It wasn’t terribly easy to get something to go viral back before YouTube, Facebook, and other meme distributors. Most viral videos came in the form of full websites (think the Hamster Dance) or e-mailed .mov files (think the dancing baby) -- odd little accidents that look a bit embarrassing today, like a pair of bell-bottom jeans. One early viral sensation that has held up, however, is the series of GI Joe public service announcement parodies produced by Fenslerfilms. The parodies were an absurdist take on the original PSAs -- exhortations to stay safe and never talk to strangers were warped into a world where heavily armed and armored super-commandos harassed and confronted kids who were playing on construction sites or riding without a helmet. Series creator Eric Fensler talks about the creation process, the legal trouble with Hasbro he narrowly avoided, and what he and Fenslerfilms are up to these days.
NAmag: How did the original idea for the PSAs come about?
The idea to make the PSAs came from just revisiting the footage from my childhood via a DVD I found at Virgin Megastore in Chicago, IL on Michigan Ave. I went there on my lunch break a lot just to listen to music or just check out the sale cart bin of DVD's, CD's, records, and lotions. I found the GI Joe movie on DVD for 5 bucks and it had 25 of the PSAs as an extra supplement. I ripped the footage off and put it on my computer and started just messing around with it. Nothing much more to it.
NAmag: How did you go about making them?
I used Avid, Final Cut Pro, and Pro Tools. Standard programs in the post-production process.
NAmag: How did you find out that the PSAs were receiving wide distribution? This was pre-YouTube, so you couldn't just, say, suddenly notice that their view count had skyrocketed.
My gallery in Chicago, Heaven Gallery, had been hosting them on their site in 2003 and we originally got shut down because the PSAs had exceeded the bandwidth for that month. Something like over trillions and trillions and googillions of hits in 2003. No one could pay the bill.
Uncle Joe figured it out -- he does all my website stuff. So each month, Uncle Joe would put new PSAs up until we exceeded the hits, I guess, and it would shut down. I really don't know for certain. My apologies for not knowing the facts, to be honest I don't concern myself with these types of details. I did get a lot of emails from people saying how much they liked them, that was a good barometer I guess. Should I think about this stuff?
I remember websites like ebaumsworld.com and heavy.com got a hold of them and started to host them. You would have to ask them how they fared with them. I assume it was well received because they kept asking me to send them more.
NAmag: What kind of media attention did you get? The PSA fame seemed to result in similar opportunities from Adult Swim, notably in regards to SeaLab 2021 and Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job!
The best media attention was seeing the Hasbro lawsuit on that Hollywood television fluff show "Extra" or “ET” or something. So strange to see it on the boob tube. Internet artist gets shut down over Hasbro property!
NAmag: The films are exceptionally memetic -- even today, years after I first saw them, I can quote several of the PSAs from memory. Did you specifically try to make them mini-mindworms, or was that kind of a happy accident?
The only thing i set out to do when i made the PSAs was to have a chuckle. I didn't even plan on putting them on the internet at the time, to be honest it felt like a lot of work to put them up. The internet was still intimidating to me. It was filled with porn. I was just playing my videos in art galleries, theaters, or passing around VHS copies to whomever wanted them.
NAmag: Could you talk a little bit about the legal issues with Hasbro about a year after the PSAs were released? I can't imagine that they were all that thrilled with the repurposing of their "Real American Heroes" into an absurdist comedy series, but you had a pretty good Fair Use argument.
Hasbro sent the cease and desist and said "take them off the internet" or "legal action" I talked to a my Uncle Joe who is also a lawyer and he said I had an case but, "Do you want to go through it all? Do you have a lot of money young man?"
I said no, I don't have any money. I’m broke. so I took them off. No harm no foul, plus I was on to making something different anyway, working a full time job, a family to protect. It wasn't a big deal, other than it had gotten all the way to them, I never thought Hasbro would see the PSAs. Then eventually YouTube came out and they were on other sites, so who cares?
NAmag: There's a definite mashup feel to the PSAs. I doubt those pieces were receiving all that much airtime almost twenty years after their original production, so the Fensler Films redubs brought new life to them, while at the same time turning them into something different. Was that what you were going for?
I was just trying to have a laugh. I think that's all I ever do is try to laugh and have fun. In both my work and in my life.
NAmag: I'm pretty sure you were the precursor to at least part of the viral video phenomenon. All the parodies of Hitler in the movie "Downfall", the "I'm the Juggernaught, bitch!" redub, and other things of that nature -- do you look at all of that and think, "I'm the one (or one of the first) who showed that kind of thing could become popular online?"
I don't think like that.
NAmag: Finally, what are you and Fenslerfilms up to these days? Any plans for, say, a ten-year anniversary re-issue?
Fenslerfilms is very busy and investing in a lot of stock right now. We are developing new technologies and getting into the future of the internet. Check out our website http://www.fenslerfilm.com
I would like to mention that not without the help of Andy Guler, Doug Lussenhop, PK Hooker, and Micheal Rodriguez could these GI JOE PSAs works exist.
Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at email@example.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.