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Trippy TV: The Senseless Parodies of dotflist

on January 15, 2015, 6:00pm

The entire internet is pretty weird, but that doesn’t stop people from singling out certain elements as “weird internet.” Every once in a while someone will stumble across something strange on YouTube or Tumblr, not know how to react, hold it aloft like an artifact from another world, and ask, “What the hell is this?” Sometimes there’s a hint of frustration to that question, sometimes revulsion, sometimes awe. “Weird internet” is the uncharted territory at the edges of what we’ve charted: The map might read “Here be dragons,” but sometimes, once you’ve been there, it turns out to be just a log draped in seaweed. When I came across the nearly 70 (now 75) alternate TV theme songs on a YouTube account going by dotflist, it was clear that this was a dragon — but of the Pete’s, Puff, Falkor, or Spyro type: animated, mischievous, and a little psychedelic.

The key, though, was that these themes weren’t just some weirdo making up goofy songs and dropping them over TV intros. This was a musically talented weirdo making up catchy, goofy, sometimes unsettling songs and dropping them over TV intros. After I dug further through the dotflist channel, I reached out to the author of these tunes, Ann Arbor, Michigan resident Erik Helwig. It was completely unsurprising to learn that, in addition to the themes, the parody episodes of Home Improvement, and the strange rock songs attributed to Hot Dad, Helwig has a “serious” music project, Girls Who Care.

But the serious stuff took an extra step outside of the dotflist channel. “It was my friend and I making comedy videos. I guess we kinda started that back in 2007-ish,” he explains. “If you go back through the history of the YouTube channel, there have been times when we either purposely misled people with the titles of the videos or created parodies that didn’t really make any sense.” That lack of sense can range from a G.I. Joe theme that doubles as a Ron Paul commercial to a Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme that sees Will as a prescription drug kingpin (“Now I skip school and sell drugs all night/ Gonna be a kingpin, oh yes, I swear/ Here in Bel Air”) to a country twang over Hawaii Five-0’s credits. “There’s this idea of parodying something but not actually understanding it, making a joke of something, but anybody that’s actually seen it would say, ‘Oh, you’ve clearly seen only one episode,’ or ‘You don’t understand this at all.’ That’s been internalized for years for me. There’s something super funny about that because people either get it immediately, or they’re completely enraged at you for mixing up character names or whatever.”

This intentional confusion, inspired by the likes of Andy Kaufman and Spaceghost Coast to Coast, gets to the idea of the propensity to stumble upon the weird when online. The videos are labeled with titles like “Rocko’s Modern Life Intro HQ”, so they’ll come up on searches for the real McCoy. But a few seconds should clear that up — theoretically. “The Wonder Years was the third one I did, and YouTube statistics tell you how long someone’s watching something,” Helwig notes. “And that one started immediately getting a lot of views just from regular, organic traffic on YouTube. And they were watching like 45 to 50 seconds of it before realizing that it wasn’t actually The Wonder Years. And I mean, it’s got the HBO logo at the beginning of it. I thought that was funny and kind of a blessing. It’s just there the whole time, and it’s clear that something is not right. And yet people are still going forward.”

That trademark HBO logo and audio sting, used at the beginning of every one of the dotflist alternate themes, seems to get funnier and more mystifying with each and every successive video. Its repeated use, he explains, came about by sheer happenstance when he kept it rather than cut it after recording the first theme to HBO’s Girls. When I note that it makes the videos come together like an alternate reality HBO sampler, where these twisted versions of the shows all coexist, he seems to sigh: “I mean, people have said that. I don’t know. I’ve done videos for years … With everything I do now creatively, I try not to analyze too far. So I guess I do make decisions that wind up … causing something like that to come out. It definitely makes sense, and I like the vibe that it’s added to everything. I can’t even call it laziness, because to just delete the logo, it’s not work. I mean, I will wholeheartedly stand by that [assessment], but I definitely didn’t … It was just, ‘Here it is, and I’m going to keep doing it because it’s funny.'”

That raises questions of intent and design, something that seems particularly strange in almost anything under the “weird internet” umbrella. Even Helwig doesn’t seem sure of his purpose. After getting comments from confused viewers assuming he had mislabeled his videos intentionally to get views, rather than grasping at the parody, he had to wonder. “It kind of made me realize that I’m not actually trolling, and I’m also not actually being totally sincere,” he explains. “I don’t even know what my motives are. It’s just a thing I’ve been doing.”

But this isn’t Helwig’s first creative rodeo. After a few years writing eBooks for a living, he decided to throw himself wholeheartedly into music in whatever capacity happened to strike his creative fancy moment to moment. “I’ve just been trying to get started, or get somewhere in music, for like 10 years,” he says. “Just a bunch of projects that fell apart. I had just finished a project [with Girls Who Care] … And I was waiting for this process to wrap up. It’s like, ‘Somebody’s going to pay attention if I make enough of them.'”

Even the choice of which themes to dissect seemed to be influenced by chaos and chance, as Helwig writes themes for certain shows he’s entirely unfamiliar with. “Every morning I would wake up, and I had this list of themes, and stuff that people had requested, and I would just pick something off the list,” he explains. “If I’d never seen the show or didn’t know anything about it, I’d have to go dig stuff off of Wikipedia and then just try to focus on either the least important details or … I mean Scrubs, that one was number two, and it was really just a repeating of the title. I started weaving some darkness. The Sister, Sister one, there’s incest in that one, and there’s all these dark, weird things happening in places, and it’s really just a matter of how bored I was.”

Much in the way that Helwig seems unclear on his own motives, the burgeoning new audience for his videos seems confused as to their origin. Several comments ask who the hell dotflist is. In one comment, I noted somebody mentioning that the voice sounded like Eric Wareheim, assuming dotflist was a secret Tim and Eric project. Theories abounded, but most assumed that this was some sort of mysterious effort, not just some guy in Michigan making brilliant anti-humor parody. “My interactions are all in the comments. I’ve been pretty transparent,” he says. “Part of me wants to say that this was purely an artistic project. Part of me also wants to say it was like, you know, I finished this album as Girls Who Care … I’ve got this community, and the people that I was showing that music to from the dotflist stuff, they were being incredibly receptive. And they were motivated by nostalgia, and they like the era that [both dotflist and Girls Who Care] kind of sound like, and yeah, they were just incredibly mature, respectful people who were getting the humor.”

The Tim and Eric comparison isn’t unfounded, though Helwig notes he hadn’t seen their videos when he was starting his: “You like one thing, and you’re going to like it all, and if you don’t like it, you’re going to absolutely hate it. You’re going to be completely pissed that you watched it.” In the same way that many Tim and Eric fans transitioned to Tim Heidecker’s “serious” folk music with Heidecker and Wood, Helwig hopes more fans who dig the TV themes will follow him to Girls Who Care.

There are more “weird” projects on the way, too, including what he calls “basically anti-sex raps.” “One of them is kind of like Len’s ‘Steal My Sunshine’. I have a fake Jesus album that I’ve been working on, and I don’t think anybody’s really done anything like it. And I don’t even really know why I did it. Once again, I just started making these Jesus tracks that were just crossing these lines that things never cross.” When I assume he means Christian rock, he steps in to correct me. “It’s basically just if you made sensual pop music and it was directed towards Jesus,” he says. “It’s not motivated by hate. I grew up in a religious household, but I’m no longer religious. I was a church drummer for seven years. And that kind of just built up. I was around it all the time. All of a sudden I was writing these stupid songs about clubbing with Jesus and drinking and making love and all these things.”

More than religion, the sacred cows of nostalgia seem to be the ones from which he’s caught the most flack: “I don’t understand why someone that hears a track, someone that grew up watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they watch that intro a million times, it brings them back to that era … why is it half the time, those people see my remade intro, they’re like, ‘Oh my god, nostalgia’s washing over me, I can’t believe how incredible this is.’ And the other half is like, ‘Fuck you, you can’t ever touch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this is too sacred, you can’t redo this theme.’ People hate True Detective, or they’re obsessed with it. I don’t think anything’s too sacred to make fun of.”

Another part of weird internet that Helwig keys into is that the fans of the page will be just as passionate as the detractors. Fans clamoring for more videos seem to match the “kill yourself” comments from the Something Awful forums (which Helwig is quick to note he got quite a few of before a certain portion of that legendary site warmed to his videos). “I’ve got it down to a science, how to just make stuff really quickly, how to manipulate myself into coming up with different ideas,” he says, excitedly explaining his interaction with fans. “With somebody who doesn’t really make music or understand the process, they go, ‘Oh, would you do this?’ And then they get a song customized for them. Yeah, that just made me feel good to do that part.”

Several sites have picked up the steam from those warming Something Awful forum members, including prominent placements in Gawker and the New York Post. “I’ve been fighting for something like this for years and years and years,” Helwig notes. When I ask whether that means more traction regarding his “serious” music or whether he hopes one half of the comedy/music split succeeds, he seems content to keep doing whatever comes to him. “I go through periods where I write quote unquote serious music, and then I go through periods where I do joke stuff,” he says. “And if I don’t do one or the other, I’ll feel really inadequate, like I’m failing myself. It’s like I’m venting. I’ve got to do one or the other … I just want to make a living from music in some way that it’s not just entirely commercialized. I don’t think I’d want to be a jingle writer. Just as long as my intentions were pure, as long as it’s music and it’s that, then perfect.”

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