Liam Lynch: A Primer

liamlynchIn early 2014, Tim Heidecker tweeted that when he and Eric Wareheim drove out to Los Angeles in 2004 to work on Tom Goes to the Mayor, they only knew a few people there, the first four people who understood their sensibility: Bob Odenkirk, Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Liam Lynch. It’s easy to imagine this scenario as a sort of “passing of the torch” between generations of like-minded comics, the masters approving the newcomers. But while Odenkirk, Harmon, and Schrab’s influence on modern comedy have been extensively recorded and dissected in article after article, Lynch’s career has never attracted the same about of buzz and attention.

This isn’t because Lynch has never made anything notable or worthy of that attention. (On the contrary, plenty of his work is quite good.) Make no mistake: as that tweet suggests, the influence of Liam Lynch’s work can be felt throughout a lot of the unclassifiable, DIY Internet videos, and alternative comedy that gets made today, including that of Tim and Eric. His work, like Harmon and Schrab’s Channel 101 competition, scans as YouTube before YouTube, Adult Swim before Adult Swim.

The fact of the matter is that even among other alternative and underground comics, Liam Lynch blazed a particularly idiosyncratic trail for himself, stitching together a decades-long career of sock puppet variety shows, crude 3D animations, extended video podcasts, and film soundtrack credits. He’s a fascinating character in the comedy world because, though he’s collaborated with many high-profile comedians and musicians — he studied music one-on-one with Paul McCartney, recruited Ringo Starr to play drums on a comedy album of his, and directed major works by the likes of Tenacious D and Sarah Silverman — he’s still a little-known quantity to the general public.

Though even if you aren’t sure who he is, as with many cult comedians, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered his work without even realizing it was his. His fingerprints can be found everywhere, in all sorts of media. To be sure, Lynch’s sensibility isn’t for everyone. It can be too loose and meandering to some, with few obvious punchlines. It can also just be too downright silly or obnoxious for others. But for those open to his curious brand of comedy, let me guide you through some of his work.

First Impressions: “United States of Whatever” and Music Videos

If you aren’t familiar with him, and Liam Lynch’s name rings a bell, it’s likely because of his 2002 single, “United States of Whatever,” a minor alt-rock radio hit that also featured on the commercial for Tony Hawk’s Underground. (It also used to hold the curious distinction of being the shortest song to ever make it to the UK Top 10, until The Simpsons Movie’s “Spider Pig” beat it five years later. Seriously.)

First appearing on an episode of Lynch’s show, Sifl & Olly (which I’ll get to in a bit), “United States of Whatever” is generally seen as a satire of disaffected Gen X-ers. And while that’s true, that’s not its primary appeal, not really. Instead, for a minute-and-a-half, the song is mostly about the dumb rush of hearing Lynch improvise a song, cutting off people with a dismissive “whatever” and hearing him say he’s “on the corner, wearing [his] leatha.” Coupled with an insistent, chugging riff and a brash, stupid, singalong chorus, “United States of Whatever” has an easygoing, off-the-cuff charm that turned it into a classic. There may be funnier songs in musical comedy, but few so catchy and endearing.

Because of that song, Lynch, like seemingly all comedians, filmmakers or musicians who broke through in the ‘90s, was inevitably slapped with the “slacker” label. Yet while his music can be ironic, there’s nothing especially cool or apathetic about it. It’s big, goofy, unconcerned with what you make of it, yet exceedingly hooky and well-crafted, which makes him a natural fit for the similarly-minded Tenacious D.

A longtime friend of Jack Black, Lynch directed the D’s Pick of Destiny film, along with the music video for their biggest song, “Tribute.” Befitting the band, Lynch’s video both presents them as losers and exalts them as gods, but he does it through decidedly kitschy animations and low production values, featuring a giant demon, played by Dave Grohl, who shreds on a red guitar.

Granted, a lot of these sort of animations haven’t always aged well as comedy (I’ll get into that later), and his music videos aren’t always the funniest things in his oeuvre. But, in general, his use of an amateurish, lo-fi style, even for ambitious ideas that would seem to call for a higher budget, is important to appreciating his other work, since it’s an aesthetic that carries over to some of the videos he directs to this day.

But those are just the basics. I’m not even mentioning all his other music projects as well, like, say, when he wrote (but didn’t perform) the theme song to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s gone-but-not-forgotten MTV cartoon, Clone High, or when he co-wrote that song in School of Rock where Jack Black yells “Step off!” over and over. Then, of course, he consistently churns out his own music too.

If you feel properly prepped, let’s move on.

Next Steps: Sifl & Olly

The crown jewel of Liam Lynch’s catalogue actually comes before many of these directorial outings and incidentally features a total of zero human beings. Co-created with childhood friend/frequent collaborator Matt Crocco, The Sifl & Olly Show, which ran on MTV from 1997 to 1999, is still unlike anything else on TV. A variety show hosted by two sock puppets, Sifl and Olly (voiced by Crocco and Lynch, respectively), the series careens wildly from idea to idea, minute to minute, unloading loads of bizarre characters and pop culture references at a surprisingly fast clip.

Each episode combines music (often original songs but also covers) and talk show elements, with Sifl and Olly chatting either with each other, their spacey assistant, Chester, or people who “call in.” The hosts also act as spokesmen (spokessocks?) for Precious Roy, a seemingly insane old man, who hawks dangerous, ridiculous products.

Being that it comes so early in Lynch’s career, there’s a certain raw exuberance to Sifl & Olly that doesn’t quite come through in some of his later work. Given that it’s essentially a series of audio recordings that Lynch puppeteers over, there’s a radio show quality to the series, with an unscripted, conversational tone, where the humor is often in not what’s being said but how something is said and how others react to it. It makes it as fun to listen to as it is to watch.

The puppetry also helps makes Lynch’s sense of humor easier to digest. Whereas the silliness can sometimes seem like too much when coming out of a real person — especially a man who’s in his 40s now — the puppets and animation allow Lynch and Crocco to indulge in all sorts of chaos and absurdity without it becoming cloying or obnoxious.

Sifl & Olly retains a feverish cult, and now that the series is available on DVD and online, that cult is able to grow. The show recently returned for a spat of episodes, first on gaming site Machinima’s YouTube and then over to Nerdist for another short season. So, if you like it and beg for more, who knows? It could return again.

Until then, Lynch has a massive mountain of other work.

Deep Dive: Lynchland and Beyond

This is where things get weird. Lynch’s video podcast, Lynchland, has been his main comedy project since the cancellation of Sifl & Olly, and it essentially serves as a clearinghouse for ideas and characters, intermittently updated by Lynch over the last decade or so, usually in half-hour installments. As a result, there’s a tremendous amount of material to wade through — sketches, animations, songs, you name it — though, perhaps unsurprisingly given the sheer amount of material, I should say that not all of it is worth your time.

For one, whereas his style of using campy graphics and computer animations felt fresh 10 or 15 years ago, it feels a little stodgy now because of how many TV shows and web videos have co-opted that style in the years since. Also, as you might imagine, when Lynch tries to stretch a sketch idea to a full half-hour-plus episode, there’s a fair amount of bagginess. Even when Lynch tries to transpose Sifl & Olly’s loose, ramshackle feel onto these extended videos, it doesn’t always work, leading to scenes and jokes that fall flat.

That being said, if you’re willing to dig around, you’ll find some pretty great stuff. One Lynchland bit that went viral a few years back that you may have already seen is “Drinking Out of Cups,” an animation Lynch created using an audio recording musician Dan Deacon made. (It’s the one with the lizard talking about how much he loves seahorses.) Lynchland’s extended runtime also can occasionally yield something as delightful as the low-key “Survivor Guy,” about a guy trying to brave the elements while locked outside of his house.

You can go pretty far down the rabbit hole with all of this. Outside of Lynchland, RavenVapes is a particular favorite of mine, a series of vaping liquid reviews from a metalhead NASA employee who gets paid to vape in a wind tunnel. There’s even a web series he made for Nerdist: a sci-fi sitcom about an android rock band called The Sweet Electric, of which Lynch plays every member himself. (He’s also released a couple albums for the fictional group.) I really haven’t watched too much of that one, and honestly, there’s so much more stuff he’s done that I’ve never seen. In short, he’s insanely prolific, and there’s always another thing to take a chance on.

Again, your mileage may vary with any and all these bits, but even when a sketch isn’t working, I always find myself admiring his commitment. He’s clearly doing all this for the fun of it, without worrying about catering to a particular audience. If that means Liam Lynch will never get the widespread recognition he deserves, so be it. Those tuned into his wavelength have an embarrassment of riches waiting for them in his YouTube account, and half the fun is discovering what he’ll put out next.

Chris Kopcow is a pop culture writer and comedy guy. He links to his Twitter because he craves validation from strangers.

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