Jimmy McMillan’s wacky performance in this week's New York gubernatorial debate – in which he managed to overshadow GOP loose canon Carl Paladino, a former madam and frontrunner Andrew Cuomo – would seem like natural fodder for Auto-Tune the News.
But before the folks who gave us the "Bed Intruder Song" could spring to action, McMillan recorded a song that now greets visitors to his The Rent is Too Damn High Party's website: “Rent too damn high is my thing/Jimmy McMillan is my name.”
The tune is quickly becoming popular – as are the viral video of his debate routine (more than 2 million views in two days) and a funny, strangely touching mash-up of McMillan’s voice and the great Disney-Pixar film "Up" that’s building a YouTube following.
You can take all this, at least in part, as signs of the power of the Internet to create non-celebrity celebrities and an electorate badly in need of some laughs. In a divisive election year where we've seen a novice U.S. Senate candidate in Delaware deny being a witch and another in South Carolina refuse to discuss an obscenity charge, McMillan has emerged as a folk hero to root for – even if we don't want him to win.
He's grabbed attention for his unique appearance (his flowing white facial hair has won him both comparisons to Papa Smurf and the endorsement of the American Mustache Institute) and for his bizarre non-sequiturs ("As a karate expert, I will not talk about anyone up here").
But a great deal of his appeal likely rests in the name of his party: To very loosely paraphrase Billy Joel, he may be crazy, but he may be right.
Whether or not McMillan actually pays rent remains unclear, thanks to his vacillating answers. But there's no way the retired postal worker – and many others – could afford the average rent in New York City, a figure The Wall Street Journal puts at $2,090 a month.
McMillan is running in a state, where, according to Census figures released last month, the 2009 poverty rate was 14.2 percent (about 2.7 million people), marking a nearly half-percentage point increase over the previous year. That's in keeping with national trends.
When McMillan says, "My main job is to provide a roof over your head, food on the table and money in your pocket," he strikes a nerve with many. When he declares, "We plan to bulldoze some of those mountains in Upstate to make New York an independent state,” well, he strikes the funny bone.
Meanwhile, the clever “Up” parody strikes an unexpected poignant note. The video, put together by an outfit called Whirled, is built around the scene where the elderly character voiced by Ed Asner sees his neighborhood being bulldozed around him – and knows his house is next.
The animated curmudgeon goes on to take a flight of fancy and survival, via balloons. Jimmy McMillan is on a strange journey of his own, flying, as he might put it, pretty damn high. Check out the “Up” mash-up below along with excerpts from McMillan’s debate stint, via The Daily Beast:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City 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.