On July 10, less than one month after the latest mass shooting in America — where nine people were killed in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Pivot series, Hit Record on TV with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, will tackle the sensitive subject of firearms in an episode titled “Regarding Guns.”
The incendiary subject is far from the typical theme of Gordon-Levitt’s crowdsourced series, which has previously aired episodes focused on trash, the afterlife, space, the dark, and, most recently, fire. So it’s understandable that among Hit Record’s creative community — comprising thousands of online users who contribute ideas, visuals, and music to every episode — there was not universal agreement about whether or not this was a topic the show should cover.
“It was really controversial,” Gordon-Levitt told BuzzFeed News during a recent phone interview. “Half of the community on our site said we shouldn't do this, we shouldn't be making entertainment out of something so serious. The other half felt more the way I did, which is that television can be something more than simple entertainment. Television can become part of a culture's conversation and have something worthwhile to contribute to that.”
In the end, that latter half won out. Stories from Hit Record users began pouring in around July 2014 — almost a full year before the Emanuel AME church shooting rocked the country. But that headline-grabbing attack only propelled Gordon-Levitt in his effort to get the episode out. “For me, personally … when there is a tragedy, when there is a problem, I feel like the point is to talk about it,” he said. “Those problems won't get solved by not talking. I'm not the one who is able to solve those problems, because I'm not a legislator, I'm not a lawyer, I'm not any of those things — what I am is [someone who makes] a TV show. And I feel like what I can contribute is stimulating a conversation and showing an example of how people who have different points of view can come together and respect one another and exchange ideas and collaborate and make something together. So to me, that's all the more reason to do it in the midst of these tragedies.”
To help facilitate that conversation, Gordon-Levitt enlisted the help of Seth Rogen and his frequent writing partner Evan Goldberg — they wrote and directed three linked segments for the episode revolving around the fictional (yet self-explanatory) concept of Dick Guns. “The topic of guns and masculinity — the equating of guns and dicks in particular — was a collaboration idea going on in the community,” Gordon-Levitt said. “It's funny and it's also really resonant. We didn't know what we were going to do with it. When I had my conversation with Seth and Evan about doing something for the show, I was telling them about a few different things being talked about in the community and when this one came up they were like, We get paid lots of money to make dick jokes. This is our area of expertise. Then it was Seth who said, ‘What if their dicks were actually guns?’ That's when we started thinking about it like a product.”
Rogen had previously touched upon the idea in 2007’s Superbad, a comedy he co-wrote with Goldberg and also made an appearance in. “There's a joke in Superbad where McLovin's like, What's it like having a gun? And I'm like, It's like having two cocks if one of your cocks could kill someone,” Rogen told BuzzFeed News during a recent phone interview. “I think that was maybe the inception of the idea that there was this undeniable link between guys and their dicks and their guns. It seemed like a very natural and potentially comedic metaphor.”
Goldberg and Rogen’s first vignette focuses on the corporations who sell men Dick Guns, the second centers on a lawyer who defends men who accidentally shoot people with their Dick Guns, and the third is about a politician (played by Zac Efron) who builds his campaign on the paranoia of Dick Guns being taken away from American citizens.
“They’re all based on fear — every one of them,” Goldberg told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “The first one: If you don't get this, you're not going to get laid. The second one: If you don't join this, you've been taken advantage of. The third one: If you don't do this, everyone you love is going to die.”
The emotional manipulation inherent in gun control legislation was something Gordon-Levitt strongly felt needed to be included in the episode. “Guns are an issue we all get very emotional about — on both sides — and there's good reasons for that. So any time there's a group of people with strong feelings about something, there's going to be others who come in and try to take advantage of that,” he said. “Ultimately, that's what all three of the Dick Guns segments are about: three different entities — an arms company, an attorney, and a politician — all trying to profit off of the emotional attachment we have to guns. That's worth pointing out and making fun of.”
But before getting to the satire, “Regarding Guns” opens with first-person accounts from community members who proudly own guns and community members who have lost loved ones to gun violence. That vast difference in perspective remains front and center throughout the episode as Gordon-Levitt made sure to both acknowledge his personal feelings and to leave room for others to freely express theirs.
“I really wanted to do it in such a way that avoided that prejudice,” he said. “Even though I cop to this — that my upbringing was very much that the pen is mightier than the sword — I don't think there's anything worthwhile about judging people who do have guns or people who sell guns. I don't think it's productive to judge someone who's different from you or me. That's not my upbringing, but that doesn't mean that I can't try to understand it and have compassion for them.”
And when non-U.S. residents take the reins in a segment that illustrates the difference between gun laws in America versus the rest of the world, where legislation is typically much stricter, those vantage points become even vaster. “America seems like an easy place to shoot a bunch of people, and that should not be the case,” said Rogen, who was born in Canada. “I’ll be totally honest: It’s odd. You'd think after any number of the things that have happened over the last decade and a half, any one of them would have made someone do something to make it less easy to just shoot a bunch of people if you want to."
He continued, "It's bizarre that not a lot seems to be happening to change that. It seems obvious that it's all money and political back-channeling, and whatever effort there would be to make better gun control is destroyed by money and lobbying and all the same bullshit that makes people hate the government and think it doesn't run properly in the first place. It just seems pretty obvious, to me, that's what is happening and why nothing has changed. It makes people richer not to change it.”
The business of guns takes center stage in a facts-driven segment that aims to educate. Hit Record states that there are more than 55,000 federally licensed gun dealers in the United States. That means there are more places to buy a gun in America than there are Starbucks and McDonald's — combined. “I found it shocking,” Gordon-Levitt said of that fact. “I just didn't know.”
And through the episode’s most harrowing segment, Gordon-Levitt also learned about the Port Arthur massacre, a mass shooting that left more than 30 Australians dead and almost as many wounded in April 1996. “I had never heard of the Port Arthur massacre,” Gordon-Levitt said, until an Australian Hit Record contributor, who goes by the user name Captain Clare, spoke about how the incident forever changed her family and her country. “This is the thing I love about Hit Record: You get perspectives you never would have heard before if it was just the people in my office trying to come up with a short film to do in the guns episode,” the creator continued. “To hear it from the perspective of someone who has a very vivid and personal memory of what it was like, and how it impacted her whole family, it's the perfect story to tell. And that's something we need when dealing with these really difficult and substantial questions.”
The Port Arthur segment is likely to leave many American viewers wondering why the United States has yet to mobilize in a similar way, despite the fact that the country has endured so many more mass shootings. And that’s exactly the question Gordon-Levitt wants you to ask.
“I don't have an answer to that question, and I don't think it's for me to have the answer,” he said. “It's for me to get the conversation going. But if you're asking that, it’s very satisfying to me because it means the show accomplished everything we were hoping it would.”