Vic Berger Looks Back on the Election and Forward Into His Future
In a presidential election cycle that’s been anything but standard, gracious, or, well, sane, it makes sense that a Saturday Night Live cold open would no longer satiate those in need of comedic catharsis. How do you satirize something that is, on its surface, already hysterical? Republican candidate Donald Trump is a walking punchline, a fluffy, orange ogre who’s all but combusted the Republican party and the standardized election cycle by bullying his opponents (and supposed comrades), spewing inanities, and talking about his dick onstage. All due respect to Alec Baldwin, but a funny impression just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
Thank god for Vic Berger.
Berger, a video editor based out of the small town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, entered the zeitgeist early in the election season with a brand of comedy that was heretofore unsaturated: existing footage, mangled by choppy editing, sound manipulation, and sharp zooms. He’d been dabbling in the format for a spell, but his style came into its own as the election ramped up in 2015. Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, and, of course, Donald Trump, announced their bids for president and Berger was there to dissect these speeches, to target the peculiarities and amplify the awkwardness. As the election escalated and Berger’s work evolved, new characters were created from these existing ones, storylines emerged, and Berger’s arsenal of in-jokes began growing. So did his audience, with several of his videos amassing millions of views on YouTube alone. As difficult as it is to articulate, Berger’s work felt truly distinctive. You had to see it to believe it.
That distinctiveness is perhaps due to Berger’s unconventional journey. He set out to be a musician, after all, not a video editor. His earliest videos were simply there to accompany his music, but everything changed when comedian Tim Heidecker randomly saw one. Berger’s ramshackle style lent itself to the sloppy, cobbled-together aesthetic of Heidecker’s On Cinema universe, and the veteran asked Berger to contribute a piece to the show’s upcoming Oscar special. Not one to waste an opportunity, Berger bought a new laptop and set about forging a new career.
“It was the [sketch] where Tim wins an Oscar for his biopic, Tim’s Story. I was just figuring it out on the spot,” he tells me. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” It was good enough to please Heidecker, however, and they stayed in touch. Still, Berger had to make his own opportunities. “I didn’t have anything to edit so I had to find something. I just came across this clip of Ronnie Wood from The Rolling Stones and this weird interview for The Ronnie Wood Show. And I took that and was just messing with it to make it more awkward — and it was awkward already — but I was just experimenting and I sent to Tim and he loved it. I was like, this is something I can do that’s funny.”
Berger found inspiration in particular personalities: the narcissism of Chubby Checker, the ego of Emeril Lagasse, the creepiness of Guy Fieri. “I just kept experimenting with different celebrities,” he says. “You can watch my evolution just by going through my YouTube channel. Everything is still up.” That YouTube page, Berger says, is an existing document of him “figuring out what the hell I’m doing and what my style is.”
Berger’s foray into election-related material was simply a matter of circumstance. “I go where the footage is,” he says. “There were, like, 20 Republicans announcing that they were running and many of them were just ripe for what I do.” He laughs. “Mike Huckabee, he’s such a dork.” The stakes were lower then. Nobody was taking Donald Trump seriously yet. And one of the most fascinating things about Berger’s work is watching the evolution of both his tone and his POV. Where the early videos are punctuated with awkwardness and absurdity, the later ones take on a palpable darkness, with some giving way to a Lynchian style of terror.
“I’ve been burned out for months with the politics and negativity,” he says, citing the 9th GOP debate as a turning point. He wasn’t even particularly proud of that edit, “Trump Has No Chill,” but it “took off. People still wanted it, but I started to feel it there where I’m getting tired of all the negativity. And trying to make something funny out of stuff that’s not as funny as it used to feel.” He mentions an interview Megyn Kelly conducted with Trump: “I was just so burned out and pissed off. And you can [start] to see more of my view.” He touches on a “pointedness,” an anger that began to creep into his work. And you can see it in his edit, which includes violent footage from Trump rallies. No longer was Berger simply just trying to make people laugh.
To me, this pointedness represents a larger trend in Berger’s edits: humanization. Or, rather, a development of character that works not simply to mock, but to extract intention and vulnerability from behind the public shell of these politicians. Take Berger’s journey with Jeb Bush, the son of George H.W. and brother of George W. who went from an early frontrunner to an afterthought. Berger’s earliest Jeb videos targeted his cluelessness and pandering, the ways in which his crew forced him to wear hoodies and talk about Apple products to help voters identify with him. About a year ago, Berger went viral after claiming he was going to get “Jeb 4 Prez” tattooed on his neck. Jeb, not in the joke, tweeted earnestly about it.
As the election went on, however, Berger found himself sympathizing with the lesser Bush. “It started to feel like he really didn’t wanna run and he was doing it because his dad and brother were president. He wants to make his pop proud.” And then Trump entered the picture and “makes it known [Jeb is] never going to be president and bullies him so bad he has to drop out.” There’s an affection there. Berger even has a compilation of “Jeb!’s Saddest Moments,” though he assures me, laughing, that “Jeb’s gonna be alright. I’ve been up to Maine and seen his vacation home. He’s gonna have a great life.”
“I have way, way, way more respect for actual Republicans now,” Berger says, reflecting on his journey with the election. “Many of them are going into public service because they want to help people and do what they believe will help the country. Even if it’s not something I agree with, at least many of them think it will help people. Trump doesn’t give a shit about people.”
If it weren’t already clear, he’s ready for it all to be over. And while he’s got something up his sleeve for election day, it’s nothing seismic. Despite being dubbed a “political satirist” by The New Yorker and a slew of other taste-makers, Berger doesn’t need (nor want) Trump to serve as the backbone of his work.
He’s recently struck gold with a series of Steve Harvey edits, and they’re bolstered by Berger’s ever-increasing talent for crafting new narratives and character tics from pre-existing pieces. Harvey is the highest paid entertainer on TV, but in Berger’s edits you see a prisoner; the crowds and cameras are the bars he’s locked behind. “I don’t wanna host this show no more,” Harvey says, and the way Berger manipulates and repeats the line gives it a hilariously tragic weight.
“I really enjoy doing Jim Bakker,” Berger says, referring to the disgraced preacher who’s gone even further off the deep end of late. “And Bob Larson, the exorcist who beats the demons up.” He also mentions wanting to “work with” comedian Jeff Dunham, not as a collaboration, it should be stated, but as a subject. I’m struck by the way he mentions “working with” his subjects. It’s undoubtedly true: Berger needs them to make his art. But it reminds me of the way a painter will say he wants to work with watercolors, or a sculptor who wants to work with soapstone. Berger is a craftsman in a way most comedians never get the chance to be.
Still, he’s not bound to that style. He wants to make music again, and he mentions wanting to work with live performers like he did on his first On Cinema contribution. Also, he and Heidecker are in the early stages of a project that “will branch off” their two-part convention special from earlier this year. “It’s funny,” Berger says. “Tim brought me into the world of editing because he thought I was an editor. Now I’m an editor and Tim’s like, let’s make these videos [and] you’re gonna be in front of the camera and host the show.”
It’s uncharted territory. He’s nervous just talking about it. “It’s still new to me. It’ll take time and practice.” He laughs, flustered. “I’ll get it together eventually!”
For someone who essentially built their career from the ground up, that’s a hugely humble thing to say. Dude, it’s together.