This is what a few thousand VHS copies of Jerry Maguire look like.
This is what a few thousand VHS copies of Jerry Maguire look like. Credit: Courtesy EIT!

Somewhere in the Hermosa neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side, a storage locker is filled with thousands of VHS copies of Cameron Crowe’s schmaltzy ode to premature midlife crisis, Jerry Maguire. To explain the existence of this bizarre stockpile it’s necessary to understand the methodology of the video collective Everything Is Terrible! The group’s members regularly raid
thrift-store shelves in search of obscure and discarded visual media—B movies, instructional tapes, public-access shows—to use as raw materials for their hyperkinetic mashups, which first were published on their blog and are now being commissioned by the likes of MTV and Adult Swim. Somewhere along the line it occurred to one EIT! member that a crowd-sourced sport—”Maguirewatch”—could be made of the pursuit. The goal: to nab every available copy of the 1996 Tom Cruise vehicle. Eventually EIT! amassed more than 8,000 tapes, a number that continues to grow thanks to a ravenous EIT! fan base that mails in copies and drops off tapes at the Bucktown video-rental store Odd Obsession.

But why Jerry Maguire?

“That movie came out at the peak of VCR owners in America, just before the rise of DVD. So just when every white, middle-class person got a VHS copy for Christmas, they threw it out a year later and replaced it with a DVD of The Matrix,” EIT! member Dimitri Simakis says. “It’s as if America tried to forget they ever saw or owned Jerry overnight.”

“They’ve surely become a force. A big reason for this is obvious: naturally copacetic people coming together with great ideas about how to best expose the ridiculousness thirtysomethings all grew up with, media-wise, in the 90s and early 2000s.”—Brian Chankin, owner of Odd Obsession Movies

As the “Jerrys” collection has grown, so have the collective’s aspirations. What started as a collaborative blog project with members posting clips in a twisted competition to edit together the weirdest possible parts is now evolving into a recognizable brand fueled by one of the most distinct voices in new-media art. At the Siskel Center in April, EIT! screened work including Doggie Woggiez! Poochie Woochiez!—an impressively faithful remake of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mind-bending maximalist film The Holy Mountain, composed of clips of dogs from TV shows, movies, and commercials—as part of the School of the Art Institute’s Conversations at the Edge series. On the Siskel’s site, SAIC film, video, and new-media associate professor Jim Trainor aptly described EIT!’s work as “a kind of psychedelic food poisoning, equally abrasive and hilarious and, in the end, oddly affectionate toward its varied subjects.”

“They’ve surely become a force,” says Odd Obsession proprietor Brian Chankin, a connoisseur of compelling and strange media. “A big reason for this is obvious, I think: naturally copacetic people coming together with great ideas about how to best expose the ridiculousness thirtysomethings all grew up with, media-wise, in the 90s and early 2000s.”

While keeping a foothold in Chicago, the group has shifted its base of operations to Los Angeles, where Simakis and EIT! associate Nic Maier, who go by the respective aliases Ghoul Skool and Commodore Gilgamesh, are moving beyond purely sample-based compositions to create wholly original work under the guise of their content production company Everything Is Wonderful. As they settle into their new surroundings, the 32-year-olds also are slowly relocating the hulking Maguire cache to their LA studio.

“We felt a strange obligation to save them from their thrift-store graves,” Maier says of the Jerrys. “This is clearly the most absurd thing we’ve done with our time, money, and space. Absurdity is very important to us.”

Everything Is Terrible!’s live variety show involves videos, monster costumes, music, sketch and stand-up comedy, and even dance routines.
Everything Is Terrible!’s live variety show involves videos, monster costumes, music, sketch and stand-up comedy, and even dance routines.Credit: Courtesy EIT!

The kindred crew of tapeheads met in 2000 while attending Ohio University. Driven by a sort of obsessive nostalgia, these self-described “psychedelic soldiers of the discarded VHS realm” began sniffing out infomercials, children’s TV shows, tutorials—anything esoteric and, most importantly, unusual. Currently comprising eight members split between Chicago and LA, the collective launched its website in 2007. After EIT! posted the early find So Your Cat Wants a Massage? in 2009, the clip went viral and made an Internet star of the video’s host, Maryjean Ballner, who was then invited to appear on The Late Show With David Letterman. The feline rubdown instructional has gotten more than 3.5 million views on YouTube.

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The EIT! site remains a frequently updated repository of found-footage clips, usually recut and remixed not only to create a new piece of work but to better expose the latent insanity of the material. The ultimate EIT! experience encompasses confusion, humor, sentimentality, antipathy, and even fear. One look at Yellow Dyno (in which a hip anthropomorphic dinosaur warns children about sexual predators and saves a young girl from a pedophile) or Kids’ Lives (a hyperbolic antibullying PSA that ends with a brutal hit-and-run) will tell you all you need to know.

“I always want to make people laugh,” Simakis says, “but in a way where they have to look around because they think a monster is going to eat them.” This effect may have been what MTV had in mind when it tapped Simakis and Maier to pitch ideas for MTV Other, the network’s webseries hub. “All I could think about was how badly I wanted to get my grubby hands on their library,” Simakis recalls. In the resulting series, Analog Mountain, TRL-era MTV interns Dennis and Denise are turned into furry creatures after eating too much analog tape. The show mixes puppet-centric original content with clips from turn-of-the-millennium reality shows like Laguna Beach and the dating show Next; adhering to EIT!’s house style, Simakis and Maier push the humor to its brink of uncomfortability, sequencing the clips in rapid-fire succession to create a sensory-assaulting symphony of inane statements—one Next contestant claims, “I’m 18, and I’m not the brightest crayon in the box, but my box is still cute”—that contextualize the love affair between Dennis and Denise.

That the group is able to retain its distinct sense of subversive whimsy while producing content for mainstream outlets is a testament to just how seriously its members take their aesthetic. And the opportunities keep coming. Simakis and Maier were recently given full access to the mother lode of amateur clip collections: the 25-year archive of America’s Funniest Home Videos. “What we are doing with it—and what it is doing to us—is absolutely horrifying!” Maier says. “This is going to be the most frightening video glimpse into the American psyche ever.”

There are other collaborations in the works with Fox, Adult Swim, and JASH, as well as more in-house joints on the horizon, like the forthcoming Sex City, an exercise in 90s-era graphics and tongue-in-cheek smut spearheaded by EIT! member Lehr Beidelschies, an MFA candidate in DePaul University’s digital media program. “It’s a heavy endeavor, but fortunately the idea is to evoke poor-quality CGI,” Beidelschies says of postproduction on the nine-part webseries, funded by $1,750 from Kickstarter, that is also his thesis project. “I’m not trying to make Transformers 3D.” The show centers on a pair of friends who discover that a collection of porn they buried in the woods when they were children has sprouted into some kind of depraved metropolis.

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Like most of EIT!’s concepts, Sex City sounds ludicrous, and it raises the question: What’s the ceiling on absurdity? “Totally endless,” Maier says, adding: “Our main goal is to make everything much more interactive.” That desire led EIT! members to get out from behind their computers and hit the road for a live, video-fueled spectacle that transports the website’s joyously irreverent spirit to a concert setting; the group mounts its latest production at Lincoln Hall on Thursday.

“Our Web presence is so spread out, it’s impossible for even us to see everything we do,” says Simakis. “There’s the daily content on the site, then there’s the stills we post to Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook, plus the daily videos we post on Vine. The live shows are our way of bringing it all in one place.”

The show includes a double billing of two recent EIT! projects, Comic Relief Zero! (a mashup of morally dubious stand-up comedy routines from the 80s that promote racial stereotypes, among other alarming things) and Everything Is Terrible! Does the Hip-Hop (a collection of “corporate raps” used to sell everything from postage stamps to crescent rolls), as well as a smattering of choice cuts from the website. To round out the evening, EIT! members take the stage in monster costumes, which resemble Sesame Street characters as imagined by Ralph Steadman, to deliver what’s basically a bizzaro variety show, replete with music, sketch and stand-up comedy, and even a dance routine or two.

With each new undertaking—even those corporate gigs—Everything Is Terrible! members try not to lose sight of the group’s insurgent ethos. “I still like to think that we are punk kids throwing a wrench into some type of cog,” Maier says. “That’s why I made Comic Relief Zero. I wanted to destroy the idea of what many people find funny—stuff like racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. We always said that our main goal with any decision at EIT! was to make it funny, but I don’t know if I still think that’s true.”

“We are constantly pitching shows, shorts, et cetera, and having blast going through all the Hollywood bullshit,” Simakis says. “I mean it—it’s very silly and fun. Plus, people know we exist, and some even like what we do, so why would I complain?”

As EIT!’s stock rises in LA, one has to wonder: What will become of one of its earliest and most irrational projects, the Jerrys? The theoretical goal was always to obtain every VHS copy in existence, though Simakis has a more specific vision for how the hoarding might end: “An old Blockbuster converted into a store called Jerry Maguire Video, where only Jerry Maguire is available for rent.”