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Awful Truths

By Ellen Fox

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  Michael Moore, champion of the corporate damned and all-around damp, furry-looking guy, is getting fashion tips from an auditorium of 900 screaming fans.

"Leave it out! Leave it out!" people holler at the baseball-cap-topped mind behind "Roger and Me" and "TV Nation." But Moore, encouraged by a blonde near the front, tucks his shirt in over his broad slab of belly anyway.

"Have her tuck it in!" someone calls out, and the NPR-loving crowd starts up with the kind of whoops one hears on the "Rosie O'Donnell Show" when a fake-bashful heartthrob makes an offhand comment about his underpants.

Moore's holding court at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Herman Union auditorium for a few days. He's taping his new TV show for Bravo, "The Awful Truth," in Chicago, he tells the crowd, "because this is our part of the country." We clap and laugh as Moore sets up pre-recorded segments that are characteristically wicked and righteous - like a bit in which a chorus of larengectomy patients go Christmas caroling at tobacco companies. They're not all winners, though. People clearly feel uncomfortable with themselves for not being able to laugh harder at "Apartheid American Style." It's clear Moore draws a following that considers itself socially conscientious and funny as hell - which they try to prove during the final "Lightening Round," where audience members can jump up and ask Moore any question.

Some have merit - "Parker Pen downsizing in Janesville, will you come?" Many of the questioners, however, appear to believe that Moore knows something about pretty much everything - that in "looking out for the little guy," as one man puts it, he and his fans are in on the same unspoken joke, a joke Moore himself seems not to realize.

"If tobacco was meant to kill us, why don't you send a humidor of Cuban cigars to Pat Buchanan?" "Have you heard about Highway 55?" "Would you please stop pushing Amazon.com on your website and in your book, too?" "Could you free Mike Tyson?"

"Do we really need a billion dollar investment and three blades to get a close shave?" one guy giggles, utterly pleased with himself. Moore is stumped until someone explains Gillette's new Mach 3 razor concept to him.

The night - and the questions - wear thin, as more members of the audience query with the "he gets it, he really gets it" giddiness often seen in devotees of another mouthpiece for the disgruntled, Rush Limbaugh.

"What is 'The Awful Truth'?" someone finally hollers.

It is, perhaps, the chasm of conscience that lies between wanting to stick up for the little guys and wanting to spend your Saturday night with them.

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