It’s not clear what to call the two longtime political activists and pranksters The Yes Men. Since forming in the late ’90s — when they set up a satirical George W. Bush website that pissed off George W. Bush — they’ve gone by Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. In reality they’re Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos. Over the last few years they’ve been billed as both. When asked what they prefer, Servin shrugs and says, “It doesn’t matter. Maybe we should make up some new names.” “I’ve got a weird, funny name: Sepp Blatter,” Vamos adds.
The shift to a more forthright outlook is in keeping with Servin and Vamos’ third film, “The Yes Men Are Revolting,” a doc that — unlike previous entries “The Yes Men” (2003) and “The Yes Men Fix the World” (2009) — actually includes glimpses of their personal lives. The film, which includes stunts involving global warming and their embrace of Occupy Wall Street, finds them trying to keep up their shtick in the face of middle age and fear that their projects don’t always have the desired impact. Servin, Vamos and their co-director Laura Nix spoke to us about the evolving face of political activism and comedy.
Were you two reluctant to get personal?
Igor Vamos: It was a challenge doing the personal stuff. You want to figure out which parts of your life are private and which parts are OK to go public. There are those around you who feel affected in one way or the other. It was very soon after we finished the last film that we started talking about how, if we’re putting together another film, it had to be different. It had to be something where we’re making more of a connection with the viewer and making ourselves more human and more present as characters.
Laura Nix: Their films show them as cartoon characters, in a way. They’re superheroes taking over the world. It’s harder to be vulnerable. It’s harder to show having doubt. It’s not funny to have doubt, necessarily. There was this fear that if we included this will the movie be funny enough? But you end up feeling a lot because you get to go on this journey with them, and experience some of the doubts and struggles. They become three-dimensional people, instead of the superheroes they were in other films.
There’s been this groundswell of movements that have not been afraid to take to the streets — the kind of engagement you’ve been trying to encourage with your work.
Jacques Servin: It’s an exciting moment because there is this recent history that goes into new movements. The energy of Occupy I think has infused the Black Lives Matter movement, which is much bigger and much more universal. And it will keep going. Social movements that really change things to so over a period of 10 or 12 years. We’re kind of at the beginning still.
That isn’t always isn’t easy to process. You want change instantaneously.
Servin: That’s what this film is trying to be about. If things don’t happen immediately they may seem to fail. But they succeed cumulatively. You have to have that attitude that individual actions aren’t really what it’s about. I mean, it is what it’s about, but that’s not all there is. They don’t succeed by themselves; they succeed as part of a movement.
Social media has played a major part in encouraging movements, but the pranks you’ve been doing for over 15 years have very much played to its strengths. You want to make an impact, go viral, etc.
Servin: We just wrote a piece for The Guardian about that, actually. [Laughs] We say it’s nothing new. Social media is just a tool. It’s just one of the new tools we’ve got.