Internet Brilliance and Endurance

Screen shot from “Flying Robots” by The Gregory Brothers



When my kids were younger we loved to snuggle up before bedtime and watch funny things together on the internet, such as “Dad’s Life,” an endearing music video of stereotypical fathers’ concerns (“I’ve got dozens of dollars…”). It is well-written, acted, shot, and edited.

The video went viral. There was a follow-up, about the mom’s life, but it did not get as much traction. The videos were produced—improbably, I thought at the time, because there was no hint of religion in them—by Church on the Move, a large Christian organization in Oklahoma. Their YouTube channel now contains Bible-study tutorials and megachurch Christmas shows, such as the Grinch dancing to “Thriller.” I was bothered for a time: how did the creative talent apparent in the viral video not produce more of what was enjoyed so widely, if only for use as a promotional tool?

The same thing happened with other internet producers. JibJab, in 2004, did a wicked little music video, using Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” but with presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry as literal talking heads on animated bodies. JibJab’s political and social satire dropped away when the company turned to selling animated greeting cards.

Rhett and Link, of Good Mythical Morning, a daily talk show that kids and adults could watch, took off in 2012. GMM, as it is known, has racked up 6.5 billion views. Our favorite things Rhett and Link did (and they have tried many things) included weird but genuine commercials; visits to businesses to see how things were made, under the pretense it was their own “backup plan” if internet broadcasting did not work out; and music videos with original songs. As they have aged into and become wealthy at a job (“internetainers”) they helped invent, they have settled mainly into the “eat weird stuff” format, probably because their best material took crazy amounts of time to produce.

I was thinking nostalgically and a little ruefully of all this today, because the Gregory Brothers, also known as Schmoyoho, have another political video out. The Gregorys are three actual brothers and one of their wives, known for “songifying” people, especially from the news. That is, they Auto-tune others’ voices to create melodies, then add harmonies, instruments, and video elements. Theirs is a very democratic art; they use the hidden cadences and poetry of normal (but sometimes excited) speech to make their music.

I think their first video I found was “Can’t Hug Every Cat,” in which a young woman who is making a dating video gets tearful, over and over, due to her over-the-top love of cats. (It was later revealed she was an actress, but not in the employ of the Gregorys.) The video uses internet cat videos and is…low-budget, to say the least.

Their next big hit was the “Backin Up Song,” a songified version of a news report after an armed robbery. The thing I have always liked about the Gregorys is the humanity, even gentleness, in their comedy. While their subjects are often quirky, they do not punch down. (Those who deserve a walloping, however—usually politicians—get one.) I actually find “Backin Up” very moving, in its emotions of the woman who survived the robbery, as she calls back to her father, and in the gleeful satire of youthful dancing later in the video. The Gregorys were just kids then.

That comic ability to tap genuine emotion has produced some very fine popular art. Their “Flying Robots,” made in 2013, perfectly anticipated the fear, paranoia, and helplessness of our current time. And their video “American Carnage,” posted the day after the presidential inauguration of 2017, has always been hard for me to watch, for its discordant, apocalyptic tone and spot-on parody of banality, which has only grown more true with time.

The Gregorys have made hundreds of videos, but many are flat or workmanlike. Their website says “they have been nominated for an Emmy, won 3 Webby Awards, 2 Streamy Awards, and produced the first YouTube video to ever chart on The Billboard Hot 10o.” They have done projects for the Academy Awards, Jimmy Kimmel, and the Times. I am happy for them, that they have been able to make a good living at what they do. They are often brilliant, and they seem like nice people. But I am more interested in them lasting, and in what other brilliant commentary they can create, when we need it so badly.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.