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How ‘Everything is Terrible’ kept the magic of crappy VHS alive

Not the worst.


Colette Shade

Internet Culture

Posted on May 27, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 5:13 pm CDT

Since 2007, Everything is Terrible has been amassing a collection of the Internet’s best worst videos on their website and YouTube channel. Their offerings include cast-off home movies, strange public service announcements, bad corporate training videos and public access channel footage of every stripe.

The videos have a few things in common. Most of them date from the mid-80s through the early 2000s. The clothes are dated, the footage is grainy, the acting is wooden. A not-insignificant number feature ill-advised rapping—space-themed Christian rap, fire safety rap, rapping Troll dolls, a hyperactive math teacher MC rhyming about multiplication.

“I usually describe Everything is Terrible as a found-footage website that takes old VHS tapes and then reinterprets that footage to make psychedelic comedy,” Commodore Gilgamesh, one of the project’s founders told the Daily Dot. (He asked that I use his pseudonym.)

Nine years later—an eternity for any online endeavor—Everything is Terrible is still going strong. And, astonishingly, its aesthetic has gone mainstream. Advertisements and television shows regularly channel the voyeuristic, unintentional comedy of found footage. An entire episode of Broad City revolves around Abbi and Ilana stumbling upon Abbi’s boss’ amateur porn work. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!—which spent five seasons presenting surreal sketches as if they were cast-off home recordings or late-night infomercials—was an influential hit. Its titular creators have since been commissioned to do advertisements for Totino’s Pizza Rolls and Absolut Vodka.

“It is interesting how much the aesthetic has seeped into the mainstream,” Gilgamesh said. “I think Tim and Eric deserve a lot of the credit for this—taking the exact aesthetic from quote-unquote bad public access shows, or low budget movies, or backyard videotapes. You’ll see it on NBC, and it’s really weird.”

Everything is Terrible happened to be in the right place at the right time. The project began when Gilgamesh and some friends from Cleveland’s comedy scene began collecting instructional videos they found at thrift stores in the early 2000s. DVDs had recently overtaken VHS tapes as the dominant home video format (soon to be obsolete themselves, of course). People were offloading their entire VHS collections, leaving thrift stores with a diverse glut of everything from home videos to hollywood blockbusters.

The progenitor of this irony-enhanced found-footage genre was most likely TV Carnage. Started by a group of friends in 1996, TV Carnage, which describes itself as “arguably the best collection of truly awful television,” sold homemade VHS compilations of weird workout videos, poorly-shot infomercials, and musical performances that would only be allowed on public-access channels. Its irreverent humor was an underground success.

Another of Everything is Terrible’s forebears is the Found Footage Festival. Since 2004, the Found Footage Festival has traveled the United States as a live show of edited-together found VHS clips with host commentary.

In 2005, YouTube made its debut. Suddenly, all video footage in existence—no matter how amateurish, mundane or weird—could be uploaded and watched anywhere, at any time. This was perhaps the most important Web development for Everything is Terrible, as it allowed them to circumvent the DIY distribution networks and indie performance venues that TV Carnage and the Found Footage Festival relied upon.

Commodore Gilgamesh and his friends were fans of TV Carnage and its milieu. In order to hone their video editing skills, they started creating clips from the VHS tapes they found at thrift stores and posting them online.

“YouTube just got started and was blowing up, so we were like, ‘this is naturally the place where videos should go,’” he said. “We just started posting them, and the blog got a little bit of attention. We’ve been doing it ever since.”

Thus, Everything is Terrible exposed hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers to cat massage tutorials, anti-abortion dramas and moms on the net.

“I think the greatest thing that I’ve ever found is a video about dyeing your public hair into all these different designs,” said Commodore Gilgamesh. “One is a cup of wine, one is a French flag. It’s AMAZING. I couldn’t do anything to that. It was perfect.”

He elaborated on his other favorites with relish.

Puffy the Pillow is this nightmare pillow that talks to kids and tries to convince them to go to sleep on his face,” he said. “Soooo messed up! Digging back into the catalogue, Singing Babies is always one that I really like. They took real-life babies and then they took adult voices and mouths and eyes and put them onto the babies and made them sing, and they thought that babies and adults would like that, it would look cute, but it actually was just total horror.”

I first discovered Everything is Terrible in 2008, as a student at the University of Vermont. At a friend’s group house on some snowy evening, we’d take turns showing each other our favorite bad videos until our stomachs hurt from laughing. Lines from our favorites became inside jokes. We became connoisseurs of crap, and Everything is Terrible was our gateway.

Speaking of gateways, one of the highlights of Everything is Terrible’s catalog is its collection of anti-drug and stranger danger PSAs. Bullies make fun of teens who say no to pot, fifth-graders peer pressure each other into smoking crack and sock puppets descend into addiction and meet the grim reaper.

One of the first Everything Is Terrible videos I remember watching was a musical number in which an anthropomorphic alien named Corey dodges a succession of attempted kidnappings by strangers. Multiple listens to the lyrics reveal them to be a masterwork of paranoia. Children are warned that “strangers posed as smiling friends cause you danger in dead ends.” Children are told to be apprised of strangers who are posing as clowns, offering candy or even “wearing stolen badges, lurking ‘round in fields and hedges.”

There’s something gratifying about about watching these videos with a couple decades of hindsight. Sure, it confirms your childhood suspicion that those videos you had to sit through in health class were painfully uncool, but you realize they were also full of lies justifying government policies that ruined millions of lives. Watching and laughing about these videos is a way of holding people accountable through humor.

“We’re taking our ability to look back at things and being like, ‘look at the real effects that that had on us as individuals and us as a culture, and let’s examine what we’re doing now and what we’ve done then and try to do a better job,’” said Commodore Gilgamesh. “We like to pretend we’re just a comedy thing, this weird psychedelic world, but it is definitely critical.”

Everything is Terrible is still posting daily videos, but right now their biggest project involves collecting 18,000 VHS tapes of Jerry Maguire to build a permanent pyramid in the California desert. Commodore Gilgamesh claimed that the project is dead serious.

“I’m having conversations with an architect about a permanent structure that is safe for people to go into that is constructed out of Jerry Maguire VHS tapes,” he said.

The Jerry Maguire project began when members of Everything is Terrible stumbled upon an alarming number of VHS tapes of the 1997 hit movie at thrift stores. Fans began sending in their “Jerrys.”

“At first it was just a weird joke,” Gilgamesh said. “But now I legitimately have an emotional response when I see one by itself that’s not with all of its family. I really think it’s important that they all get together, because otherwise they’re just going to end up in a landfill by themselves, and that’s really scary for Jerry Maguire.”

Commodore Gilgamesh is proud of what he has accomplished in the past nine years.

“I go back and forth between extreme modesty and extreme arrogance,” he said. “We’ve clearly done something that is specific and special and has reached a lot of people. We’re still here and we’re getting away with it.”

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*First Published: May 27, 2016, 9:00 am CDT