For nearly 20 years, The Yes Men — composed of comedic duo Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno — have been performing large-scale hoaxes with the aim of drawing attention to the crimes, corruption and general sociopathic tendencies of corporate and government entities. Through a process they call “identity correction,” Bichlbaum and Bonanno impersonate entities they dislike and pull off elaborate hoaxes, often times involving the creation of fake websites and the utilization of elaborate costumes and props, to spoof their unsuspecting victims. From attending conferences in disguise to give satirical speeches parodying the ideological positions of corporations and government entities to impersonating corporate representatives on popular talkshows and news programs, there is no area in the public or private arena out of reach of these intrepid pranksters.
For one of their most famous stunts, Bichlbaum impersonated a Dow Chemical spokesman on BBC World on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal chemical disaster and announced that the company was going to dissolve Union Carbide (the company responsible for the spill) and spend $12 billion of the liquidation money to pay for the medical care of the thousands of victims of the chemical disaster. Although the duo got some pushback from members of the media who claimed the prank was insensitive to victims of the disaster, the prank also helped shame Dow Chemical and expose how little they had done to help victims of the preventable disaster.
For another stunt, The Yes Men impersonated ExxonMobil and National Petroleum Council representatives at Canada’s largest oil conference and gave a ridiculous speech describing how people who die from the effects of climate change could have their bodies turned into an oil product called Vivoleum.
“With more fossil fuels comes a greater chance of disaster, but that means more feedstock for Vivoleum,” said Bonanno as he impersonated an ExxonMobil representative at the conference. “Fuel will continue to flow for those of us left.”
“We’ve got to get ready,” added Bichlbaum. “After all, fossil fuel development like that of my company is increasing the chances of catastrophic climate change, which could lead to massive calamities, causing migration and conflicts that would likely disable the pipelines and oil wells. Without oil we could no longer produce or transport food, and most of humanity would starve. That would be a tragedy, but at least all those bodies could be turned into fuel for the rest of us.”
In addition to their decades worth of pranks, The Yes Men have also released three highly praised documentary films about their efforts. Their latest film, “The Yes Men Are Revolting,” was released in 2014 and followed the duo as they pranked climate change denying corporations and organizations.
The Yes Men will be speaking at the University of Houston’s Moores Opera House tomorrow at 7 pm for the 2017 Mitchell Artist Lecture. FPH was fortunate to be able to speak with The Yes Men’s Bichlbaum ahead of the duo’s appearance.
Free Press Houston: Why do you guys do the work that you do, and what pushes you to keep doing it?
Bichlbaum: One reason is just momentum and fun. I’ve always wanted to have an effect on the world, and I kind of stumbled into this by accident but it really just synced up with my nature — mischievous nature. I started doing it and I was like, “Wow. Why ever stop?” So it’s really as simple as that. You know, it has a little role I think. It makes people laugh and maybe isn’t as important as other things. You know, if I really wanted to pick a way to make an impact maybe I would run for office, but I don’t think I really have the temperament to run for office. I do know people who do. Fortunately there are people like that.
FPH: You’ve been doing this work for about 20 years now. How has your work changed or evolved through the years?
Bichlbaum: It changes with each project really. I recently did a thing where I impersonated the DNC at a conference. And we’ve never really done anything in the left world of politics or anything live streamed. It was very different from other projects because we weren’t really making fun of anything. We weren’t trying to ridicule anyone. We were trying to attack the DNC and say, “Look. If you want to win elections, here’s what you should do.” And we impersonated them in order to say all of those things, so it was pretty different from any other projects that we’ve done.
FPH: How did that project happen? What was the setting for it?
Bichlbaum: I read Listen Liberal by Thomas Frank and What’s the Matter With Kansas, and the books really moved me. I had been asking myself for months about what to do in the environment we are today, and neither of us had any idea what to in this radically different environment. Then I realized, well okay, the only thing we can really do maybe is help to take over the Democratic Party and aim our sights at our side instead of the other side. Anybody who agrees with the other side, I don’t really know if I have any arguments to convince them. I still have no clue how to reach over and talk to Trump voters. But our side screwed up so massively, and the Democrats screwed up so massively over a period of 40 years, which culminated with this election, that I think that that’s a really good target.
FPH: What do you hope your activism in this new area will end up achieving?
Bichlbaum: Well, adding to the arguments I guess. At this point the targets are liberals I guess, liberals who believe that things can just proceed as they were, that nothing bad has happened. Or, nothing preventable has happened. If we can add a little planning into the mix, then great. Maybe that’s something!
FPH: What are your thoughts on Hillary Clinton?
Bichlbaum: She’s a great person. She’s, you know, very intelligent, steadfast and trustworthy and all that great stuff, but she comes from the same tradition that brought us the end of welfare under Bill Clinton, the end of banking regulations under Bill Clinton, the evisceration of environmental regulation, drone strikes, bad immigration policies. All of that stuff that the democrats have represented for so long now. Let alone, any defense of workers or really progressive measures. So she just was that tradition. It’s nothing against her, it’s just that tradition. And the Democrats were too stupid to see that this was not a moment for that, that this was a populist moment.
FPH: What was your reaction to Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord?
Bichlbaum: Umm. Whatever. Yeah, I wasn’t surprised. I’m just relieved everything he does is so dramatically incompetent and horrible. Every time he does something deeply horrible, I’m just relieved. If he was doing anything that actually made sense to people, I would get really worried. I was worried he would actually pull off a giant infrastructure project and spend a trillion dollars on needed infrastructure and improvements, which populists have done. That’s what the Nazis did and it worked. And I was really worried he would get it together to do that. Even though, in itself, it would be a great thing to have high speed trains and stuff that the rest of the world gets to have, if he was doing it that would be a really terrifying thing.
FPH: So do you think Democrats in Congress should try to not work with him in any way?
Bichlbaum: Yeah. Totally. I think it’s a noxious force that needs to be destroyed.
FPH: Are you optimistic that we’ll be able to impeach Trump or find some way to get him out of office?
Bichlbaum: Much of the rest of the world has had the experience of watching their country go to pot and not being able to do anything about it, and now it’s our turn. I hope we get it together to impeach him. I’m not sure. I think the Russian angle is great and all that — of course he should be prosecuted, and that should be pursued as far as it can be — but I wish there were a little more introspection instead of just blaming it all on Russia. What did we do wrong? If there were more introspection, I would have more hope.
FPH: Do you worry about how the government seems to be trying to criminalize protest?
Bichlbaum: It’s very dangerous. It’s one of the many signs of authoritarianism. It’s one of the many things to worry about in so far as it points to a fascist state in formation. That’s what there is to worry about. I’m not worried personally, but I am worried about this becoming a fascist state for sure.
FPH: Have you ever worried about the legal repercussions of your own work?
Bichlbaum: Yeah. I used to worry about it. We used to get a little paranoid sometimes, but for no good reason. It’s no big deal. That’s kind of it — it’s no big deal. We’re not black, so that helps. We’re not the Black Pathers. We’re white, so we haven’t really had any problems. When we’re impersonating people in these conferences, it’s in these extremely genteel environments where people are probably not going to haul us off and punch us even if they get that we’re fake. You know, once we realized that we stopped worrying. And the legal repercussions themselves, there don’t seem to be any so far. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wanted there to be some, and they sued us. And that would have set a precedent if they had won, but they dropped the suit. It would have also set a precedent if they had lost, and I think that’s why they probably dropped the suit. The whole thing had just been to scare us.
FPH: Do you ever get nervous when you’re pulling off your stunts?
Bichlbaum: Of course. All of the time. They make me very nervous.
FPH: What stunts in the past have made you the most nervous?
Bichlbaum: I guess the BBC stunt made me the most nervous. It was in front of 300 million people, and I had to do it right because it was also a chance in a lifetime.
FPH: How are you guys able to pull off huge stunts like that?
Bichlbaum: Well, like any project, it’s a lot of work. It’s nothing that other people don’t do in other ways. It’s just work. When we do a project, we have a large team working. When we’re just preparing for one we don’t so much. In between projects we keep it pretty small.
FPH: What is one of your favorite stunts you have pulled off and why?
Bichlbaum: The fake New York Times, I guess, was a favorite because it showed the world as it could be. It was very practical.
FPH: Out of all of your pranks, which one did you guys receive the most push back for?
Bichlbaum: I guess it was the Bhopal, the BBC one, because for a while there was a lot of news in the UK about the false hopes we had raised. Also, in New Orleans we got a lot of blowback for false hopes. They, in both cases, turned out to be fake news. There were no real false hopes. It was just newscasters assuming that there would be.
FPH: Have you ever thought that you went too far with one of your pranks?
Bichlbaum: Not really. No. Usually it’s the other way around, that we didn’t go far enough.
FPH: You guys have released three well-received films so far. Is there another film in the works for you guys?
Bichlbaum: I’m beginning work on a film, not really “The Yes Men,” and we are also in talks about a TV show. But it’s in the very preliminary stages. It’s about how to take over the country — how to take over the country politically. It’s about how to take over the government, and how to overthrow the government. I mean, not violently, but through political means mainly and the role of protest and stuff. It will be fun.
FPH: What advice can you give to people who are curious about doing the style of activism that you guys do?
Bichlbaum: Maybe do something else. Find out what you care about and think about what the most effective way to get there would be. Have some clarity and come up with a strategy because what we do may not be the right thing for everybody. It’s just one thing among many. Everybody should run for office. Everybody should run for precinct committee chair because you can do that, and you can win, and you can then determine who the democratic candidates will be. It’s easy!
The Yes Men will be speaking at the University of Houston’s Moores Opera House tomorrow at 7 pm for this year’s Mitchell Artist Lecture, an annual program presented by the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts that features major figures in the world of artistic collaboration. Reserve your free tickets here.