What You Find When You Rewind

Everything is Terrible uses yesterday’s cultural castoffs to forge hilarious critiques of today


The video is called “Place Sinbad Around Your Wang.”

I can resist many temptations in life. Drugs. Shoplifting. … Two, OK? I can resist two temptations in life. And clicking on a video called “Place Sinbad Around Your Wang” definitely isn’t on that list.

It’s a ’90s-era PSA with Sinbad dressed like a rubber. Which makes it immediately more intriguing than Houseguest. He talks about Spud Webb posting up on Michael Jordan. He discusses prudent choices in spermicides.

Three things come immediately to mind. First: This looks like it should be the intro to a TLC music video. Second: Hey, he makes a good point—someone really needs to return “jimmy hat” to the vernacular. And finally: What the hell is happening here?

None of those are particularly unusual reactions to EverythingIsTerrible.com, the 6-year-old found-footage website that traffics heavily in thrift-store VHS tapes to find old training videos, beyond-awful movies, abandoned copies of Jerry Maguire and other assorted cultural detritus that may or may not involve Cuba Gooding Jr.

On September 19, Everything is Terrible brings its live show, Two Head Cleaners and a Microphone to Theatre7 (1406 3rd St. $12 at the door, 8 p.m.). They’re screening their latest two DVDs, Comic Relief Zero! and Everything Is Terrible! Does the Hip-Hop! There will be sets. There will be song-and-dance numbers. There will be puppets.

There also will be pointed cultural critique, particularly in Comic Relief Zero!, says site co-founder Nic Maier, who posts as Commodore Gilgamesh as part of the eight-person collective.

“I think we have a philosophical agenda that’s a lot more pronounced in this work. It’s definitely our most pointed move to show a flawed art form. The power of hate and small-mindedness inside of a whole form,” he says. “I have no tolerance for stand-up, especially bad stand-up. I think stand-up comedy, 99.99 percent of it is lazy. I’ve been saying my goal with Comic Relief Zero! is to just convince one person to not do stand-up, and to try to make something else.”

It’s worth noting that Maier says the primary concern of Everything Is Terrible! is comedy.
Although it’s not necessarily a contradictory stance for Maier to take, it does seem to fit into the site’s overall aesthetic, where deconstruction is a matter of course and handled with the sensibility of a chop shop partsing out a boosted Honda.

What keeps getting me, though, is the site’s motto: “If everything is terrible, then nothing is.”
That’s a fascinating little bit of epistemological populism that sounds like cheerfully nihilistic calculus, though Maier says that isn’t really the case. He insists, like in Comic Relief Zero! there is, much to the relief of The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak, an ethos, dude. Even though the bulk of the material is ’80s- and ’90s-centric, Maier says cheap nostalgia was never the point. He wants to present the past to show how it’s similar to the present, but in a way that makes us “work to make art or media a little better.”

And maybe that’s the aim, watching enough of these videos makes me, at least, feel like I’m watching some poorly translated dispatch from a forgotten and foreign culture. If comedy is the prime directive, Everything Is Terrible absolutely succeeds on those merits. But the comedy comes from a place of alienation. It puts an ocean of distance between the content and the viewer. It turns you into Jane Goodall, staring at the apes; into Watchmen’s Comedian; into Kramer.

Actually, it’s not just the viewer, either.

“I have a different relationship with media than a lot of folks, I think,” Maier says. “When I watch contemporary television, I feel like I’m watching Everything Is Terrible, and I feel like it’s totally alien to me, and everything is this crazy psychedelic joke. That’s our culture, disconnected from reality. I’ve felt that way more and more as I’ve done the website.”

That’s where it starts to get really weird. It’s not just money-management infomercials staring Florence Griffith-Joyner, or tacit Nintendo commercials posing as Game Informer video spots featuring The Crystal Method. You know how every tired hippie who’s ever done mushrooms at a Phish concert won’t shut up about how psilocybin expands their consciousness (to the point where 40-minute four-chord jams seem tolerable)? This is that, but for the media consumption center of your brain.

Watch enough of these, and you’re forced to start looking at modern media through a 20-years-from-now-this-will-all-look-tired-and-goofy lens. And that kind of self-awareness is memetic on a commercial level, even. Maier says that big advertising firms regularly order up all the Everything is Terrible DVDs, and he sees the site’s style creeping into mainstream spots. Lookin’ at you, Old Spice. “It’s deeply both troubling and interesting to me. I guess a more self-aware world is a slightly better world,” he says.

But even if there’s a level of self-awareness creeping in, it won’t matter to the foundonauts of the mid-21st century. Once there’s zeitgeist, there’s something to mock: Meet the new boss. If everything is terrible, then nothing is.


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