Writer and director Frank Lesser is the creative mastermind behind Lie Girls, the rightwing phone-sex hotline, Pleasure Boat Captains for Truth, which engaged in a naval battle with the the Swift Boat Vets, and Flora Bush: The Child Left Behind, the debut album from Bush's unsung daughter.
Age, occupation, where are you from, where are you now?
I'm a 25-year-old writer/director/freelancer from Columbus, Ohio, currently living in Brooklyn. I have a friend who thinks his Midwestern background makes him more authentic than native New Yorkers, but for me it just means I can trick native New Yorkers into thinking I'm more authentic. "Gosh, sir, what's irony?"
Flora Bush, the child left behind. Explain!
Flora's the third Bush twin, the daughter the President has been hiding all these years because she's a Democrat. Only now, like lots of other rich kids with famous relatives and questionable talent, she's released a pop music album, The Child Left Behind. There's a music video for her first single, "Get Out of Iraq (and My Room)," and there are three other songs on the EP-- "All Alone (Like the USA)," "Y Do U Lie 2 Me, Dad-E?," and "Puppies and Landmines."
Who is the singer/actress playing Flora? The band responsible for the music?
Flora Bush is played by Karen Weinberg, a very funny actress/singer I directed in a play this spring. There was no actual band--the song producers created the backing tracks themselves, or with the help of the songwriters and session musicians. I wrote the lyrics, except for "All Alone (Like the USA)," which I co-wrote with Karen. Jeff Solomon wrote the music to "Get Out of Iraq (and My Room)," which was produced by Erik Desiderio (who was in LA), and Jeff and Karen wrote the music to "All Alone (Like the USA)," which was produced by Andrew Felluss (in Times Square). The music for "Y Do U Lie 2 Me, Daddy?" was written by Robert Edridge Waks and produced by DJ N-Ron Hubbard. I wrote the music for "Puppies and Landmines" with that song's producer, Jon Niborg Speier. This was a very complicated project. Even the songwriters had too many names.
Do you think, if George saw the Flora parody, he'd laugh? Or be confused?
I think he'd be impressed I knew his great-grandmother's name.
How did the Lie Girls come about? Pleasure Boat Capts?
A few months before the election, I put my non-political short film "Danny Bot" online and ended up getting a decent response. But most of my work at the time was about politics, since that was all I could think about (if you're a humorist and you're slowly being boiled alive, your humor will be variations on the theme of a man being boiled alive). Around the time of the Swift Boat Veterans, a friend suggested the basic idea--the title--for "Pleasure Boat Captains for Truth". I think he still wants to remain anonymous, but if you look through old Gothamist archives, and follow the clues I've been carefully planting throughout this interview, you'll figure it out.
Lie Girls was my most successful online project. I did it with a very talented friend, Jason Woliner, who was also doing political videos at the time. We had about a month to go before the election, and I wanted to either put together a fake phone sex video with girls spouting Republican talking points or do the whole Flora Bush thing then, but we didn't have enough time for that (and I also didn't know Karen at the time).
I'd like to mention that I don't really consider myself a political satirist. I'd rather make a film about sad robots or write a humor piece about historically black clown colleges [http://www.franklesser.com/clowncollege.html ]. I'll do topical stuff because it's easier to sell, and sometimes it's all I can think about--like this and this. Probably what I like doing most of all is finding ways to work all of my online projects into interview responses. (Here , also here.) If nothing else, it saves people a trip to my website.
Your parodies come in many media, combining albums, videos, web sites, and even telephone hotlines. How do you approach each work?
I try to put together fake things as if they're real. With LieGirls.com, we felt it was important to have a real working fake phone sex line, not just a fake phone sex ad, so I wrote up a bunch of absurd pro-Bush scripts and had actresses purr and moan them. (The phone number doesn't work anymore, but you can still listen online) With Flora Bush, I wanted to actually produce a 4-song EP, since that's what a real aspiring pop star would do. And when Jason and I put together our fake viral marketing campaign, we made sure there was a real behind-the-scenes interview with the musician who was supposed to be behind-the-scenes of the whole thing. My basic philosophy is that, even if people aren't that into the final product, they should at least be impressed by the effort.
Between Lie Girls and Pleasure Boat Captains, your work received a lot of press election-time. What was that like for you? What do you wish you could have used that attention for?
I've spent the past month or so sorting through my life's regrets, so I'm ready to answer this question in excruciating detail. Three weeks before last year's election, I made the mistake of going to the Austin Film Festival, which was screening "Danny Bot," so we didn't have Lie Girls up until the final week before the election. If we'd gotten it up a week earlier, it might have been even bigger-- but really, it's not much of a regret, since the site ended up being very popular. CBS News played a few clips from Lie Girls on Election Day, Good Morning America played a bit of the first "Pleasure Boat Captains for Truth" ad. Both sites had a pretty good amount of other press attention and millions of visitors. Of course, ideally and idealistically, I was hoping the videos would change the world. Or at least make me rich and famous. But only so I could then change the world. Like Bono.
Who are your favorite political satirists (or what are your favorite satires)?
I don't think I differentiate between satire and other forms of comedy. For me, the definition of satire is too limiting, or maybe all humor is satire, or maybe I need to look up the word. I like The Daily Show and South Park and The Simpsons, but I like the less political South Park episodes just as much as the overtly political ones, and I liked The Simpsons best back when they never left Springfield. I love the movie Election by Alexander Payne, but I don't consider it straight satire. Strangers with Candy is brilliant-- and okay, yeah, it was sort of satire, I guess. I'm just going to list things now--you tell me if it's satire: George Saunders and Roald Dahl short stories, Bringing Up Baby, Mr. Show, Ghostbusters (a satire of being afraid of no ghosts).
What's happening at Jest magazine?
They're web-only now, although I'm afraid they might move soon to imagination-only and exist only in our memories. I used to write for them pretty regularly, but I don't really know what's going on anymore. If they want any advice, here's what I learned from putting stuff online: there are thousands of bitter, lonely people on the internet. This is a very important part of your audience.
What's up next for Frank Lesser?
I'm thinking of becoming either a famous novelist or a famous film director. Can't make up my mind. Flora will probably be my last online video for a while, unless someone starts paying me to make them. I'm reworking several short stories, and beginning work on a novel. I'm always looking for more freelance writing/directing/editing work, and I'd love to direct real music videos. I'm hoping to use an interview on a website to accomplish these goals.
So, you were recently mugged. What's that like?
I was having an awful week, so the mugging was nice because it made everything else seem so much better in comparison. Incidentally, if my muggers are reading this, come on, just ask your victims for their money. There's no need to get violent, especially if your victim is weak and from Ohio. Also, if you're reading this, you're much more internet-savvy than I expected. Next time, instead of you beating me up and taking my phone, let's go out for tea and talk about vlogs.
Best celebrity encounter on the streets of NYC?
"If you're suggesting a father wouldn't love his daughter because she had different political views, then yes, it might be offensive." This is what Chelsea Clinton told me when I told her about Flora Bush, and then asked her, as a former first daughter, to speak for all first daughters and tell me if it sounded offensive. Normally, I wouldn't approach someone like that (I don't usually approach strangers, and I don't confuse celebrity for familiarity), but it was right before I was about to shoot the music video, and I thought that maybe it was just a girl who looked like Chelsea--in which case I was going to ask her to be in the video. Anyway, Chelsea, if you're reading this, and you've seen the video--was it offensive?
Favorite bar or restaurant?
Hunan Delight in Park Slope has great chicken with mixed vegetables and soft tofu with mixed vegetables. Oddly, they also have a flashy Flash-based website. I'm going to tell them that I mentioned them in this interview, and hopefully they'll print it out and put it in the window, so that way, whenever I walk in, I'll see myself recommending them and won't have second thoughts. Also, Russ and Daughters--great herring.
Best bargain to be found in the city?
Century 21 for all-cotton socks. If you know about that, you will grow up to be the happiest old person in New York. Also, Central Park, which is free. And, for THE BEST HERRING IN THE WORLD, Russ and Daughters.
Who's the New Yorkiest New Yorker in town?
Fiorella Laguardia, and not just because of the airport. I'm surprised he doesn't run for mayor. Really, I don't follow New York society enough to answer this--probably someone much cooler than I'll ever be, with collar shorn off completely while the rest of us are still flipping ours up. Or, based on my answers to the last two questions, I'd say myself, if an Ohioan can be the New Yorkiest, and if "New Yorkiest" really means "Jewiest." Herring is both healthy and delicious!
Any advice for Mayor Bloomberg?
It's not advice, but here's something I've always wanted to do. Under cover of darkness, I'd like to erect a larger-than-life-sized statue of Mayor Bloomberg in a Manhattan park, maybe along the Literary Walk in Central Park, or near the often-overlooked Gandhi statue in Union Square Park. That's all. And not tell anyone about it or anything. So unsuspecting New Yorkers would come upon the statue and be like, "What?," and then when they looked at the inscription, it would say only, "Mayor Michael Bloomberg." Actually, if anyone else wants to do this, go ahead, I probably never will. Just make sure it's a super-realistic sculpture. Also, optionally, every half hour, have the statue say, in Bloomberg's voice (or a close approximation), "Welcome to New York. I hope you enjoy looking at my statue."