Peter and Raymond were middle-aged men with severe drinking problems and a bitter hatred for each other. Peter was gay; Raymond was a homophobe. They were also, for some mysterious reason, roommates. They fought loudly, frequently, and creatively. "I can kill you from a sitting position!" Raymond would yell. "You're a rotten little liar man. Lady. Pardon me—lady!" Peter would retort.
In 1987, two college grads moved into the apartment next door—a dump of a place with thin walls, the rooms soon filled with Peter and Raymond's rage. The guys were freaked out. Then they started recording the rows on tape cassettes, figuring they might need them to share with the police. Eventually, though, the fights stopped being scary and started being funny. And so the guys did what anyone today might do with such material: They shared it.
And so began a viral sensation in the analog age.The tapes (all 14 hours of them) became known as "Shut Up Little Man!" referencing one of Peter's favorite insults. Friends copied them for friends. A music label put out a CD. Comic books were made. A play was produced. Devo recorded a song.
Today, a documentary by the same name opens in 30 markets nationwide, tracking the phenomenon's rise and then going a step further: Though both Peter and Raymond are now dead (and only one of them was ever made aware of their strange popularity), director Matthew Bate unearths the story behind these men and their relationship, putting the tapes into a more sorrowful context.
In the YouTube era, that discovery—that a viral hit is often far more complex and sad than we're willing to consider—resonates more than ever. We spoke to Bate (who also directs TV commercials) about what this Patient Zero can tell us about the nature of viral, and its role in our culture.
We think of "viral" as a modern sensation, made possible by the Internet. But Shut Up Little Man! was the very model of viral. Do you know of even older examples?
Yeah: Christianity! That went viral. I mean, I'm sure this happened all over the place—they just aren't well known anymore. I hadn't heard of Shut Up Little Man! until recently, but there are still fans of it. On Facebook, fans have this ongoing quote game, where someone will lay down one quote and then 50 people will carry on this weird Shut Up Little Man! conversation.
Was there something about the old technology that gave it longevity? I can't imagine anyone will be talking about today's viral memes in 20 years.
I think it's a matter of the sheer volume of material. A Star Wars Kid clip, or a Christian Bale rant, are usually two or three minutes long. And they can be amazing. When you listen to the Christian Bale thing, it's unlike anything you've ever heard before. Christian Bale was going apeshit! But that's all you want now. The attention span of people is generally under two minutes. And a two-minute viral video is perfectly digestible and forgettable.
Meanwhile, the Shut Up Little Man! tapes went on for 14 hours. You can fully enter this universe. For the fans that become really obsessed, it's like a seemingly unending gold mine of quotes and moments that people seem to study.
Does Shut Up Little Man teach us anything about the nature of going viral?
I saw it as an early warning sign of what was to come—the increasingly more cannibalistic nature of popular culture. The source material itself is incredibly captivating stuff. Their dialog and relationship is so bizarre. But as you learn more about these guys, it all changes. First it's hilarious, then it's tragic, then should you ask if you should even be listening to this stuff.
That leads directly to the Star Wars kid, that little fat kid who recorded himself pretending to be Darth Maul, or whatever he was doing, and the video went viral. From what I understand, he's gone through psychological torment. It's had a very negative effect on his life. The difference, though, is that the Star Wars Kid filmed himself. It's an interesting phenomenon of the modern age, that we create these little videos, these little Frankensteins, that can turn back and haunt us.
So to enjoy a viral hit, are we willfully ignoring the obvious humanity behind it? I mean, it was clear something very tragic was going on with Ray and Pete, but nobody seemed to stop and consider it.
Yeah, I think we're collectively guilty of enjoying this stuff. Entertainment is schadenfreude, and schadenfreude has become big business. It always has been, in a way. There must be something in us. We laugh at Buster Keaton. We laugh at a man slipping on a banana peel and falling on his face. And now we have the real version of this—people on the streets in real-life situations, falling off of BMXs or falling on their faces.
So what's consistent between the tapes of the 1980s and the videos of today? What makes them such hits?
There's an element of voyeurism—we want to see a sneak peek of something that we shouldn't. It's a bit naughty. But this is a very difficult thing to answer. I direct advertisements when I'm not making documentaries, and there was a time when advertising companies would all say, "We want this thing to go viral." I'd say, "I don't know. I don't think it's a magic formula."
And it's not like you can just film some stranger and then make that the advertisement. So what did you do?
It's very difficult. Because when advertising idiots get together in a room to create magic, it just doesn't work. But in advertising, I think that the viral thing came and went. It was like a buzzword for a while that advertising people were interested in. Then they understood that "going viral" is incredibly difficult. It's not just something that you can decide upon. It's something that's self-generating, it's something that seems to capture the collective minds. We send it to one another.
So what's an advertiser to do now?
Adverts now are more project-based. It's less about coming up with some amazing 30-second advert, and it's more coming up with a 360-degree campaign, which might include a 10-minute documentary that appears on Facebook, and has characters out of which the 30-second commercial can come from. It's a different approach now.
Is it better that they stopped chasing the viral hit? Was that bogging down creativity?
Hmm. I don't know. I really hate making adverts. I never spent much time thinking about it. It just annoyed me. They'd never come up with Pete and Ray. How do you come up with a viral sensation? It's a weird, morally nebulous accidents that occur in broom closets and schools and apartments. If we had a formula for that, God, I'd be talking to you from my Learjet somewhere in the Bahamas.
Follow Jason Feifer on Twitter @heyfeifer.