Every week, Grantland’s staff watches all 200 million videos on YouTube and picks their favorites. Welcome to the induction ceremony for Grantland’s YouTube Hall of Fame.
Bill Simmons: When I was growing up in the 1970s, I watched a ton of bad television mainly because there wasn’t much else to do. We didn’t have the Internet or computers. We barely had video games. We only had 10 or 11 channels. Fortunately, we had game shows. My four favorites were Card Sharks, Joker’s Wild, The Price is Right, and the great $20,000 Pyramid, which had the single best ending of any show: a celeb feeding six questions to a contestant for the grand prize (which was never $20,000, but nobody seemed to care). If they didn’t get all six right before the clock expired, both sides lost: The contestant didn’t win the big prize that wasn’t so big, and the celebrity had to suffer the indignity of host Dick Clark sauntering over.
The operative word is “Dick.” For whatever reason, Dick always jumped on this particular window — immediately after some poor nobody had lost money, and immediately after some pseudocelebrity who either wasn’t famous yet or wasn’t famous anymore had just failed to come through — to make everyone feel even worse than they already did. In the smarmiest way possible, with clinical precision and nary a word wasted, Dick would coldly start lobbing out better clues that would have worked. The implication was always, “Had you had a real celebrity helping you instead of this moron, you would have won.” I hated Dick Clark for being such a bully, but also, I loved hating him because any time someone actually won, you wanted to scream at the TV, “Suck it, Dick! SUCK IT! They didn’t need your help, you pompous ass!” Dick Clark was the game-show host version of the Yankees or Canadiens for me.
Here’s a great example of Dick being a dick: a 1978 Final Pyramid when none other than David Letterman freezes on one of the final clues, then Dick cruises in to chop his balls off, make him look stupid, AND upbraid him for breaking the rules in less than 20 seconds. It’s just epic Dick. I’m disappointed that Letterman didn’t hold a grudge for the next 30 years, then buy Dick Clark Productions and run it into the ground for revenge. The following decade, Dick won me back by starring in Funniest Bloopers and Practical Jokes with Ed McMahon, an entertaining show in which Dick took the lean-over/open-mouth/knee-slap combination, and fake over-laugh, to heights they’ve never been before or since. But in the ’70s? I hated the guy. And by the way, if you had told 9-year-old me that 41-year-old me would be able to watch old clips of $20,000 Pyramid on my computer whenever I wanted, 9-year-old me would have been extremely confused.
Chuck Klosterman: This is Hennessy Youngman. He is, I suppose, an art critic; if you only watch the first 60 seconds of this clip, you will suspect he is a confused, pretentious goofball. But this is not the case — this is a person who really, really understands what he’s talking about, to the point that there is no difference between his jokes and his actual message. Youngman does for art what Nardwuar the Human Serviette did for rock interviewing: He uses an authentic depth of knowledge to explode the fabricated import of what he’s supposed to be doing. The above clip is about how to make “an art,” although his take on post-structuralism is worth searching for, too (just make sure you find the original, uncensored version).
Alex Pappademas: Tucson, Arizona, 1980, sometime after lunch. Richard Pryor smokes and sweats in the shade, speaking with what seems like authority about the price of whores just down the road in the town of Florence. The interviewer (white, well-meaning) chuckles nervously, asks the cameraman if he’s rolling. He is. Pryor is in town filming Stir Crazy, with Gene Wilder. The interviewer already talked to Pryor once today, but something went wrong with the audio, so Pryor’s agreed to sit for a do-over, except the problem is sometime between the first interview and this one Pryor seems to have gotten extravagantly high on the finest cocaine available in Tucson. Or all the cocaine available in Tucson, maybe. He doesn’t want to talk about comedy — when the interviewer tries to kiss his ass by saying he’s the greatest comedian since Charlie Chaplin, Pryor says, “Charlie Chaplin’s dead, fuck him,” although he does show a lot of respect for Steve Martin. Mostly he talks about money, and being a criminal from a long line of criminals. He keeps rubbing his nose, mopping sweat off his face and head like he’s wearing an uncomfortable mask. And — metaphors! — maybe he is; no disguise eats into the face quite like the one you have to wear to play Palatable Black Entertainer when your art is all about transmogrifying pain.
And that’s what comes across here: Pryor is in pain. He has been a monster on the set. Showing up late. Demanding helicopters. Walking off set for days at a time over imaginary slights. Backstage it’s worse. Jennifer Lee, who would marry Pryor in 1981 and then again in 2001, remembered visiting the set: “He left me in a trailer with the Hell’s Angels and there were guns everywhere and I was like, what parallel universe am I in? This is not OK.” In this interview he talks about buying seven pounds of coke in front of eight policemen. In a few months, back home in Northridge, Calif., Pryor, gripped by cocaine psychosis, will douse himself in 151 rum and set himself on fire. This interview, in which Pyror, radioactive with self-loathing, slurs unfunny jokes about the Israeli army and Gene Wilder being a pussy magnet (OK, those are pretty funny) and laughs like a condemned man, is basically a rehearsal for self-immolation. The interviewer is catching him at a bad time, is my point. And yet even though the yayo is visibly working Rich’s body like a hand puppet made of wet, dead skin, as if he’s Malkovich and the drugs are John Cusack, whatever made Pryor Pryor is still there, a pilot light behind his eyes. The interviewer says he thinks we’ll see the day when Richard Pryor writes, directs, and stars in a movie. Pryor — suddenly so lucid you wonder if he’s just been waiting for a question that merits tuning back in — responds, “Richard Pryor would never do nothing y’all want.”
Molly Lambert: This fan-made video for Russian musician Valotihkuu’s song “Bedroom Pop” from YouTube user VHSdreamz sums up everything that’s great about YouTube as a medium. The excitement of waiting for favorite music videos to come on, of recording things off the TV and watching them a billion times. The degraded fuzzy quality of especially well-loved tapes and the welcoming warm, orangey glow of advertisements and movies you rented from the video store that couldn’t be called “good” exactly. All the endless intersections between art and trash.
Plus, “Bedroom Pop” is really great, a lemon-lime soda of a song. The official video is also awesome in a different way. You could make infinite cool music videos for any given song, and the easy accessibility of YouTube means that people actually do. The fan videos for indie acts like Valotihkuu that resemble video art are just as interesting and weird as the 12-year-old girls acting out Taylor Swift songs. The only thing more satisfying than taping things off TV is showing them to your friends.
Patrice Evans: This is the GZA on Chappelle’s Show performing “Knock Knock.” Chappelle goes nuts at the one-minute mark — “I love this THAT’S WHY I’M IN SHOW BUSINESS!” Dave made plenty of sidebar exclamations as jokes, but this one feels real. Like the spoon scene in The Matrix, this isn’t GZA influencing the zeitgeist through a sketch-comedy show, it’s hip-hop as a will to power. As The Secret. As a pill to unplug from The Matrix. [*theremin sound*] Check that third verse again — “I wrote this rhyme with a sharpie ” — and prepare to reinvest in Wu Tang Financial.
Katie Baker: Sesame Street in the ’70s and ’80s was pitch-perfect television for an era that our parents, now shielded by the years, like to casually recall: “Oh, I drank the whole time I was pregnant with you. It just wasn’t a big deal back then.” Or: “Did you know we never owned a car seat? You just sat in my lap as I drove.” Or, in this case: “Ah yes, you were repeatedly exposed as an innocent child to footage of Smokey Robinson being groped, grabbed, and molested by a huge doe-eyed foam rendering of the letter U. Thank heavens for publicly funded TV!”
For those of us who were plopped down in the living room and left to the sick mercy of the Children’s Television Workshop during our impressionable youth, YouTube is the closest we’ll come to having Robin Williams stroke the back of our heads and whisper, “It’s not your fault.” Here, the healing mantra is more along the lines of: “It’s not your imagination.” A girl taking her pet llama to the dentist? Yeah, that actually happened. A short film that manages to turn milking a cow into an end-of-days-style horror film with a kickin’ free jazz soundtrack? Yeah, that happened, too. (Sample comment on that one: “This scared the crap out of me when I was a little kid. I was sure that the truck was going to crash and the baby was going to starve.”) A young and seemingly stoned Morgan Freeman hepcatting his way around the set? There was an entire PBS show devoted to that.
For all the what-the-hellery that revisiting these videos can cause, they do make me proud. These days, prissy parents are so scandalized by Katy Perry’s cleavage that they lobby, successfully, for her segment to be cut. Even the Cookie Monster has been chastised — he now eats a well-balanced, veggie-rich diet. Me, I’ll take a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter any day.
Jay Kang: It’s a weird moment in the life of every basketball bro: A great player retires and you realize that you also watched him play in the McDonald’s All-America game. Meaning, you watched every significant moment of his career.
Here’s the top five “Oh no, I’m getting old” moments.
5. HOLY SHIT! That freshman point guard is the same age as my daughter!
4. Watching a retirement press conference and realizing you watched the player’s McDonald’s High School All-America game.
3. Watching Harold Arceneaux highlights on YouTube and wondering, “I wonder why it didn’t work out for that guy?”
2. Digging your Sega Genesis out of the attic so you can do the Celtics versus Lakers Tom Chambers double-clutch dunk from the 3-point line because you and your adult friend are having an argument about whether Tom Chambers could dunk from the 3-point line.
David Jacoby: The Bartendaz are a group of Harlem residents who spend their days in the park being in way better shape than you. They’ve turned pull-ups into an all-day activity, and they look like it. This is a good clip to watch for motivation, technique, and a look into a subculture that you will most likely never be a part of for a myriad of reasons. Granted, watching it from start to finish is tough, but at least stick around until 2:14 so you get to see “Honey Bee” do pull-ups with a baby strapped to her chest.
Lane Brown: In 1963, Paul McCartney wrote a song called “A World Without Love” that John Lennon decided wasn’t up to code. So McCartney, wondering if he was capable of a hit outside the Beatles, embarked on a hilarious experiment: He gave the song to his girlfriend’s nerdy older brother, Peter Asher, real-life inspiration for Austin Powers and half of history’s geekiest pop duo, Peter and Gordon. So P&G signed to Capitol and made a bunch of brutally awkward TV appearances, the weirdest of which is posted above (but this one and this one are funny, too). Even though they never figured out which camera to look into, or what to do during the guitar solo, the experiment was a success — “World Without Love” hit no. 1 in the U.S., and neither Peter nor Gordon ever shit their pants on television (or on YouTube, at least).