How one Oregon lawmaker convinced his colleagues to ‘Rick Roll’ the state legislature
By Holly Bailey
Jefferson Smith loves a good political joke.
Early last year, the then-freshman Oregon House member from Portland was getting ready for bed when he and his wife, Katy, began bantering back and forth about what might be the ultimate political prank, something that could lighten the increasingly divisive political mood among his colleagues.
As Smith recalls, the idea came almost instantly. "What if we were to Rick Roll the legislature without anybody noticing?" he wondered.
And that was the seed for what may ultimately prove to be one of the most elaborate political jokes of all time: A nearly two-minute long video of members of the Oregon House of Representatives saying the lyrics of Rick Astley's ubiquitous '80s pop ballad, "Never Gonna Give You Up," literally one word or phrase at a time while in session.
As The Ticket reported yesterday, the video, which was posted to YouTube on April Fools Day, has quickly gone viral, meriting write-ups on dozens of blogs and even getting play on MSNBC.
The big question: Was it real?
The answer, according to Smith, "absolutely."
"I've been reading the online chatter," Smith, a Democrat, told The Ticket in his first interview about the video. "Were they actors? Were people's voices dubbed? The answer is that it's all real. Every second is real."
You can watch the video here:
But assembling the video was about as tricky an undertaking as as one can imagine. First, Smith had to sell his colleagues on the joke--which wasn't as hard as he initially feared. Most of his fellow lawmakers--at the time, the legislature was split evenly, with 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans--knew of Astley's 1987 hit and understood the basic concept of a "Rick Roll," he insists. "I pitched the idea to a few members, and they liked it," he recalls.
But Smith--who developed the concept with his wife, a few colleagues and several friends, one of whom is video editor--had a few rules about the joke. The lines had to be delivered on the House floor during a lawmaker's regular floor speech--which is, under Oregon law, videotaped for public records purposes. And the lines of the lyrics had to be spread out, so as not to tip off the state House clerk or other observers to what lawmakers were up to.
"It was way harder taking words and spreading them out than simply manipulating them (on video)," Smith says. "There are some easy lines in there to say without getting noticed. 'You're never gonna' is easy. 'I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling' is easy. But an 'ooh?' That's tricky."
Smith wrote the lyrics down and spread them out piecemeal among his colleagues--with the Portland lawmaker himself taking on some of the more difficult lines that others didn't want to do, including "never gonna say good-bye" and "hurt you."
In the end, he says, only one fellow legislator--who he won't identify--"chickened out," while another lawmaker was filmed saying the Astley lyrics "unwittingly." The elaborate operation was carried out during a special session of the Oregon legislature in February 2010, when each lawmaker was allotted time to speak on the House floor.
The initial plan was to debut the video after last year's elections, but the process of splicing all the words and phrases together was far more time-consuming than Smith and his conspirators originally anticipated. First, they had to file a public records request with the state of Oregon to get a copy of footage from the legislative session. Then, they had to comb through hours and hours of film to find the lyrics lawmakers had snuck into their speeches.
In the end, it took a year and two months to assemble the video--which Smith pointedly notes was carried out "with no taxpayer funds." Just before the video was posted on YouTube, Smith hosted a viewing for his fellow state lawmakers--all of whom received a doctored photo of Rick Astley dancing atop the Oregon state House as a gift for participating. Each photo featured the phrase he or she said in the video and was fake autographed by "Rick Astley."
"That was the only thing that was fake," he insists.
So why did they do it? Aside from the obvious humor, the Democratic lawmaker says it was a project that actually helped bring legislators from opposing parties together at a time of "real partisanship."
"It's obviously a little silly thing," he admits. "But even just having a little fun together helped develop some professional relationships. Just a tiny spoonful of sugar to let the political medicine go down, so to speak."
The participants, he says, were amused at the end result, while some of his newly elected colleagues have asked him if he'll follow up with another video they can participate in. Asked about a sequel, Smith says, "I don't know. It will be my little secret."
But for now, Smith just wants to answering the burning question: "It was real, and it was really awesome ... Democracy is a glorious thing."