Sunday, November 29, 2015

This Exists: Believe it, or Not...Actually, Just Believe it

Do you recognize this logo? Have you seen the iconic signature style name before?

Odds are, regardless of your age, you've probably heard of "Ripley's: Believe it or Not!" in some form. Maybe  you're just familiar with the trademark phrase, perhaps you've been to one of the Ripley's museums, seen one of the television shows, or viewed some part of the Ripley Entertainment services or products. 

See, it all started with this guy:

Robert Ripley.                              

No relation to Ellen Ripley: different noses,
facial structure's real, one's fictional,
you get the idea.

Ripley was a writer and cartoonist whose work drew inspiration from his travels around the world. Like most good writers should do, he took the experiences he had and chronicled them, making notes about the various cultures, people, and locations he visited. Originally his work started out in newspapers with drawn depictions and descriptions of things like unusual achievements in sports,

Unlike the Guinness Book of World Records that was created to settle bar bets, Ripley's publications were like a very early form of edutainment, with a bit more emphasis on the entertainment part of that portmanteau. A lot of the information was trivial but not always. It's been noted that a 1929 cartoon by Ripley noted that the United States had never officially adopted "The Star Spangled Banner" as its national anthem. The public outcry from this eventually led to the song being legally made the National Anthem of the U.S. in 1931. legacy of Ripley tends to revolve around a series of iconic images and ideas that have circulated in popular culture for years. People with odd physical features has been a primary source of their material.

But before Ripley's death in 1949, he had expanded his newspaper comic into a radio show, a series of film shorts, and a television program that he hosted until his passing, 13 episodes into the show. The remarkable thing about that is how adamant Ripley was about pushing his form of informative entertainment into mainstream culture. In 1949, the television wasn't even a very prominent force in people's households, but Ripley saw an opportunity to pioneer his brand; a savvy move to make as both an entertainer, and an entrepreneur.

The Ripley's brand never went away after his death, or even after the cancellation of his TV show; Ripley's stuck around in print and continued onward into tourist attractions and other brand deals. The show itself also had a revival from 1982 to 1986 when it was hosted by Jack Palance. You know, Jack Palance? From the movie Shane? This guy:

Well, maybe you might remember him more from City Slickers.

Palance hardly had the qualities that Ripley himself did, but he was a fine dramatic actor and it was probably that quality, along with his nuanced delivery, that ultimately led to him getting the role and giving the show a successful run for a few years. And then, yet again, the Ripley brand continued, leading to another television revival from 2000 to 2003 hosted by Dean Cain. I'll make it quick this time: Dean Cain:

You're more likely to remember him from the left-hand side of this article as opposed to the right-hand. Aside from the fact he wasn't working at the time, and was still somewhat popular from his time on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, I can't really think of a reason why Dean Cain was hired for this role...but there he is. The show was actually surprisingly popular with reruns of it still being broadcast internationally as of this writing.

The Ripley's brand isn't so much a multi-media sensation today, though it still has its physical attractions such as its museums and tourist stops. It's not as if people aren't still interested in the unusual or the gross, or the absurd, or trivial; its just that the information is disseminated in different ways and is easier to access.

Reality programming has brought people onto our televisions, computers, and mobile devices that easily could have been subjects of a Ripley's cartoon. The television network TLC routinely airs specials like, The Man Whose Arms Exploded, My Strange Addiction, Abby & Brittany etc. Strange and unusual people and behaviors were once Ripley's stock in trade, but the price of that stock has substantially diminished as the supply has increased along with the ease of access.

The proliferation of the internet has led to another trend that goes along with this in a way; we as a global culture are developing more and more unusual ideas, concepts, products, and technology. We're also much more interconnected. Ripley had to travel the globe in order to find out about different cultures and people, today we can hop onto YouTube and load up a Vlog of someone in Thailand, Canada, England, Turkey, South Africa, or anywhere in a matter of minutes.

There is SO MUCH out there that it's overwhelming to even think about where to start looking. Ripley and his writers could sift through information to hand pick the little bits and pieces that were sublimely fascinating. If only there was someone and some program that did something similar in today's age...............OH WAIT!! There is! Because This Exists:

With a focus on the odd and fascinating aspects of popular culture (with the word popular being used VERY loosely) This Exists premiered on YouTube in December, 2013, as a program from content provider, Aux. The show's first episode you can view online is about The Hobbit and it's inclusion in all sorts of music over the years. Subsequent episodes have frequently been about music, some involving bands and songs that never really existed, notes you can't play on a standard piano, and music that revolves around Jihad, Scientology, Mexican Drug Lords, and suicide. But the show has also gone far outside the bounds of music, exploring other odd, fascinating, and disturbing subjects like snuff films, Turkish bootleg Star Wars, broadcast signal intrusion, and tech erotica just to name a few.

This Exists is hosted by Sam Sutherland.

That's him holding a Juno award. For those of you not familiar with that, it's a Canadian award that's given out for a variety of achievements in the field of music, similar to the Grammys. Anne Murray has 23 of them, Rush has 8. Unfortunately, it's not his Juno award. In case you're distracted by the gloriously dangerous looking award, here's a picture of Sam without the trophy: 

A lot of what makes This Exist so entertaining can be attributed to Sam and a similarity that he shares to Ripley that neither Palance or Cain had; a love for the unusual and bizarre. When you watch an episode, Sam delivers a brief introduction before the title card comes up and he returns to launch headlong into the subject matter. He's not overly enthusiastic, he's not coming across like he's giving a lecture; he literally just comes across as a guy who overheard something he thought was really interesting, looked into it more, and decided it would be really cool to share it with others.

Take for instance his episode on Pulgasari. Odds are you're probably not familiar with the film, and that's fine, because if you're reading this, odds are you're not from North Korea where the film was made. Sam briefly details the absolutely bizarre and somewhat terrifying story of how then North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il ordered the kidnapping of  noted South Korean director Shin Sang-ok, purely so Jong-il could force him to direct a North Korean propagandist Godzilla rip-off. 
Sam tells the story in compelling fashion as he's passionate, legitimately thrilled to be sharing it, and knows exactly what details to share without going too far into information you don't need or would just weigh things down. That's a hallmark of his presentation. Most This Exist videos clock-in at under ten minutes. It's a good length for the show since it's not too short that the information just kind of comes and goes, and it's not overly long that you have to set aside much of what you're doing to focus on it...and believe me, you'll want to focus on it with the topics he brings up.

Much to his credit too, he doesn't try to be funny. There are very few occasions where Sam tries to slip in a joke or anything like that; he sticks to the subject at hand and if that subject itself is inherently funny, he lets it speak for itself. That seems like a small thing to be noteworthy but it's actually not. There are a LOT of YouTube personalities who think they're funnier than what they are and it detracts from the program more than it adds. Sam seems to recognize what makes the show work and sticks to it. The show is called This Exists not This Exists and I'm Going to Poke Fun At It. And what does he do? He tells us that this particular thing exists, and puts it into the appropriate context.

"Be excellent to each other." That's the sign-off Sam uses for each of his episodes. If he looks a bit morose in the above picture it's because he just uttered those words on what he thought was going to be the last episode of the show. On April 23rd, 2015, This Exists released a video announcing that Aux had effectively cancelled the program and unless Sam, his editor Jim, and the community of viewers could do something to keep it alive, there may not be another program.

At the time of this writing, it is November 29th, 2015, and This Exists is still going strong thanks to Patreon support. The community chipped in, provided enough funding to allow the show to continue, and continue it has. Though the content of the episodes is reason enough to want to see more of them, Sam has also done a remarkable job of maintaining a strong relationship with his viewers through Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook. If you have a suggestion for the show, if you want to interact with the community, if you want to constructively criticize or debate, you have options. 

This Exists is one of the rare shows that revels in the unusual without sensationalizing things, something very true to the original spirit of Robert Ripley. The aforementioned reality programs capitalize on people's strangeness and only seek to entertain at the expense of their subjects instead of inform, enlighten, and enrich the world. Sam's approach is entirely about entertaining through fun information about the unusual, and its never at the expense of people's peculiarities. When This Exists does an episode, about weird television programs, potentially racist music, or the Uganda movie scene, there's no judgement passed along, just information, and it's all presented with an understated joy and excitement for exploring the fascinating things we've developed in our global society.

It may seem like fiction but indeed, This Exists. Believe it, or not...but no actually just believe it because it's right there in the article.

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