These are bleak times. The American id runs rampant at crypto-fascist rallies across the country as protesters and Trump supporters clash violently before the cameras. Secret Service agents choke-slam journalists and white supremacists shove young black women through crowds of jeering, spitting senior citizens and high school dropouts. The press goads it on while sputtering, “We’ve never seen anything like this before!” They suggest that the interruptions make the protesters look bad, not Trump, which is like suggesting that in Tiananmen Square everyone sympathized with the tanks.
On the Democratic side, Hillary pivots to the center with all the subtlety of a marching band, praising Nancy Reagan as a beacon of HIV awareness, an outrage akin to pissing on the AIDS Quilt. What’s next, Hillary commending Bashar al-Assad for his work in Syrian urban renewal? Meanwhile, Bernie keeps being Bernie—he’s got that on lockdown—while his most vocal/least tactful supporters alienate the liberal base one mansplaining Tweetstorm at a time.
I’ve admitted in a previous column that I’m having a hard time finding the funny in this election cycle and the Republican debates in particular. The stakes are too high and the prospects too grim; only the most apathetic observer could say that our current abysmal politics are “good for comedy.” I’ve even said that Trump is anti-comedy, that he actively sucks comedy out of any situation in which he occurs.
People have tried to make Trump funny by clowning on his body: his hair, the size of his hands and penis, his skin color—decidedly un-progressive lines of ridicule. John Oliver tried pinning him with his ancestral immigrant name, Drumpf, a tactic known in the trans community as “deadnaming” and mostly enjoyed by assholes who insist on continuing to call Caitlyn Jenner “Bruce,” the same creeps who were delighted that Obama’s middle name is Hussein.
Those dogs won’t hunt. Against this backdrop of brutality, loathing and lies, where’s all the good satire? Who will make dystopia funny?
Comedy finds a way. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon this video taken from footage of the ninth GOP debate:
I laughed until tears streamed. I watched it at least 20 times. In it, Trump mercilessly hectors Jeb Bush, who trips over his words and gets thrown off by air horns blasted by Trump supporters. A hand repeatedly thumps a microphone. Through repetition, hard zooms and awkward pauses, the whole thing builds a mesmerizing, cringe-worthy rhythm. The visual style is lo-fi, patched together, humble. This isn’t political commentary; it’s poetic truth. It reduces the bombastic big-budget spectacle of the Republican debates to pathetic schoolyard drama with Trump as the uber-bully and Jeb his target, the other candidates relegated to a pack of beta-male hyenas giggling off to the side.
The maker of this document and many more like it is Vic Berger, a video editor in Bethlehem, Penn. who now does work for absurdist comedy kingpins Super Deluxe. Berger is also the guy who pulled off what CNN called “the most impressive prank of the campaign season,” getting the Bush people to retweet his promise that if his Vine of one of Jeb’s awkward “regular guy” moments got one million views, he’d get “Jeb 4 Prez” tattooed on his neck.
With Jeb’s support, he reached his goal and proceeded to the tattoo parlor where he “got” the ink. Then, Berger’s “father,” played on Twitter by Tim Heidecker, chastised the Bush campaign for taking advantage of a mentally ill man obsessed with Jeb. The campaign walked briskly in the other direction and never spoke of Vic Berger again.
In addition to making videos of the debates and hypnotic Vines of the various candidates on the campaign trail, Berger also chops up interviews of famous people:
Along with pet subjects like evangelical apocalypse huckster Jim Bakker:
And a horny, self-aggrandizing late-stage Chubby Checker:
His work is hilarious because it relies almost solely on the weirdness and delusion of its subjects. He’s manipulating the videos, sure, but you also get a sense that he’s somehow revealing actual truths about these people. He’s stripping away the doubletalk and campaign rhetoric to reveal sad little moments: a lip quiver, a head tilt, a narrowing of the eyes, a flinch. I can’t get enough of them.
Berger joined me to talk about his work, the neverending debates and, of course, the inevitability of air horns.
Let’s talk about air horns. You are someone I’d trust to have an actual air horn because I know you’d only use it selectively in the right comedic spots.
[Laughs] Right, I don’t own one but if I did I think I’d use it properly. In the videos, that came about because I thought, how can I include Trump supporters during the debates? And I figured that they’re such assholes and bullies that they’d want to join in with Trump and interrupt Jeb or anybody who’s standing up against him.
His rallies remind me of football games, the crowd mentality. I figured that’s kinda what’d be next if they were allowed to bring paraphernalia in: an air horn.
At this point you could just make a video with a bunch of air horns and I’d laugh. I’ve got this Pavlovian thing going now; every time I hear it, it cracks me up.
I’ve been trying to stretch it a little by pitch-shifting it, almost like it’s a musical instrument, like a trumpet. So I have it play chords now, or it’ll slide. I just take it as far as I can.
You say the use of the air horn is evolving over time. Is there a sense of an overarching narrative to the videos?
I did maybe three GOP debates and they were kinda disjointed—they didn’t really have a storyline. I was just taking crazy moments and mixing them up. In the fourth one, Jeb was getting beat up on by Trump, so I incorporated that into the actual debate, this weird storyline of Trump always trying to ruin Jeb’s night.
That went on ‘til like the tenth debate. When Jeb dropped out I was bummed because I had this whole story going, so I ended up bringing him back to restore his family name—the one where he flies in like Superman.
A lot of people ask me, “Why didn’t you put in this thing where Kasich said this or Trump said this?” They’re funny things, but I’m not really showing highlights of the event—not that that’s a highlight; it’s a lowlight. I’m trying to create something new. I can’t fit in everything that people might if they were gonna make a highlight reel. I’m trying to make a new story.
That’s what was shocking to me about the videos when I first saw them—they’re not political or partisan-
You’re just getting at these human realities. I found myself feeling sympathy for Jeb Bush, someone I never thought I’d feel sympathy for.
Yep. I wanna make you forget that he’s a Bush and see if you can relate to him in a way you normally wouldn’t. It’s interesting to think of these people as actual humans rather than untouchables you’ll never come in contact with or feel bad for.
It’s a very unfamiliar feeling: “Aw, poor Jeb!”
Exactly. Just making him really sad.
It seems like there’d be a long German word to describe Jeb. What would it translate to if there were one?
“Trying to gain the respect of others but everybody’s disappointed with you and you’re not totally sure why.”
Nailed it. I knew you’d be able to distill it since you’ve thought it about it so much.
Only recently have I been able to talk about it because I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I’m doing with this stuff.
How long before a campaign hires you to produce a spot for them?
I’ve gotten emails from people who work on campaigns, like a guy from the Rubio campaign who contacted me as a fan. Nobody has asked me to do anything yet.
What’s weird is, as horrible as I’m making Trump look in these videos I’m finding there are a number of Trump supporters who love them. They don’t know I’m making fun of him or making him look really bad.
The things that everybody hates about Trump seem to be the stuff that his supporters love. That’s why its so hard to bring him down, because they like all the terrible shit he does.
You have a distinctive visual style. The hard zooms, the little selective interventions like where you added Cruz’s mouth-booger flying around. How did you develop that style?
Tim and Eric are guys I love and recently I’ve started working with them, which is huge. I’ve really only been doing video editing for two years. I’ve done music my whole life, recording and songwriting. I think my video editing style is, I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, I’m just trying to feel it out and do what I think is funny. I’m not technically trained in this; I just find what I think is funny and hopefully other people enjoy it, too. It’s raw; it’s just me figuring it out.
It feels like a new genre. It’s not a debate recap, it’s this whole other thing that I don’t think I’ve seen out there. Fucking around with a video but not to any specific purpose, just to make it funny.
I’m not out with an agenda; I’m not forcing my political views, though in a way that always plays into it. I’m not a fan of these Republicans, but if the Democrats had crazier people I’d be focusing more on them, too. I’ve tried with the Democratic debates, to even things out, but the material is way more prevalent on the right.
You’re not even using the craziest stuff; sometimes you’re making it more boring. It’s almost pleasant. You think, “I wish there were more awkward pauses in real life instead of all these dudes screaming at each other.”
There are times where they’re all screaming. In one of the videos I just left that in. There were like four or five [candidates] yelling over top of one another, and I didn’t even have to do anything with it, I just let it go.
Any other projects you’re working on?
I’m gonna keep following this election. It bums me out a lot, all the negativity and the amount of debates they’ve done. I’m getting a little burned out by it. Hopefully I can mix in a little more non-political stuff. The political stuff is fun to do, too, but I think I need a little break from it.