Mining VHS Tapes For Internet Gold

Everything Is Terrible! loves the internet and hates nostalgia. An interview with the web's premiere VHS archeologists.

Everything is Terrible! has been converting thrift-store VHS into viral gold since 2007, when the group of Ohio grads finally decided to take their re-edited VHS tapes online. In the five years since, they've become one of the web's best sources for bizarre video finds and left an impressive footprint on more traditional media. (One of their biggest successes, the infamous cat massage video, landed its subject a guest spot on Letterman.) I talked with EIT's Airwave Ranger and Ghoul Skool about copyright, the underground VHS trade, and the Randy Quaid Nazi movie that got away.

What are you going for in an Everything is Terrible! video? Is it just terribleness?

GS: So many people say, "those videos are so bad they're good" but I just hate that. I really don't like that at all. I know we call the site Everything is Terrible! but there is that exclamation point, meaning how great it is. So it's not even ironic. I don't watch bad movies. I wouldn't want to watch bad movies. I watch good movies. And Deadly Prey is a good movie. We all have different threshholds for what we like, but if I don't like something I'm not going to put it up on the website. If I like it, I'll put it up.

What is it about VHS that appeals to you?

AR: I think VHS offers you an old view of the world, the way that we just filled it with shit, from mass mailers to get-rich-quick schemes to how-to videos to shitty action movies to movies that thought they were good. By putting it on VHS and putting it in stores, it's like we created all this physical thing that's there everywhere and it's mostly garbage. The video quality is garbage. But in spite of all that, it has really positive connotations, at least for me.

Do you think it's a nostalgia thing?

GS: A lot of people talk about the nostalgic part of it. I'm kind of surprised by that because for the most part, it's stuff that people haven't seen before at all. That's what I'm trying to find at least, something that, you don't know what's going to happen next and it's just going to be completely shocking and weird in some interesting way. But I do find it funny how many people say, "I love that stuff because I was 10 when that stuff was out."

AR: And they're 20 now. I don't even think that counts as nostalgia. It's so weird to me. Like, of course you remember it. It was eight years ago. I hope you remember it. They're always like, "That's so '80s" and it's 1998, or they're like, "That's so '70s" and it's like 1989. They think it's a whole new generation, like your great-great-grandparents or something, but it's so recent. We want to distance ourselves from something so low-budget, so low-tech, but it's all recent history.

Can you imagine the same stuff coming out of YouTube right now?

D: Absolutely. I'm actually surprised that more people aren't going through found footage from YouTube. There's so much stuff that people haven't seen. A lot of it is hard to watch, but if you go through it, and you go past the viral part of it, there's some weird, weird, dark shit there. It's different because most of it is no budget at all, but I think there's definitely more of that and will be more of that forever. I don't think that's going away.

Where do you guys start looking?

GS: Everywhere. Just go on Amazon, type in "nude bodypainting" and guess what, there's 10 nude bodypainting videos. It's not so hard to find the stuff. But it's the sifting and the curating of it that people enjoy.

There aren't as many full-length movies that we're finding now, but again, I bet in 20 years we're going to find them. I work at Cinefamily out in LA and we're constantly looking for "Holy Fucking Shit." And there's still plenty of it. It's easy to look back and say 1987 had more "holy fucking shit" movies than any other time in history, but then again, I cannot wait to look back on 2012 in 15 years and be like, holy shit.

It does seem like the late '80s were a particularly fertile time for WTF videos, though. Why do you think that is?

AR: Back then I think video was probably in the same place that it is on the internet right now. Video was just becoming popular for home. People were making this stuff. Flmmakers didn't have to pay for processing, they'd just shoot straight to video. That's a huge savings. Not buying film, not renting equipment, just shooting on video in daylight, you could make a feature-length for one-trillionth the budget you could before. So there was just this massive burst of people wanting to be directors that like, I dunno, it was a huge boom for content and I think the same's going on right now for the internet. People are hopefully savvy enough that they don't need the big budget.

GS: The one big thing that I'm hoping is that this stuff lasts. I hope that I can find a YouTube video in 20 years, that was made now. I don't know, I'm worried about that. Cloud storage and that kind of stuff is exciting but it also kind of worries me because it's like, "well, you could just delete your account and then how are we ever going to see this stuff again?"

That's interesting. Do you think we need a kind of Martin Scorcese figure for web video to be like, let's preserve this stuff?

AR: I think it's a pretty commonly repeated mistake with all new media that, as soon as it's over or past, people just disregard it, and get rid of it all. They just stop caring. And that's one of the things we're doing with VHS, I think inadvertently, is digitizing the stuff. But at the same time, the digital stuff, that's just as easy to erase if not easier, and it's almost more care-free. The internet's littered with popular websites that have just been abandoned. Their content just sits there and rots, and some day all it needs to do is get deleted which I don't think anyone will really give a shit about. People think all these giants of internet are going to be around forever but history has yet to prove that, a lot of them go by the wayside pretty quick. So yeah, this content could just kind of dissipate into nothingness. It's hard to keep up with.

You mentioned Amazon earlier. How much of this stuff can you find online, and how much do you unplug to get a hold of?

GS: I used to do a lot of Amazon but I kind of stopped in the last couple years just because, first of all, stuff goes up in price which drives me crazy. Especially for out-of-print movies, there's this weird culture now where people are collecting VHS in the same vein that they're doing vinyl. Not nearly as big, but for example, a movie like Deadly Prey, I've seen for like $100, which is insane. I've seen videos for $300 before, and I don't know if people are buying them, but that kind of depresses me because it's just so stupid.

AR: There's a movie of Randy Quaid playing Hitler from like 1980 that I've been trying to get. And it's like $800. It's so annoying. But it's supposedly the most detailed, specific performance of Hitler, and it's Randy Quaid.

GS: That's amazing.

AR: Yeah, but I'm not going to spend $800 on a VHS copy of that movie.

GS: Yeah, that's kind of why I gave up on Amazon. It's good for knowing something exists, but in the end, I'm just going to have to find that tape.

AR: The stuff that we look for, sometimes, someone would never in a million years think, "I should take a picture of this thing, write a description, upload it to my account and sell it for a quarter." No one would do that. So the real finds don't happen online.

What's your legal status? Do you envision a time when you have to protect the legality of Everything is Terrible?

GS: I just got an email yesterday from a friend of mine I hadn't seen in a while and he was like, "So, how do you clear all the samples you use?" And you obviously know that we don't. But I'm shocked at how many people are so scared of copyright infringement that they would even think, "oh how do you guys get the rights for that stuff?" It just seems so odd to me that that's even a concern. I honestly, I don't know about Airwave Ranger, I never think, "Oh this isn't mine, I should be careful." I don't.

AR: Copyright law has gotten pretty ass-backwards. It's meant to help creativity in the long run, not stifle it. And nowadays it's really has just taken the form of protecting corporations. People who ask us to take down videos usually don't even know the people in the video. They just have ownership of this thing. That is the exact opposite of what copyright is intended to do.

GS: It happened a lot before, that the individual, the person would come down on us. And we'd be like, "oh yeah, of course, man. We're not trying to fuck with you." But I think in the last few years, we've proved (and there's a lot of other examples of it) that we've actually sort of boosted these videos, we've sort of promoted them for free. It's not what we're trying to do, but there's a lot of these 80s action movies that we've put out that are getting a lot of attention that I like to think is partly because of the attention that we've brought to it by making a three-minute cut of it.

How many notices would you say you get?

GS: Not that many. Really it's because YouTube has that three-strike policy, and unfortunately, YouTube has no way of policing that. So anyone can claim copyright of a video on YouTube. If there's 100,000 videos being uploaded a day, or probably many more than that, they can't have someone actually checking. So, that's unfortunate, but that's the way it is.

It can't be all bad if you're still using YouTube.

GS: Yeah, but now we're also using Vimeo, Funny or Die, DailyMotion, different accounts on YouTube. We kind of have to do that now just because we can't afford to have our stuff all get deleted at once.

What would you like to see more of in web culture?

GS: I love what's going on now. I love the culture we've created of remixing stuff the day it comes out and creating a black metal version of Friday, I think that's amazing. I wish that it wasn't such a fad. I wish that people would stick with memes a bit longer. That's my only thing. But there's so much more out there. 100,000 videos are being uploaded to youtube a day — it's probably more than that, actually. That was a couple years ago.

Bing says they discover tens of billions of new URLs every day, which sounds insane.

GS: Isn't that amazing? I think that's incredible. That makes me so happy, and I hope that doesn't go away. I'm a little worried it might go away.