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The man who created internet memes — before the internet

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This video, known only as "The Reagans Speak Out on Drugs," was released on VHS in 1988. It's an almost seamless re-edit of the the famous "Just Say No" speech given by the Reagans in September of 1986 — except in this version, the President and the First Lady are doing their best to get us all hooked on drugs. The audio version popped up on public radio, and the video became a popular viral meme, passed around from hand to hand long before the internet had made LOLcats a household word. Many people who saw it had no idea where it had come from. It was just a tape that had been copied over and over, like a YouTube video without, well, YouTube.

On the 25th anniversary of its release, the maker of this early meme has stepped forward to talk about it on io9. His name is Cliff Roth; he reviews consumer electronics and teaches college in New York City. He also has some sharp words for what's happened to the culture of memes on the web.


Roth has also just uploaded his own, high-quality version of "The Reagans Speak Out" to YouTube. The video has been circulating there for years, but Roth shied away from uploading his own version until he could get an extremely high-quality transfer. When Roth and I spoke, it was obvious that his first love was editing technology — the form of his video matters as much to him as the content. He's an audio and video geek, and the work he did on this video explored the techniques of film editing while also making a political statement.

In 1986, Cliff Roth was teaching audio engineering at the Millennium Film Workshop in New York City, and decided to give his students a slightly unusual assignment. They were to re-edit a recent anti-drug speech given by the Reagans at the White House, in order to make it sound as if the President and the First Lady were giving a speech with the opposite message. At that time, he told me, it was common for the New York Times to reprint the text of presidential speeches in full. So Roth and his students pored over the text, looking for jokes they could make. The students learned about audio editing and culture jamming, or media subversion, at the same time.


And then Roth got lucky. One of his students worked at ABC News, and was able to get a pristine film reel of the speech from his office. Now Roth began to work in earnest, spending nearly two years matching the film up to the audio reel. When I spoke to Roth by phone, he emphasized how important it was that he was able to edit the film, rather than video. Film editing is much more precise than video, and this film looks as seamless as it does because it started on film and was transferred to video later.

Roth said:

The film was meant to be funny, but I will also wear the badge of subversive remix video artist, or political video mashup artist, with pride. I know "remix" and "mashup" are widely used to categorize "The Reagans" film, but I would prefer it be called "editing art."

Roth was painstakingly doing by hand what people do in software today — basically, he was mixing. But even though Roth was on the cusp of the digital editing age, he chose to remain an analog editing artist. Roth carefully sliced and spliced his film on a specialized editing board. It may look like CGI, but it's all manual labor.

Roth threw in some Easter Eggs that only film geeks would recognize, too. He continued:

Regardless of the category's name, what may distinguish "The Reagans," I think is its adherence to the aesthetic sensibility of traditional film editing, in which "seams" are kept hidden. I left two jump cuts in "The Reagans" to signal the viewer that of course this isn't for real — we're all in on the joke, here's the man behind the curtain. These were deliberate "errors" in what was otherwise a smoothly edited film.

This smooth editing and the perfect-sync of "The Reagans" can be lost via streaming Internet delivery, which is part of why we never posted it until now . . . If you see it in a movie theater, or on a TV screen from DVD or Blu-ray, it can be a very different experience from watching on YouTube. The editing is smoother than I think most people realize.


Once Roth transferred the edit to video, it began circulating on public radio stations (which played the audio track), appearing at film festivals, and basically getting passed from hand to hand.


Here is the original packaging that Roth put on the video that he sent out to film festivals and television stations.

The Pre-history of Memes

Over the next several years, the underground film made a big splash. It showed at multiple film festivals, as well as the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian. The tape impressed Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live. "I know Al Franken liked it," Roth recalled. "I got a lot of positive feedback but very little money." Eventually the film landed him a gig on HBO's Not Necessarily the News. But that didn't work out. "I got my foot in the door — I was in Hollywood for two weeks," Roth said. Probably the biggest TV exposure it got was on a late-night show on USA called Up All Night. Mostly, however, people saw it as a video that came from a friend of a friend of a friend.


Roth spent a lot of his own money making as many video dupes as he could and sending them out to get what exposure he could. He had to rely on museum and media gatekeepers to choose to show the video if anyone was to see it. He had to wait for HBO and USA to take notice. Compare this elaborate, multi-year process to the way a viral video blows up on the internet. This entire process, from editing to wild popularity, might have taken a contemporary meme-maker a couple of days. It's possible that he never made it in Hollywood because the gatekeepers weren't able to make use of his skills as a meme-maker in the days before memes could spread like wildfire.

Or maybe Roth didn't fit into Hollywood because he always meant for his funny video to be a political statement. Roth's influences weren't music mashups and Tron Guy. He grew up in the 1970s listening to a show created by Peter Bochan called "All Mixed Up" on New York's public radio station WBAI — it was a hodgepodge of clips, musical bits, and random sounds all mixed together. Roth recalls Bochan describing his work a "non sonic tapestry of music, arts and current events." This was one of Roth's big influences.


Perhaps when we look for the precursors to YouTube, we should look toward radio rather than television.

When it came to video, Roth was fascinated by the idea of subliminal images in media. This was a popular obsession in the 1960s and 70s; at various points, Congress actually proposed legislation to ban subliminal messages in media. Roth didn't take the conspiracy perspective, however, where people imagined that TV stations and advertisers were inserting lightning-quick images of Satan or sex into vodka ads. Instead, he was drawn to the way creative editing could result in an almost-accidental subliminal message.

He said:

In film school, we had a box of 16 mm reels of films with commercials on them . . . a network had donated these old commercials to the film school to teach us the mechanics of splicing. I thought I'd found gold. They were filled with all this subliminal content, and I tried to expose that . . . My first film in grad school was called Subliminal Supermarket. It was a story around these commercials. There's a guy in the market, and as he'd see products on shelves, he'd be reminded of what he'd seen in the ads — but in slo-mo. You'd see a loaf of bread, sliced with a big knife, but the loaf of bread appeared in a dissolve with the protagonist's face — if you stopped the film right in the middle of the dissolve, the knife was going across the guys' eyes, like in [the famous surrealist film by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñel] Un Chien Andalou [see video]. It's tapping into the fear of having your eyes slit. It gets you all excited and makes it interesting, and you don't know why you're having an adrenaline rush as you buy bread.


From Politics to Entertainment

When I asked Roth about today's internet memes, which use a lot of the techniques he pioneered so painstakingly in "The Reagans Speak Out," he had mixed feelings:

I do feel a connection to this world, but I'd draw a distinction. Most of these humorous remix videos attempt to create new meaning by connecting unrelated video elements together — for example, having a goat bleat edited into Miley Cyrus's "Party in the USA" or cleverly editing footage of "Home Alone" together with "Argo." They're pure entertainment. I prefer Weird Al Yankovic's "Party in the CIA" parody, which entertains but also makes a point.

I'd draw a distinction between an artist who stumbles upon discarded cardboard tubes walking around SoHo in New York and makes a sculpture, and a graffiti artist who finds an offensive billboard ad in the subway and (perhaps illegally) marks it up to bring public attention to its disturbing qualities. Both are dealing with "found" materials, but one uses them as raw ingredients, while the other is taking on the finished product and creating a new meaning challenging the original intended meaning. I would put "The Reagans" film in that second category, which I think is rare on Cheezburger and [what you'll see at] ROFLCon. Fan remixes are the extreme of this: Abandoning any claim to parody or satire, these remixes, or short animations, are more worship than critique.

So yes I do feel connected with LOLcats in that I created something that has been widely spread around. But I also see myself as a fine artist, in the literal sense of the term (a fine editor), and more purposefully political than the typical lolcat producer. "The Reagans" was a work of film art (16mm, not VHS) that I painstakingly crafted over two years — much more effort than most lolcat videos get! But as a college teacher I must say that to whatever extent I've ever inspired anyone else to create anything, whether for an afternoon or a decade, that's fantastic.


Perhaps what's changed most since Roth was pioneering memes and today is that things like "The Reagans Speak Out" have gone from political challenges — what people called "media jamming" in the 1980s and 90s — to entertainment. Remixing and mashups are intended purely for fun. They may be parodies but they don't have a point, the way this carefully rearranged version of the Reagans' speech did.

We no longer rely on TV station gatekeepers, DJs, and film festivals to help circulate our memes. And losing that barrier to entry has resulted in some incredible films and parodies getting seen by millions of people online. But in the process of making memes easier, we may have lost a sense of purpose when it comes to the art of re-editing our media culture.


The Art of Editing

In the years since "The Reagans Speak Out," Roth has continued his editing art. He teaches Communication at SUNY Cortland, and he writes for trade publications about editing equipment. He's helping other people learn how to deconstruct — and reconstruct — the media they're immersed in. Roth has also put together a feature film which includes more of his political edits. It's called The Drug Test, and it's about a guy who works at a comedy channel in the 1990s. One day he comes into work and is told he'll have to take a drug test; that night, he dreams about a world where the Reagans endorse heroin, Bush pushes pot, and various other politicians chime in too. "It also has a lot of parody music," Roth said.


The topic may not have changed, but the artistry has. Roth made the movie with new pieces of A/V equipment he was sent to review. "I've always been a tech guy," he said. "Whatever features or special effects that the equipment had, I'd try to play that up as well."

If you want to know where internet memes were born, it was partly in the brain of a guy who understands that the technology of editing itself is an art form. Today, our software tools are designed to make that artistry effortless. But a viral video is still only as good as its edits, even if all you've done is add music to video of a cat jumping off a roof. And it's possible, as Roth said to me in email a few days after we'd talked, that just the act of editing itself can be political. "Anytime people are creating video rather than just watching it, that's empowering, and a good thing!" he wrote. "And likewise for people watching things made by ordinary people. I think that's also good."


Find out more about Cliff Roth's work at Silver Touch Studios, or check out The Drug Test

FURTHER READING: Where Memes Really Come From