Media misfits

News from waaay outside the mainstream
By MIKE MILIARD  |  February 9, 2009

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EMPOWERED A show hosted by the disabled? No joke.

Introducing your How's Your News? news team (debuts on MTV Sunday at 10:30 pm):

SUSAN HARRINGTON, 41, Massachusetts. Her beats include politics and pop culture. She has a mild mental disability and is legally blind but can still sniff out a bogus answer from miles away.

ROBERT BIRD, 51, Massachusetts. Known for his revealing interviews (John McCain, Al Franken), he grills his subjects in an unintelligible language of his own — a result of his severe Down Syndrome — but can still understand their responses.

LARRY PERRY, 60, Massachusetts. His spastic cerebral palsy has left him in a wheelchair and unable to speak, but he's a dogged reporter nonetheless, conducting interviews by pointing with his microphone at questions pre-written on a board.

SEAN COSTELLO, 38, New Hampshire. Sean, who also has Down Syndrome, is equally at home asking Hillary Clinton the tough questions and offering impressionistic Charles Kuralt–style vignettes about the unique charms of Texas.

JEREMY VEST, 21, from Maryland, LUCAS WAHL, 23, from Arizona, and BRENDAN LEMIEUX, 21, from Connecticut, all three of whom have Williams Syndrome, which is characterized by mild developmental problems, "elfin" facial features, outgoing personalities, and, often, an acute affinity and talent for music. That last comes in handy when you're interviewing bands like the Shins and Miley Cyrus or gigging with your own group at South by Southwest — as the trio do on How's Your News?

The series grew out of an excellent 1999 documentary directed by author Arthur Bradford (Dogwalker) and produced by South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In the How's Your News? film, Harrington, Bird, Perry, Costello, and the hilarious Ronnie Simonsen (who's currently battling leukemia) — all of whom attend Camp Jabberwocky, a Martha's Vineyard camp for the disabled where Bradford is a counselor — pile into a tour bus and head west.

Along the way from New Hampshire to California, the group conduct a string of man-on-the-street interviews, and their conversations offer a funny and revealing look at how the disabled perceive and are perceived. The TV show follows the same general pattern, but it ups the star quotient somewhat, filming the HYN reporters as they interact with celebs like Sarah Silverman, Ben Affleck, and Amy Sedaris.

Given the awful vapidity that marks most of MTV's programming these days, a show like How's Your News? might seem out of place. But once upon a time, MTV was daring and provocative in its groundbreaking series. (See the first few seasons of The Real World, before it was decided to cast that show with douchebags.) And How's Your News? is certainly groundbreaking: there's never been a program on TV hosted by people with disabilities.

And in case it's not apparent by now, one Web commentary gets it precisely wrong when it accuses the show of being a comedy that uses "handicapped people as the punch line" and concludes, "Can't get too much more offensive than that." In fact, if any viewer can get to know these seven personalities — can watch Harrington debating the merits of medical marijuana with passers-by on the street, or Bird bullshitting with Silverman and Kimmel, or Vest interviewing an acid casualty on Venice Beach — and still feel that way, it probably says more about the viewer than the show's producers, who've succeeded wildly and hilariously at their professed goal: to show the disabled in a light that's "less sentimental and more empowering."

Related: Bringing up Baby, Review: He's Just Not That Into You, Review: State of Play, More more >
  Topics: Television , Celebrity News, Entertainment, Learning and Developmental Disorders,  More more >
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