22nd June 1988
It’s a film that’s forgotten now but at the time it was remarkable. The mixture of live-action and cartoon characters had been done before but Who Framed Roger Rabbit? made it believable. It was released on 22nd June 1988, a few years before digital liquid terminators and giant sauropods grazing on trees made its animations look like a relic of a different age, but I’ve always remembered the film for one reason – or, more precisely, for one short scene. In the film private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired to investigate rumours about the wife of the studio star Roger Rabbit. At one point Eddie and Roger become handcuffed together, leading to an awkward chase as they attempt to flee to safety. Finding respite in the back of a bar, Eddie rests their hands on an old tea-chest as he tries to saw through the cuffs. As the crate rocks back and forth, Roger slips out of the cuffs and steadies it with both hands. ‘Does this help?’, he asks, as Eddie replies, ‘Yeah, thanks’, before realizing Roger is free. As he slams the saw down on the crate Roger zips back into the handcuffs and smiles sickly at Eddie. ‘Do you mean to tell me that you could have taken your hand outta that cuff at any time?’ Eddie furiously asks. ‘No, not at any time’, Roger patiently explains, ‘Only when it was funny!’.
One could interpret this as a great comic moment but for me it’s more than that: it’s the best example of the lulz. The two are different. A joke is funny; it’s something you laugh at. But the lulz is a philosophy, it’s a way of life. The lulz is always a project; it’s something you commit to, that you work at and that you sacrifice for. If, as the old joke has it, the secret of comedy is timing, then the secret of the lulz may be the time spent – the dedication to it and the hardship encountered. Look again at the film clip, because there’s actually two moments there. The comedy moment, is when Roger slips out of the cuffs, Eddie realizes what’s happened and Roger slips back in, but the lulz comes when Roger explains why he waited so long. The real humour comes not from the reveal, but from the reveal about the reveal: when we realise and think back to how much effort Roger has had to put in to pull that gag; when we understand what’s he’s given up for teh lulz. And we know that Roger would do this, as a not-so-subtle homage to Bugs Bunny: referencing Brer Rabbit and native American traditions, Bugs, the wise-cracking New Yorker, was always a trickster figure.
The ‘lulz’ as we know, is a corruption of ‘LOL’, the internet acronym for ‘laugh out loud’. ‘LOL’ was first employed on the early bulletin board system (BBS) Usenet, before spreading through the net and even into conversation. No-one is sure when ‘lulz’ became a popular variant but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that 4Chan probably had something to do it. Most internet definitions of lulz are, however, inadequate. They usually emphasize that it’s something undertaken for one’s personal enjoyment and at someone else’s expense, but I’m not convinced by this as the lulz isn’t an individual experience. It only exists if others experience it too. The lulz is a shared project and goal – a unifying, communifying, even festive, form whose experience is collective. As the online Encyclopedia Dramatica only half-jokingly explains (not quite quoting Durkheim and Caillois, but near-enough): ‘Lulz is the one unifying force in the world. Those experiencing it are bonded mentally and emotionally. It is the greatest experience you will ever have’.
But we can take the sacred metaphor further. Compare it again with LOL. Laughing out loud is something you do, where ‘the lulz’ is a noun – it’s the name of something; it’s a thing you do something for. It is the embodied idea – and the spirit – of chaos, disorder, laughter, destruction and overturning. The lulz, therefore, is a minor deity. It is the survival of the trickster god within the monotheistic moral order of rational-individualistic capitalism. And as every deity demands a sacrifice, so too does the lulz. This is why personal enjoyment isn’t the most important element. The payoff – however hysterical, humiliating, insulting, offensive, indefensible or cruel – is less important than the effort that went into creating it. This is the sacrifice to the lulz: the dedication to the cause, the effort in the prank, the risk of discovery, the work invested in the joke, the hierophany of the reveal, and sometimes the price that must be paid for carrying it out.
Consider Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt, an out of work German shoemaker who, on 16th October 1906 put on a second-hand Prussian military officer’s uniform he’d bought, went to a local army barracks and assumed control of a small platoon of soldiers. He led them to the town of Köpenick, a small Berlin suburb, whereupon he had the soldiers seize the town hall, hold back the crowds, and arrest the mayor and treasurer on charges of embezzlement. He took possession of 4002 marks and 37 pfennigs from the treasury, issued a receipt for the money, had his new prisoners escorted in cabs to Berlin and then disappeared with the money. Whilst the main motive of the ex-convict was undoubtedly financial, the humour and audacity of the stunt and the humiliation of the army made ‘The Captain of Köpenick’ an international sensation and German folk-hero. Tracked down nine days later he was given a four year prison sentence, though was pardoned after two by the Kaiser due to his popularity. Such was his public status that he made a living reenacting his caper on stage, later becoming the subject of a 1931 play and numerous films.
The British press would reference him four years later in their discussion of the ‘Dreadnought Hoax’. On 7th February 1910 the Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy’s most powerful battleship, the H.M.S. Dreadnought, moored in Portland Harbour, Dorset, received a last-minute warning of the arrival of the Prince of Abyssinia and his entourage, including an interpreter. He managed to have the sailors standing to attention when they arrived and over the next 40 minutes gave them a guided tour of the ship. The Royal party communicated in gibberish, asked for prayer mats and attempted to bestow ‘The Grand Cross of Abyssinia’ on the officers. The visitors acknowledged every marvel they were shown with the repeated phrase ‘Bunga, Bunga!’, which the interpreter explained was Abyssinian for ‘Isn’t it lovely?’, and finally departed to the strains of ‘God Save the King!’. It wasn’t until the following day that the Navy learned that the Royal party had actually been a group of young, upper-class pranksters with blackened faces and flowing robes who’d forged a telegram to gain access. Led by Horace de Vere Cole the group included a young Virginia Wolf. Cole contacted the press, sending a photo of the ‘princes’ to The Daily Mirror and by the 12th February the The Western Daily Mercury was leading with the headline ‘Bunga Bungle!’ The Navy was humiliated. Its sailors were met with cries of ‘Bunga, Bunga’ wherever they went. In the effort, the organisation, and the chutzpah of its enactment this an ancestor of the lulz.
Dada too made an effort for the lulz. Founded far from the western front by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings in Zurich on 1st February 1916, the Cabaret Voltaire was the frontline in the Dadaist’s personal war against the insanity of the age. Here Ball and Hennings, along with Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, and Sophie Taeuber would confront their audience with recitals, dances, poems, and music. Chaotic, brutal, experimental and forceful, like the Futurist serate they copied, the cabaret’s soirees were an immediate success. As Ball wrote on 26th February, ‘Everyone has been seized by an indefinable intoxication. The little cabaret is about to come apart at the seams and is getting to be a play-ground for crazy emotions’. As in the Futurist serate, the aim was provocation – to force an experience upon those who witnessed it – and the audience responded as they should, shouting, heckling, even storming the stage and the performers. Writing on 2nd March, Ball recognized this relationship and the cycle it created: ‘Our attempt to entertain the audience with artistic things forces us in an exciting and instructive way to be incessantly lively, new and naïve. It is a race with the expectations of the audience, and this race calls on all our forces of invention and debate.’
It was Ball who would produce perhaps the most iconic moment in the cabaret’s brief history. His diary entry for 23rd June reports his invention of a new genre of poems – poems without words, or ‘sound poems’:
‘I gave a reading of the first one of these poems this evening. I had made myself a special costume for it. My legs were in a cylinder of shiny blue cardboard, which came up to my hips so that I looked like an obelisk. Over it I wore a huge collar cut out of cardboard, scarlet inside and gold outside. It was fastened at the neck in such a way that I could give the impression of a wing-like movement by raising and lowering my elbows. I also wore a high, blue-and-white-striped witch doctor’s hat.’
Strapped into his costume, Ball couldn’t even walk. He had to be carried onstage in the dark and set before his music stands whereupon he began his rhythmical recital. Confronted with this vision lit within the darkness with its wings moving and a stream of nonsensical vowels flowing forth, the crowd couldn’t take it. As Hans Richter says, ‘This was too much. Recovering from their initial bafflement at this totally new sound, the audience finally exploded’. Ball stood his ground. Flapping his wings ‘energetically’, his voice took on, he says, ‘the ancient cadence of priestly lamentation’ and he chanted his poems ‘in a church style, like a recitative’. Finally, when the lights went out, Ball recounts, ‘bathed in sweat, I was carried down off the stage like a magical bishop’.
The metaphor was apposite, with his performance having had a transformative effect upon all the participants. It was apposite too in that after his greatest moment Ball increasingly distanced himself from Dadaism and returned to the Catholic faith. His performance did perhaps prove influential, however, as Talking Heads adapted his poem and gave him a writing credit for ‘I Zimbra’ on their 1979 Fear of Music album and their frontman, David Byrne, would soon appear in the concert-film Stop Making Sense in his own costume, his magically-expanding white suit.
More than anyone till then, however, Andy Kaufman incarnated the spirit of sacrifice-for-the-lulz. In the late 1970s Kaufman introduced a new character to his act, the untalented, offensive lounge-singer ‘Tony Clifton’. As ever, Kaufman caused confusion, presenting Clifton as a real person, often played by him and often played by others when he wanted to screw with the minds of people who’d worked out it was him. It was this Clifton character that would push Kaufman’s comedy further by deliberately pissing people off and provoking anger. In one show someone actually tried to kill him. On the second night of his appearance at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco a German man with a penknife stormed the stage shouting ‘I CAN’T TAKE IT! NOW GET ZE HELL OFF!’ before being apprehended by Kaufman’s make-up man. Security had let him through, thinking it was part of the act. The next night a fishnet was lowered in front of the stage and Clifton, now in riot-squad helmet, came under a hail of vegetables. Just as the Futurist serate had suffered under a barrage of fruit and vegetables, so Clifton’s provocations suffered the same. And whereas it was a potato that famously struck Marinetti in the face in 1913 for goading his audience, Clifton got hit in the faceguard with an apple. He teetered off stage to complete his act and retreated to his dressing room.
Kaufman even used Clifton to sabotage his own career. He’d achieved national fame when his ‘foreign-man’ character became a regular in the popular US sitcom Taxi and now he talked the producers into letting Tony Clifton be a guest star on the programme. Tony Clifton refused Andy’s dressing room and a huge Winnebago trailer had to be hired, with a fully-stocked bar, along with two real call-girls to accompany him everywhere. His read-through was terrible, he harassed late-comers, he smelt, he was obnoxious to the other actors and the producers decided to fire him. It’s unclear who was and wasn’t in on the joke but the three Paramount security staff who bundled the screaming Clifton from the studios and roughed him up before depositing him at the gate had little interest in theatre-as-life performance. Andy was elated by the turn of events though his co-stars felt differently. As Danny DeVito later commented, ‘There were some bad feelings towards … Tony’.
Perhaps Tony Clifton’s greatest moment was when Andy Kaufman answered a friend’s phone in his Clifton-character voice and invited the woman-caller out on a date. They met in Santa Monica and ‘Tony’ took her to the beach, dressed in his suit. He had to find the perfect spot and made her move the towels fifty times until he found one he was happy with whereupon he announced, ‘Okay, let’s go now’. They went back to his place and he convinced her to try a Swiss massage technique that you did in the shower. As Andy’s friend recalls: ‘And she said okay and they took their clothes off and got in the shower and he just started making up this massage technique. Finally, of course, they ended up having sex, which was the point. The next day she called me and said, “I really liked your friend Tony…”’
A decade before Roger Rabbit, Andy Kaufman similarly discovered the comedic potential of handcuffs. In March 1979 twenty year-old Terry Cooney found himself driving Andy round after a show at York College, Pennsylvania. Rifling through the glove-box Andy found something interesting: as Cooney recalls, ‘I couldn’t see what he’s doing and the next thing I know I heard click-click’. Handcuffed together, without the key, they went to a frat party. Women threw themselves at Andy and they felt them up together – ‘Wherever Andy’s hand went, my hand followed’ – after which they went for food, taking turns using the cutlery, then onto another party at 6am that ended with Andy going back with a girl to her sorority house at 9am where they had sex with Cooney outside the door. ‘I was sitting in the hallway with my arm stuck inside the girl’s bedroom door and that was when my hand had the time of its life’, Cooney says.
Perhaps Kaufman’s only competitor for the lengths someone would go to for teh the lulz is the cast of the MTV show Jackass (2000-2002) and its movie spinoffs. It’s easy to dismiss the dumb-ass, gross-out comedy of people attempting to injure themselves just for the fun of seeing if they can and of watching each other do it as the final decline of the society of the spectacle or the Spenglerian end of western civilization itself, but Jackass was a product of the internet age, spurred on by the anything-goes online world whilst simultaneously anticipating the obscenities and zero-fuckery of 4Chan and the self-promotion of Youtube.
With Jackass, Johnny Knoxville and his crew relentlessly pursued pain-as-entertainment – the lulz of self-torture – in an array of stunts including testing self-defense weapons on themselves, running down ‘taser hallway’ (with stun guns suspended from the ceiling), rolling around a floor of mousetraps, snorting wasabi, playing in an ‘anaconda ball pit’, using an electrified limbo bar, ‘bobbing for jellyfish’, swinging a sledgehammer onto a genital-protector cup, making an alligator bite their nipples, getting a tattoo whilst driving in the back of an off-road vehicle, and creating the ‘poo cocktail supreme’, involving a bungee jump strapped into a porta-loo full of horse and dog faeces. To see here only a low-entry, lowest-common-denominator humour misses something important. Their dedication to the lulz combined the Dadaist escalation and desire to offend public morality – what Richter refers to as ‘the freedom not to care a damn about anything’ – with a surrealist conception of the transformation of everyday life through increasingly bizarre juxtapositions – such as the giant ‘high-five’ hand on a lever smashing into people – albeit a transformation achieved here through a Sadeian self-punishment.
The best online pranks and trolls retain this dedication to the lulz – to the pain of the effort, to the reveal, and to the shared experience of the burn. The easier trolling is the more ephemeral it is, whereas the greater the effort, the audacity or the target, the greater the burn. The internet has provided new ways to document the lulz too, with Youtube especially memorializing the greatest jokes. Take, for example, ‘Operation Slickpubes’, part of the afore-mentioned ‘Operation Chanology’, the 4Chan raid on the Church of Scientology that gave rise to the hacktivist group Anonymous.
Really, you have to watch the video for the full, gross-out effect, for the through-the-fingers pleasure of the idea and of watching someone actually carry it out. Rarely has any one person done so much for teh lulz, and, like a hactivist Jackass, suffered so obviously. It was filmed on 8th January 2009 and shows 18 year-old Anonymous member ‘Agent Pubeit’ emerging from a New York Subway dressed only in a ski-mask, shorts, trainers and surgical gloves and covered all over with vaseline to which had been liberally added a mixture of pubic hair and toenail clippings. Filmed by an accomplice, the video is accompanied by a song which, echoing Monty Python and the Holy Grail, recounts ‘The Ballad of Agent Pubeit’:
Brave agent pubit, agent pubeit was very brave
Watch ye friends and ye shall see that he will win the day
Deep underground with stone and trains, vaseline was applied
We handed him pubes, so many pubes so, he may complete his guise
The path to victory and win, paved with pubes accumulated
from the anonymous horde they came to him, fail he could not afford
the various pubes they stuck to him from the vaseline he put on before
Agent Pubeit walks through the streets ‘to the Church of Scientology to tell them to suck his dick’ whilst other anons launch a series of prank calls and faxes to distract them. Entering the Scientology centre at west 46th Street he runs around and attempts to touch as much as possible before exiting:
Brave agent pubeit, agent pubeit ran away
He knocked over shit and he got our pubes all over the place
He touched three guys and they found out,
How slippery one man could be
He spread confusion and our dickhair, with his touch of vaseline
After this he moves onto a nearby Scientology management office where he runs in and mounts a cart of church materials, simulating sex with it before fleeing into the streets:
Brave agent pubit, safely got away
Scientology we strike at thee because you’re fucking gay
Your buildings both we hath spread, our agent covered in pubes
Remember this day we have delivered operation slickpubes
The Church were outraged, accusing the protestors of ‘desecrating a place of worship’, whilst the New York Daily News ran the headline ‘Greasy Vandal in Hate Crime vs. Scientology’.
The operation wasn’t just an attack on Scientology. As Michael Vitale explained, it was also designed to take back Chanology from the ‘moralfags’ who took the ethics of hacktivism too seriously, to emphasize that Anonymous essentially remained ‘the assholes of the internet’, interested in trolling and ‘any sort of motherfuckery’. The world of order, however, is resolutely opposed to motherfuckery hence, on 15th April 2010, Mahoud Samed Almahadin, aka Matt Connor, aka Agent Pubeit, was sentenced in New York City Criminal Court. He was forbidden from going near the Church of Scientology for five years and had to pay damages for his acts and to carry out community service. As the ‘Captain of Köpenick’ had also discovered, the price of the lulz is often a legal one.
Because the order of everyday life prefers the existing system, the system of value, of property rights, of corporate religions and of welcoming, pube-free soft-furnishings in the lobby. It is this world that the spirit of trolling disrupts. As Hans Arp said, ‘the Dadaist thought up ticks to rob the bourgeoisie of his sleep’. The aim was to unsettle this safe world, and, as Richter added, ‘to bring home to the bourgeois the unreality of his world and the emptiness of all his endeavours’. The weapon for this is the lulz and the dedication it inspires.