From YouTube to Borat: The Jackass Generation

Beerfest
Jay Chandrasekhar,
Kevin Heffernan, Paul Soter,
Steve Lemme and
Erik Stolhanske
in Beerfest (2006).

I don’t remember how
or why I got there, but
the fact is I clicked.
After two hours on YouTube,
you’re no longer responsible for
your actions. Something primal takes over.
The ancient need for distraction–Man’s
Search for Funny.

The clip was called Molly Grows Up and
was typical YouTube: Two dudes dug up an
old, public domain, black-and-white “health
class” movie about a prototypical ’50s teen
coming to grips with puberty. Then they
dubbed over the original dialogue with the
sort of pseudo-stoner banter everyone recognizes
as “bored, ironic hipster.”

I admit it was pretty funny. I even watched
all two-and-a-half minutes of it (an eternity
on YouTube). Nothing terribly original, but
the pace was fast, the jokes mildly crude and
the message clear: Eat more Wendy’s!

Eat more Wendy’s?

It turns out the clip in question wasn’t
the product of two dudes in a basement in
Bethesda, but 20 suits in a Madison Avenue
high-rise. (On second viewing, they did
mention Wendy’s 99¢ Super Value Menu
more than could be reasonably explained
by the munchies…) The whole thing–three
YouTube clips and an equally low-rent
Website–was whipped up by a division of
McCann-Erickson, one of the world’s biggest
advertising firms.

It’s called “Astroturf,” explains Henry
Jenkins, director of Comparative Media
Studies at MIT. “Fake grassroots media.” And
its very existence begs an interesting question,
says Jenkins. “What does it mean that
we live in a world where very powerful players
feel compelled to pass their work off as if it
came from amateurs in order to get the attention
that they think they might deserve?”
It means that something strange has happened.
Strange, but not entirely unexpected.
Its influence is felt not only in advertising
and marketing, but in every level of
media and entertainment–from the lowest
budget YouTuber to the most cash-bloated
Hollywood movie studio.

The causes are many but the overall
message is clear: If you want to reach this
generation–especially if you want to make
them laugh–keep it loose, keep it low-budget
and keep it “real.”

Tom Lennon and Ben Garant have been
doing their own weird thing for a long time.
Original members of “The State” comedy
troupe, the writing and acting duo also created
“Viva Variety” for Comedy Central and “Reno
911!,” which is making the move to the big
screen this February with Reno 911!: Miami.
As smart and edgy as Lennon and
Garant’s shows have been, nothing can
make a couple of 35-year-olds sound like
stale old greybeards faster than the subject
of “Kids these days…”

Jackass Number Two
The “Jackass” team,
including Jason “Wee
Man” Acuna and Johnny
Knoxville, returns for
Jeff Tremaine’s Jackass
Number Two
(2006)

“Kids are super smart and super critical
and have a different type of aesthetic than
we do,” says Garant, who plays dimwitted
Deputy Travis Junior on “Reno 911!”
“Kids that go to the movies these days never
watched sitcoms. They see sitcom-scripted
comedy and it feels like Shakespeare to
them; it’s so artificial.”

When Garant talks about the “kids,”
he’s referring to what we call “The Jackass Generation.” Raised on reality TV as the
rule rather than the exception, they’ve been
preconditioned to have, as Lennon puts it,
“a very low tolerance for bullshit.”
Dweebs like you and I may fall for the
Wendy’s YouTube stunt, but not the Jackass
Generation. The Molly Grows Up clip got
a lot of hits, but just as many angry, anticorporate
comments. The second and third
clips Wendy’s uploaded simply sunk down
into the digital dregs.

How Lennon and Garant get around the
predictability of the traditional scripted sitcom
or movie is, of course, to make up every
line of dialogue as they go along. “The script
for Reno 911!: Miami was really a 30-page
outline,” says Lennon.

Obviously, they’re not the only ones in
Hollywood to embrace improvisation. Will
Ferrell and the “Frat Pack” crowd are famous
for going “off book.” A movie like Ferrell’s
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,
a Jackass Generation classic, is so packed
with surreal comic moments one wonders
if Ferrell and his writing partner, Adam
McKay, even bothered with the outline.
What the Frat Pack comedies do so well
is use collective improvisation to sell the
idea that here’s a group of friends–famous
friends, sure, but regular guys at heart–
who like to hang out, goof around and
make each other laugh.

Seth Rogen, who had a small role in
Anchorman, but starred alongside Steve
Carell and Paul Rudd in The 40-Year-
Old Virgin
(which he also produced) and
Owen Wilson in You, Me and Dupree, says
audiences respond to that sort of comedy
because it’s real. “That’s the most amazing
part of the process. It really is fun and you
really feel like you’re hanging out with your
friends,” Rogen says.

Take the famous “Know how I know
you’re gay?” scene from The 40-Year-Old
Virgin
, where Rogen and Rudd question
each other’s manhood during a PlayStation
battle. “Paul Rudd and I actually are friends,”
says Rogen. “When we’re talking it actually
is just us trying to make each other laugh.”
What does that mean for the Jackass
Generation? It means that a kid like
21-year-old Dave Lehre in Washington,
Michigan is encouraged to get together
with his friends and do the exact same
thing as the Ferrells, Carells and Rudds of
the world–maybe even better.

Armed with cheap DV technology and
fueled by abject boredom (“It’s either make
movies or have some crazy house party
in the woods,” says Lehre), Lehre and his
buddies achieved YouTube stardom with
MySpace, the Movie, a timely, satirical jab
at the collective addiction of the Jackass
Generation.

Garant and Lennon think that’s the biggest
difference between themselves and the
Jackass Generation. “When we were kids,
there wasn’t a sense amongst us that ‘I could
do better.’ We didn’ think that way,” says
Garant. “Now they think, ‘Well, I’ll get a
camera and I’ll put a skateboard on the roof
and I can do better than “Reno 911!”‘”
Maybe they’re right. Maybe they know
something the rest of us don’t. Lehre signed
a pilot deal with Fox (“The president of
Fox’s son is a big fan of mine,” he explains)
and just wrapped shooting in small-town
Michigan. When he went out to L.A. to
meet with studio execs, Lehre says, the suits were looking to him for advice.

“They’re trying to grasp onto something
that’s taking flight faster than a rocket ship,”
says Lehre. When he walked in and said he
had a million hits on YouTube, they were
flabbergasted. “‘How do you do it?’ they
asked,” recalls Lehre. “Me and my friends
just have fun. They’re like, ‘This doesn’
make any sense!'”

Mesh Flinders has been living with a 15-
year-old girl in his head for longer than he’d
care to remember. An aspiring moviemaker,
Flinders has written “Bree” into three
of his unproduced screenplays, but it took
YouTube to bring her to life.

Flinders is the creator of LonelyGirl15, the
teen video blogger whose cryptic Webcam
diary continues to draw hundreds of thousands
of hits–even after Bree was publicly
unmasked as a professional actress.

What Flinders proved with the wild popularity
of LonelyGirl15 is just how strong the
lure of “reality” is to this generation. Even if
they knew Bree was a little too good to be
true, says Flinders, “People really wanted to
believe in her.”

Borat
Sacha Baron Cohen and friend travel
the country in Borat: Cultural Learnings
of America for Make Benefit Glorious
Nation of Kazakhstan
(2006).

Flinders credits some of the success of a
movie like Borat to the fact that audiences
buy into the moviemaker’s reality. “The
audience is willing to suspend their disbelief,
as long as you obey certain rules,” says
Flinders. “Especially if you make it look like
a documentary.”

The faux documentary technique is quickly
becoming a staple of cutting-edge comedy.
Jay Chandrasekhar, who writes for, acts
in and directs all of the Broken Lizard comedies,
including the cult hit Super Troopers
and 2006’s Beerfest gained experience with
the faux documentary style while directing
a few episodes of “Arrested Development.”

“It just feels more naturalistic,” notes
Chandrasekhar. “It feels more like real life.
You get away with these jokes that are not
really huge jokes on the page, and the audience
is wondering, ‘Did they just make that
up? Because that’s fucking brilliant.'”

“Reno 911!” is supposed to be a loose satire
of “Cops,” so Garant and Lennon have
always used a handheld camera to capture
all the “real” action. But when they were
filming the “Reno 911!” movie, they started
second-guessing themselves, wondering if a
“Cops” camera would go into people’s bedrooms
and private conversations. But when
they screened it, the audience didn’t blink.
“It’s the way they expect to see things documented,”
says Lennon. “A camera is seemingly
always present.”

Aside from the obvious influence of
reality TV, part of that expectation to see
everything documented comes from the
emerging YouTube “caught on tape” culture,
says Jenkins. “We’ve all got cameras in
our cell phones,” says Jenkins. When everyone
everywhere has a camera all the time,
everything’s fair game. “YouTube becomes
an archival medium as a form of documenting
culture.”

The other important quality of the faux
documentary style is that it looks cheap.
Jackass and Borat look and feel like do-it-
yourself, guerilla moviemaking, even
though they’re produced by major studies.
For Jenkins, that makes Jackass
and Borat prime examples of Hollywood
“Astroturf.”

But like Flinders says, if the moviemakers
play by all the rules and the audience buys
into it, even the most expensive Astroturf
can feel as real as the back yard. Broken
Lizard’s Chandrasekhar is one of those
audience members. “Borat is such an elegant
movie in terms of [creating a reality],”
he says. “What was written, what wasn’t, I
don’t know. I don’t care. It’s just genius.
They made it feel totally spontaneous.”

YouTube officially launched in December
2005. Less than a year later, Google bought
it for $1.65 billion. How could such a simple
idea–allowing people to post and share
video clips–be so powerful?

“Every week we’re finding a new layer to what’s interesting about YouTube,”
says Jenkins, whose most recent book,
Convergence Culture: Where Old and New
Media Collide
, explores, in part, how grassroots
creativity affects mainstream media.

“Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen
all this do-it-yourself media being made,
but it’s all in these little niche corners of the
Internet, where these groups are sort of hidden
from each other,” says Jenkins. “Now
they’re all thrown into YouTube as a sort of
melting pot of grassroots creative expression
and they’re learning stuff from each
other very rapidly.”

In an article for Wired, Bob Garfield
describes the ever-expanding YouTube community
as the real-life equivalent of a million
monkeys working at a million typewriters.
What they’re coming up with certainly
isn’t Shakespeare, but who cares?

MySpace, the Movie
Armed with cheap digital video technology
and fueled by abject boredom, Dave Lehre and
his buddies achieved YouTube stardom with
MySpace, the Movie, a timely, satirical jab at the
collective addiction of the Jackass Generation.

Think of YouTube as the world’s largest
improv troupe. Just as all the great sketch
comedians honed their skills and developed
fresh ideas on the stages of “Saturday Night
Live,” The Groundlings and Second City,
the Jackass Generation is doing the same
on YouTube, only to the 10th power. The
comedy terrain shifts so quickly on YouTube
(“old school” can mean last week), that the
culture is continuously redefining “What’s
funny this second.”

Jenkins provides an even more appropriate
comparison: YouTube as 21st-century
vaudeville. “Vaudeville was composed
of very short acts, each very different
material juxtaposed against each other,”
explains Jenkins. “A lot of creative control
in the hands of individual performers–a
tendency to focus on shock, emotion, fascination
with machinery and technological
devices… bringing the world together
on the same stage. In a sense, all of that
describes YouTube very well.”

Of course, early Hollywood relied on
a steady stream of performers who had
made names for themselves on the vaudeville
circuit. Not surprisingly, there has
been tremendous buzz over studios possibly
turning to YouTube for the next crop
of fresh moviemakers.

“It’s kind of like the 1970s again,” says
LonelyGirl15 creator Flinders, “when the
cultural revolution took place and the studios
went and hired all these ‘Young Turk’
filmmakers–Scorsese, Fellini, Coppola–
and let them come in and help with big
studio pictures. Hopefully that’s going to
happen now.”

Flinders, who describes himself as a moviemaker,
says he’s ready to make the transition from the Internet to
the big screen. “People like me, who have done
stuff on YouTube, are getting representation
and getting in a door that wasn’t open less
than even a year ago,” he says.

Tom Nunan, a film and TV producer
(Crash, The Illusionist) who also teaches a
combined course at UCLA for graduate film
students and MBA candidates, says if your
goal is to eventually make a lot of money in
the mainstream, YouTube is a completely
viable auditioning platform.

“All of the broadcast and cable networks
are all over YouTube, trolling for new voices
and new talent. It is absolutely a legitimate
space for new filmmakers–or old filmmakers
who want to reinvent themselves to
prove their ground,” says Nunan. “People
use it in pitches: ‘I’ve received 75,000 hits.’
And why wouldn’t they?”

Joe Bereta and Luke Barats just signed
a pilot deal with NBC after their sketch
comedy clips blew up on YouTube
(Variety recently included the duo in their
2006 Comedy Impact List). Barats doesn’t
think he and Bereta possess unusual
talent, it’s just that YouTube has given
them the distribution method to get their
stuff out there.

“We”re young writers who have gotten a
chance to see their stuff produced because we
did it ourselves,” says Barats. “I think that’s
the reason we’re in the room as opposed to
some other young writer who hasn’t gotten
his stuff exposed quite as much.”

For film critic and historian (and MovieMaker writer) Joe Leydon, the cross-pollination
of Hollywood and YouTube is only
natural. He calls the DIY clips on YouTube
“the cinematic equivalent of garage band
recordings. Just as there will be elements
of garage bands that will be incorporated
into mainstream music, there will also
be garage bands signed to recording contracts
with major labels,” says Leydon.

“I’m sure that some of the people who will
be releasing summer comedies in 2008
are making little comedy shorts for display
right now on YouTube.”

Lennon jokes that Reno 911!: Miami
is really nothing more than big screen
YouTube. “It’s shot with handheld video,
sometimes it’s out of focus and every three
minutes something either very violent or
very sexy happens, which is generally exactly
what YouTube is,” says Lennon. “I don’t
know if we would admit that or are aware of
it, but we’re certainly doing it.”

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