Stingingly Successful Satire on the World Wide Web–An Analysis of the Nostalgia Critic’s Satire

This past May (Spring 2014 semester), I took a course entitled Satire and Mass Media at CUNY Brooklyn College. Professor Brian Dunphy taught the course, and both he and his lessons were nothing short of amazingly mind-opening and altering. Together with the students, Prof. Dunphy dissected satire in the modern world and analyzed why it sometimes works so well and other times fails so miserably. At the end of the semester, each student was tasked with selecting a satirical topic and analyzing not only if it works as satire, but why.

For my paper I chose to discuss the Nostalgia Critic, a highly popular internet personality/critic played by Doug Walker. The goal was to determine if Walker’s character and work could be considered satire, and if so, figure out just how successful 21st century online satire is in comparison to more traditional means of satirical expression (newspapers, magazines, cartoons, books, on-air TV shows, etc.).

Below is the paper in its entirety.Please take a few moments to read why the Nostalgia Critic is not only a satirist, but why Doug Walker is one of the forces on the forefront of modern digital satire. Also, after you read, feel free to watch a tribute I made to the critiquing style of Walker last year by clicking here.

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 Stingingly Successful Satire on the World Wide Web

Daniel Scarpati, University and Rudin Scholar, CUNY Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College

A quick search of “satire” on the web will return dozens of fake news sites, phony television news clips, and bogus political blogs. Among the most highly visited sites of these types are The Onion, SatireWire and The Daily Currant. Most socially-connected people online have long-since realized these are purely satirical and illegitimate. What doesn’t come up in the search are other sources of web satire, such as series’ like the Nostalgia Critic and Between Two Ferns. This begs the question: is web content focused on non-political, non-news related media effective satire? And if so, how effective is it in comparison to what it’s satirizing?

Our class defines satire as having four primary components: it develops out of frustration, it can’t only be spiteful, there’s a clear desire to either cure or destroy the world, and it captures the zeitgeist.[1] In no case are these components more visible than with the Nostalgia Critic (NC for short). This internet personality was created by Doug Walker, a 33 year-old Chicago native, in 2007. Prior to the character’s inception, Walker worked as a night janitor at an automotive electronics factory. This was a job he hated so much that he felt compelled to quit by ripping his shirt off to reveal the phrase, “I QUIT,” painted on his chest while dancing to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.[2] The quitting ended up getting him featured in a segment on ABC’s 20/20, Extreme Quitters. “Sometimes the best way to quit a job is also the best way to find a job,” Walker said as he recounted his experience.[3] The millions of hits his quitting video garnered on YouTube inspired him to take advantage of the popularity and upload videos of him criticizing films, television shows and other forms of video content that he felt deserved it.

The web character, film critic and career path that followed (Walker now makes his living through his internet production company, Channel Awesome) were wholly based out of frustration. Walker was fed up with his lot in life and decided to do what he really wanted, which just so happened to be showing others how fed up he was with films. Since before college, he wanted to be like Siskel and Ebert, two of his idols and “teachers.”[4] One of the best traits he found in them, which is a trait he has passed onto the NC, is that they’re never just spiteful or hate-filled. All three critics believe that there’s a real magic to cinema. Regardless of whether or not the film works for whatever reason, every person has a “unique and meaningful reaction” to the final product.[5]

Focusing on the NC, the content he produces always wants to cure the world. Although his main trait is ridiculous amounts of comical verbal and physical aggressiveness, the NC rarely fails to find some redeeming quality of the media he’s reviewing. In the episode, Are Superheroes Whiny Bitches, he discusses the reception of the latest Superman film, Man of Steel. Although “audiences enjoy defending it” and “critics love obliterating it,” the NC can’t fully side with either party.[6] Instead of arguing for or against the film’s unrelenting use of self-reflection scenes and Jesus imagery, the NC offers a third approach: understanding how much we cheer on superheroes has to do with how much we associate with them and their feelings. “If superheroes want to represent who we want to be, they must first understand who we are.”[7] Superheroes need drama (both interpersonal and intrapersonal) in order for audiences to connect to and support them. Yes, the balance between drama and “superheroey stuff” seems to be thrown off all too often (other controversial films in a similar light include The Amazing Spiderman (2012), Superman Returns, Hulk, and Thor), but it must exist for any superhero film to work.[8] If filmmakers can rework scripts and plots to have an effective balance and goal to connect with audiences, superhero movies can and will work much better.

There’s always a clear goal to save the media genre the NC is tackling. In his review of Batman and Robin, a film that has a 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the NC lays out the stark differences between the fourth film in the series and the movies before it.[9] Whereas the past films “moved forward with [their] dark storyline[s] and complex character development,” Batman and Robin “has instead gone back to the campy, bright and colorful style of the original Adam West TV show.”[10] The NC lays out why this doesn’t work very clearly: it lacks interesting characters who audiences can sympathize with, it’s full of over the top effects and one-liners, and as the fourth film in the series, the action sequences and “superheroey” acts are just getting old. The NC states that he enjoyed where the first films in the saga (Batman and Batman Returns) took the superhero and tailored the childish cartoon and comics into something much more dark and adult, so he wants to save this saga.[11]

The final component of what defines satire as effective is the most important in regards to the NC. Prior to 2013, the year the NC came back from a brief break, the show only focused on nostalgic things. By Walker’s definition, nostalgic things like television shows, cartoons, web series and commercials had to be at least 10 years old.[12] Reviewing this content was like a double-edged sword. It worked because the NC was looking at the content from the perspective of someone from the future, someone who had already lived at least 10 years past the content. Determining if it held up a decade after it was produced was a true testament to its quality, plus it helped to determine what worked and what didn’t work. It’s been said that a person can’t judge a presidency until at least two terms pass, and the NC proves that in some cases the same logic applies to media.

As for the other side of the blade, this reviewing style didn’t work because it technically had all been done before. Yes, the critic and time period had changed, but the content being judged had been the same. For ten years, others had been reviewing, criticizing and/or praising it, so it sometimes added a sense of staleness. The NC’s review of The Room is a perfect example of this flaw in his early review style. In this episode, three other web critics featured on Channel Awesome’s website were featured trying to stop the NC from doing his review. They believe that too many other critics reviewed it and there was “no need for [the NC] to sacrifice [his] sanity as well.”[13] Granted, this only added to the humor of the episode, but it proved his content prior to 2013 couldn’t all be classified as effective satire on the web.

When fans voiced their desire for reviews of more recent media, the NC reworked his reviews to focus on anything that’s not currently in theaters.[14] With this new criteria for nostalgic content, the NC enters a new realm as a web series and internet critic. He’s finally able to review new, untouched material, and to become much more like Siskel and Ebert than he had ever been before. Focusing on the critique of newly-released content and not joking about how well older content holds up years later, makes way for a more editorial and professional voice that parallels some of the more established and published critics today, such as Richard Roeper, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, or the Hollywood Reporter’s Justin Lowe to name a few.

Looking at the first episode after this revamping, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, the NC reviews and analyzes why the reasoning/thought process of the film’s melodramatic family is so terribly off. In the opening scene of the film, a couple is applying for adoption and filling out forms at an orphanage. As two social workers review the forms, they notice that the couple failed to answer the question about why they’re qualified for an orphan. In response, the family states that “they just had too much to say.”[15] The NC smacks his palm to his face and says, “If your reasoning wouldn’t work on your second grade teacher, chances are it wouldn’t work on the United States adoption services.”[16] The episode then cuts to a skit where the NC is dressed as a college student addressing his teacher, Mrs. Travers:

NC: Here’s my test, Mrs. Travers! [slams down an exam on a desk]

Mrs. Travers: Um, you failed to answer every single question listed.

NC: I know. I just had so much information I could put down for all of them I decided not to!

Mrs. Travers: I’m sorry, that means you get an F.

NC: As in fantastic?

Mrs. Travers: No, as in failed!

NC: As in failed to not be fantastic?

Mrs. Travers: No, as in you failed the test!

NC: As in I failed the test of not failing the exam you so currently gave to me?

Mrs. Travers: Why are you still here?

NC: I need a mommy.

In this separate skit portion of the show, the NC is able to not only perfectly capture what’s not working with The Odd Life (people say and do things that are so tremendously ridiculous and would simply never happen in real life), but also show it not working in practice. This method of reviewing media is something that’s wholly unique to the internet. Published reviewers in print news, magazines, journals or televised shows can only go as far as to critique the film and find its failures and successes. They’re not able to go the extra step by creating audiovisual examples to entertained and educate audiences while mocking source material, which is where the NC stands out.

Other new episodes of the NC follow this same pattern. Walker and his creative team sit down, find flaws in the media they’re reviewing, and then write skits to show it all in practice. These skits don’t only drive home the point of the critic—they present a visual that’s easier to remember than regular conversations between two critics, words on paper, or people speaking to a camera. Now the NC is doing more than being a critic; he’s creating his own topical material, born out of deep frustration with a film or TV show, with the intention to lay out what works and what doesn’t work in order to ensure it works next time.

What about other internet celebrities? There definitely exist other web series that do things the same as their off-the-internet versions, but in a different way. Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis is an example of a similar web series based out of frustration of a job gone wrong. Galifianakis stated in an interview, “the sycophantic way that the Hollywood machine runs [is] fun to make fun of it.”[17] All of the episodes involve an intentionally low-budget, poorly shot look and non-scripted interview between a celebrity and Galifianakis. They’re intended to be a jab at cable access interviews being scripted, mundane and all-around fake. Here, Galifianakis has created an alternative to shows like Inside Access and Inside the Actors Studio and has gained millions of fans. The latest episode featuring President Barack Obama has over 22 million views on YouTube.

Similar ideas for satirical, unscripted web content have spawned other series such as Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, Tom Hanks’ post-apocalyptic drama Electric City, and soon, Steve Buscemi’s Park Bench. The view counts for each show make it clear that although there will always be an audience for the traditional television drama, newspaper article or comic film review, the audiences for web satire are growing everyday. The main reason this new wave of digital content isn’t as effective as it will be in the future most likely has to do with people not being aware the content is there. For the most part, you have to be on the web to know what’s available on the web—there are no TV commercials or previews in movie theaters for these online series. At most, they’ll be promoted through video advertisements on various websites and have an article or two written about them in the papers. The more people that become aware of the rich web satire that exists, the less people the traditional, non-satirical, and in some cases, less-effective media forms may have in their audiences. In the Nostalgia Critic’s case, the words spoken by Jay Sherman in the ‘90s cartoon, The Critic, have never been more meaningful:[18]

Jay: “It’s very simple: if you stop going to bad movies, they’ll stop making bad movies.”

Hollywood Producer: “Uh-oh. The jig is up.” [he dives out of a high-rise window]

Just apply the same logic to the TV shows, news articles, novels, film and other media outlets that are being effectively satirized online everyday.

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Bibliography:

[1] Dunphy, Brian. “Presidential Satire.” Satire and Mass Media. Brooklyn College, NY. 23 April 2014. Lecture.

[2] “How I Quit My Job.” Prod. Doug Walker, et al. Nostalgia Critic, Channel Awesome. 7 April 2008. ThatGuyWithTheGlasses. Web. 20 May 2014.

<http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/sketches/64-how-i-quit-my-job>

[3] “Extreme Quitters: Leaving a Job and Making an Impression.” ABC News. 20/20, 17 May 2013. Web. 25 May 2014.

<http://abcnews.go.com/2020/video/extreme-quitters-leaving-job-making-impression-19206343>

[4] “Siskel and Ebert.” Prod. Doug Walker, et al. Nostalgia Critic, Channel Awesome. 9 November 2009. ThatGuyWithTheGlasses. Web. 20 May 2014.

<http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/nostalgia-critic/13453-sande>

[5] “Farewell to Roger Ebert.” Prod. Doug Walker, et al. Nostalgia Critic, Channel Awesome. 5 April 2013. ThatGuyWithTheGlasses. Web. 20 May 2014.

<http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/nostalgia-critic/38839-nostalgia-critic-farewell-to-roger-ebert>

[6] “Are Superheroes Whiny Little Bitches?” Prod. Doug Walker, et al. Nostalgia Critic, Channel Awesome. 2 July 2013. ThatGuyWithTheGlasses. Web. 20 May 2014.

<http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/nostalgia-critic/39783-nostalgia-critic-are-superheroes-whiny-little-bitches>

[7] “Are Superheroes Whiny Little Bitches?” Nostalgia Critic, Channel Awesome.

[8] “Are Superheroes Whiny Little Bitches?” Nostalgia Critic, Channel Awesome.

[9] “Batman and Robin (1997).” Rotten Tomatoes. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 May 2014.

<http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1077027-batman_and_robin/>

[10] “Batman and Robin” Prod. Doug Walker, et al. Nostalgia Critic, Channel Awesome. 23 May 2008. ThatGuyWithTheGlasses. Web. 20 May 2014.

<http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/nostalgia-critic/34-nostalgia-critic/234-batman-and-robin>

[11] “Batman and Robin” Nostalgia Critic, Channel Awesome.

[12] “The Review Must Go On.” Prod. Doug Walker, et al. Nostalgia Critic, Channel Awesome. 22 January 2013. ThatGuyWithTheGlasses. Web. 25 May 2014.

<http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/nostalgia-critic/38009-the-review-must-go-on>

[13] “The Room” Prod. Doug Walker, et al. Nostalgia Critic, Channel Awesome. 13 July 2010. ThatGuyWithTheGlasses. Web. 20 May 2014.

<http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/nostalgia-critic/25743-the-room>

[14] “The Review Must Go On.” Nostalgia Critic, Channel Awesome.

[15] The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Dir. Peter Hedges. Monsterfoot Productions, Scott Sanders Productions, Walt Disney Pictures, 2012. Film.

[16] “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” Prod. Doug Walker, et al. Nostalgia Critic, Channel Awesome. 5 February 2013. ThatGuyWithTheGlasses. Web. 20 May 2014.

<http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/nostalgia-critic/38168-nostalgia-critic-the-odd-life-of-timothy-green>

[17] Marikar, Sheila. “Zach Galifianakis :Comedy’s Sensitive, Sarcastic Sensation.” ABC News. ABC News, 6 October 2010. Web. 24 May 2014.

<http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/zach-galifianakis-ferns-hangover-kind-funny-story/story?id=11807074&singlePage=true#.T4rmFbNabAw>

[18] “Eyes on the Prize.” The Critic. ABC. WABC-TV, New York, New York. 2 March. 1994. Television.

About Daniel

Daniel is a graduate of CUNY Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College, summa cum laude with a B.A. in Film Production and TV/Radio. He can be reached via his website, www.passingplanes.com. The Utopia of Daniel was his college blog and he has since transitioned to posting on other sites.