (on YouTube), Shell oil executives pretend to accept responsibility for the destruction of the wetlands and offer to pay for it. I recently taped Walter Williams and other protestors with the Gulf Restoration Network at One Shell Square in New Orleans, which houses the Shell Oil company. Many of the young protestors with Williams were college students carrying posters and signs who chanted and yelled to passers-by about Shell's responsibility. Cars honked to show their support as they passed.
I spoke with one young woman who was enthusiastically leading the protestors with a bullhorn. She told me that she is a student at Loyola New Orleans and that her mother teaches constitutional law in their law school. She also dresses up in the Mr. Bill costume (which is big and hot!) for the Walter Williams’s “Magical Wetlands Tour” and performs at local events. I felt a glow of warmth at the thought of how one college professor “Mama” seems to have had a positive impact on her daughter who is now directly engaged in doing political advocacy work with humorous acts of protest.
The Yes Men, another group of satirical activists who dress up in suits and invade corporate meetings to “impersonat[e] big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them,” are also involved in wetlands activism. Parsons college professor and Yes Men co-founder, Andy Bichlbaum (a pseudonym), attended a 2006 post-Katrina meeting and posed as a “HUD” representative. Bichlbaum announced that Exxon and Shell accepted responsibility for the loss of the wetlands and agreed to pay for the damage “from part of their 60 billion dollars in profits this year. (Eventually, security escorted Bichlbaum out of the meeting.) This event and other Yes Men corporate pranks have received beaucoups amounts of media attention in Louisiana and around the world.
Pointing out creative theater, animations, or legal ‘pranks’ are good ways to get our children and students to pay attention to some of the big political battles of their generation. Teaching young people to go even further with solid academic research and creative problem-solving may be the next step.