Sheridan Johnson described going to the public ceremony for Mayor Berry's public safety award, anticipating getting some choice interviews from protesters, when, unexpectedly she and her partner in investigation, Danger K Varoz, were whisked inside with their cameras and equipment. “We were in there setting up next to KRQE, and they were eyeing our logo, asking who we were with,” Varoz recalled. “Then someone asked me for my press credentials,” Johnson said, to which she replied, “We don't have any … yet.”
Now with legit press credentials in tow (“They're laminated!” Varoz exclaimed), the producers of the local television show “The New Mexico Inquisition” settled into the couch across from me at The Brew and over tea detailed the mechanics of their work—a sort of “Daily Show” that broaches state- and city-level politics. Steadily gaining an audience, Johnson and Varoz, along with their team which includes writers and correspondents Isiah Yazzie, Kevin Baca, Ann Gora and Jason Green, have produced monthly episodes since February. Each briefly illumines a selection of local headlines as well as deep dives into a feature story—these thoroughly researched and playfully delivered segments have covered diverse topics such as the Santolina development on Albuquerque's Westside, A.R.T., legislation on panhandling, Susana Martinez' veto mania, fake news and, most recently, a spike in crime that just so happened to coincide with Mayor Berry's safety award.
The show's concept first began to take shape in Varoz' mind in the aftermath of the democratic primary last year. “I was very upset,” he said, “and I wanted to know what somebody like me, a stand-up comic and a political enthusiast, could do.” Soon Varoz was connected to Johnson, who coaches a debate team and teaches workshops on research skills. The two balance one another out in conversation and in the show's direction; they joke that if Varoz had total control of the show, it would be more wildly inappropriate, and if Johnson had the same degree of command, it would just be the regular news.
Each's conviction, however, remains genuine. “It is hard to get people to want to learn things and to want to get involved. Even people who want to get involved don't necessarily want to spend the time it takes to research something. Danger and I both wanted to make sure we were providing a platform for information that actually impacts the people that live here,” Johnson explained of the show's motives.
While both Varoz and Johnson freely admit to being “happy liberals,” they have strong ethics when it comes to how they research and deliver the content covered on “The New Mexico Inquisition.” “I think it is important to try to prove yourself wrong first, to see if you can,” Johnson, who handles a significant amount of the research, explained. “It's not fair to research something in order to prove a point that you walked in having.” Varoz added: “We find comedy by pointing out absurdity and contrast, not by creating things that aren't there.” The laughs come as the result of well-delivered jokes, yes, but also the honest-to-god behavior of our intrepid leaders, for example, a hilarious series on City Commissioner Lonnie Talbert's snack habit during public hearings that is revealed as totally comical, but also, when thrown into such relief, a bit disrespectful too, particularly in the face of community members who have come to their leaders to speak their truths. “I really, really, really, really wanted to make sure that everybody knew how hungry Lonnie Talbert was at Commission hearings,” Varoz joked, saying that the County Commission meetings were “shockingly hilarious for something so mundane,” but continued on to broach more ominous analogous topics.
“The goings on of the city and the County Commission here—nobody's there, and nobody knows about them. … If we can get more eyes on the process, then maybe we can clean it up a bit,” Varoz said. The result is the potential for commissioners to vote with impunity on matters that could negatively impact their constituents—and it doesn't matter, because their voters are none the wiser. “If we can make a big stink out of it when they vote in a way that betrays their constituents, then maybe we can hold their feet to the fire even just a single degree more. If we can make even just that tiny difference, I would consider the show a success.” Hinging on that thought, Johnson continued, “If we can use comedy to get a couple more eyes on it, that would be my highest aspiration. … Things that happen here on a local level deeply impact each and every person. [I hope] people get engaged and stay engaged and vote for those smaller offices, and hold their own representatives responsible.”
As they sift through the hours of footage and run through the endless jokes that could be made at someone's expense, the team of “The New Mexico Inquisition” explicitly aims above the belt. “The only people we're not expressly good to are the people who aren't expressly good to New Mexico,” Johnson said, to which Varoz was quick to interject, “and also, we're not a substitute for the real news.”
The teams' commitment to revealing what underpins important topics in our state was palpable—and what also became evident was that these issues have resonance throughout the West, and even across the nation. “We're still feeling out what the limits are,” Varoz said, but one thing is certain, as Johnson crystallized so well, “If you ask the questions, there are a lot of answers.”
“The New Mexico Inquisition” delivers the answers as they uncover them in monthly installments, which are viewable on their YouTube channel (@Open Source Comedy Network) and on their website at nminq.com.