|Tongue In Beak; Fox's 'TV Nation' Strikes Chord With Humorous Anti-Corporate Message|
August 14, 1995
Steve Johnson, Tribune Television Critic
By appearances, Crackers does not seem extraordinary in the menagerie of besuited mascots that populates the American midway. He's 8 feet tall, electric yellow, and eternally befuddled-looking thanks to an askew pair of eyes. Like mascots everywhere, he's pudgy and faintly ridiculous, an ambulatory, three-dimensional cartoon.
But put a microphone in his grasp and a crowd in his field of vision, as happened last week outside Chicago's Daley Center, and Crackers' true nature is revealed. He's not just another mock hen boosting baseball teams or enchanting children; he's a corporate crime fighting faux chicken--a caped, albeit flightless, crusader dedicated to taking on a problem that costs Americans far more than does the street crime that gets the lion's share of the publicity.
He is also the emblem of a TV show, Michael Moore's guerrilla-comic-populist newsmagazine "TV Nation," which invented him as an answer to Smokey, Woodsy and McGruff and seems to have conceived of him as a cross between Ralph Nader and Big Bird. On that show, one of television's gems, Crackers does cheeky things like march into a New York bank lobby to confront officials over why the bank took $50 million in tax breaks on the promise it wouldn't lay people off, then did so anyway.
(A bank security guard, after the usual hands-over-the-camera-lens response, informed him he was "persona non grata." "Wouldn't that be 'chicken non grata?' " asked Moore, who behaved not unlike Crackers in his film "Roger & Me.")
Corporate communications officers may not crow about Crackers, but the signs are that he's becoming something of a folk hero. A corporate-crime tip number the show aired once generated 30,000 calls in 48 hours, say staffers, who have since switched to an E-mail address.
In Chicago, somewhere between 500 (police estimate) and 2,000 (producer's estimate) people turned out at noon Wednesday to see the bird, a hefty proportion of them drawn by something more than the mere coincidence of their lunch hour and an oversized avian leading an anti-corporate rally.
It was a crowd large enough to stun this reporter (who had expected maybe 100 people) and overwhelm the Chicago police's paltry poultry detail, two members of which had the following exchange:
Cop A: Who is this guy anyway?
Cop B: I don't know.
Cop A: What is he, a national hero, like Batman? I thought it was Jerry Garcia fans. The guy kicked the bucket this morning.
Cop A (later, on the cell phone): Some TV show has a chicken. It's a chicken.
With celebrity elan, Crackers remained in the 35-foot "TV Nation" motor home he is touring in, oblivious to the controversy but surely hoping the turnout might help persuade Fox to extend the life of the show past its 8-week summer run.
When he did emerge, it was to raucous cheers. The fowl climbed, gingerly, aboard a five-foot high stone platform at Randolph and Clark Streets to do his orating.
"Any business that's taking more than its fair share, I want to know about it," said the "TV Nation" staffer who inhabits, anonymously, the Crackers costume. "When it comes to corporations, I am the thin yellow line!"
"Take a peck at Ameritech," read one placard.
"Stop landlord theft of tenant deposits," said another.
"Poultry power," said a third, a message that later became one of many chants tried out by the crowd, comprised mostly of under 25s and dotted with a few true believers gamely peddling a socialist newspaper.
Crackers leaned down and, sharing his microphone, let members of the crowd nominate what they considered corporate crimes. First National Bank of Chicago's $3 teller fee proved wildly unpopular. Several Ameritech policies were lambasted. A complaint about Commonwealth Edison's power outages during the killer heat wave prompted Crackers to respond, "That's a corporate crime."
Ticketmaster, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Social Club, cable TV companies, and anti-abortion groups that deceptively advertise as abortion clinics were among the others to draw fire.
"The movie 'Pocahontas'?" Crackers said, echoing a complaint. "Oh, that's a 'corporate faux pas,' according to this guy here."
"TV Nation" staff members vow that every promising tip will be checked out and the show will either do something about it (in Philadelphia, Crackers wroteJhqill banning outrageous bounced check fees that a state legislator pledged to introduce) or pass it on to someone who can.
The event wasn't all big-business gripes, though. One man groused about ballpark beer; another just wanted Crackers to get him an overdue paycheck.
"Let the owl speak," someone shouted.
"Oh," said Crackers. "There's an owl here. Hello, Mr. Owl."
"Give a hoot, don't pollute," squeaked the man dressed as Woodsy.
"Thank you," Crackers said. "Are there any other mascots here today?"
Irony, clearly, abounded. No one, from the chicken to his faithful to, certainly, the police, failed to recognize the silliness of seeking social justice from a man not only cross-species-dressing but doing it mostly to promote a TV program.
But the absurdity, while entertaining, played second fiddle to the sense that Crackers and his cause have exposed a throbbing nerve. Palpable were the crowd's anger toward monopolies, especially, and its sense of exhilaration at being able to strike back in a public way against them.
It's hard to imagine a television network like Fox having the courage to keep an apple-cart-upending show like "TV Nation" on its schedule. But if it doesn't--if it opts for yet another hour of formulaic pap instead--that, too, would be a corporate crime.
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