If those sentences make no sense, you have yet to enter the universe of Bad Lip Reader, the eviscerating and hilarious video parodies that overdub presidential candidates and musicians with absurd sentences.
Like Auto-Tune the News was to political parodies in 2010, so is Bad Lip Reader to this election cycle. The videos reinterpret candidates’ speeches by putting words into their mouths in a sendup of the idea that politicians only talk nonsense.
The creator, who wants to remain anonymous, chatted with us by e-mail to explain why he started the parodies and why he’s not really trying to make a political statement.
How do you know how to lip read?
Several years ago, my mother suddenly lost her hearing. She was in her 40s. In a matter of months, she went from having perfect hearing to total and irreversible hearing loss in both ears. That kind of loss would be terrible for anyone, of course, but she was a musician and a passionate lover of music and language. So, it was incredibly traumatic for her. And it was extremely difficult to watch her go through that loss. But one thing I found so amazing was how quickly she learned to read lips. She was astounding. The brain is capable of amazing things when it is left with no options.
It was fascinating to watch her pick up this new skill, and it became absolutely vital to her. I found that I sometimes started watching TV with the television on mute ... to try to understand what her world was like.
I'd try to understand what the people on screen were saying by reading their lips, but I was just terrible at it. I would occasionally pull out isolated phrases, but they were sometimes so bizarre that I instantly knew they were wrong. And that just made what my mother did even more amazing.
What motivated you to start this project?
Earlier this year, I was hired to film two radio talk show hosts. One of the hosts had a curious habit of silently mouthing words to himself while the other guy was talking. He would look straight at the guy talking, listen to what he was saying but silently mouth phrases the entire time. He wasn’t mimicking or mirroring the other guy’s mouth movements. It was almost like he was rehearsing what he was going to say, but I couldn't understand how he could possibly know in advance what he was going to say in response to what the other guy was saying.
I was shooting with a couple of other guys, and we kept looking at each other like: “What in the world is he doing? What is he saying?” It was disconcerting. And when I got the footage back to my studio, I looked at it, and I thought, “Hey, I wonder if I could read his lips and make out what he was saying!” I just wanted a snippet. One phrase. And I tried to do it, but, again, my brain kept coming up with completely random, strange interpretations. They were mainly random word combinations like “Bacon Hobbit” and “Moose potion, poke me” — things like that. So I grabbed my microphone and recorded these phrases into the computer, and when I played that back in sync with the video, it really looked like the guy was saying it.
I was laughing so hard. I titled the video “What He Really Said” and sent it to the guys that were on the shoot with me, and it destroyed them. They were in tears. So, I did a couple of other videos like that, which just circulated between us as an inside joke.
When Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video came out right around the same time, it occurred to me that my newfound “skill” might be applied to songs. I muted “Friday,” and immediately noticed that it looked like she was saying “Gang Fight, Gang Fight.” I knew I had to make that song.
I was so attracted to the idea because the lyrics were so at odds with the visual component of the video. She was all smiles and teeny-bopper sunshine, and I loved how it was such an odd fit.
I wrote and recorded an entirely new original song with the poorly lip-read lyrics I came up with. I totally changed the song; it has nothing in common with “Friday” except for the tempo and the basic structure. And as with the “Bacon Hobbit” video, when the audio was synced up with the video, it really looked like she was singing it.
My friends encouraged me to put it on YouTube. So, I created a new channel, gave it the name “Bad Lip Reading,” threw on an intro and put the video out there. I had no idea it was going to get the response it did. Within two or three weeks, it had passed a million views, and I suddenly had 20,000 subscribers who wanted more videos. So, I started doing more of them, and the channel has continued to grow and grow and grow over the last seven months.
Why the switch from Rebecca Black to Rick Perry?
The songs take a while to do. I don't just crank them out as quickly as possible to get them out there. It’s gratifying when people say things like, “Wow, that is really funny! but, it’s also a catchy song — I listen to it when I workout!” It's nice that people also respond to them from a songwriting standpoint, as well as a humor standpoint.
I often juggle three or four of them at a time, which stretches the process out even longer. I wanted to find something short and effective that I could upload to my channel as a kind of stopgap, something my subscribers could watch while I continued to finish the songs.
I sort of just randomly landed on the political angle. It seemed very effective, not only because it was timely, but also because politicians come with so much talking-head material. I can’t even recall how I landed on Rick Perry specifically, but as soon as I started looking at it, I knew it would work. I just wasn't sure how my fans would respond to it. Fortunately, they liked it, and as the political videos have gone viral, they’ve introduced a whole new group of people to BLR.
You mock Obama and Bachmann. Are you a Republican, a Democrat or a bad lip reader?
I don’t really classify myself as Republican or Democrat. I don't like labels. That may sound trite or evasive, but I feel like many people look at labels and make a lot of assumptions that may or may not be accurate. I lean a bit more to the left than right, but when I do a Bad Lip Reading video of Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry, there is zero political agenda there. I'm not trying to bash conservatives or make them look foolish. I would just as happily do any Democrat or Liberal, as long as it made for an effective video. I'm not trying to influence politics. I’m just trying to make something people can laugh at.
It’s simply funny to see any celebrity or politician saying bizarre and random things in a very earnest manner and I’m not going to limit myself to political videos.
I'd also like to note that I don't actually feel like I'm mocking the artists and politicians in my videos. At the very least, I have no ill will or malicious intentions. I make no commentary on their music or the policies they support. I don’t comment on their personal lives, the way they look, their recent scandals, their clothes.
I am simply using their mouth-shapes to generate random phrases. I like to think that the people in the videos recognize that. Michael Buble got it. He understood that the BLR video I did of him (“Russian Unicorn”) actually had nothing to do with him personally. It was about making this new, strange thing.
He genuinely enjoyed it. He tracked me down, and we spoke by phone about the video, and he was just fantastic. Fox [television] showed Michele Bachmann her video, and she also got it. She thought it was funny. And I hope the others realize that, too. I'm not trying to pick on them. They have more than enough people doing that already.