Roscoe Village’s Hungry Brain becomes modestly packed as it nears 10pm. On the bar’s small stage, a projection screen has been set up for tonight’s screening, a romance-themed evening from local video blog Everything is Terrible! in acknowledgement of Valentine’s Day. When an emcee introduces the work, the silent, candlelit room, stocked with twentysomethings and endless PBR, gazes in anticipation.
The video mash-up begins. Clips and scenes from direct-to-video movies, infomercials and instructional tapes, all edited down and slammed together to form one film. An eighties tape that teaches the various styles of kissing; a quick look at Alaska Men magazine, the place to find single Alaskan masculinity; a god-awful horror show that features Fabio dressed as some sort of knight.
The crowd loves it. Laughs at every turn, often riotous. (“Alaska Men” really does them in.) When it’s finished, the emcee—who says the Everything is Terrible folks are out of town at the moment—gives away some DVDs as prizes and takes a vote on how the rest of the evening should play out, a mock choose-your-own-adventure. The crowd votes to watch the entire Fabio film.
Of course, as it turns out, two of the seven members of the Everything is Terrible! coalition are in the audience. They’re just apprehensive about appearing in public without their monster costumes.
The members of Everything is Terrible! all went to college together in Ohio. They each shared a similar passion for, of all things, VHS tapes and odd found footage. They would swap videos with one another, screen whatever weirdo tape they came across before getting on with plans for the night, “as you would screen a short before a feature film,” says member Aaron Maier. “Like, ‘You guys gotta see this tape I have.’”
Duly influenced by the Lost & Found and TV Carnage projects, the Web site itself was started in 2007 as a way for the group to continue to show one another videos, and for them to keep in touch as they disbanded and spread out all over the country. A year later the site started to receive some attention from outlets like NPR, Huffington Post, MTV and even Fox News. Ashton Kutcher has tweeted about it. The crew has taken its show on the road—last year they made a full-length DVD of their material, called, “Everything is Terrible! The Movie”—and found sell-out crowds in places like Los Angeles, where the line was around the block.
Each day a new post goes up on EverythingisTerrible.com from one of the members. Posted videos are traditionally two-to-three minutes long, cut and re-edited from source material to give a visitor to the site a snapshot of the ridiculous footage. In most cases, the videos are edited for humorous effect, to make the most out of punch-lines, and to create punch-lines within the video that weren’t originally intended. At Hungry Brain on romance night, an instructional how-to-maintain-your-great-marriage tape offers a man who compares his loving wife to a dog. Somehow, he means it lovingly. The crowd eats up the absurdity.
One of the site’s commandments is that they must find the footage they use from VHS tapes and VHS tapes only; absolutely no reposting of videos found on YouTube, or anywhere else on the Internet. They don’t take submissions.
“I am attracted to VHS mostly because it’s a format that most people shit on nowadays and thus has had very little archival work done on it,” says Katie Rife, an EIT member who posts on the site under the name Future Schlock. (Each member posts under a pseudonym.) “Unlike cassette tapes, which were mostly converted to CD and now MP3, thousands of titles were released on VHS and then promptly forgotten.”
Rife’s argument makes sense, when you consider the vast amount of horrible low-budget films made in the late eighties and early nineties, straight-to-cable or not, not to mention the exercise videos. By cutting the source tapes down to just the funny bits, EIT is doing the work for us. They insist you don’t want to see the whole tape, because, of course, they’re all terrible.
With such strict VHS-only guidelines, the crew must always be on the lookout for tapes, which, according to Rife, come from thrift-store hunts ninety percent of the time.
At the Village Discount on Roscoe, the Chicago EIT group—Aaron Maier, Nick Moore and Lehr Beidelschies—rifle through the two shelves of VHS tapes near the door, keeping piles for themselves of what they want to leave with, showing each other their finds. They all look like normal thrift-store shoppers anyway. Just some dudes, young, tall, handsome, searching for tapes. They all have beards. Actually, physically they are all interchangeable.
There are more ridiculous videos than you might expect—for every “Sommersby” or “Home Alone” there are at least ten religious tapes or educational videos, “how-to”s that are pretty much the bread and butter for EIT.
“With PBS though,” Moore says, “sometimes I don’t want to like, make fun of it. I’m like, ‘This is good advice. Aww man, teaching kids to eat well and read…’”
Each knows specific production companies and which do and do not produce usable, funny videos. A how-to type video on throwing kids’ birthday parties “on a budget” sparks some laughter amongst the group. When Moore picks one instructional video from the bunch and shows the other two guys, hopes are shattered when Maier tells him he already has it. In fact, Moore says, each member has literally hundreds of unwatched tapes stockpiled in his or her apartment. He himself has nearly 300.
“What we buy today we won’t watch for a year,” he says.
“If you’re looking for something specific,” Maier says, “you’re just setting yourself up for failure, shopping like that.” He takes another two tapes from the shelf and adds them to his pile.
Since the members of EIT have day jobs, they have to find the spare time to watch and edit their videos. This process is done individually; rarely do they work together on one video. Moore says he dedicates his Saturdays to editing—it’s a six-to-eight hour process of watching the tape, often twice, then cutting and editing down to a three-minute usable, funny video. “We really work on these [videos] much longer than we should,” Moore laughs. He grabs another tape.
When the crew takes the EIT show on the road, they make sure to stop at the out-of-town thrift stores to empty out the VHS collections. You find regionally produced material this way, really bizarre tapes, shot and manufactured in places like Utah, where you’ll find oddball religious videos. “When you’re in small towns you have better hopes of finding interesting tapes,” Maier says.
The group also stalks Craigs List for any sign of video-store closings, both mom-and-pops and chains, so they can get a look at the VHS bargains, and EIT also takes advantage of the Logan Square Video Exchange.
They vary slightly in their answer, but when asked what is the golden era of funny tapes, they eventually agree the sweet zone is 1986-1993. A lot of neon, a lot of bad clothes and hair, synthesizers and spandex. I wonder if they are ever concerned they will one day run out of material.
“The medium might change,” Maier admits. “But there are crappy movies being made every minute.”
Moore says that on an average day EverythingisTerrible.com gets 5,000-6,000 page views, but has gotten up to 25,000 in one day due to being linked on other popular sites. It’s a peculiar sort of humor, a type of comedy that takes a little patience and appreciates both subtlety and over-the-top absurdity.
“For people that were already fans of found footage, EIT is the first site that is updated daily with found footage,” Moore says. “Before video sites, you would have to look through hundreds of independently made video compilations ranging in quality from very good to very tedious, or find the source tapes yourself from thrift stores, which can also be a mixed bag in terms of quality. So I think we’ve gained popularity by consistently finding the good in the boring and presenting it to everyone for free. For people that wouldn’t normally watch these videos, I think EIT shows them a side of video that’s not often seen. Everything in the media is slick, so these cheap videos with clunky graphics and awkward people immediately seem weird and interesting by comparison. Not many people have the patience to sit through an entire fifty-minute tape, but they can be entertained by two minutes of highlights on their lunch break.”
Arguably, EIT’s most popular post is “Your Cat Wants a Massage,” a video found by Lehr Beidelschies of a woman instructing the audience the proper way to give your household cat a massage. The moronic concept and the woman’s complete seriousness make the video hysterical throughout its three-minute-and-twelve-second duration. There are multiple “cautions” when giving your cat a full-body massage. There’s even a “Whisker Watch Alert.” It’s a tremendous find, and Maryjean Ballner, the video’s instructor, saw EIT’s mash-up on television and contacted the group. She loved the edit, thought it was hilarious. No, she wasn’t going to sue them, which was a relief. The attention Everything is Terrible! gave to Ballner and her cats sparked interest in the woman—in December, she even appeared on David Letterman.
“It’s the only time one of our videos have had real-world consequences of that kind,” Moore says.
Two weeks after our meeting at Village Discount we gather at Wicker Park’s Odd Obsession Movies rental shop to shoot some photography for the story. Maier, Moore and Beidelschies all wear their traditional EIT “monster” costumes—it’s the only way they appear in public as Everything is Terrible!, to keep up some sort of humorous mystery, or at the very least, along with their fake monikers on the site, a play on the anonymity of the Internet.
The back room storage area at Odd Obsession holds a drum set, piles of computer monitors and keyboards, and a massive pile of VHS tapes, all vintage cheeseball finds, forgotten cinematic masterpieces like “Supervan,” which boasts on its box the endorsement, “It’s van-tastic!”
The Chicago group often works closely with the Odd Obsession staff to acquire videos—the store at one time had a shelf of Everything is Terrible! finds, and fans of the site have gone through the store to hunt down certain source videos introduced through EIT. The group plans to get started on a new DVD, tentatively titled “2 Everything 2 Terrible,” which they hope to have done this summer to take on the road. (They plan to tour for up to two-and-a-half months.) They do work together on the long-form DVD releases, which poses a geographic problem, with three members in Chicago, one in New Mexico, one in New York, one in Los Angeles and even one in Japan. Moore says they’ll work on individual sections separately, then meet to put the project together officially.
The group never uses footage from mainstream movies, thus most of everything you’d see on the Web site is unrecognizable. Beidelschies did once put together a video called “Maximum Dolph,” a montage of great scenes from Dolph Lundgren’s oeuvre, which includes a fantastic workout video that is properly narrated by the bodybuilder actor. Turns out, this EIT post was a result of Beidelschies’ fanboy obsession with the eighties action star. When I mention that Lundgren will be starring in Sylvester Stallone’s upcoming action flick, “The Expendables,” Beidelschies gives me a nod and says, “I know all about it.” I apologize for presuming he didn’t.
“He’s really great,” Beidelschies says about the actor. “If you’re reading this Dolph, get in touch with me.”
But the current ongoing Everything is Terrible! mission, of all things, is to acquire the world’s largest VHS collection of 1996 romantic-comedy “Jerry Maguire.” The idea came from years of searching through thrift stores for VHS tapes and consistently spotting copies of the film, all over the country. They literally want every VHS copy of the film that’s in existence and have a PO Box listed on the Web site where you can donate your own copy, or any copy you come across. So far, they’ve collected just under 400 copies of the tape.
Outside of Odd Obsession, after the police show up to inquire why the hell three grown men are dressed up in ridiculous monster outfits—“Good luck with that,” the office says, and races off—they joke about an idea for a their own video store, if they ever open one.
“We can have all these videos,” Beidelschies says, “but then in the ‘back room,’ instead of having porn, we’ll just have a room full of, like, 800 ‘Jerry Maguire’s.”
The immediate vision is terrifying. And, of course, funny.