The young man on the blue leather couch is livid. "I'm sick of this," he rants, the words teddy's web cam flashing on the screen. "If everyone who complained about the establishment would vote for Ralph Nader he'd become the next president of our United States. Stranger things have happened in Minnesota."
Teddy rises from the couch and walks toward the camera until his face is no longer visible. He grabs his crotch, denounces the "Democratic and Republican corporations," and belches out a barely bleeped-out expletive. "It's time for a change," he concludes.
At that very moment, a beefy Secret Service type--donned in dark suit, sunglasses and an earpiece--appears on the screen, delivering a body blow to Teddy, who wilts to the floor. The Secret Service agent covers the camera lens with his hand. The screen dissolves. Then text appears informing viewers of a rally for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, which was held at Target Center in downtown Minneapolis on September 22.
Watching the 30-second commercial for the third time in less than an hour, its creators howl with laughter. Then they play the spot again. The three men are seated around a computer screen in a brick-walled, Warehouse District studio, where the advertisement was filmed. Teddy Maki is the angry young man of the commercial, and a 24-year-old freelance photographer who frequently works for City Pages. Jeff Fabre Stahly plays the Secret Service agent (or "The Man", as he prefers). Stephan Cole is the group's cinematographer.
The fledgling political propagandists paid to have their commercial aired 29 times on stations such as Comedy Central, MTV, and FX over a 48-hour period leading up to the last month's Nader rally. But they've only seen it once on a big screen. "None of us had cable TV because we're all too broke," explains Stahly, a 33-year-old filmmaker. "We had to meet at a friend's house that had cable."
"It was really interesting to see it actually coming across the television into our house, and however many other people's houses," recalls the 27-year-old Cole, who makes his living as a furniture maker. "It was a commercial like any other, but yet it was like nothing I've ever seen in my life."
"We appeal to human nature in the sense that everybody wants to hear somebody say 'fuck you.' And everybody wants to see somebody belted in the stomach," adds Stahly, prompting another outburst of laughter.
The Nader commercial was the first public communiqué from the Contra Club (www.contraclub.org), a loose-knit group of about a dozen like-minded Minneapolis artists formed earlier this year. Cole, Maki, and Stahly are the core of the organization. The group's aim is to exploit the media to advance their political philosophy, a hodgepodge of environmentalism, anti-globalization, and the belief that credit-card companies are exploiting young people. Their affinity for Nader is less about a devotion to the consumer advocate than it is disgust with the present state of political discourse.
"I just can't even express what the Republican and Democratic parties are to me," says Stahly, the Contra Club's instigator in chief. "They're both to the right of center. I like Ralph Nader's message. A very finite group of people who control the media are deciding who gets attention and who doesn't get attention. What we're trying to do is take back the airwaves, which belong to the people."
The Nader commercial was produced in a three-day frenzy of sleep-deprived activity on a budget of $11 (if you don't count the cost of beer and cigarettes). "The tape was $10 and the tie that I bought at Ragstock to go with the suit was a dollar," notes Stahly. The trio fleshed out a script over a few pitchers at Pizza Lucé in downtown Minneapolis, shot the spot the next day in digital video, then edited it on a Macintosh G4 computer. When it was in the can, Stahly plunked down almost $500 to purchase airtime. "It tapped me out," he says of the expense.
The Contra Club didn't bother to inform the Nader campaign of their stunt until after securing TV time. And when they did finally get around to calling the Green Party's local chapter the reception was chilly. Jason Morgan, one of the lead organizers for the Target Center rally, asked that the advertisement be pulled. "His concern was that we were going to damage the campaign because the commercial was too edgy," Stahly recalls. "I said, 'I don't think I can do that.' I'd already paid for the time."
Morgan, now in Boston organizing a Nader rally for October 1, concedes that the foul language (even bleeped out) made him uneasy. "There were some concerns," he laughs. "Not enough for us to do anything about it though." Morgan and the campaign did eventually came to appreciate the group's efforts, however. "It's a perfect example of grassroots organizing," Morgan allows. "It's the kind of stuff that Ralph talks about all the time, people getting involved in their own politics." Even so, Nader's staff encouraged Stahly to send off a letter to the presidential candidate confirming that the Contra Club is not affiliated with the Green Party campaign.