Josh Kumler's Bar Politics Serves Dallas Politics With Jokes and Beer
Josh Kumler, photographed at Chi Film Studios.
A secret but common belief among political professionals here is that only people over 60 really care about local politics, and all they want is more stop signs.
Yet here we are on a very warm summer evening at The Foundry, an indoor/outdoor bar that shares a small repurposed industrial campus with a restaurant called Chicken Scratch. More than 200 people, more young than old, are either laughing or listening intently while a small company of actors in their early 20s go one by one to a stage made of shipping pallets to deliver satiric monologues on local urban political issues.
Some of the material is hilarious. Some of it may miss the mark, but what's remarkable is the scene. Somebody has put together an experience or vibe this audience plainly loves. Called "Bar Politics," this performance is part Daily Show, part talent show, part medieval morality play, and everybody on and off stage is drinking a lot of beer.
Is this, the satire and the beer, a cleverly designed magic formula dreamed up by unseen consultants to get people under 60 involved in local politics? The impresario who put it together, Josh Kumler, 23, a 2014 SMU theater graduate, says not really. He says his goal all along was to be Jon Stewart.
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One afternoon over artisanal soda at Bolsa Mercado in North Oak Cliff, Kumler says, "How long had the dream of being the next Jon Stewart been in my head? Basically since I started watching the show years and years ago."
For Kumler, who pays his rent with a job in a chocolate shop and paid acting gigs, the Stewart part was not a huge re>ach. Like most of the Bar Politics troupe, Kumler is a recent product of the SMU-Meadows theater program and owns some serious acting chops. But to be Jon Stewart, Kumler needed something to be Jon Stewart about.
He says the idea of doing local politics flowed from various streams of experience, mostly related to leaving school and moving from the leafy, tony, Park Cities preserve of SMU to the raw, do-it-yourself precincts of North Oak Cliff, land of latte-sipping cyclists where nonchalant sophistication rises from rough-edged urban roots.
For Kumler, who grew up in an affluent South Florida suburb, North Oak Cliff, where people tend to walk or bike more than drive, is heaven.
"I moved into an apartment right down the street [from Bolsa Mercado]. I walked over here today. I live just behind The Kessler [a hot performance venue in a rescued old movie theater].
"I got a copy of The Advocate on my doorstep, and there was an editorial by Rick Wamre [the publisher] about how they were going to be covering the City Council elections even though nobody cares about it.
"I'm thinking, 'What elections? No shit.'"
Continuing his journey into the arcane, Kumler read stories in The Advocate about the Trinity River toll road, a 20-year-old proposal to build an expressway through the center of the city, practically on top of the river, in an area opponents want to save for use as a linear park. It struck a chord.
The toll road idea seemed to involve taking territory away from walkers and cyclists and turning it over instead to cars and trucks, a scheme Kumler found incomprehensibly stupid.
He says he was never terribly interested in the aura of conspiracy swirling around the project — who was going to make money and who was going to get bilked. He was more struck by what a manifestly dumb idea it was no matter who made the money.
"I'm so unknowledgeable about this, so maybe I'm being naïve, but with the tollway what I see is less about certain people trying to cut deals to make a bunch of money off getting a big contract [than] it's about just ineffective bureaucracy not being farsighted enough to realize the consequences."
And there he was, armed with the desire and training to be the local Jon Stewart, now in possession of a trove of stupid, absurd local news to work with. He began texting SMU acting friends, none of whom knew anything about the toll road but all of whom loved the idea of doing a fake news show.
The first installment of Bar Politics was on last April Fool's Day before an overflow crowd on the outdoor stage behind The Wild Detectives bookstore-cum-bar in North Oak Cliff. The show featured a cameo appearance by Oak Cliff City Council member Scott Griggs, who is 40.
Griggs loved it. "I was just blown away by how good Josh and his whole troupe were," he says.
The Bar Politics actors did impersonations that night of local political figures who would be utterly obscure to most people but are very familiar to Griggs — former mayor Tom Leppert, Woodbine Development (Hunt Oil) executive John Scovell, Dallas Citizens Council President Alice Murray and others.
"The impersonations were hilarious," Griggs says. "Alice Murray was hilarious. It was so funny. Somehow, even though they haven't had much interaction with all these people, they really nailed them. I couldn't stop laughing, because it was like they were right there."
The funniest bit, he thought, involved an impersonation of Michael Morris, a regional planning official who is the top wonk-defender of the toll road project. In his real-life speeches, Morris touts the proposed toll road as a way to speed commuting through downtown. But the Bar Politics group dug up the fact that under ideal circumstances the toll road will boost commuters' speeds there at the underwhelming rate of 2 mph. That gave them an idea.
The Wild Detectives' stage and audience area are bounded on the back by an alley. While an actor on stage gave an adrenalized portrayal of Morris, delivering actual quotations from Morris' recorded speeches, another member of the company drove an automobile down the alley behind the audience at 2 mph.
"It was so funny," Griggs says, "with Michael Morris getting all pumped about the transportation savings he was achieving and this car just barely moving down the alley."
Even though the Bar Politics people were obviously new to the subject matter in particular and to local politics in general, Griggs found nothing naïve or ill-informed in what they presented. He saw an intelligent freshness of perspective that may even have been helped by the fact they were not political veterans.
"It was informative and it was, for me, so funny because who would even know who Scovell is or Alice Murray? But they had them just nailed. It was dead on, and then they were able to explain such complex issues so simply. It was just amazing."
In early June when they did their second show at the Hickory Street Annex in East Dallas, both the crowd and the material had expanded, this time including monologues and small skits that didn't always try to be funny.
Stephen Gardner, who partners with Kumler on much of the writing, delivered a hilarious account of his efforts at doing some actual reporting on downtown homelessness:
"I went to the tent city to interview the residents there, to get them to sell me on their swell setup. However, when I drove by there, twice, both times I was too scared to actually [get out of the car], because the entire middle class, white American thing that got me in the car in the first place to go interview real people for a fake news show to acknowledge their tragedy could only go so far."
Elizabeth Berkman gave a short but stinging account of code words and dog-whistle terms city officials use for black people, Hispanics and white people when they're talking about segregation but don't want to admit it. It was as well received as Gardner's piece though with more applause than laughter.
Berkman, 23, a program manager for a nonprofit by day, concedes she is not a regular newspaper reader, even though The New York Times was delivered to her parents' home, nor does she watch television news. In order to write her piece on racism in housing policy, she had to approach it as a de novo research project.
"All my research was either online or talking with people," she said. "There are several people in our group who are already pretty savvy."
Presumably the online research took her back to some of those dinosaur media newspaper stories she didn't read when they came out, since, somewhere somehow, somebody has to do the original reporting. But she got to the reporting her way, which was not by turning inky pages.
Just as Griggs found at The Wild Detectives performance, none of the performances at Hickory Street Annex or later at The Foundry came off as lame. The audience, whether slapping their thighs and guffawing or sitting at attention as if about to start taking notes, always managed to look interested.
Josh Kumler and Bar Politics perform their version of The Daily Show at The Foundry. The jokes are hit or miss, but the target is unique.
Doug Sorrell-Beauchamp, 24, an advertising salesman by day, is also a partner in a startup company called Culture Nugget Media, devoted to finding and aggregating local original culture and putting it online in order to sell advertising around it. He says the success of Bar Politics, which his company is filming, shows that young people can be interested in good stories that are well told, but maybe not so much in stories the way traditional mass media tell them.
"Our generation, the millennials," he says, "now more than ever are cutting the cable cord. They're not plugging into broadcast. Everything now, the way we consume media is different. Everything is moving to the Internet."
They are not migrating away from news, he says, so much as finding ways to wire around the traditional purveyors of news, a phenomenon now called cord-cutting or, for those who have never watched TV news in the first place, cord-nevering. Obviously the cord-cutters and neverers find their way back to a lot of traditional print and broadcast media, simply consuming it online rather than in the original published or broadcast form.
But something in that process — perhaps the fact that anybody with an Internet connection now is a reporter, pundit, author and film star, at least in his own mind — dethrones the once powerful purveyors and arbiters of old-line media and gives people the idea anybody can do it.
An important element of the cord-cutting and nevering culture, Sorrell-Beauchamp says, is an appetite for original content. At first Sorrell-Beauchamp and his partners in Culture Nugget Media thought they would have to produce a lot of content themselves in order to have something to sell. But they had in mind a very definite brand and a profile. They didn't want to sell porn, cute cat videos, animal fights, just anything people would click on.
"We wanted to put on [a] performance and document it. We wanted it to be meaningful. We wanted to engage our audiences in something that wasn't click-bait. We wanted to start a conversation.
"When we first started the brand, we wanted to build the brand around stories, because we believe that stories connect us. It was all about creating meaning through stories and engaging a younger generation in stuff that matters."
While they were still wondering what to produce themselves, along came Bar Politics and its cousin, Shakespeare in the Bar, which, believe it or not, is what it says — productions of Shakespeare in bars (See: "New Kids on the Block" Page 21). Culture Nugget Media decided to focus early efforts on filming those performances instead of trying to produce its own. Hence, on the evening of the Bar Politics performance at The Foundry, here he is, camera rig on shoulder, filming the audience as much as he is the show on stage.
This performance focuses on a topic that might seem even more obscure than transportation planning — the effect the ongoing session of the Texas Legislature is having on lives of people in Dallas. While Kumler sits at one end of the shipping pallet stage behind a desk, providing Stewart-like commentary, half a dozen performers take to the other end one at a time to inform the audience of what's been going on in Austin.
They get their best laughs and broadest expressions of amazement simply by performing direct quotations from the legislators. Alia Tavakolian, 25, who works for a small business in Deep Ellum by day, another SMU theater graduate borrowed from Shakespeare in the Bar, has drawn the enviable or not enviable task, depending, of portraying freshman legislator Molly White of Belton, who in real life earned notoriety almost as soon as she set foot in the capitol as the newly elected Republican state representative from Belton.
"I placed an Israeli flag on the reception desk in my office," Tavakolian says with a fair rendering of a Belton accent, "with directions to my staff to ask every representative from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly pronounce allegiance to America and our laws."
The lines straight from White's mouth inspire much head-shaking and muttering, a few gasps and a little bit of laughter. But the audience goes quiet when Tavakolian wraps her head in a scarf.
Kumler says, "Alia, what's this one? Why the chador?"
"Maybe," she says in her own voice and seriously, "because my family came to Texas from the Islamic Republic of Iran or maybe because I am a proud American who went to school while married and now lives and works in the great state of Texas, and who happens to also have a family full of members of the Islamic faith.
"I am embarrassed by the bad behavior from both sides of the aisle in our capitol. The term, the title, legislator, is a weighty one that should not be synonymous with clown or heartless asshole."
Shouts of "Yeah!" rise up from beer-drinkers at crowded picnic tables around the stage — an unfunny but powerful moment.
Meanwhile The Foundry waitstaff keeps the beer coming, those well-iced frosty-gray bottles dancing out through the crowd on trays as if the beer itself were the chorus line. As more is consumed, the guffaws get more awesome.
Kumler says that's all part of the plan. He thinks a big part of getting unmarried 20-somethings interested is convincing them that local politics can offer some even very tangential chance of getting laid.
Not all the politics — or jokes — were laugh-worthy at The Foundry.
In the audience at The Foundry with his wife is Brandon Castillo, who was one of the Dallas Observer's "100 Creatives" in 2014, a 33-year-old serial entrepreneur, proprietor of the Deep Ellum Outdoor Market, the Deep Ellum Food Truck Rally, FilipinoFest, TacoFest and more. Castillo also is president of the Dallas Homeowners League, signaling a major break from that organization's fusty, very North Dallas conservative past.
Castillo has been around — college in California, teaching in Spain — and assumed when he came back to Dallas it would be temporary. "I told myself when I moved back to Dallas almost a decade ago I would stay here for like six months, live with my parents and then go down to Austin, because everybody goes to Austin. But all my friends were living in Lower Greenville, Munger Place, around here, and I was like, fuck Austin, man, everything I want is right here, so I'm not leaving."
Part of the appeal of Bar Politics for him is the sense of gathering and common experience it affords. "Some people blame the media or movies or video games for young people or millennials' disengagement. Another major factor in my opinion is our built environment. We do not have enough places for community to gather."
Bar Politics' sense of community is more important to him than some of its admittedly ragged production values. "I am very appreciative of their just being able to put on the show and just being able to put forth the content and not necessarily concerned with how slick it looks.
"These are people that are taking time out of their lives to produce something like this because they think it's important, and that kind of sentiment means a lot more to me than whether or not they got their lines right."
Berkman, who did the racial dog-whistle bit at Hickory Street and also does Shakespeare in the Bar, thinks bars can be wonderful venues for some things but not for everything. Based on her origins, Berkman is a Jewish-Episcopal-Baptist-Hispanic-American. This spring her autobiographical one-woman show, My Sweet Bat-ceanera, was chosen for inclusion in the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival at WaterTower Theater, where it was favorably reviewed by Mark Lowry for Theater Jones.
Lowry called it a deeply personal, funny but not-so-funny expression of what it's like to have identities imposed on you by people who can't quite figure out your stereotype.
Berkman says that show, which requires a lot of personal vulnerability, might not work in a bar: "I don't know if I would want to perform that specific piece. I don't know that as many levels can be reached in that setting, in terms of ideas or questions, as in a theater."
Sorrell-Beauchamp and his partners in Culture Nugget Media are prowling all of it, from Facebook posts to shows in bars to local theater, looking for cultural treasure. That culture may be spun through skeins of tweets and Snapchats or produced boldly and pre-digitally by a Kumler and Bar Politics, but it's all there somewhere, they believe, rewiring itself around the old channels. The trick is finding the new ones.
Sorrell-Beauchamp points out that even the traditional television shows his age-group does watch — The Daily Show, for example — tend to be watched as streamed content online rather than as broadcast TV. It's an issue that was discussed in a New York Times story August 6, a date now etched in memory as Jon Stewart's Last Day.
The Times reported that Stewart's ratings had been sinking for three years: "The viewership in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic, at 725,000 viewers a night, is at its lowest in 11 years, according to data from Nielsen," the paper reported.
But Doug Herzog, president of Viacom Music and Entertainment Group, owners of Comedy Central and The Daily Show, offered a quick rejoinder: Given all the young people who have taken up watching The Daily Show as streaming Internet content, Herzog said, "Jon's probably more impactful than ever."
Castillo, the serial entrepreneur, sees a linkage between the kind of rewired, do-it-yourself culture that Culture Nugget is looking for and involvement in local politics.
"I like to think, with my urban activism, they end up coming hand in hand," he says. "We are a dissatisfied community that sees a lot of potential in this city."
Getting involved in a neighborhood, taking on City Hall: Those things offer the same satisfaction, he believes, as authoring a viral Facebook post or performing onstage at The Foundry. In a cacophonous world, it's the simple joy of being heard.
"Your one single vote has so much power," he says. "My Facebook feed is full of national politics, but the unfortunate part about national politics is that your voice doesn't carry nearly as much significance there as in local politics."
City councilman Griggs says he gets that and thinks it's why the Oak Cliff neighborhoods he represents are becoming generators of new original culture as well as grassroots political involvement. "People in North Oak Cliff have a real sense of community," he says, "and people get involved in local politics here."
Castillo says getting out to things like Bar Politics and getting involved in neighborhood and city issues can also be a simple survival technique if you intend to live in Dallas. "I tell people, 'You gotta find Dallas,' cause Dallas ain't gonna find you.'"
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