low Expectations: Jean-Paul Tremblay, left; Matt Haber (A/K/A, Guy Cimbalo), right. (The editors requested a photo of the creators of low culture to accompany this article and received this one.)
Walking down the streets of New York’s Greenwich Village, Jean-Paul Tremblay goes almost entirely unnoticed. Passersby young and old—and youngish and oldish, as well—walk by him, all but unaware that within their midst is a celebrity, albeit a celebrity of a wired, self-selecting, long tail-chasing, niche-y, early 21st century sort. Nobody knows that Tremblay, who is 29 but looks more like an undernourished 15 year-old street urchin in need of a haircut, a cup of soup, and a hug, is a bona fide celebrity of blogging: A blogebrity.
Then again, they may be walking by because he’s merely a B-List blogebrity.
As he walks the streets, occasionally fielding cell phone calls that make him groan theatrically, he stops for a moment to ponder the new issue of TIME Magazine on the newsstand. The cover shows Secretary of Defense Donald Rumseld wearing a Yankees cap, eating a banana, and listening to iPod. “In the old days, I’d probably run right home and Photoshop that shit and make a post out of it,” Tremblay says wearily.
“But now… I can’t even figure out the joke. I couldn’t even tell you where I’d begin.”
No matter how many bananas public officials consume in photos, Tremblay cannot bring himself to post about it. Call him a “no-blognik”: Lately, he feels he can’t bring himself to blog, which has resulted in a pitiable lack of posts on his site as well as a declining profile among fellow writers of free, ephemeral web content.
“Blogger fatigue is very real, and it very really affects real bloggers,” according to Dr. Owen Spielvogel, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s gossip- and media-focused Loud Family Institute. “Anecdotal research indicates it affects 1 in 10 real bloggers in a real way. Really.”
I mention “blogger fatigue” to Tremblay as he glances at the cover of Time Out New York, which features Wayne Coyne of the band Flaming Lips also, inexplicably, eating a banana, wearing a Yankees cap, and listening to an iPod.
An autumnal breeze rustles the trees above us. I can almost see Tremblay’s eyes misting up.
In 2003, Jean-Paul Tremblay looked around and made a simple decision. He decided he wanted to change the world—save it, even. So he and a former coworker named Matt Haber, both 27 at the time, endeavored to do just that in the only way they knew how: They started a blog.
The blog they created, lowculture.com, became a sensation. “It was wild,” Tremblay says. “You know how in movies like Goodfellas or Boogie Nights they have that montage of the main character’s rise to fame and power? You know, people applauding them, counting stacks of money, being waved into prime tables at restaurants? It was just like that. It was amazing!”
The site garnered accolades in the form of “hits” from other blogs, citations in the press, award nominations, and avid, at times predatory, interest from agents, marketers, and pharmaceutical companies interested in selling them wholesale Vi@gra and Ci@lis from C@nada.
But what Tremblay and Haber couldn’t know was that even as their site gassed up on rocket fuel, hitched itself on a star, and broke the sound barrier to infinity and beyond, they would find themselves in a vastly different world two years later. A world in which bloggers became as common as wild flowers on the side of the highway, and the world they wanted so badly to change would wind up changing them.
As I began working on this article, I had no idea if the creators of low culture would even talk to me. I’d heard rumors they’d sold the site to a division of the United States Military; I’d heard the site was actually a writing therapy program for emotionally disturbed teens; mostly, I heard Tremblay and Haber were total assholes. “Those guys are total assholes,” a prominent blog entrepreneur told me.
I sent a few emails and left several voice messages for both creators. When I reached Tremblay, he told me that Matt Haber had decamped to an ashram in Vermont shortly after resigning from a well-known “pro-blog.” Tremblay hadn’t heard from him in months and wondered if he ever would. When I asked if he’d introduce me to Guy Cimbalo, another low culture contributor, Tremblay told me that Guy didn’t exist, that he was merely a pseudonym he and Haber used when they were too scared to say controversial things online about how fat people had gotten.
“He’s like Tyler Durden in Fight Club,” Tremblay said, neglecting to preface his statement with a bold “Spolier Alert!!”
As I began interviewing Tremblay, some bloggers caught wind of this article and contacted me. After complaining that I should be writing about him and his various blog-related consulting gigs, one prominent blogger I’ll call “The Blog Philosopher King” told me that low culture was the perfect embodiment of the blogging ethos.
“In a way, low culture was the perfect embodiment of the blogging ethos,” he said redundantly. “The way they critiqued M.S.M.”—’mainstream media,’ in blogger argot—”whilst tacitly sucking up to it. What were low culture’s attacks on The New York Times or The New Yorker if not the overly-excited cries for attention of a class clown who secretly wants to be teacher’s pet?” (He called later to revise his statement, suggesting low culture’s attacks on the media were “the overly-excited cries for attention of a friendless, cootie-infected class clown who secretly wants to be teacher’s pet.”)
“You can see it from the way they sold themselves out dead to the middle. They had this audience, this acclaim, and what did they aim for? Mediocrity. The bland middle. Their aspirations never exceeded their bandwidth.” (Again, he called to request that phrase back for his own use; this reporter declined.)
Those aspirations, like that of many bloggers, were in television. Tremblay and Haber eagerly participated in VH1’s Awesomely Bad Ethnic Cleansings, during which their jokes about Darfur and the gassing of the Kurds fell strangely flat. They pitched a show to HBO called One Night One Night Stands, in which hidden cameras catch comedians having sex using messy foods and balloons. They also wrote freelance articles for magazines like Spackle Putty! and publications like The Line-Waiter: The Park Slope Co-Op Newspaper.
But soon, according to Tremblay, they started to see others imitating their style. “I couldn’t fire up my RSS without seeing someone doing a ‘Phunny Photo Phind’ or ‘Daffy Daguerreotype of the Day.’ People were juxtaposing everything—beach balls with volleyballs, Frank Rich and Frank Perdue. And the critiques of the Bush administration were becoming absurd. Look, I hate those guys as much as anyone, but who cares about the assistant under-secretary for Central American commerce?”
“It was becoming too much.”
In particular, he cites the hit Comedy Central show The Meta Show with stealing much of his site’s thunder as well as the various thunders of various sites.
As fans know, The Meta Show consists of clips of TV shows and news segments of the week with comedians commenting on them while silhouetted robots make jokes about the comedians, various factoids ‘pop up’ about the robots, a news ticker scrolls at the bottom of the screen mocking the factoids, a closed-captioning box showing an obese nine year-old boy making ‘farting’ noises with his palms, all while someone scrawls curse words onscreen using a Tele-strator. Week after week, the show is number one—and, oddly, number four—in its timeslot.
Not surprisingly, the show also features a blog on which its writers scathingly critique their own show. There’s also a fake “fan” blog, which critiques the show’s blog, which itself is full of fan comments, some of which are fake, some of which are real.
“Basically, they got out-low cultured,” said one wag, waggishly.
Two years after it was conceived to save the world, low culture is a shell of its former self. Posts are rare; comments rarer still. Links, rarer than the rarest of the rare are now served medium rare. And then again, that’s a rare occurrence.
Tremblay now says he’s trying to save the world through more traditional means: screenwriting. He’s currently writing a spec script about a band of bike-riding bank robbers who strike only during ‘Critical Mass’ events and use the thousands of other cyclists as cover. He’s been working on it since June and he’s already outlined the first scene and has high hopes for the second.
Haber remains MIA, and, as I now know, Guy Cimbalo doesn’t exist.
Just before this story was to close, I got a late night phone call from Matt Haber. Despite living deep in the Vermont woods, meditating for 10 hours a day, and living among fellow religious pilgrims without electricity, heat, or hot water since April, he still checks his voice mailbox regularly in hopes that the producers of The Meta Show might call and take him up on his idea to add yet another editorial overlay to the show: a laugh track.
It was late and I was unable to record my interview with Haber. Using a pen and paper, I tried to capture the essence of his ramblings, a muddled hodgepodge of Eastern wisdom and homegrown New Age notions. “Blogs are nothing without love,” he told me. “There’s no Technorati rankings for enlightenment… You can rebuild your site, but can you rebuild your soul?”
During his long, uninterrupted monologue, he referenced everything from Frantz Fanon—or perhaps Franz Ferdinand, he was mumbling— Gaia Theory, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Ayn Rand, Occam’s razor, and Schrodinger’s cat. He was so absorbed in his spiel, he didn’t hear me excuse myself to go attend to my daughter when I told him she had a fever and had wet her bed and been lying in her own filth for hours.
When I got back on the phone after changing her, replacing the sheets, and reading her two stories, Haber was still talking. “Being away from blogs made me think,” he said dreamily. “And thinking has made me feel. And feeling has made me sad. And the sadness made me cry. But crying made me feel good. And the good feeling made me happy. But the happiness made me feel guilty…”
I interrupted him and asked something I’d been afraid to ask this blogebrity-turned-no-blognik for hours: “Are you for real?”
“No,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m not. I’m actually Guy Cimbalo pretending to be Matt Haber. In fact, there is no Matt Haber. That’s the name I used to call my penis to make my friends laugh in college… Or maybe there is a Matt Haber.
“Hey, have you ever wondered if it’s you who’s not real? Maybe you’re just a figment of some blogger’s imagination. Maybe we’re all just made up characters on God’s blog?”
I hung up shortly after that. The sun was rising and my head was swimming. My daughter and husband would both be sleeping for several hours and I didn’t know what to do with myself.
So I did the only thing I could think of: I fired up my computer to read some blogs. It was 6:15AM and my RSS inbox was already full of more than a dozen posts. I had gotten up at an ungodly hour and I had a long day ahead of me, but at least the bloggers were up before me and they were already blogging, saving the world one post at a time.