Last night, Glenn Beck continued what is becoming a holiday tradition for him: A high-priced national movie theater simulcast, although this year he dropped the holiday pretense of 2009's "The Christmas Sweater." This time, the ostensible theme was Beck's latest tome -- "Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth and Treasure" -- and while the centerpiece at Pittsburgh's Benedum Center was supposed to be a restored 1965 Mustang (I'll try to explain later) the central prop became a massive sandwich from the Steel City institution Primanti Brothers, beef slathered in cole slaw and French fries. It was supposed to symbolize the federal budget apparently, but it seemed a fitting metaphor for the entire Beckian extravaganza: overly stuffed yet offering only empty calories and, most likely, a severe case of indigestion for anyone not accustomed to a right-wing diet larded with misinformation.
The oversized sandwich offered Beck and his audience -- at 537 theatres across America as well as in Pittsburgh -- a chance to devour the red meat that it seemed to enjoy the most: Jokes about Michelle Obama. When the Fox News Channel and radio right-winger first shoved the sandwich toward the camera, he called it "Michelle Obama's worst nightmare" -- not unfunny, given the First Lady's anti-obesity crusade -- but later Beck piled it on, saying to loud applause that "I don't care if she's the Queen of Sheba, or I don't care if she's a Republican, but I don't need the First Lady to tell me what to eat or if I'm fat." By the end of the night, he somehow compared Michelle Obama to Darth Vader.
Meanwhile, one thing that did lose a little weight last night was the collective wallets of Beck's biggest fans. In Pittsburgh, attendees paid $90.50 for the privilege of seeing their hero in person, grossing close to $250,000 for Beck Inc. At the multiplex, tickets were $20, or nearly double the cost of seeing "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1." At the multiplex near the King of Prussia mall where I watched, the showing drew more than 100 people and nearly filled the theater -- a fairly impressive turnout considering "Broke" was competing with a Thursday night game for the Philadelphia Eagles, our civic obsession. (Assuming that this was an average turnout -- past Beck simulcasts have done poorly in big cities but sold out in the Sunbelt -- the gross would have been more than $1 million, a reminder that the real-life Beck has been anything but "Broke" during this period of economic hardship for many.) If you've followed Beck's rise, I probably don't need to tell you that the crowd was largely older and all or mostly white -- a 29-year-old CPA that I spoke with joked that he was the youngest person there, except he probably wasn't joking.
Fans of irony should also note that the theater showing the Beck event still had the sign up for "Megamind."
Beck's presentation -- which clocked in at more than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission -- was not rocket science, or even Econ 101. (Another metaphor was that Beck performed with his shirt not tucked in, perhaps symbolizing his notorious casual approach to preparation?) "Broke" is the remnant of something that Beck cooked up last spring called "The Plan," which was going to be the centerpiece of his Aug. 28 Restoring Honor rally in D.C. and then it wasn't, except he went ahead and released it as a book anyway...follow me so far? When he'd offered "The Plan" on TV, Beck brought in experts promising massive fiscal pain, such as privatizing Medicare, but last night he didn't want to ruin the holiday good feeling so he skimped on any such specifics.
His obligatory chalkboard session instead focused largely on a tortured comparison of the Greek economy and its role in the European Union with the troubled economy of California, based largely on its size and with any broader explanation of how California's situation might be similar or different to Greece, or what, if anything, that meant for his paying audience. (The lecture did offer Beck numerous opportunities to insult various European nations, finally asking the lead camera to pan in so he could declare that "France sucks." Big applause followed.)
Most of what followed would be familiar to regular watchers of Beck's program on Fox, which no doubt 99 percent of them were. For example:
-- Several gratuitous references to the coming "hyperinflation"? Check, even though his long-time warnings about hyperinflation have not come close to materializing.
-- A disconnected riff on the need for people to be prepared for what's coming down the pike including food storage? Check -- and not surprising considering that one of Beck's major sponsors is a company called Food Insurance. (Said Beck: "FDR said there was 'nothing to fear but fear itself'' -- bullcrap. Be prepared.")
-- A convoluted blackboard explanation of political trends and philosophies that allowed Beck to draw a chalk line between "nationalism" and "socialism" and suggest that somehow, somewhere in the world, "National Socialism" is coming back, although where these new Nazis are located was a little unclear. He did suggest at one other point that the German people are getting fed up with the debts of other European nations and that German nationalism is returning -- "not good, not good."
Somewhere in there he mentioned the Volkswagen and added."I'm trying to remember who started the Volkswagen...oh, I know, Hitler!" Of course, it wouldn't be a Glenn Beck performance without a gratuitous reference or two to the Nazi leader, along with Bill Ayers and Van Jones and Mao (whom he claimed gave people numbers instead of names, which may be true but I couldn't find it on Google) and the 1960s ("they lost"). These references are becoming the equivalent now of catch phases on a long-running sit-com -- Beck's version of "what chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"
There were also the usual malapropisms -- a chalkboard explanation of the "5000-year leap" from 5000 B.C. to the American Constitution in 1791, which would be 6,791 years by my calculation, and later a riff on how Americans don't know the Constitution was built around a citation of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," from the Declaration of Independence. And there were also props, including the Mustang convertible that was somehow supposed to represent the U.S. Constitution in a way that was never well explained. A one point he asked his "economics guru" David Buckner to sit in the Mustang and then everyone forgot about him for a long stretch, perhaps a more apt metaphor.
Indeed, most of the post-intermission half of the show was Beck's rambling 12-step schtick. "I was was going to talk to you guys about 'Broke,'"he said at the beginning of that segment, "but it's all politics." Indeed, and what a downer that would have been -- scaring away the paying customers with real information about the national debt and about what might really fix the ailing economy.
Ultimately, the "Broke" simulcast served the same two functions as any Beck event. For the audience, it was simply a chance to see and be seen by like-minded people, to feel the emotional rush (no pun intended) that they get most nights on the solitude of their living room couch in a group encounter. "Just to be with the people," Steve Murphy of Malvern told me afterward. "Just listening on the radio and TV you don't get that." And for Beck, it's a group therapy practice that's still very lucrative indeed -- making sure that unlike some of his ardent fans, he will not be "Broke" in 2011.