Apart from the everyday grind of culture stand those few, indelible moments when a medium and its destined signature subject meet. Thousands of renaissance artists painted portraits, but it took Leonardo Da Vinci to give the world Mona Lisa's immortal smile. And what the smile has been to the portrait, the meme has been to the Internet. Senseless things become wildly popular seemingly for no reason at all, and then, ordinarily, they vanish again as quickly as they came. But that's not what happens when such memes as "Spaghetti Cat" and "Nom Nom Nom" meet their Leonardo, Parry Gripp. The leader of one of the 1990s most successful pop punk bands, Nerf Herder, has created several of the most popular viral videos in the history of YouTube in the 2000s. Taken together, Gripp's prodigious output of catchy, mostly short tunes, which are either synced to found footage or else animated by one of his many talented collaborators, have recently soared past the 100 million views mark, putting Gripp in the small elite of such popular and influential artists producing for the web. I met with Gripp recently to catch up on his latest activities and to reflect with him on the impact of his pitch-perfect approach to framing and claiming the web's most clickable detritus.
Your "song of the week" project was certainly ambitious in terms of deadlines. Have you been able to sustain it?
Well, lately I haven't been as weekly as I was. I work for other people now, and those are my real deadlines. The song a week thing was just a way to get motivated. I think that deadlines are the key to anything -- deadlines and constraints. These are the things that turned my hobby into a job, and that keep it fun.
I know you are playing some gigs again with Nerf Herder, but what have you been doing recently on the Internet?
The project I'm most proud of recently is something called Storybots that I did for JibJab. I wrote a song for every letter of the alphabet. It's pretty exciting. When I finished A and B I sent them in and they were like, "Can you do two a week?" They are all about a minute long. And that was great for me, since I like short forms and I like deadlines, so of course I said "yes." It was just the perfect 13-week project.
Do you have a favorite letter now?
One of the things I discovered by doing this was that all the letters of the alphabet are incredibly great, but if I had to pick out one favorite, it would maybe be L. Q was probably the most challenging, because the way that I did it meant that it required the most voices.
Did you ever feel you were you working in the shadow of Children's Television Workshop?
I did feel like the precedent set by "Sesame Street" put some pressure on me, but I love it. Bring it on, "Sesame Street!" If you want to see me at my most anxious, look at A. A and B are definitely the shakiest. After that I'm locked in the groove.
Did the people at JibJab give you a plan or feedback?
There were some instructions, like script notes that indicated, "this is where the robots talk." But that's really nothing. I'm very used to working like that from doing commercials.
Interesting. Can you say something about the different forms?
Commercials are more demanding in certain ways. I just finished the new Hungry Hippos campaign for Hasbro, and that was exciting because it will get aired all over the world -- it's the first international spot that I've done.
So why was it harder? Did you have to go somewhere to do it?
No, it didn't change my working process any -- I still recorded at home and sent the music to them digitally -- but it was part of something much bigger than what I usually deal with. There were actually two different advertising agencies involved, and every version of the song had to go through both agencies and then back to Hasbro. After each of these review processes I would receive notes, things along the lines of "you have to add these three words." And it's important to realize that we are not even talking about a whole minute here -- the spot is more like 15 seconds. But I enjoyed it. It was a challenge adapting to all the feedback I received. To me it's like playing Tetris. And then there's Hallmark. I've been working with Hallmark for a long time. They are a mainstay for me.
I understand that you grew up on an orchid farm here in Santa Barbara.
Yes, the orchid nursery has been in the family since 1957 -- since before me. I still live near it, but I don't live on it anymore. For many years I lived on site, for instance back when I was in Nerf Herder the first time around. I actually lived in the office, and sometimes I would get back late from a gig, and when I woke up there would be a tour group of Japanese orchid fanciers outside my window. My dad, Paul Gripp, started it and he has done some KCET television about it, with Huell Howser. The studio where I record is there. It's in a converted shipping container.
Do you think the orchids influenced you?
I don't know. For a while, I was very into it. Breeding is the main thing with orchids -- people compete to develop hybrids. I studied to be a judge. I went to all these shows and took a lot of exams, and in the end what I realized was that, while I loved the orchids, I hated judging things. I didn't want to constantly be faced with the task of saying which one was better. It was actually an important realization for me as an artist. Ever since then, one of the things that I've been constantly striving for is to eliminate that moment of deciding about the quality of something, where you have to say it's either good or bad. I'd rather make more stuff, and let someone else worry about that.
Are you saying that you try to avoid critical judgment across the board?
Well, let's see, maybe I can explain it more with an analogy. When I was at UCSB, I was enrolled in the College of Creative Studies. We were all supposed to write fiction, and there was this one student who only wrote Star Trek fan fiction. Now some of it was actually pretty good, but it was never for a moment acceptable in that context. Every time it would come up, everyone was just like, "no, that's Star Trek fan fiction, we are not interested." And I suppose that, on the boards over at StarTrekfan.org, or whatever the fan fiction site is, the opposite was happening. I'm sure the response over there was, whenever some subject or technique crept in to this person's work from what we were learning in school, they were probably just as quick to say, "no, that's not Star Trek fan fiction, so we are not interested." I guess what I'm trying to say is that to me, quality is inextricable from context, so I'm happier letting it stay there, embedded in whatever context it came from.
Speaking of context, how are you feeling about your status on YouTube these days?
It's my fifth year that I've been posting to YouTube and I just passed 100 million views. That's aggregate, over all my videos, with two different stations running now. The Parry Gripp station has almost 87 million views, and the Parry Gripp Radio station is at about 25 million.
That sounds like a lot. Are you one of the most popular artists on YouTube?
I think I am in the top 1000. I don't know anymore -- it changes rapidly. I do feel like I lived through YouTube's "wild west" period. Now the monetizers are figuring it out. It's the number one outlet for media for kids, which is kind of interesting, because you aren't supposed to be able to have an account unless you are over 13. That's one of the reasons that Netflix is huge; because it's getting all the younger ones who are going online with their parents.
Do you see this ongoing rise in popularity as having an impact on the viewer experience or on YouTube's policies?
With YouTube, it just seems like it's so powerful now that there's no way that it can stay the way that it is. They have tweaked the search functions within the last few years, and already I can feel the difference. My revenue from YouTube declined by half in late 2011, and I'm sure that's because they did something to the algorithms. They had been looking for ways to give it a more curated feel.
Which of your videos is the most viewed?
I think the biggest one is still "nom nom nom." That's at 19 million views now and it's going strong.
What kind of reach do Internet meme video songs have?
There's an episode of the Ricky Gervais series called "Derek" in which Ricky, as Derek, shows off his favorite thing on the Internet, which is YouTube, and then he says that his favorite thing on YouTube is the animal videos, and that his favorite animal video is called "Hamster on a Piano." Then he watches it on his computer on the show. I'll be the first to admit it was very satisfying. I love Ricky Gervais, and Ricky, as Derek, loves "Hamster on a Piano." The circle is complete.
Top Image: By Parry Gripp.
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