Before comedy video collective Everything Is Terrible! started back in 2007, its members were just a bunch of B-movie-obsessed college kids, interested in one-upping one another with the weirdest VHS castoffs they could get their hands on. "The winters were not kind to us," founding member Dmitri Smiakis told NPR back in 2010. "So we'd spend a lot of time just indoors, sitting around, trying to outdo each other with the worst VHS tape or the most ridiculous movie."
Today, the video collective is one of the most beloved meme generators on the internet, having released more than 500 pieces of masterfully edited found footage on their YouTube and Vimeo channels. Their clips of cat massaging, yogi farmers, singing babies, and a yellow pedophile-hunting dinosaur remain some of the creepiest, weirdest, and most hilarious videos to come out of YouTube's first wave. While the collective continues to add new clips to their database regularly, they've also spun off in myriad directions, with frenetic live shows and film festivals, which have become institutions in their own right, featuring EIT members performing absurdist comedy acts and presenting curated found-footage collections. Meanwhile, their collaborations with Funny or Die and MTV have brought their idiosyncratic sense of cultural "vomit" to an increasingly wider audience.
Last month, the collective launched its largest experiential stunt yet: a month-long pop-up video store in Los Angeles's iam8bit gallery housing more than 14,000 VHS copies of Jerry Maguire, which they've been collecting for the past eight years. But the installation was just the beginning. In the coming months (or years), Everything Is Terrible! hopes to fulfill their long-running dream of building a pyramid to house all of these Maguire castoffs—or "Jerrys," as they call them—somewhere in the California desert. Following the close of The Jerry Maguire Video Store, and in the midst of their Go Fund Me campaign for the pyramid, I spoke to the 35-year-old Simakis about nostalgia, the "near-snuff films" of America's Funniest Home Videos, and that awful Tom Cruise sex scene.
On VICE American Obsessions: Meet the Masterminds Behind LA's New 'Jerry Maguire' Video Store:
VICE: What are some of your strongest memories of video rental shops from childhood?
Dmitri Smiakis: I grew up in Cleveland, and most of the Everything Is Terrible! members were all Ohio-based, originally. We had a couple of places—there was this spot called Columbia Video—but honestly, a lot of places were such ma and pa shops that their names were kind of secondary. There was this one spot on my corner where I grew up—it was literally walking distance away—and that was just the place to go, the thing to do. It wasn't until the mid 90s, when Blockbuster came in that everything shut down. I do remember one place in particular called B-Ware in Cleveland. I wish it was still around because that place changed everything for me. They stocked only B-movies and specialized in weird, hard-to-find shit. It wasn't even like Criterion Collection stuff. They had these terrible horror movies from the 70s, and these local finds, which were just low-budget movies people would make. That broke my brain a little bit.
Do you feel like you were always drawn to weirder, kitschier films?
I think so. Most of us are in our early-to-mid 30s, and so much of what we were raised on was recontextualizing other media. The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-Head, Mystery Science Theater 3000 all revolved around people commenting on media commenting on other media. It was a weird post-modern, post-entertainment world, where everyone was referencing things I didn't necessarily get. I didn't watch Citizen Kane until I was 18 or 19, but I saw 700 parodies of it growing up. I learned about things by seeing a reference to something, not getting it, and wanting to know what the reference was. Things were already getting remixed back then, and everything we do is sort of an extension of that.
Does that make Everything Is Terrible! post-post-modern?
I don't even know anymore. We all agree that there was so much garbage that was given to us as kids—anti-drug commercials, afterschool specials, Christian kid tapes. It was just everywhere, and eventually, it got to a point where we felt like we had to do something with it, we had to spit it back to people. Everyone knows the vague idea of what a kid's show was in 1984—like the really fucked-up ones that were trying to be Jim Henson or trying to be Fraggle Rock, but also obviously being paid for by some creepy Evangelical offshoot. We love their insane version of whatever they thought they were trying to make, and that it turned out to be beautiful in an entirely different way than it was originally intended. We're all amazed by the production value of these things: Whether they're high or low, they all took love and care to create. We often say that we "want to live there" when we fall in love with a tape. It's like, you want to live with Kolby, or you want to live with Duane—I want to be on that dance floor for all of eternity. It seems like a weird hellscape, but for us, it would be heaven.
"I didn't watch Citizen Kane until I was 18 or 19, but I saw 700 parodies of it growing up. I learned about things by seeing a reference to something, not getting it, and wanting to know what the reference was."
You guys started the site in 2007. How big of a role did video stores play in that first era of Everything Is Terrible!?
Video stores were closing right as we were starting Everything Is Terrible!, around the end of 2007. We knew they were going away and it kind of rushed things for us. By the mid 2000s, it seemed like everyone was purging their VHS collections. At first it was like, well, jackpot for us because now we can find all these tapes. We didn't want them to close, but we felt like the upside was us bringing these things to a good home. There are still a few places standing, like CineFile, and I'm genuinely terrified if those places go away. But not many made it through, so for us it was a preservation thing. We talk to people at thrift stores who literally throw tapes away by the hundreds. It's like a daily holocaust of VHS tapes. So it's become an obsession of ours to try and archive everything—to have it all ingested and on our hard drives and safe, which is fleeting, but we're trying.
Do you guys see yourselves as picking up where those stores left off?
I think so. We'd love to have something like a library, or some sort of place where people can have access to all these tapes. We don't want to horde them necessarily. We have so much, and we just keep collecting. We joked about the idea of an actual video store where we just gave this stuff away. None of us are rich, so it would be impossible, but it would be nice. I know there are some colleges that are starting to archive VHS. I am happy to see stuff like that popping up, because I do think there's a finite amount of time to digitize it all. I don't know if these tapes are going to get so degraded that they'll just start to wipe out in 20 years. I don't know if anyone really knows. It's what vinegar syndrome is to 35mm.
"In a weird way, we all kind of hate nostalgia. We love what we're doing because it's not so much about, 'Hey, remember this?' as it is 'Don't trust anybody.' The media is a lie, don't ever trust it, it's a joke."
The Jerry Maguire Video Store ran for a month. What were some of the highlights?
I think the big thing for us is that we really like the idea of a community. We do a festival every year, and this was sort of equivalent to that. We want to bring likeminded people together with people who have no idea what we're doing and bring them all into our world. The nice thing about the store was the variety everyone brought to it. We had Brandon Wardell and Kate Berlant and Official Sean Penn and Alan Resnick from Wham City doing a comedy night, but it didn't feel anything like a shitty comedy night. It was really interesting to have all of these people, who are technically in the world of comedy, but who are so far removed from standing in front of a microphone talking about their dick. To see such a wide range of creativity that's all based around something as silly as a Jerry Maguire video store is sort of the greatest thing ever.
It's interesting to hear you say that. I feel like most people would see your work and peg you as nostalgia-obsessed.
They do, and we're really not like that at all. In a weird way, we all kind of hate nostalgia. We love what we're doing because it's not so much about, "Hey, remember this?" as it is "Don't trust anybody." The media is a lie, don't ever trust it, it's a joke. I feel like everyone's sense of reality is breaking right now, and we're all looking around thinking, No, it's always been like this. I'm actually kind of mad at everyone for being so shocked all of a sudden. It's like, "What did you think this was?" It's all been a joke this whole time, and now it's just bubbling to the surface. What we're doing is a reminder that everything is deeply fucked up, but also showing people a way to laugh at it. There's this police-training tape from the 80s that says, "Everyone wants to be treated with dignity and respect. Mexicans are no exception." It gets a big laugh, but it also says a lot about what got us here. We laugh at it like, "Oh, that was so long ago," but it really wasn't. Those cops are still around.
Do you remember the first time you saw Jerry Maguire?
Kind of? But I honestly couldn't tell you one thing about the movie. I'm not kidding. I just found out a few days ago that Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character is named Rod Tidwell. I remember going to see it in the theater when I was 14 or 15, and I remember the quotes.
I remember watching it with my parents and being freaked out by the sex scene.
Yeah. Wasn't that really intense? I think it's just weird to see Tom Cruise have sex, and he fucks really hard in that scene. It's really disturbing.
"We often say that we 'want to live there' when we fall in love with a tape."
How likely is it that you guys are actually going to build this pyramid?
I don't know, but we're not going to stop until it is done. That could take a year or ten years, or it could take the rest of our lives, unfortunately, but it has to happen, whether it's through an art grant or crowdfunding. The amount that we made at the store actually made a significant dent, so it's really becoming more realistic every day. We have some offers on land, but we're still taking requests. People, if you're interested in giving us land, we're down. The last thing I would ever do is say it's all a joke. We really do mean it. All of the money we've given to architects and designers—we actually can't stop. We sink ourselves a little deeper every day.
Finally, do you have some favorites from the EIT archives that you'd like to share?
Yeah. From Everything Is Terrible!, there's "Puffy the Pillow" and "Knives vs. Cops." Then there are some from the Memory Hole side project that Nick and I do that I love, like "Chinless Dance." Everything that we make for Memory Hole is from the archives of a certain home-video show where Americans would send in clips that were funny. We're not legally allowed to say where they're from, but that's what it is, and it's truly the most terrifying thing ever. We're obsessed with it. The archive that they have there is the most horrifying—like near-snuff film after near-snuff film.
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