“Celebrigum” brainchild, Steve Young—pictured here with The Gum
In August of 2010, a strange website called CelebriGum appeared on the Internet, without fanfare, conducting some sort of Dadaist examination of America’s unwavering worship of fame and celebrity. For three years straight, CelebriGum presented a barrage of images of famous celebrities who, without their knowledge, were photographed from a second story office window with a piece of old hardened gum on the window ledge that was always in the frame. CelebriGum featured a revolving door of celebrities of all kinds, but The Gum remained constant and unchanging. Celebrities were made to share photographic space with a piece of inanimate matter that eventually came to be as beloved, to some fans, as the celebrities themselves.
CelebriGum was the brainchild of Steve Young, who (up until May 20th of this year) was a 25 year veteran writer for David Letterman. But Young, a Harvard graduate who cut his comedy teeth writing for the Harvard Lampoon, has been involved in much more than just writing jokes for late night television. He has written for The Simpsons, most notably the season eight masterpiece entitled Hurricane Neddy.
In 2000, he won an Annie Award for his screenplay adaptation of the animated holiday special Olive the Other Reindeer. And he’s recently written what many consider to be the definitive history of the industrial musical in the remarkably strange and informative book Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals.
Given his background in creating and disseminating the odd and hilarious, a peculiar sociological project like CelebriGum was certainly not outside the realm of possible weirdness for Young. And as a writer for The Late Show, he could choose from an endless supply of celebrities as they were arriving at or leaving the Ed Sullivan Theater. He would linger at the second floor window and wait for the opportunity to snap perfect photos of some of the most famous people in the world—alongside an old piece of gum.
Needless to say, it wasn’t long before Young’s photos, which would always be presented on the website with some sort of witty caption or deep observation, began to acquire a fan-base. More precisely, The Gum began to acquire a fan base. True fans of The Gum understood what Young was up to with his surreal goofiness, and they looked forward to each new installment to see who was the latest celebrity being made to look ridiculous from above. CelebriGum was, as David Letterman described it, “a perfectly silly, genius idea.”
David Letterman and The Gum
CelebriGum ran for three years before Young voluntarily pulled the plug on the project—but during that time, he actually got to hold a New York Times reviewed gallery exhibition of his CelebriGum photos.
We were fortunate enough to pin Steve Young down for a few questions about the CelebriGum experience:
How long had you been taking photos of celebrities from your office window before you realized that those A-listers were being upstaged by a piece of old gum that was clearly visible in each photograph? What kind of an epiphany did you have at that moment?
Steve Young: It was actually the other way around. I noticed the gum first, somewhere around the beginning of 2010. I looked at it every day as I hung out by a window in the hall near Dave Letterman’s dressing room, and thought “maybe I can do a photo project of the gum enduring all sorts of weather until someday presumably it falls off.” I took a few photos, but it wasn’t really very interesting. Then one day, the Eureka moment: I realized that celebrities were getting out of limos and SUV’s on the street below. I could get both at the same time. CelebriGum was born: “Different day, different celebrity, same gum.” I launched the CelebriGum.com site in August of 2010.
“The Gum” itself, in a rare close-up.
Your photographs possess a keen sense of the absurd. Can you elaborate on any techniques you may have used to enhance the CelebriGum experience? Or did you find that the element of total randomness, as opposed to any staging or manipulation, produced the most striking images?
SY: There was a certain element of “the broken clock that’s right twice a day.” I found that after the initial conceptual notion of celebrity plus old gum had settled in, I was searching for ways to get pictures that were visually interesting within the very limiting framework I’d chosen. Sometimes it was just snapping a lot of pictures and later noticing the telling detail that made one particular shot a winner. Sometimes it was new conditions, like snow or a blinding onslaught of paparazzi flashes at night. Sometimes it was the lucky composition of a guest coming in on a gray day with an orange traffic cone providing the one vivid flash of color in the picture. And sometimes it was a magical moment of a star interacting with a crowd, or a star trudging along the sidewalk seemingly alone. But plenty of the photos aren’t very interesting. I only presented a very small percentage of what I shot.
I didn’t do much manipulation. Once in a while I did some overtly clumsy photo doctoring in the service of a joke, but mostly it was cropping and adjusting levels to get the picture I wanted.
Were cell phone cameras used for the majority of these photos? At some point there’s an upgrade in the quality of the photos. Can you tell us about your gear?
SY: At first I was just using the very modest camera in a circa 2007 Motorola flip phone. That was okay for the first few months, but I realized that I’d need something more sophisticated if I was going to continue when the days got shorter and it got dark in late afternoon. I bought a used Canon point and shoot camera on eBay to use as my CelebriGum camera. That did pretty well for a while, though night-time photos were still a challenge. I eventually bought a Sony RX100, which is an outstanding camera that can still fit in a pocket, not just for CelebriGum but for my other photography as well. And during the last winter of CelebriGum I bought a little light that I used to illuminate the gum on the ledge. It may be a cool photo of Mick Jagger down on the street, but if you can’t see the gum, it ain’t a CelebriGum photo.
Mick Jagger and The Gum
Your photos seem symbolic of something much deeper than the simple juxtaposition of famous people with a piece of old gum as a goof. CelebriGum seemed to be providing a winking commentary on the inherent ridiculousness associated with fame, and the possible dangers posed to those who seek it—a hammering home of the notion that fame and celebrity will eventually chew you up and spit you out. The poignant undercurrent running through the entire CelebriGum narrative is that fame is ephemeral and fleeting. Some of your images actually evoke a feeling of profound sadness. Was any of that intentional?
SY: That was always there, though I didn’t want to be heavy-handed about it. Ideally, the better pictures worked because they were weird and visually striking, and for each post I always tried to have a humorous riff inspired by the photos. But from the beginning, I thought that the juxtaposition of celebrity and old discarded gum had that potential built-in commentary. Just as you say; fame chews you up and spits you out when your flavor has been extracted. Looking back at the run of photos now, there are many instances in which a temporarily well-known person has fallen off the radar. In at least a couple cases, celebrities in the pictures have died. Everything is temporary, even the excitement and glamour of an A-list star. Someday all that will remain of each of us is a wad of inert matter. But in the meantime, ooh, look, Tom Hanks! Tom! Tom! Over here!
Tom Hanks and The Gum
How much of CelebriGum’s popularity do you think was based on the American fascination with celebrity schadenfreude? Do you think that the idea that famous celebrity millionaires were being taken down a notch and unknowingly made to look kind of silly by The Gum’s stoic presence in every shot was an element of CelebriGum’s success?
SY: From the aerial view, I got an interesting perspective on celebrity culture. It certainly doesn’t seem like much fun to be a celebrity. Sure, you get to ride in a luxury SUV, and an assistant carries your bottle of water, but parts of your life are dehumanizing, and not just because you’re being photographed with old gum. In many pictures, there’s a crush of paparazzi photographers waiting for the star to step out of their vehicle, and they’re not there because they care about Celebrity X, most likely, but because they need to make a buck. Nothing wrong with making a buck, but it just illustrates the cynicism of the machinery of fame. And if it’s someone who’s not a very big name, and the weather’s nasty, then there may be nobody jostling to get their photo, and that’s depressing in a different way. Then there are the fans. There were often many real fans excited to see a star and get a picture and maybe an autograph. But there was sometimes a creepy feral mob mentality to it. Dozens or hundreds of people screaming, supplicating, and if you didn’t feed the crowd and give them what they want and just dashed inside because you were late, “Boo! You suck!” Meanwhile, twenty feet up, the gum serenely surveys the madness, unchanging. Yes, there are many wonderful entertainers and athletes and even politicians whose efforts enrich the world, but some days they would probably prefer to be the gum, literally and figuratively above it all.
The element of the gum also was the great equalizer. Celebrity, assistant, security guard, photographer, fan, bike messenger, pedestrian: all equal in the presence of The Gum. Okay, the celebrity is special in one regard: they have to be there to provide the celebri- half of the equation. But I ended up regarding stars mainly as props for my photography.
After CelebriGum became more well-known, were you ever aware of any celebrities who arrived at the show hoping or expecting to be photographed from above with “The Gum?”
SY: There were a few celebrities who were aware of it, but it was generally after the fact. I’d give them a shout-out on Twitter, “Hey, look, you’re on CelebriGum!” and a few responded and were charmed. Alec Baldwin requested a copy of one of the photos. The only celebrity who ever looked up and acknowledged the camera was Jamie Oliver. He passed me as he came down the stairs from his dressing room after his appearance, and I said “Hi! I’d like to take your picture from this window with this old gum once you’ve gotten down to the street! Could you look up and say hello?” He did look up but didn’t go so far as to wave. I’m sure it all seemed very odd.
Jamie Oliver and The Gum
Do you have a favorite CelebriGum image?
SY: There are so many… the CeeLo Green picture is a favorite because of his open-armed enthusiasm for the fans, captured in an instant of their camera-wielding excitement. The Paris Hilton picture is a favorite because it was just the prototypical CelebriGum moment, this manufactured personality posing for a crush of photographers, and from above you see it’s all happening on a grungy stretch of pavement with most of the world going by and not caring, and the gum providing its mute anti-commentary.
CeeLo Green and The Gum
Paris Hilton and The Gum
David Letterman was a big fan of CelebriGum. He personally rented a gallery space so that you could hold a public exhibition of your CelebriGum images. How did that show turn out, and where are the hard copies of those photos stored today?
SY: I figured Dave probably hadn’t heard about the website, so after the project had been going for a while I made an album of a few dozen of the best pictures, and gave it to him for his birthday. He was delighted, and said “This needs to be a gallery show.” I thought he was kidding, but he brought it up again, and thanks to Dave, the 2011 Late Show holiday party was at an art gallery with several dozen of the photos on display, professionally printed and mounted and framed with little plexiglass plaques noting the celebrity and the date the photo was taken. The New York Times sent a reporter and did a great piece about it. It was wonderful; a night I’ll never forget. It really does sound like a dream when I describe it: “Dave Letterman had arranged for my gum photos to be in an art gallery, and it was a big party, and all my friends from work were there, and a New York Times reporter was talking to me…”
I kept a few of the framed photos, but most of them were given away to staffers and friends.
David Letterman at the exhibition
What motivated you to suddenly kill off The Gum? Was that sudden action, performed without warning, a further commentary on the fleeting nature of fame?
SY: As the three year mark approached, I felt like I’d found all the interesting variations I was likely to get. I’d proved that the repetition and persistence had allowed the project to reach some kind of cockeyed grandeur, I thought, and it had gotten this wonderful validation from Dave. I’ll admit that I was also tired of the effort involved—a new entry on the site every other day, with rare exceptions. I had a new project in the wings, a book that was about to come out that I’d be promoting, and it seemed like the third anniversary, August 4th, 2013, was a good time to stop. A further commentary on the fleeting nature of fame? I don’t know if I’d consciously thought of that, but sure. The great thing about CelebriGum is that every detail resonates with larger meaning… I guess.
On the day The Gum died, how difficult was it to convince David Letterman to star in the video in which he personally defenestrates The Gum with a putty knife?
SY: Not hard at all. Dave agreed right away. We shot it after the show one evening at the end of July. Since it had Dave’s support, I had the full resources of the show—network television camera and audio people, the director running the shoot. The weird awkward end with Dave and I wasn’t scripted, and it was just the perfect last detail of absurdity.
Where is The Gum today?
SY: The gum is safe inside a little box tucked away with other items from my Late Show office. When the shoot with Dave was finished and we all dispersed, I hurried down to the sidewalk to look for the gum. I was hunting around for a moment, then I found it—and as I picked it up, Paul McCartney walked past me. He’d been at the show because his son was a musical guest, and he’d actually been held in the theater until the shoot was over, so the gum wouldn’t fall on his head. As he got into his car, I was standing there holding the sooty old gum thinking “Damn, I could have had Paul McCartney for CelebriGum!” I’d become infected by my own twisted form of celebrity-mania. But really, it ended as satisfyingly as I could have wanted.
You’ve recently co-written a fantastic book about the history of industrial musicals called Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals with Sport Murphy. The industrial musical is an art form that would have soon been lost to the sands of time without your incredible dedication, research, and documentation—there’s even an interactive website where people can listen to many of those amazing industrial musical songs. I suppose the obvious question is why has no book been published featuring the entire CelebriGum photo collection? Have you considered the possibility?
SY: There are parallels between CelebriGum and my investigation of industrial musicals. In both cases I noticed something marginal and overlooked and allowed it to take center stage. In both cases I was pleased by unexpected juxtapositions: old blackened gum and celebrities, peppy show tunes and lyrics about selling typewriters or tractors.
I have given a little thought to a CelebriGum book. After the gallery show, I talked to some Late Show producers, thinking I should have the show’s blessing since the project was so intimately tied to the program. I was given the green light but I was advised to get the cooperation of every celebrity in the photos I wanted to use. At that point I said, eh, I dunno if it’s worth the trouble. Maybe someday I’ll revisit it. The other thing is, can a publisher make money from it? CelebriGum had a nice group of fans, but it was no Cake Wrecks or Shit My Dad Says.
Is there anything you’d like to add about your experience with the CelebriGum project? In retrospect, is there anything that you would have done differently? Or are you satisfied with the overall outcome?
SY: I’m pleased that something I started on a whim, with no goal other than to keep at it and win conceptual points for persistence, got noticed here and there and launched me on some new adventures and friendships. And I did end up with some oddly pleasing photographs. No complaints.
Here is a brief gallery of images. More can be found at CelebriGum.com.
Adam Sandler and The Gum
Bill O’Reilly and The Gum
Bruce Willis and The Gum
Darius (Hootie) Rucker and The Gum
Denzel Washington and The Gum
Jamie Foxx and The Gum
John Oliver and The Gum
Johnny Depp and The Gum
Katie Holmes and The Gum
Lucy Liu and The Gum
Martha Stewart and The Gum
Neil Patrick Harris and The Gum
Russell Brand and The Gum
Steve Martin and The Gum
Tom Cruise and The Gum
Below: Watch David Letterman celebrate the third anniversary of “CelebriGum” by wielding a putty knife: