I reckon my pal Cris Shapan is a bonafide comedy genius. If he weren’t so dagblasted funny, then I honestly doubt I would laugh so much at his gags. But laugh I do, my painfully cramped stomach testament to the obtuse brilliance of his singular comedic vision. But he’s a funnyman with a difference, as you’ll see. He’s an entire comedy genre of one.
Cris Shapan’s comedy is all about the little details. He might have the most exactingly detailed comic mind on the planet. His work is complex, multi-layered and maniacal. It also brutally takes advantage—in the nicest way possible, mind you—of how gullible people can be on the Internet. You see, prior to when he started working on various cult television programs—you’ve seen his stuff on Tom Goes to the Mayor, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Kroll Show and Baskets—Cris was a corporate art director working for evil entities like American Express. Taking what he learned employed on the darkside, his idiosyncratic output—clearly inspired by a misspent youth obsessively reading National Lampoon—creates counterfeit realities that are bust-a-gut funny, but often sail right over the heads of the very people sharing them on Facebook (who quite often unwittingly announce this fact as they post them. Which then makes his gags TWICE as funny, of course).
Nope, the members of Spooky Tooth never did a print ad for Birds Eye frozen vegetables, but try telling that to their Wikipedia page! And poor Brian Eno having to deny that he did an advertisement for Purina in the mid-70s with his blasé cat Eric. Stevie Wonder never did an Atari ad, either, sorry to break it to ya pal. It never happened.
And that guy on Facebook posting one of Cris’s album cover parodies and announcing that “My dad had this record when I was a kid!” (and all of the Facebook “Me, too-ers” as well)? He’s either a bold-faced liar… or else he truly does “remember” his father owning a record that has never existed. And maybe he ate some Potato Fudge while he listened to it… Why assume the worst in people, right?
For this special April Fool’s Day post, I asked some questions over email of the man, the myth Cris Shapan
Richard Metzger: I know who you are, but for the sake of all the young, impressionable minds out there reading this, how would you describe yourself?
Cris Shapan: I’m a hack. I started decades ago in movie advertising, did a bunch of years in corporate art departments, and then 13 years ago I answered an ad on Craigslist and wound up working on Tom Goes to the Mayor at Tim and Eric. Since then I’ve been bouncing around on the fringe of edgy comedy, on shows like Awesome Show and Kroll Show and Baskets, doing silly art & deliberately awful effects. It’s a high-pressure gig for an artist, but it can also be a whole lot of fun.
With your Photoshop skills you can “edit” the past—in a very Orwellian sense—and it’s frightening to see how fucking gullible people can be. I recall we posted one of your Alan Hale parody album covers and idiots on Facebook were commenting “I used to have this record!” “Me too!” and “I still have mine!” Ummm… no you don’t.
Cris Shapan: Yeah, it’s scary to see something I did purely to entertain friends become someone else’s reality. Some claim to remember or even own something that never existed. Others will repost a parody ad as real, especially if it reinforces some agenda they’re touting (sexism in advertising, the past was a horrible place, frankenfood, etc.). People read the fake ad copy and leap to the wildest interpretations, often expressing outrage at something that never actually happened. It’s just bizarre. Some people are so convinced these parody pieces are genuine that they’ve gone in and modified Wikipedia pages to reflect their existence, which of course compounds the stupidity.
At what point did Snopes.com find it necessary to “debunk” some of your gags?
Both Dangerous Minds and The American Bystander (the only humor magazine in existence, I think) had run my ad for a product called “Johnson’s Winking Glue.” The premise alone should have established this as a parody; it was for a product that ostensibly glued your eye shut so you could wink properly. A few months later, some dickhead blogger reposted the ad as factual without citing the source, and it went viral on its own to the point where Snopes got involved.
Did they get it right? They’ve got a real reputation for accuracy.
Cris Shapan: Yes, thank goodness for the fine folks at Snopes - I mean that, they’re like the Sheriff of Internet Misinformation. Not only did they track me down, but the author tracked the ad back to a photo gallery on my Facebook page. Of course, I’ve never tried to pretend these are real or hide my tracks, so they didn’t have to Sherlock themselves too hard. I’m glad they understood these were parodies…It pisses me off so much when people debunk my humor as a ‘hoax’ - it’s like debunking MAD magazine or Waiting for Guffman.
You once challenged me to give you a celebrity and product—I suggested Tanya Tucker and Country Time Lemonade—and you said that you’d return within 30 minutes with the completed piece. You came back at me a half hour later with a shot of her and the caption “Country Time Lemonade washes the taste of Glenn Campbell right out of your mouth” done like a late 70s print ad which had me in painful, tearful laughter—and then you said “Nah, I can do one better than that” and you came back with the Brian Eno one a half hour later. Do you time yourself with a stopwatch when you do your thing?
Cris Shapan: Wow, I’d forgotten about the lemonade ad. And those were done on a tiny, ancient 17” iMac, too, ‘cause my MacPro had just exploded. There really isn’t a clock when I’m working - sometimes I’m just screwing around and it takes, like, minutes to assemble something, but sometimes I’ll build something from scratch and gnaw on it for days before I’m satisfied. Often, I’ll obsess over the ad copy, because I want to get it perfectly wrong. But in the end, I’ve been using Photoshop professionally for 26 years, and I’m trained to be quick, so it’s a little easier for me to get a good result vs. the casual user - knocking out a Brian Eno cat food ad for your birthday card wasn’t a big production. We’re both big fans of his music, and the concept wrote itself when I saw that photo.
Hasn’t Brian Eno felt obligated to deny doing the cat food ad?
Yes, he’s posted a link to a story “debunking” the ad since it went viral. Part of me is thrilled that he’s aware of my work, but part of me is appalled that he’s probably annoyed by it. It was just a silly birthday card, I didn’t know that Eno fans all over the world would glom onto it and spread it like a social disease. And in the end, it’s really more about his cat, Eric.
Ruth Buzzi played along with one of your fake ads on Twitter, didn’t she?
Cris Shapan: Yes, the Lincoln Continental “Year of Ruth Buzzi’s Comfort” campaign. I recall someone sending me some Twitter posts where she discussed it. She seemed to be amused by the whole thing - I hope so, anyway. I know some of the guys from Spooky Tooth mentioned their frozen vegetable ad, and I believe the remaining members of Humble Pie are aware of their Hostess Fruit Pie parody ad (a mashup suggested by Tim Heidecker). It should be obvious that these were done from a place of love and humor, so I hope they get the joke.
What’s the “best” as in “the dumbest” reaction anyone’s had to one of your parodies?
Cris Shapan: Oh, God, that’s a tall order. So many people comment on the DM postings, and so many of the comments are just so strange. There are some people who go so deep - the guy who saw societal male-shaming in the Doris Day steamroller ad, the people who ferreted out a non-existent “easter egg”: the lack of the letter ‘j’ in the Dickman’s Horsefat copy, the guy who decried the Hostess/Humble Pie cartoon as anti-semitic - I think those reactions are the most fascinating because they’re so misplaced. As for the dumbest, well, that’s a Facebook thing where someone simply repeats a punchline from the ad and then points out the obvious joke as if nobody else could put it together (“Nature’s potato, the potato? What other kind of potato is there?”).
Whenever I try to describe what you do, I always take care to mention how PERFECT your stuff is from the art direction point of view. I usually describe you as “one of the funniest, most oblique motherfuckers alive, but also he’s a genius at Photoshop.” I mean, the accuracy and attention to the little details of the art direction is THE key as to why your material is so goddamned funny because just for a moment—or somewhat longer if you’re an idiot—the possibility of say, Stevie Wonder actually advertising video games back in the 1970s—if only by dint of it looks real—is right in front of you. Graphic design is a powerful tool. Your work reminds me a lot of the golden age of the National Lampoon. They always got the look right for their parodies.
Cris Shapan: Thank you for the kind words - I loved Lampoon so much, it was a huge influence. If my work looks legit, it would be a reflection of my own training and experience. I’ve been at it for a long time as a “legitimate illustrator and art director, and of course I’m old enough where I actually learned a lot of what are now considered “retro” looks while they were still current. There are a lot of details to learn when you’re a professional artist - it’s like being a session musician, where you have to be comfortable jumping from style to style. Believe it or not, nearly all of the things we’ve been talking about were, apart from being a joke, the result of me flexing between jobs to stay proficient - like a musician who’s constantly noodling on the guitar. I’m burning off creative energy the best way I know how.
Well it (Photoshop) can’t fall into the wrong hands, can it? It fucks so heavily with the public’s sense of media literacy. I mean look at something like Breitbart. It has advertisements on it, which lends it a patina of semiotic legitimacy. Fox News has commercials, chyrons, green screen, over-the-shoulder graphics and people who look like newscasters… so what they’re saying must be true… right?
Cris Shapan: Technology, double-edged sword, evil intentions etc. There’s an avalanche of manipulated bullshit coming from every direction, I’m afraid, the media is horribly guilty, on a zillion levels, of selling fantasy as fact - but I’m more concerned about people’s willingness to buy into whatever they’re fed, no matter how ridiculous, if it supports what they already believe. Even worse are people who get their information from social media, which is basically an ideological glory hole; you have no clue as to the origin of the information, you just dutifully put it in your mouth and then spread it like syphilis to all your friends. I don’t know if it’s a societal shift, or the failure of schools to inspire more kids to learn & understand, or the disappearance of books, but there’s this whole, weird thing out there where people read a snippet online and feel they’re experts on any subject, and will expound, or criticize, or speak in absolutes when in fact they’re laughably ignorant. The Internet has the power to legitimize the worst kinds of idiocy. If a guy is on a soapbox, screaming gibberish on the corner of Hollywood & Highland, people ignore him; give him a Twitter account and the Los Angeles Times will quote him and dub him a “pundit.” At some point the world has to realize that the Internet isn’t an accurate barometer of anything. Social media has become such a minefield of bullshit & scam artists that I’ve pretty much abandoned it. I’m disappointed in virtually everyone, everywhere.
One of the most elaborate of your pieces was the epic bit about Joe Flynn’s eggs. It’s a work of pure, unabashed comedic genius if you ask me. Give the readers a sense of how long that fuse was and what some of the more ridiculous details that you gave to this (fairly obvious, but certainly not to everyone) “hoax”?
Cris Shapan: That was so much fun. We did kind of approach that as a hoax, didn’t we - although, again, the story was so absurd that it should’ve been a red flag to anyone reading it. I knew people would be looking for clues, so I did my research; the collateral I produced for the story included lots of factual information and real addresses (the fact that I grew up in that area during that time period helped a lot). For the correspondence, I even”‘borrowed” some actual signatures from the Internet, and based the “B-plot” around an actual person, my great uncle. It wasn’t airtight by any means, but it was never meant to be; I was just having fun. My favorite parts were writing the ads for Flynn’s business, imagining the compressed nitrogen egg delivery system (and the damage it could cause), and the ‘local newspaper’ story that was deliberately full of careless errors. I think I fooled around with that story for months.
Why Joe Flynn of all people?
Cris Shapan: One night, I was relating to a friend the odd, true story of Marlon Brando and Wally Cox, and I was animatedly imagining a late night phone conversation between them. After mumbling through Brando’s half of the conversation, I imagined Cox trying to sign off, angrily telling Marlon that he “had to get up early and have eggs with Joe Flynn.” (Cox and Flynn were paired up in several Disney films). The entire thing snowballed out of that.
“The Gary Show.” I have laughed myself senseless watching that and I never tire of it. It has never failed to leave me helpless with snot running down my face and a painful stomach cramp. If I was watching that video and there was a fire in my house, I don’t know if I would be able to save myself. From what dark recess of your twisted mind did you pull that?
“Gary” was part of a pitch some friends and I were working on after I left Tim and Eric, “The LearnFoTainment Channel.” There was a ton of written material, but I wanted to make some proof-of-concept shorts that would illustrate part of what we were pitching. I stole a whole bunch of retro television clips and started building some short films, the object being to change the context entirely, and “Gary” was probably the most cohesive of these. Strangely, the whole thing came together in my head as I watched the source, a 2-part episode of the original Hawaii 5-0. I was laughing the whole time I was cutting it together. Sorry about the snot!