Everything Is Terrible!: The Keepers of Pre-Internet Pop Culture Finding Art in Absurdity

In late 2000, before the internet made it easy for videos to go viral, a VHS cassette started making its way around Athens, Ohio. The tape was a homemade edit of the 1990 miniseries IT, based on Stephen King’s horror novel about a ragtag group of kids called the Losers Club who descend into the sewers of their hometown to kill a genderless, shape-shifting, clown demon. Unlike the mini series, which ran for more than three hours, the VHS edit was just under 14 minutes. Its creator, a guy named Matt Carter, shrunk the story down into a choppy short, with more clips of the kids burping than anything approximating plot. He called it Fourteen Minute IT. “Video I made in 1997 with my friend Dom,” Carter later wrote of the short. “It was edited using two VCR’s hooked together during a couple of study halls.”

The tape wound up in the hands of two friends, Dimitri Simakis and Nic Maier. At the time, they were finishing up college in Athens, and dabbling in sketch comedy and video editing. When Maier and Simakis watched Fourteen Minute IT, it struck a nerve. These guys were into found footage—they were longtime fans of the sound collage band Negativland and the video compilation show TV Carnage. But this video felt new. For one, it was plainly amateurish: Carter had clumsily woven scenes together, with all the rainbow strips, grey fuzz, and pops of two fritzing VCRs. For another, it was local. Like Maier and Simakis, Carter was Ohio-based. “It felt attainable,” Simakis said. “This was before digitizing something myself seemed possible. And here was someone local who made something this funny.”

Over the years, the tape got lost. But in 2007, when Maier and Simakis started the found footage comedy group Everything Is Terrible!, the video still loomed large in their minds. They went crazy trying to find a copy. When the search came up empty, Simakis remade the short in homage to Carter. The redux fudges a few details—it’s just seven minutes and called Fifteen Minute IT, but the gist is there: quick cuts, grainy shots, multiple burp montages. It wasn’t the duo’s first edit, but it was emblematic of their trajectory. It tapped into their interest in VHS; it underscored how digitization would render millions of hours of footage virtually unwatchable; and it inspired their dedication to ensuring pop culture’s stupidest, most charming, most unhinged moments wouldn’t follow Fourteen Minute IT into analog obscurity.

This month, Everything is Terrible! opened up a semi-fake storefront in East Los Angeles. It’s the latest move for the team who have spent 12 years producing thousands of short videos in the vein of Fourteen Minute IT—many of which went viral in the way Carter’s never could. You may recognize EIT! from such shorts as: So Your Cat Wants a Massage?, about the proper way to massage cats; DUANE!!!, about a pre-pubescent ’80s dance icon named Duane; and Yello Dino: Pedo Hunter, about a yellow dino who hunts pedos. They’ve also toured live shows across the country, acquired the largest VHS collection (26,000!) of the 1996 feel-good, sports-management movie Jerry Maguire, and put out seven feature films, including The Great Satan, which tells the story of the Satanic Panic through clips of 2,500 different source videos, from public access TV, to horror B-movies, to miscellaneous footage gleaned from America’s secondhand stores. The group’s work is so wide-ranging—EIT! also makes giant puppets, music videos, and a selection of rainbow-themed merch—that they often have trouble explaining it. The store, which officially opened July 6, reflects an attempt to tell their “dumb, extremely stupid, so, so stupid” story in full.

The origins of Everything is Terrible!, which now includes anywhere from two to 22 members, depending on the day, dates back to the mid-aughts, post-Fourteen Minute IT, pre-Reddit, and right at the start of YouTube. Out of college, at home, and depressed, Maier and Simakis wanted to stay in touch. They set up a YouTube page, and messaged a few friends to contribute. The idea was to edit funny videos, share them with each other, and eventually build up a large enough catalogue to turn into a movie. They all took pseudonyms—Simakis is “Ghoul School;” Maier is “Commodore Gilgamesh;” other regulars include: “Wrong Man, Grimy Ghost!, Spooky Tooth, Crystyl Wyzzyrd, LooseMeat.biz, Mr. Murf, Island of Misfit Tapes and Sylvia Pickel.” The group scavenged thrift stores for old VHS tapes, scoured them for funny clips, and stitched those into something new. In one of their earliest edits, dated around 2006, Simakis cut a wedding home movie ostensibly from 1991—but still very much in the ’80s—for a couple identified only as “Mark and Sherry,” into a makeshift music video for TV On The Radio’s “I Was A Lover.”

After so many tape hauls, the group started to notice a pattern: America’s thrift stores were teeming with Jerry Maguire. The tape was everywhere: the white cover, the red trim, Tom Cruise in profile, or possibly at an angle, kind of blurry, kind of smiling, but maybe crying. There were other repeat offenders—TitanicMy Best Friend’s Wedding—but none that appeared as often or stood out as plainly. In 2008, they started to collect them with the goal of amassing enough tapes to build a pyramid in the desert. Collectively, EIT! bought about 1,000 Jerrys themselves, but when word spread to their fans, the project snowballed. Kids would come to their live shows with 400 or 500 tapes. On one seven-week tour, they received more than 6,500 Jerry donations. Neither Maier or Simakis had ever seen Jerry Maguire—and they still haven’t—but the movie fit into EIT!’s sensibility. “It’s not campy. It’s mediocre. I mean that in a nice way,” Maier said. “The movie was a huge success. But America is a machine of making shit that is pretty mediocre, that people forget or love in a way that is specific in its particular moment.”

Everything is Terrible!’s work has no real common denominator: they sample from the ’80s, ’90s, and aughts; from infomercials for public hair dye to clips of divorced magicians casting love spells to instructional videos on “Fierce Fighting” with a guy named Jesus. But their videos are united by an aesthetic consistency: a biting anti-nostalgia, an attention to the perversions of mass production, and a cynical, but goofy attitude about maintaining individual agency in a world with minimal social mobility. In Simakis’ eyes, both the movie Jerry Maguire and the copies they gathered from capitalism’s recycling bins tapped into the excesses of late ’90s, pre-9/11 consumer culture. Plus, the tapes looked good all together. “We found many, many copies of this tape,” Simakis said. “They’re beautiful. That’s it.”

But their style was somewhat prescient. Everything is Terrible’s early successful videos came on the eve of the social media explosion, when suddenly anyone could plunder YouTube, Reddit, or Facebook for found footage, funny videos, or clips of kids sword fighting in the parking lot of a Denny’s. (“YouTube became the world’s thrift store,” Simakis said). For a group premised on obscure archival footage, it was a mixed blessing—and a transition they’re still not sure how to navigate. Every time EIT! seems to hit a stride on social media, there’s an obstacle. One of their biggest successes, for example, was Vine. They had more than one million followers. That ended poorly. Still, the group is open to evolving. “I just discovered ‘divorce TikTok,’” Simakis said.

The expansion of the internet did have some interesting consequences for the collective: it connected them with the subjects of their videos. After So Your Cat Wants a Massage? went viral, securing its (human) star, Maryjean Ballner, a spot on The Late Show with David Letterman, they kept in touch. An EIT! member who goes by Wrong Man and edited the original video, got close with Ballner. He learned about her backstory as a massage student at the Swedish Institute for Massage Therapy in New York, where she wrote a senior thesis titled, “Massage Therapy from a Feline Point of View.” According to Ballner, who now works as a masseuse at the Rosewood Miramar in Montecito, Calif., the paper used “comparative anatomy and physiology to demonstrate the similarities between cats and humans with the understanding that the same techniques that work on cats can be applied to humans.” In 2013, when Everything is Terrible! held a festival called Everything is Festival!, they invited Ballner back to perform. Four years later, they reunited again, when the collective bought a custom two-foot trophy and gave her the “Everything is Terrible! Lifetime Achievement Award” in a complicated ceremony involving a sedan chair and multiple performers in cat costumes.

But the most extreme real-life connection concerned an edit from 2012 calledRappin’ Granny. The clip had been cut from a public access program called The Over-60 White Lady Rap, produced by a senior center in Plano, Texas. It’s a plucky, but self-aware riff on the possibility of pleasure after aging, complete with several different sweaters, a hip replacement, and some enthusiastic eating of corn. But in January of last year, Simakis received an email from a friend of the star of Rappin’ Granny, whose real name was Mabel, informing him that she had died, leaving no immediate family. Without a blood relative to retrieve her body, the woman had spent months in the morgue. But Mabel had been something of a “neighborhood grandma,” a community theater star in Plano, and an enthusiastic fan of Everything is Terrible!. She loved not only her own video, but their whole body of work. According to her friend, Mabel often showed clips to neighborhood kids and even attended one of the group’s live shows, without introducing herself. (“I think she just thought, ‘Oh I don’t want to bother those boys,’” Maier said. “But I wish she had!”) Before she died, Young requested that her obituary direct donations to the Jerry Maguire Pyramid. In her honor, Maier and another EIT! member drove to Plano on their day off from touring and held a memorial by her grave, as a neighborhood boy played Rappin’ Granny on his cellphone. When the Jerry Pyramid is finished, the group plans to house her remains there.

Jim Newberry via Everything is Terrible!

These days, Everything is Terrible! is less focused on keeping up with the internet than on their more physical pursuits. They still update their site daily and add to Memory Hole, a side project that turns home movies into horror. But the group is also about to embark on a West Coast live tour, and have a European leg lined up for fall; they’re inching along on the Jerry Pyramid—wading through the bureaucracy of licensing, design, and location; and they’re working on two more features, including a kid’s film, culled from four decades of depraved children’s video content.

There’s also the store, which, all told, isn’t really a store. There is a brightly colored brick-and-mortar building on South Atlantic Boulevard in East L.A., which sells merchandise and accepts payment through a credit card processing square—but it’s only open 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Mostly, the place is a studio—the back rooms are littered with costumes in progress and, when I was there, a toilet they were about to bejewel. The front room, the only part open to the public, is primarily a monument to their material. There’s a shrine of Jerry Maguires, a wall of what can only be described as “puppet collage,” and shelves upon shelves of tapes with titles like, “The Promise of Jimmy Swaggert,” “Bible Palooza,” and “No Grapes.”

For Simakis and Maier, the shop signifies a kind of homecoming. This was a group that harvested the boons of VHS material culture and turned them digital. As their online presence grew, EIT! became more closely associated with internet art than anything outside of it—so much so, that early fans were confused by their live shows. (“When we started touring, people were saying, ‘You’re a blog,’ or ‘You’re a YouTube page, what are you doing?’” Maier said. “It was a joke we ran with: ‘Oh, we’re just a blog. Come to our blog show.’”) In that sense, the new store marks a return to their roots: an exchange between physical objects and the meme-y, poisoned universe of the extremely online.

[“source=thedailybeast”]