Connor Ratliff, official presidential candidate of The Chris Gethard Show,discusses Perry and Cain's "joke campaigns"
Every election season earns its share of parodies, from SNL sketches lampooning the week’s gaffes to weird homemade videos. But The Chris Gethard Show, a Manhattan-based public access show that streams live online every Wednesday night, is taking political parody to the next level by entering their own official candidate, presidential hopeful Connor Ratliff, into the 2012 race to the White House.
Ratliff, an actor and comedian who also produces short films for the show, announced his candidacy this past August and hasn’t wavered in his very serious delivery and defense of his platform: the fact that, by being at least 35 years old, he meets the Constitution’s requirement for eligibility. In fact, he’s 36, which makes him an even stronger candidate than all those merely-35 hopefuls out there.
This seriousness sets Ratliff’s campaign apart from other comedic takes on the election. Not only is he releasing campaign videos and appearing near-weekly on The Chris Gethard Show to defend his platform—he’s also actively attempting to engage the rest of the 2012 candidates in debates and dialogues.
Two weeks ago, Ratliff sent formal invitations to all current candidates camps, not really expecting a response but presenting the challenge with the gravity you’d expect from a presidential hopeful. And guess what? One responded, appearing on this past week’s show in an unprecedentedly ridiculous episode titled “The Great Presidential Debate (and Halloween Spooktacular).”
The candidate was Jimmy McMillan, better known as the founder of The Rent Is Too Damn High party. And while the debate included some silly moments (see the clips below), there were some serious points made.
“I guarantee you this: Mr. McMillan and I have our differences,” said Ratliff halfway through the debate, “but we will both be in this campaign long after Herman Cain and Rick Perry are a distant political memory.”
While Ratliff’s campaign might be, at the core, a joke, it’s also making some pretty pertinent points about the reality of the current election cycle. We spoke with Ratliff about his motivation for “running,” and his thoughts on Rick Perry’s own “joke campaign.”
How did your campaign begin?
The campaign got started because Gethard was looking for people to pitch him ideas, and I got the sense that he wasn’t necessarily looking for people to come on and have some character that they would do—I think he wanted it to be rooted in a little bit of truth. And so I was trying to think, what bit do I have that would be kind of real, that wouldn’t just be me coming on and doing a funny voice and pretending to be some other person? I’ve always been amused by the specificity of the presidential age limit; I’ve always thought that’s a funny, mundane thing in the Constitution, it always just seemed like, why 35? Why not 34, or 36? It’s so arbitrary to me. And I thought, well, I am 35.
I know there have been funny presidential campaigns on comedy shows in the past. My dad would talk about how the Smothers Brothers had Pat Paulsen say he’d really run for president, and I thought I could be the Gethard Show presidential candidate. It was a very simple premise: I’m 35 years old, that’s why I’m running for president.
Are you committed to the race through the duration of the election?
Unless there’s something so funny that it’s worth completely blowing up the campaign over, my plan is to keep this going through inauguration day, at least. I have ideas in mind for things that could be fun well into 2012 and as we get closer to the election. I never would have imagined two months ago that I would be able to have a debate with Jimmy McMillan on the show, so I’m assuming there will be more surprising things that will happen as we get into next year.
Are you trying to get on the official ballot?
Absolutely. That part of it is exhausting, because it’s a tremendous amount of work. In order to get on the ballots (and we are looking into ways of doing that), at this point, part of it is dependent on the show itself continuing to gain momentum, because the bigger the show is, the easier it will be to marshal the audience of the show into helping us achieve some of these things. There’s always the balance of how funny is this versus how much work as this. At a certain point, you can’t kill yourself doing a bit that will pay off for a small amount of people; there’s a tradeoff of, how much time and labor can I ask people to put into something that might end up being a really tiny punchline?
Do you get a lot of feedback from supporters and fans on your campaign?
What’s interesting is my original idea, even as close as a week before I went on the air, was a lot more of a political idea: it was a lot more partisan, infused with a lot more of my own political slants, and as I was working on the very first presidential clip, I thought that kind of thing might very quickly turn it into one of these internet political bits, where half of the spectrum immediately hates you and the other half likes you not necessarily because the bit is funny, but just because they agree with it. And that somehow that felt less interesting to me. I thought, there’s a very simple theme here, which is this very simplistic political platform. The character I’m adopting is sort of me, sort of not me, depending on the context.
And what I’ve found is that it’s been an interesting almost Rorschach test, in that a lot of people (especially a lot of right wing, conservatively anti-Obama people) have assumed that the premise of the joke of the campaign is that I’m making fun of how unqualified Obama is, that “I’m 35” is somehow a reference to the fact that quote-unquote Obama wasn’t born here, the whole birtherism craziness. If anything, it would be the opposite of that: I would be making fun of the birthers for their emphasis on these constitutional requirements, the idea that those are the main issues facing any presidential campaign. But I’ve seen comments on the internet from people saying, oh right, this is making fun of Obama—but it really, it’s people seeing what they want to see. I don’t actually mind that, I don’t think much of this routine so far has been politically oriented, I think it’s been more about the pageantry.
Are you modeling your approach off any current real-life campaigns?
One thing that I do find incredibly interesting is that, while I’m running a novelty campaign, I think the thing it is sort of making fun of is that right now, on TV, professional political experts are talking quite seriously about Rick Perry and Herman Cain as if these people have any chance of becoming president. And I genuinely believe it’s almost journalistic malpractice the way people have talked about these campaigns—I don’t think these guys have any realistic chance of getting the nomination, I don’t think they ever had it.
I definitely think with Herman Cain there’s this almost make believe going on—I don’t see what the difference is between my joke campaign and Herman Cain’s joke campaign. Mine’s a lot cheaper, they’re wasting a lot more money, they’re wasting a lot more actual journalistic resources on their political campaign. And the second it was revealed that Rick Perry had that rock on his ranch for years, the second that was revealed, any reasonable person would say, “Alright, there’s no way this person’s ever going to win the nomination.” I don’t know a single person in the world that could own a piece of property that had that rock on it for years and not think that they need to get rid of it, or paint over it. Any reasonable person, if you bought a piece of property that had that rock on it, what would be the first thing you do? You get rid of that rock. And yet, people are still talking like he has a chance. There’s just no way President Obama is going to debate Rick Perry, the guy who has a rock with that word on it, and lose that debate.
So I’m not sure what the difference is between my joke campaign and at least five of the millions-of-dollars-worth of campaigns is. At least mine is more frugal. If I was really going to campaign I would just point out that I’m not wasting anybody’s money. My joke costs almost nothing. Their motivations aren’t that different from mine; sure, I’d love to get a TV show, but I’m not actually going to be president. Neither are they. I have that in common with most of the people running for president.
But you are taking it quite seriously on the show; how did the Jimmy McMillan debate come about?
The original thing I pitched to Gethard a few weeks ago was that I would go on the show, announce the debate, officially invite everyone. And when the debate show came around, part of the set would be devoted to me and like ten empty chairs, and it would be a running gag throughout the episode that they would keep cutting back to me and I would go through the various stages of grief, feeling denial, anger, hope, whatever. No one showed up for my debate, basically, was the gag.
And as I was getting ready for it, Noah Forman, one of the producers, said I should invite Jimmy McMillan. And at this point I honestly wasn’t even aware that Jimmy McMillan was running. So it was a complete surprise to me when I saw he actually has announced he’s running for president. It’s been a pretty low profile. And also his website, it’s a crazy website, there’s a million links on it and a lot of it hasn’t been updated; you go to events and it’s talking about stuff in like 2008, 2009. There’s a link that just says “Comedy.” I assumed it was going to be Jimmy McMillan-related comedy, since it is his website, but it’s literally like six or seven ventriloquism videos; YouTube clips of Jeff Dunham, and a guy who won some ventriloquism contest. He must love ventriloquism.
So, once it became clear that Jimmy McMillan was a candidate, I thought I’d include his name on the invitation. The idea was still that no one would show up to the debate. Then, a few days before I made the announcement, Gethard and I were talking and I was saying, "I think there’s a chance if we include McMillan in there, that Jimmy McMillan will agree to appear on our debate." And Gethard kind of got quiet for a second, he sort of looked down at the ground, he put his hands together and he got this smile, this grin he gets when he thinks something disastrous could happen.
And so I went on the show, I challenged all the candidates to a debate, I went home and I officially emailed all the candidates. I contacted the White House, I wrote a formal letter inviting them to the debate and I contacted Jimmy McMillan. This was at like one or two in the morning, so I went to bed, got up the next morning and went to work. And at like 9 am I got an email from one of Jimmy McMillan’s people saying Jimmy would very much be interested in participating in our event. So literally as quickly as one could have responded, I got a response.
Now that you’ve tackled your first debate, what’s next—a vice presidential candidate?
I have some ideas for 2012. The good thing about the campaign is, to a certain extent, it’s almost like nothing can actually go wrong with it, because if it goes wrong we have fun and if it goes well it’s amazing.
Most people use their vice presidential pick to get a little extra boost; if they’re at 80% they want to get that extra 20% from the vice presidential pick. For me, I feel that I’m going to need to devise ways to make the vice presidential pick my actual campaign attention-getter; I’m going to be using the vice presidential pick to get noticed. Obviously I’m not going to ever be allowed into a proper presidential debate, but I have had grandiose visions of devising some way to simulcast myself into a version of the debate as it happens live; I don’t know if that’s technically possible. But I have had thoughts like, what if we got a time slot where we air the debate and I respond to everything, where I’d be able to interact live? And the dream obviously would be to have a grand election night special in 2012. It could fizzle out before then, that could be a grand anticlimax for the campaign, I don’t know. There is always the outside chance I’ll be elected president, which could change everything. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to be involved with the show at that point, and that would be sad.
Does the campaign have any serious supporters?
A good friend of mine immediately responded by saying, "You should actually do this, people are hungry for real choices!" And I was instantly like, no no—you don’t understand, I have no interest in that. I have come up with what I think is an entertaining campaign that can have some substance to it, like I certainly do think there is a legitimate point behind this joke in terms of making fun of how stupid some of the pageantry is. I mean, it’s stupid how long the campaign lasts, so much of presidential politics is ridiculous pageantry, and I definitely think it taps into that a little bit. I have no interest in making this campaign anything that would be real, but I do think it works best if I play it serious. And things tend to be funnier when you play them real, whereas if I was playing a goof, it’s automatically unfunny, it’s kind of like wearing big clown shoes or something. But there are people who are confused by it, people who have seen press coverage of it who probably make the same assumptions about me that they make about a lot of fringe candidates: this guy’s nuts.
The Chris Gethard Show streams live online every Wednesday night at 10 p.m. central at www.thechrisgethardshow.com