Okay so every week I’m going to post a Peep Culture related phenomenon. Even though my book on the topic of how and why we’re learning to love watching ourselves and our neighbors through various broadcast mediations came out in 2009, the phenomenon continues to both permeate our lives and our pop culture. So welcome to my weekly Peep!
Last week I watched the documentary Shut Up Little Man – trailer below.
I can’t believe I’d never encountered the Shut Up Little Many story before. As the founder of a magazine of zine culture and a student of Peep, you would have thought that phenomena this Australian-made doc chronicles would have been something I’d heard about many times before. Not so.
At any rate, the movie chronicles one of the earliest examples of pure peep culture (peep=making pop culture entertainment out of other people’s real lives) I’ve yet to encounter. Basically, here’s the story. Two 23 year-old guys, “Eddie Lee Sausage” and “Mitchell D”, move from Midwest nowhere to San Fransisco where they get an apartment in an ugly pink building with paper thin walls. They then start to hear the wildly weird and incredibly loud nightly screaming matches between two old white guys, one gay (Peter) and one straight (Raymond). Mostly because the nightly scream fests are so outlandish and crude — peppered as they are with profanity, threats of violence, and homophobic putdowns from Ray to which the unfazed Peter responds, repeatedly, “Shut up, little man!” — the two decide to start recording the proceedings.
They make mixed tapes from these recordings. Bests of, if you will. They send those tapes to friends and the tapes get listed in zines devoted to found audio. People start coming over to listen to the old, broken down alcoholic neighbors next door battle it out every night. The tapes go viral in a fascinating analogue way that shows very clearly how zines and self publishing projects in the 80s and 90s were really precursors to much of what we now think of as the viral spread of material online. (Consider, for instance, the Star Wars Kid and related ‘found video goes viral’ events.)
Inevitably, the recordings become commercialized. Matador records offers to release a best of on CD. No fewer than 3 separate parties seek to make a fictional movie based on the Shut Up story. A play is released, Dan Clowes does Shut Up comics and a Devo side project records and releases a Shut Up Little Man song.
As we meet the fans of Shut Up and the various players who want to get in on the Little Man action, we begin to squirm. This is, after all, pure peep. It’s real life – messy and unsettling – transformed into pop culture. The recordings are funny, and its easy to see Raymond and Peter as a bizarre alcoholic odd couple. But we’re getting our laughs at the expense of two real, very damaged and addicted men.
The film, which screened at Sundance in 2011, is at its best when we are forced to contemplate the humanity of the two men we otherwise would prefer discussing as characters. At one point we see Eddie and Mitch offering $200 to Raymond, who refuses the money. The duo admit to being disappointed. If he had taken the money, they would have felt far less morally culpable. At another point one of the would-be filmmakers and a journalist go to see Peter and try to get him to sign a release form allowing them to use the recordings. Booze, money and even sex are on the table – provided this befuddled ancient alcoholic who had become an unwitting underground culture sensation signs on the dotted line.
Still today Eddie Lee Sausage continues to hawk the recordings made way back in 1987. The Shut Up Little Man official website is dotted with trademarks and copyrights.
The film is at once a fascinating look into the pre-Net zine culture of the late 80s, and a pretty decent overview of one of the earliest viral peep phenomenon. Shut Up Little Man is the Peep of the Week!