Can FOIA be funny? Curtis Raye thinks so. He has created a comedy show celebrating the quirky, off-the-wall records he and others have found through the Freedom of Information Act.
Raye, a writer and former improv teacher, says he created “FOIA Love: A Comedy Show About Public Records” after spending nearly a year working as a field organizer for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
He has performed the show in New York and Philadelphia and plans to make his Washington D.C. debut on Dec. 14. I interviewed Raye by email to find out more about the show, how he finds the records and whether he includes any of Clinton’s emails in his act.
When did you realize FOIA could be funny?
Most comedians draw inspiration from their everyday lives, and I realized the entire nation’s everyday lives turn up in public records. You just have to be patient and look in the right places.
Seinfeld made a career complaining about airline peanuts. Imagine what’s possible with all complaints from airline passengers found in an FAA FOIA request.
For my very first show, I was looking for celebrity FBI profiles to help demonstrate the sort of things you can find with FOIA. I didn’t need that part to be funny. Scanning Roberto Clemente’s file, I noticed one of his stalkers threatened to kill him, but Clemente didn’t open the letter until months after he was supposed to have been attacked. That struck me as funny (in a dark way, I know) and helped me realize the humor potential.
How did you get interested in FOIA?
I went to school in DC, interned at the FCC, and worked on the Iowa Caucuses. Records are just something I’ve always been around, though I can’t recall “my first time” with them.
But, I do know when I got hooked. Every FOIA requester remembers the first time they get an email from that mysterious rogue David P. Sobonya telling you the FBI has received your FOIPA request. Suddenly you feel like Woodward (or maybe Bernstein…I guess) and can’t rest til you read the whole document.
Tell me about your show. How did it get started? What can people expect if they come to the show? What’s next?
I moved from D.C. to New York to pursue comedy writing. After meeting enough funny people to cast in my own show, I created FOIA Love. Every few months, I rent a theater and reveal the most absurd things I’ve discovered. Sometimes comedians read word-for-word from documents. Sometimes, the premises are more complex. But it’s always based on public records.
It’s been performed in N.Y.C, Philadelphia, and now D.C. As I write this, I realize I’m slowly covering every place the Continental Congress has met. I hope that means I get invited to perform in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (They met there for one day.) It’s a well-known fact that Mennonites love comedy, especially if the show makes heavy use of PowerPoint. Plus isn’t Turkey Hill located there? I could FOIA request its ice cream recipe and bring the CEO on to explain which ingredient makes it taste so good. (My guess is it’s the turkey meat.)
If you come to the show, expect to see obscure documents presented in a funny way.
What’s next? Continue requesting documents. Continue doing shows. Hopefully, the D.C. show goes well and somebody thinks it’s a good idea to help me produce more down there. Poynter, you’ve got extra money in the budget, right?
How do you find the records you use in your show? Do you file FOIA requests yourself?
I also use items that other people have found. It’s important to know what else is out there to help guide you. After I learned that someone had requested FCC complaints about CBS and the Super Bowl, I wondered what people complain about when they watch Big Bang Theory and Mythbusters.
Sometimes a Google search is all you need. There are a lot of patent documents that pop up with simple searches.
I am indebted to Shawn Musgrave at Muckrock. He and I commiserate because we’re somehow both incredibly ashamed and incredibly proud to say we’ve scanned the obituaries to see whose FBI profile we are now legally able to request.
Do you have a favorite public record? What kinds of records are the funniest?
The ones that do best on stage are usually real people writing letters to the government. Those you can read in front of an audience word for word. If I don’t have that, then I come up with a creative way to present the information. For example: (That one uses some salty language.)
I like botched attempts at redaction. Trying to figure out who someone is based on context clues is my version of a Sudoku. I get quite a high when I discover the name of the person the government was trying to hide.
Many things involving J. Edgar Hoover are odd. There’s fan mail he’s written to baseball players. And I once had performers read a dozen letters sent to Hoover asking about the whereabouts of the long dead outlaw (or was he?) Jesse James. Hoover is quite responsive to citizens’ letters and very formal.
I read that you spent a year with Hillary’s 2008 campaign. Has that influenced your show? Do you include any of Hillary’s emails in your show?
Back then, I was mostly concerned with wooing old ladies in Le Mars, Iowa. (That’s the home of Blue Bunny ice cream. This interview had made me realize I know a bit too much about ice cream headquarters.)
My last show did open with a look at Hillary Clinton’s emails about gefilte fish. Remember those? That led me to search for previous secretaries of state who wrote emails about gefilte fish. Did you know that William Seward emailed Lincoln to say that “The Bering Sea is full of gefilte fish. I must buy Alaska!” (On occasion, I fabricate documents for humor. I know this will eventually lead to my Dan Rather moment, but I think that means Cate Blanchett would then play me in a movie. So, it’s worth it.)
What kind of response have you gotten to your show?
The #FOIAFriday hashtag is on board. That is an active, wonderful community.
On the way out of the show, most people say: “I didn’t know what to expect, but now I get it, and I can’t wait for the next one.” Also: “How long did that take? Are you getting enough sleep? We’re worried about you.”
What else would you like people to know?
The show on December 14 is not just a comedy show. In order to make it the most D.C. thing ever, the second half will have some amazing bluegrass music. On banjo will be Bennett Sullivan, who Steve Martin handpicked for his show Bright Star at the Kennedy Center (and Broadway after that).
“FOIA Love” is not me talking at you for 30 minutes. This show will feature some of D.C.’s funniest actors from Washington Improv Theater.
At the regular New York show, I bring in some of my friends from the Upright Citizens Brigade and we improvise scenes based on information found in actual arrest records. But we’re not doing that part in D.C. For that, you’ll have to come to New York.
Monday, December 14, 2015, 7:30 p.m.
Busboys & Poets
2021 14th St., NW