Monday, August 5, 2013

A Short Eulogy for "Yeah, It's That Bad"

The internet lost a great show last week when the movie review podcast Yeah, It's That Bad (or YITB to those in the know) went dead. Its website, YouTube catalog, and iTunes feed, along with all archived files just suddenly vanished. It lasted 2 1/2 years, 129 official episodes, 9 "After Dark" bonus episodes, and 4 Premium episodes.

Its last episode, The Mummy Returns, was released right on schedule, on a Tuesday, just as the show had consistently done just about every week. However, it began with an unfamiliar opening disclaimer by hosts Joel, Martin, and Kevin (no last names, as always), who came right to the point and explained that the show may soon be at its end. Beyond that, no explanation was offered. Martin insisted that there was a good reason for the vaguery, and that the issue somehow personally affected one host if not more. Soon afterwards, that episode and all previous episodes were yanked off of the web. Attempting to visit left you at a Blogger "access restricted" page, and the updated feed on iTunes was suddenly and somewhat ominously renamed "Dead Air."

The show had, over its life, grown a moderate following of dedicated fans, who in the confusion or frustration of the past week gathered in the last bastion of YITB fandom that remains online, the show's Facebook page. Under the last group post, which linked (now broken) to the last episode on iTunes, the hosts had referred to the important announcement in the audio file. Fans soon began commenting on the post with their reactions, rangeing from confused innocence (Hey, I can’t access your site), to anger (What’s going on? We deserve an answer!!). But mostly fans wrote in to express their gratitude to the show and hopes that whatever was behind the end of it, it wasn’t too serious.

Within the same post, almost lost in the throngs of comments, the official YITB page then commented on its own post, seemingly confirming that the shutdown was for good and that, contrary to initial speculation, they were not being sued. Beyond that there was no further explanation as to the cause, whether they shut themselves down voluntarily or not, whether the show had affected their work life or personal life, or whether we would ever hear from them again. In the absence of answers, fans milled about the page over the next few days, airing their grief or saluting the show by quoting running jokes. Whatever the cause, we were suddenly and very personally reminded of how much we had invested ourselves in the show, many professing very strong degrees of sadness and the impression that they had literally lost some good friends. It is only right and proper that we should reflect back on the show and discuss why, to a select group of followers, it was so important.

There is no current lack of podcasts about movies out there, but I tend to lump three different shows together that stand out from the pack: How Did This Get Made?, Half in the Bag, and YITB. Each first appeared around the same time in early 2011, routinely discuss and review bad movies, relish in sneering at their worst elements, and are hosted by a group of close personal friends who are extremely funny, often by being shamelessly hyperbolic, ironic, occasionally scatological, and hypercritical. After that the differences and idiosyncrasies of the shows start to emerge, and you will permit me to compare and contrast them.

How Did This Get Made? is based out of LA and hosted by professional comedians and actors Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas. Paul Scheer is perhaps the best known of the three from his TV roles, such as on Human Giant. Their show is released biweekly, with a “mini-episode” in between revealing what the next episode will be. In full episodes they dive right into the plot of the movie, go over the main plot points, and highlight especially bizarre or confounding scenes, interjecting jokes and humorous commentary. They also invite a guest comedian or celebrity on for each full episode, usually someone they have worked with, but sometimes an actor or director involved with the film they are reviewing.

This is the show’s strength, as comedy nerds come for the distinct personalities and comic sensibilities of the hosts and guests, and movie nerds get some insider info on Hollywood. This also leads to the shows main weakness, which is that by being tied to the Hollywood system, the show’s hosts seem to self-censor themselves so as to not offend friends or associates who have worked on the movies they might review. Indeed, they steer clear on a lot of crap that are fodder for other podcasts because of this, instead directing their jokes at untouchable, A-list celebrities they would never be allowed to work with anyway, like Will Smith, Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, and Jennifer Lopez, or choosing safe films from the 80’s like Howard the Duck, Superman III, or Mac & Me.

They also tend to favor movies that are ridiculous or over-the-top, rather than just flat out bad (Gary Oldman played a dwarf in a movie called Tiptoes?!!). And while they have good rapport (Scheer and Raphael are married) and distinct individual personalities, episodes can sometimes get bogged down in minutiae as the hosts struggle just to agree between themselves what actually happened in the films, and occasionally there will be an episode where, if you haven’t personally seen the film in question, you might have no real idea what it really was about after an hour straying from the topic. The bi-weekly schedule of the full episodes also makes it fall behind the standards of many podcasters, though the difficulty of scheduling three or four professional television actors and comedians must be considerable. All in all, though, a great show for movie and comedy lovers.

Half in the Bag is actually a web video series rather than an audio podcast, based out of Milwaukee and hosted by the independent filmmakers Mike Stoklasa, Jay Bauman, and Rich Evans, all of Red Letter Media. The company and the filmmakers first gained internet fame from their analyses of the Star Trek movie franchise and especially the Star Wars prequels. Half in the Bag puts the hosts in front of the camera, where they review new releases, though sometimes thematically pairing them with an older, usually low budget film. The production value of the reviews is fairly high, with excellent lighting, sound, and camera work, and tightly written comedic sets that serve to frame the extemporaneous film reviews.

Coming from an independent background, the movies they review tend to be high-budget Hollywood blockbusters and comedies starring A-List actors. The films are not preselected for being bad films, but rather as typical films from the Hollywood system. Thus, they tend to subject the films to criticism of being “shlock,” dumbed down to appeal to a broad audience, or cynical in their effort to bring in big money rather than aim for quality storytelling. Though they can project a snobby, film-school air, they usually make valid points, and it is often hard to defend the products and practices of the megalithic studios they criticize. Far from them being elitist film scholars, however, they are obviously film geeks that love low-budget, so-bad-it’s-good movies, frequent comics and sci-fi conventions, and have a soft spot for auteurs like Sam Raimi and John Waters.

Scornful of Hollywood, and with no need to pander to it, they don’t hold punches like How Did This Get Made? does, yet as filmmakers they are still able to share insight on the movie-making process. And despite not being professional comedians, they have distinct personalities, are whip-smart, irreverently funny, and satirical. They are also lovably un-telegenic as far as Hollywood is concerned. However, they play the role of hosts well enough to rarely offer personal details about themselves. And rather than having a set schedule, episodes are released when they are released, though given the high-production values and the gaps in when notable film are released, this is understandable.

Fittingly, Yeah, It’s That Bad was geographically distinct from the other two shows, as it was based in New Jersey where the hosts live and grew up in. It was also distinct for being the show with the youngest hosts, and I think this slight generational difference is part of why the show has become so important to a select group of people. While How Did this Get Made?’s hosts range from their mid-thirties to early forties, and Half in the Bag’s hosts seem to be in around their mid-thirties, YITB’s crew was in around their late twenties, going on 30. This gave them a boyish air, while still being articulate and worldly enough to know what they were talking about.

Besides their ages, other information about their identities were released piecemeal through clues scattered throughout the course of the show. This getting to know them little by little allowed the listeners to feel as though they were meeting them personally, and their positions as young graduates transitioning into their professional lives made them especially kindred to the first generation of Facebook users. The perception of knowing them as close friends was magnified in other ways, despite how much of an effort the hosts made to keep a lid on details that would reveal their true identities.

Unlike the other two shows, YITB was created without much of a plan. Joel, the main host of the show, came across some audio equipment that he had intended to use for creating YouTube videos but had found to not be adequate, and rather than letting them go to waste he decided to host a podcast, despite having no experience doing so. Martin, who Joel had met and befriended in college, agreed to give it a go with him.

It is interesting to go back and hear the first couple episodes, which were noticeably ad-hoc, had no established format, and did not yet even have a name for the show. The guys knew enough that they liked talking about movies, so they picked some DVD’s lying around Joel’s apartment that had been picked up for cheap at a Blockbuster closing, and chose some to talk about. This included the somewhat obscure The Unborn, The Uninvited, and Whiteout (Joel must have started at the end of the alphabet at that store) as well as Vanilla Sky and Freddy Got Fingered. The dialogue between Joel and Martin was certainly friendly but somewhat unfocused, with them basically asking each other what they thought of the movie and then laughing at each other’s comments. Later listeners to the podcast would be surprised to hear the sub-par audio levels, gaps in conversation, lack of background music, and minimal editing that were typical of the first half dozen episodes. I must admit that having become an avid listener of the show once I discovered it, I took the hosts’ advice and skipped over most of these episodes.

Despite these early growing pains, a few elements that would persist throughout the show were introduced, including Joel’s gregarious, manic energy, contrasting with Martin’s more measured tone (given additional gravitas by the lower octave of his voice) which belied his somewhat obscure video game and Anime references, Joel’s infectious, hearty laugh, the evident familiarity between the two hosts and their mutual references to eclectic pop-culture, and their tendency to punctuate their conversation with somewhat juvenile jokes in a self-aware manner.

Once the concept of the show focused on re-evaluating movies that got a rotten consensus on Rotten Tomatoes and the show was given its title, its format gradually began to take form. Comedies were banned with the theory that something so subjective as comedy could not be adequately judged. Shows began by introducing the film with its principal actors and a brief synopsis of the plot and ended with their definitive evaluation of the film compared to the critics’ reviews, complete with a 1-5 score system borrowed from Netflix. But for a little while YITB was still finding its legs. On the Episode 5, Vanilla Sky, the guys were joined by Carissa, who later was revealed to be a girl Martin was dating at the time. Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone enjoyed the experience, and she would not appear in any other episodes (nor did the courtship last).

The turning point turned out to be Episode 7, Gamer. This particular episode became infamous within the YITB community for apparently being so unfocused, vulgar, replete with “hootin’ and hollerin“, and so perceived as being chauvinistic, that it was panned by listener reviews and made Joel genuinely take a good look at his process. In fact, for a while there Joel completely removed the offending episode from the archives, until its notoriety outgrew its offensiveness and it was re-released. Honestly, after the initial uproar passed, it’s hard to see what the big deal is about.

In any case, Joel and Martin returned with Episode 8 committed to improving the show’s quality and gain back the respect of their listeners. They had previously announced the next film to be London starring Jason Statham, Dane Cook and Jessica Biel, but apparently changed their minds to review Twilight instead. Their choice was an inspired one and resulted in the tradition, starting with Episode 50, of reviewing each Twilight sequel every 25 episodes, effectively once every six months. Getting to the next chapter in the Saga became a kind of milestone, in which new announcements for the course of the show were announced, and it certainly provided some closure to fans that they managed to complete the Saga in Episode 125, four episodes before the show ended.

The Twilight episode contained a higher level of criticism of the film’s characters and plot, and went further into evaluating the actors than previous episodes. Their analysis of the character of Bella Swan and the theory that she acts as wish fulfillment character to author Stephenie Meyer and represented what in literature is called a “Mary Sue,” an overly idealized, flawless character, was particularly enthralling. And recapturing some respectability lost in Episode 7, they approached the subject of their review by acknowledging that they did not belong to the tween girl demographic that it was targeting, and treated their review with that knowledge. That made their subsequent ripping apart of the film that much more effective. They took a movie that I have never seen, and managed to talk about it so vividly that I felt as though I could see it play out in front of me in all its terrible glory.

In addition, Joel showed the first signs of streamlining the show through the use of tight editing, and the two hosts possessed more of a sense of command in their voices, confidence with turns of phrase, and other overlooked aspects of spoken language important to broadcasting. Joel also began involving the listeners more, inviting them to write in emails with their opinions and suggestions for future episodes, and demonstrating a seriousness in the show by promoting the use of iTunes ratings and Facebook likes. In addition, Joel announced that iTune’s had placed them on their “New and Notable” podcasts list, greatly expanded YITB’s listeners. The hosts themselves consider this episode to be the official beginning to the real show.

Following hard on the heels of such a good episode, Episode 9, Lost in Space was released and gave us our first introduction to Kevin. Kevin was originally intended to be something of an understudy to Martin, filling in when the latter was unavailable, but it soon became obvious that the new guy was as indispensable to the show as anyone else. In this episode, the boys furthered the tradition of giving some background about how they first became familiar with the movie in question, while simultaneously providing some interesting information on the relationship between Joel and Kevin, which goes even further back than that between Joel and Martin. Lost in Space was actually a rather important movie to their budding relationship in high school, being one of their first man-dates outside of class, and the oddities of the film left them equally befuddled and left them a kind of bad-movie blood brothers.

Kevin’s contribution to the podcast was immediately clear. Despite coming in several episodes into the show, he demonstrated a naturality with the format and revealed the long-standing rapport he had with Joel. Whereas Joel is the instigator and the more hyper of the three, with Martin the more dignified, cocky and judgmental, Kevin is the more skeptical, understated, and realistic voice of reason. He has a tendency to interject incredulously when the topic turns to something so stupid or without logic that it has to be brought up.

Thus the triumvirate was formed, though unbelievably it wasn’t until Episode 37, The Mummy, that the three would appear all together in one episode (it is therefore altogether fitting that their final episode was The Mummy Returns). Until then the show seemingly operated as it had originally intended to, with Kevin filling in when Martin was unavailable. From Episode 37 on, though, it was rarer that one would be missing than when all three were together. The unvarying constant was always Joel, who helmed and edited every episode.

Once they were all together, it was perfectly clear that instead of crowding the show, they checked and balanced each other perfectly. Joel was the snickering smart-mouth, preferring to goad his co-hosts into reacting to some absurdity he said and then laughing like a madman at their reactions. At other times he would challenge them on their statements, pressing for them to defend themselves. Martin mostly kept his cool with short, pithy declarations or dismissive remarks, which made it all the more gratifying when he would lose it and loudly vent his frustration, all while Joel cackled with delight. Kevin was always the most subdued, but when he chimed in he always made a good, though sometimes fussy, point. His pronounced stance against what he considered to be absurd and his tendency to get flustered at some perceived mistruth or injustice left him prone to Joel and Martin, whose mischievous attempts to level against him some unfounded claim would invariably get a rise out of him, at which point Joel would again cackle like a madman. Somewhat unfairly, Kevin would turn out to face the brunt of the listeners’ mockery, perhaps being perceived as a weak, weak man for his higher-pitched voice and stated commitment to monogamy with his wife.

Along the way YITB would increase their listener participation. A very old-school method that Joel set up early on was a voicemail number that listeners could call into and leave their opinions. Joel would then broadcast a compilation of different callers at the end of a review. I have no idea how much work Joel went into cutting together these calls. There was also a web poll that allowed listeners to vote between two different movies that were offered to them. Thus the majority got to decide to have the guys review Armageddon rather than Deep Impact, and Dante’s Peak rather than Volcano. While these features eventually fell to the wayside, listener emails were a regular staple that provided some terrific material to the mix, creating along the way a few semi-celebrities such as Myles, whose expert firearms knowledge proved a reliable source of Mythbusters-esque information whenever the guys had a gun related question about the films. The most successful listener interaction to take place was “Sponsor an Episode,” where Joel, who had spent a small fortune in time and money creating the free podcast, offered to review any (within reason) movie of the sponsor’s choice for a mere $50. The promotion was such a success that after the donations deadline passed after a few weeks in mid-2012, there were enough sponsored episodes to last for nearly a year. They were barely completed by the time the show came to an end. I myself put down $100 for them to review both Point Break and Art School Confidential.

As the show continued, it also breathed life into an ever expanding vocabulary of inside jokes and recurring jokes. The fact that these appeared naturally on the show, and that the hosts would never laugh between themselves at some personal inside joke that was unfamiliar to the audience, allowed the listeners to feel very involved with the hosts and as part of the group. Indeed, listener mail was often peppered with instances of these jokes. These included increasing levels of hyperbole (That car was going one thousand miles an hour/ten billion miles per second/one hundred trillion light years per nanosecond), alliteration (Piss poor performance perpetrated...), a beef-o-meter, weak weak weak men, ringing a bell, extremely high temperatures in YITB world headquarters, reverence for patron saints such as Nicolas Cage and Dennis Quaid, “Huh! It was you!”, “Pin me, pay me,” “Follow the money,” etc. etc. Detractors of the show usually pointed to the copious laughter as their reason to being annoyed. That same laughter, however, was a favorite of most fans, who found it demonstrated the genuine rapport between the hosts, while making the listener feel like part of the gang.

Besides these recurring sources of laughter, as time went on certain offhand remarks or references became spontaneous points of question or serendipitous causes for delight. One of these occasions was Kevin flippantly saying that he didn’t like The Pirates of the Caribbean for some unspecified reason. Listeners would periodically hound him for answers, until a sponsored episode reviewing the film was released this past May, and it was revealed to great groaning that the point of contention was the mere placement of a boat in a pivotal scene. In another case, Joel listed shaving as a hobby of his, and thus a running joke amongst listener mail was born that never really petered out.

Other factors that made the show so appealing was their ability to seamlessly transition from joke mode to seriousness so as to avoid offending any listeners. Otherwise, reviewing a movie like The Perfect Storm would have been impossible to tackle, given the true origin of the film. But in this case, they deftly persuaded the listener from the beginning that the parts they would be laughing about (piss-yellow beards, bad Boston accents, shooting sharks in the head with shotguns) were the results of choices made by the filmmakers, and not about the people they were portraying. Their ability to casually trade barbs and quips, while showing a sufficient amount of restraint to see that their jokes landed with the right effect on the right targets, demonstrated just how naturally gifted the guys were comically. Likewise, accusations against them of sexism, racism, homophobia, chauvinism, and snobbery were completely unfounded if you listened to what they actually said and what tone it was said in.

It is worth noting that none of the hosts of YITB are actually in the movie industry, unlike How Did This Get Made? and Half in the Bag. According to the hosts, Kevin is in accounting, while Joel and Martin took art courses in college and are now employed in some capacity in a design related field. Their experiences with movies were completely as spectators and fans, though they could still offer some helpful insights (don’t obsess over movie details before they come out; do not go into a movie having built it up in your mind, it will not live up to your expectations).

It’s also fair to point out that unlike the other shows, fans of YITB could claim that they were brought into the hosts’ lives as they went through somewhat momentous life changes. Over the course of the show, girlfriends were broken up with, jobs were changed, engagements were announced, then bachelor parties, weddings, pregnancies, and births, Wall Street was occupied, and heat waves and hurricanes were survived. Periodic “After Dark” episodes (recorded in broad daylight, naturally) were released, giving further details into the hosts personal lives and explaining things that were alluded to or winked at expectantly in earlier episodes. All in all, listeners were given an intimate and somewhat inclusive look at the men behind the show.

Which is amazing, given the levels of privacy that were built up by the hosts to preserve their actual identities. This particularly seemed to drive certain fans crazy, as they refused to believe that any damage could possibly be done in this day and age by letting people get a look behind the mask. From the get-go, we never learned the surnames of Joel, Martin, and Kevin. Besides learning they were from New Jersey, no specifics were given as to where they live (though one enterprising listener came spookily close to pinpointing their whereabouts based on slight nuances in their accents), and most importantly, they never showed a glimpse of their faces. This led to dozens of pieces of fan art and elucidating descriptions submitted via email, which the hosts delighted in sharing with their listeners, each depiction of course being one billion percent accurate.

In addition to protecting their identities, they also went to great lengths to protect their show from legal complications. Unlike other shows, they refrained from including audio clips in their reviews, at times doing dramatic re-readings instead. Presumably, including clips of the films could be defended as fair-use, but they avoided any entanglements nonetheless. Likewise, they only used free royalty-free music from musician Kevin McCloud at to supply background accompaniment. Their website alone featured images from the films, merely to serve as cover art for each post.

Despite all these lengths, apparently something so dramatic occurred that it forced them to all but wipe away all traces of their existence from the internet. Left to speculate, questioning fans have come to some immediate theories, although each of these poses even more questions.

My first thought and others’ was that they were being harassed by a patent troll. The company Personal Audio has harassed podcasters such as Marc Maron and How Stuff Works, along with presumably hundreds of other notable podcasters. It’s possible that they targeted YITB for compensation for money the podcast made through donations and premium episodes, and that rather than pay for licensing fees or fighting back, the hosts simply sought to remove their presence from the web. However this seems to have been refuted by the hosts themselves.

Another theory that was shared on show’s Facebook page is that somebody who recognized the identity of the hosts heard the show and revealed their identities in a review on iTunes, where their reviews are still visible. The scuttlebutt is that some listeners saw the review, which has since been deleted. Obviously there is no proof of that now, but we must also ask why a listener would feel the need to expose them online if they knew them, beyond mere dickishness.

Along these lines, some speculate that by being recognized, one or more of the hosts was in danger of getting in trouble with their employer or with someone in their personal life. However it’s hard to see what they would be accountable for besides enjoying themselves in their spare time. It’s possible that one of them is running aground of some particularly intrusive company policy, seeing how corporations have shown their willingness to do so before. If pressed, I believe Martin once said he watched a movie for review at work. Would that be enough to spell trouble for him? As far as personal attacks go, there have been instances where Joel has referred to his old group of friends as “the tools,” and he insulted the maid-of-honor’s toast from Kevin’s wedding reception in one episode. But if these offending episodes were the case, why wouldn’t they just remove those specific episodes?

Others suggested that one was quitting the show or moving, but that obviously does not explain the suddenness of the departure or the need to remove all evidence of the show’s existence. Maybe the most outlandishly wild theory is that they personally offended one of the people working on a film in their review. But we of course have the First Amendment, and nothing they said could possibly be called libel.

Perhaps their decision to close up shop is related to one of these theories, but compounded by other factors that would make continuing the podcast more difficult. As a new father, it is probably very difficult, though not impossible, for Kevin to find time to complete his duties for the show. And all hosts have made it known that if one of them were to move, the show would effectively be cancelled. So there might have been multiple issues that collided.

In the end, though, until the source of their demise is revealed, us listeners will be left with nagging questions, which by themselves are almost as bad as the reality of not being able to hear one of our favorite shows again. This is one of the true mysteries of the internet age. Not to be melodramatic, but it’s the same human drive for closure that makes a relative of a person lost at war never relieved, even if they have accepted that their loved one has died, until they receive their remains, no matter how much time has gone by. We are plagued by the need to know, just to put our minds at ease.

While we can accept the passing of the show with gratitude for the countless hours of free entertainment it offered us, it was also comforting to know that it would always be there when we wanted to revisit it, or that we could share it with friends who hadn’t heard of it. For now, though, that no longer seems to be the case. Among other things, they inspired me to create fan art, write emails, sponsor episodes, and, despite not having any hope of creating any product nearly as good as theirs, they even inspired me to create my own podcast.

I echo the thanks and concerns of most listeners in wishing Joel, Martin, and Kevin the best, and the hope that we can hear them again one day. They made us feel welcome, included us, and got us through hours of drudgery, traffic, and work-outs. They reminded many of us, in our post-graduation diaspora, of the joy of being with a group of good friends. And they made us feel glad that such talented, funny, and good people could be out there creating joy not for money or for fame but just for fun. I always thought that if some savvy producer came across YITB, they would be stupid not to create a show for them in a heartbeat.

Here’s hoping for the best. Yeah, it was that good.


Further explanations to the ending of the show can be found in the comments section.


On August 13, the guys broke their radio silence to give a farewell address, which can be found here: In it they did not identify their reason for leaving the show, only to say that an event had occurred which made the show conflict with their personal and work lives. This suggests the explanations in the comments section are correct. While it was good to have closure and hear the guys' voices again, I was once more surprised at the emotional impact I felt after they signed off for the last time. I'll hope to hear from them again someday, perhaps in some other form, just to hear how things are going for them. Until then, they deserve to have their lives back. Thanks again, guys!