The Heartland Institute hits the Strip with some much-needed comedic relief
Blog ››› ››› ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
They say comedy is just a funny way of being serious. So it's natural that a deepening climate crisis would produce a deepening well of climate comedy. We don't yet have our climate-themed Dr. Strangelove, but there's now a feature film's worth of gags, skits, and riffs exploring the lighter side of a cooking planet. Stand-up comics, from mainline stars like Louis C.K. to niche acts like the Christian comic Paul Kerensa, have mined climate change for material. Climate activist groups like 350.org have recently begun to take a cue from Comedy Central. Even NASA climatologists have gotten awkwardly into the act.
Like the global temperature, the phenomenon is on an upswing. In May, a New Yorker science blogger mused on the benefits of employing a "comedic frame" in climate coverage. A couple weeks later, the Guardian collected climate-comedy highpoints, from The Onion to "Ali G." The newest item on the list came from a May bit from an exasperated John Oliver on the media habit of "balancing" the climate consensus with fringe skeptics.
The biggest sign the genre is maturing hums with neon. Today, Chicago's Heartland Institute, the kings of unintentional climate-comedy, will hit the Vegas strip with a three-day show at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, featuring a chorus line's worth of hilarious climate rejectionists. The line-up will collectively perform the energy-policy equivalent of a Henny Youngman routine: "Take my planet capable of supporting civilization. Please!"
The think tank that flacked for Big Tobacco against the science of lung cancer will perform off the same playbook to flack for Big Carbon against the science of greenhouse gases. Tickets to see these self-styled climate researchers and political operatives -- almost none of whom are climate or earth systems scientists and nearly all of them funded at one- or two-degrees remove by oil and coal interests -- run $129, including meals.
On the Strip, Heartland speakers will pretend to be qualified to dissent from the equivalent to the National Academy of Sciences of every industrial country. Against the faint ring of slot machines, they'll dismiss the stark warnings of experts from 130 countries who contribute to the authoritative assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Because the first rule of improv comedy is "Yes, and...", some Heartland speakers will concede that, yes, man-made warming is occurring. The kicker comes when they echo Heartland's April report concluding that this is a net positive for all carbon-based life forms. With this pivot toward "Yes, and...", Heartland is ensuring they'll continue to have topical comedy fodder for years to come, even after their carbon denial becomes as outdated as their lung cancer material.
Heartland's Vegas appearance also suggests a strategy to avoid repeating the troupe's 2012 funding crisis. Instead of depending on corporate contributions, Heartland could find steady revenue as a regular sell-out act on the Strip. They aren't in a position to challenge Carrot Top for a headlining residency at the MGM Grand, but in a city whose economic base is expected to suffer devastating effects from climate change, there is a role for a group with years' worth of climate change gags, including slide shows and props. Heartland policy advisor Norman Rodgers, for example, would kill audiences with classic one-liners such as, "The few examples of coal or oil companies actually giving money to dissenters or dissenting organizations are so minor that one suspects that the gift was an accident or bureaucratic snafu." James Taylor would have them rolling with lines like, "I successfully completed Ivy League atmospheric science courses, so I'm a scientist by training."
If Don Rickles can make a Vegas career as the "Merchant of Venom," the folks at Heartland can make a run as the "Merchants of Doubt." The timing could not be better. Nevada's nearly 50 golf courses will likely soon be wilting under heat waves and water shortages, and the dwindling number of tourists visiting Vegas will want more air-conditioned entertainment. To draw these crowds, Heartland just needs to punch-up its clunky ad copy, which now reads, "Come to fabulous Las Vegas to meet leading scientists from around the world who question whether 'man-made global warming' will be harmful to plants, animals, or human welfare." A permanent show needs something that sparkles, like the tagline for the Cirque Du Soleil show "O: An aquatic masterpiece of surrealism and theatrical romance."
Heartland's might read, "Take the Money and Run: A planet-crushing masterpiece of delusion and breathtaking corruption."
There are other benefits to turning Heartland events into entertainment spectacles worthy of a Vegas marquee. Real scientists would no longer have to "tie up all our time fighting denialist propaganda," as astronomer Phil Plait put it. Instead, they could relegate Heartland coverage to the entertainment critics at Variety and Las Vegas Magazine. Heartland is a good bet to open to rave local reviews. They already have friends at the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Heartland is also getting into the movie side of show business. Its main co-sponsor in Vegas this week is the concurrent libertarian event, FreedomFest, held at Planet Hollywood. On Wednesday night, Heartland ticket-holders are invited to attend the debut the film, Atlas Shrugged 3: Where is John Galt? Fox Business host and popular climate comedian John Stossel will introduce the screening and broadcast his show from the FreedomFest floor.
Media Matters has produced brief playbill bios of Heartland's Vegas cast.