Inside the Hodgepodge Creations of Everything Is Terrible!
Joining the cult of the video collective, which mines thrift stores, swap meets, and other troves of obsolete media in search of the rare, obscure, and weird.
With less than an hour until their showtime at Carnegie Stage—a small community movie theater in the suburbs of Pittsburgh—everything really is terrible for the crew of the found footage collective Everything Is Terrible! The trio are navigating multiple technical difficulties and have yet to change into their costumes. But despite mounting pressure, they are unrattled.
Co-founder Nic Maier, who contributes under the moniker Commodore Gilgamesh, works to secure wires to the floor with gaffing tape while his cohorts position the lights and fog machines for maximum effect. They arrange upside-down crucifixes built out of Jerry Maguire videotapes on either side of the screen—a reference to their ongoing project of amassing the largest collection of VHS copies of the 1996 Blockbuster Video classic ever. The three work efficiently, pulling just what they need from the seemingly bottomless duffel bags and plastic tubs unloaded from their tour van. Though Everything Is Terrible! performs in music venues and movie theaters alike, they aren’t really a fit for either—so they arrive prepared to bridge the gaps.
“Just because we’ve performed in so many different spaces over the years, we’ve learned what it takes,” Maier says over the phone a few days later. “We have a thousand different adapters, a thousand different cords. We’ve learned to trust no one when it comes to [these] things. We’ve just had enough people not turn lights on for us, or have our mics ready, or whatever. We have enough stuff to do a show in a parking lot, if we could just get power.”
After some down-to-the-wire troubleshooting, the crew disappears behind the curtain and the audience files in to watch EIT!’s latest feature-length montage, The Great Satan. With the house lights dimmed, the screen looks like an altar or ceremonial site, evoking the low-rent production of the clips featured on EverythingIsTerrible.com, the foundry and storefront for the group’s darkly comic clips and absurdist projects.
Everything Is Terrible! launched in 2007, when YouTube and blogging platforms first entered the cultural consciousness. The roots of the project go back as far as 2000, when the founding members—then students in Athens, Ohio—began scouring thrift stores and yard sales for VHS curiosities. In its current iteration, members of the collective number around a dozen at any given time. They strive for a unified authorial voice, perhaps a nod to the cultishness surrounding their world.
This live show is an interactive multimedia experience built around a screening of The Great Satan. It also includes scripted comedy, culminating in a popular element of audience participation, wherein fans make a ceremonial offering of their own Jerry Maguire videotapes. The touring contingent will ship over two-thousand Jerrys back to their Los Angeles headquarters before the tour is over. The show moves at a brisk clip, making reference to everything from revival preachers to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The schlocky costumes and quippy dialogue give the room an infectious energy. They make it look pretty effortless—because after a few tours, the creative and performance processes have congealed.
“I think we’re setting fires underneath us and thinking that it will just be too crazy, or too stupid, and it seems to work better and better every time.”
“As we’re in that world of consuming all of that video and spitting it back out, things pop up that we like to expand upon,” Maier says. “The live show is forming as we’re editing. We did a better job this time of not getting the movie done and then having two weeks before we leave on tour to build all the costumes and write everything and record music and make video for it.”
The fastidious management of the chaos they create, both logistically and thematically, is a feat unto itself, but it’s also a necessity, given the scope and ambition of their work. That every aspect of Everything Is Terrible! seems to be constantly under the threat of collapsing beneath its own weight is central to its charm. Given the abundance of source materials from which they draw, as well as the ridiculousness of their vision, failure seems almost inevitable. And their ultimate intention for the Jerrys? That would be to use them as building materials for the eventual construction of a pyramid—a legacy project for posterity’s sake.
The collective’s mounting ambition and desire to experiment within the medium is most readily apparent in their features. “I think we’re setting fires underneath us and thinking that it will just be too crazy, or too stupid, and it seems to work better and better every time,” Maier says.
Their 2012 offering, Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez!, attempted to recreate Alejandro Jodorowsky’s cult classic The Holy Mountain using only footage of animals. The Great Satan, on the other hand, compiles thousands of clips from various Satanic Panic, ’80s-era sources to form a “narrative” around humanity’s relationship with evil.
When an Everything Is Terrible! montage finds its groove, it can be as hypnotic and unsettling as it is funny—but comedy is just one layer. The cheap production values and subjects of the source materials exude loneliness and desperation. In their editing, those qualities are exacerbated, distilled into a kind of extract of awkwardness, part Tim & Eric and part Negativland. There is a violence in the percussiveness of the quick cuts that can be traced all the way back to the beginning of EIT!
“It was a new idea to create comedy and psychedelia out of the editing. The editor was playing a very strong role in all of this, and that was really cool to us,” says co-founder Dimitri Simakis. “We were doing this haphazardly, but we noticed that people were getting the joke.”
“We’re a mirror to the existence of consuming media. That experience, when compressed, is insane.”
In The Great Satan, as slick televangelists in ill-fitting suits address the camera plaintively, offering prayers and holy trinkets in exchange for viewers’ meager savings; as children sing about the Bible to poorly constructed puppets, not quite in time or on-key; and as shabby rubber demons assault sinners in makeshift hells in clip after clip, the audio-visual veil is pierced. In revealing the semiotic shorthand, they also reveal what easy marks we are, and how desperate to connect.
“Part of the experience of Everything Is Terrible! is that we want you to laugh and have a really good time, all the while knowing there is a monster right behind you. So there’s a sense of dread that comes with all of our stuff,” Simakis says.
In pop culture, obsolete and decontextualized media—found footage—is often imbued with an air of mysticism. In David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and every version of The Ring, videocassettes are sources of menace and otherworldly doom. In William Gibson’s 2003 novel, Pattern Recognition, the plot depends on tracking down the source of artful film clips that have been uploaded anonymously across the burgeoning Internet. John Darnielle’s 2017 novel, Universal Harvester, is set in motion when part of a video store’s inventory is overwritten with mysterious home movies. Everything Is Terrible! offers no such sense of preciousness for its source material. It’s all fodder.
“I think we’re a mirror to the existence of consuming media. That experience, when compressed, is insane. You just take in all these images and all this stuff that you sometimes choose and sometimes don’t choose to see, and then you attempt to organize it, ” Maier says.
EIT! is a commentary on media at every level, from production to consumption. Through continuous uploads to their website and the regular release of increasingly complex features, they’re deflating the content’s power. Their output underscores the media’s pervasiveness and, ultimately, its banality. Everything Is Terrible! is inoculation by exposure.
The clips that comprise The Great Satan, a seventy-five-minute feature, were culled from nine copious terabytes of video. That the audience can participate by supplying Jerrys (and any other footage they deem worthy of examination) yields an effect of community, further perpetuating the conceit that Everything Is Terrible! will never reach a stopping point. There are so many clips and there is so little time.
“There is a need to keep cramming stuff in. We genuinely think if we last too long on a clip, the attention span is just going to go away—especially live—so it’s all about an assault,” Simakis says. “It’s never finished.” FL