Memes

The Star of the 'American Chopper' Meme Didn't Know What a Meme Was

Paul Teutul Sr. is "not real savvy with much on a telephone," he told me.

Opheli Garcia Lawler

Image courtesy of Paul Teutul Sr.

Paul Teutul Sr., the star of the gone-but-not-forgotten Discovery Channel show American Chopper, is the latest in the long line of people to accidentally become enshrined in the millennial art form known as the meme. It’s nearly impossible that you haven’t come across it, but for the uninitiated the so-called “American Chopper meme” is five panels worth of screenshots from a seven-year-old fight Teutul had with his son, Paul Jr., on camera. In the meme, the original context of the fight (it was about tardiness) has been stripped away so people can overlay whatever esoteric arguments they want on top of the image. So far it’s been remixed to explain everything from gender pay inequality to the importance of the Padme from Star Wars before ultimately going meta. Outlets like Vox and the Washington Post have posted detailed explainers about how to use and understand it—the latest part of the ongoing quest to explain to the olds what memes are, who gets to make them, and which ones are worth paying attention to.

But when I found out Teutul Sr. himself has only been recently made aware of his viral moment through his girlfriend’s daughter, I decided to call him up and get his take. As it turns out, he’s a good sport about it, even if seems to not understand what a meme is. Oh, and he also seemed to think VICE was behind the American Chopper format? Anyway, here’s what we talked about:

VICE: I wanted to ask you, did you know what a meme was before this meme about your show became viral?
Paul Teutul Sr.: I'm not real savvy with much on a telephone, but it's kind of funny because somebody mentioned that twice, and it went over my head, and I never even came back to ask what it was, because I'm not so savvy with social media so I didn't even really kind of care what it was. So no. Did I know what a meme was? Absolutely not. Now I do.

Did you think any of the memes were funny?
I remember when those incidents were happening for real, and it was like, big-time crazy, you know what I mean? So you've spun it, you know? Now it's funny. People who knew what those incidents were before, it was kind of, like, horrifying. And now it's flipped, and people keep coming up to me, and they keep sending me different ones. I didn't get it, and now, so many people are coming up to me, and so I'm more involved in looking at it now, and the more I look at it, the funnier it is.

I was hoping you could give me a bit more context about the original fight.
It was horrifying. The problem is, there were always those incidents. I'm not sure if that was when I fired him, or if it was just another everyday dysfunctional situation going on between me and my son, you know?



I know a lot of people think that reality TV is staged to have those big explosive moments, but this scene seemed to be real, because your son has a different shop now.
You can't make that stuff up. We're the pioneers. We changed the face of Discovery, because they would have never done that before, and now every show that they have is like ours. We never staged anything. I am a blue-collar guy, so you throw me into TV, and it's like, Wow. And that's the type of person I am. I worked in construction all my life, so that's the guy I was: a high-strung, values type of person. We couldn't do scripted because we never really remembered the words. They weren't looking for script because of the way things went down in the family anyway. Yes, it’s real.

So going forward do you think that you guys are going to talk about the meme on the show?
You know what? Yes. Yeah. Because I'd thought it was just a one time shot, you know what I mean? I looked at it and I thought it was funny, but how many have you done?

Me? Oh, I am not making these memes. The internet is making them. Like, it's everyone.
What? Oh, I've only seen a couple.

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