Banking on Humor for Financial Reform

Ron Howard’s “SNL” presidents video is latest economic laugher-with-a-cause

Ron Howard isn’t generally considered a political filmmaker, like, say, Oliver Stone (“Frost/Nixon” and his clashes with the Catholic Church over “The Da Vinci Code” aside). But Howard's taken to the Internet twice now to produce funny video shorts with a cause.

In 2008, he dusted off his long-dormant Opie and Richie Cunningham guises to team with Andy Griffith and Henry Winkler in a video backing Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. His latest – a Funny or Die piece with nearly every “Saturday Night Live” performer to impersonate a president over the last 35 years (Jim Carrey stood in for the late Phil Hartman as Ronald Reagan) debuted last week, notching more than 2.4 million hits so far.

The cause this time: better regulation of credit card companies and banks.

Howard’s hilarious short comes just over two months after Arianna Huffington began using her Huffington Post site and connections to promote a YouTube video that uses another entertainment icon – “It’s a Wonderful Life” – to hit big banks.

So can Opie and Arianna rock Wall Street?

In Howard’s video, the Obamas (Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph) are visited by the ghosts of presidents past: Reagan, Ford (Chevy Chase), Carter (Dan Aykroyd) Bush I (Dana Carvey), Clinton (Darrell Hammond) and Bush II (Will Ferrell) – all of whom exhort him to push hard for stronger credit card and banking regulations.

“Well, I’ve come back as a spirit to help Mr. Reach Across the Aisles here to grow a pair,” Carrey as Reagan declares.

This was no “SNL” skit: the video was made in support of Americans for Financial Reform and the Main Street Brigade, which are demanding the creation of a consumer financial protection agency. The idea is kicking around the Senate Banking Committee.

"All [the video is] meant to do is capture the attention, present a question and stimulate some thought," Howard told The Associated Press.

Huffington’s video, which debuted at the end of December, isn’t as entertaining, and is decidedly less subtle. She uses a mashup of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and recent news footage to encourage Americans to move their money from big banks to small ones – portraying the more humble operators as kin to George Bailey’s noble building and loan.

While the video has received less than one-quarter the views as the new Howard short, her effort – tied to a movement with the bluntly imperative title “Move Your Money” – might be having an effect. Pollster John Zogby, in his latest Forbes column, notes that one of his surveys shows nine percent of Americans have moved at least some of their money from big banks in protest of perceived Wall Street greed.

Huffington has been promoting the plan across the media, most recently on Friday’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” the humor-driven, irreverent talk show whose host supports the effort. “I’m the face of this,” comedian Maher said Friday, almost sheepishly.

Both the Howard and Huffington videos, to differing extents, blur the lines between satire and advocacy. Both show the growing power of the Internet as an informational and organizing tool. And the shorts use images of entertainment's past to tap in to the tenor of tough present times, seemingly across party lines.

While Howard and Huffington come from a liberal viewpoint, not too many folks – including Tea Party acolytes – are crazy about Wall Street these days.

Which brings us right to the right. With Sarah Palin using her Facebook page to make pronouncements, hobnobbing with the Oscar crowd last week, talking to "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett about a reality show and cracking jokes on “The Tonight Show,” can an Internet video be far behind? Meanwhile, check out the Howard and Huffington shorts below – and tell us what you think.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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