The Strange Case of The “Shut Up, Little Man!” Phenomenon

When evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, he intended it for one, very specific purpose: to describe how ideas or behaviors could spread within a society and change over time through the process of natural selection.

The premise of memetics (or the study of memes) was a simple one: ideas that are interesting and novel tend to flourish and propagate, while the bad ones disappear into obscurity. These “good” ideas are then passed on to other people, who modify them as they try to understand them. They, in turn, bestow their own version of the idea onto others, and the cycle begins anew.  And so it has gone for thousands of years.

But then audio cassettes, camcorders, and the Internet were invented.

Suddenly, anyone could reproduce exact copies of their voice, writing or image with very little cost or difficulty. There was no mutation, only replication.  The tools of mass media were now in the hands of those who consumed it. It was no longer an organic evolution of ideas. It was a revolution.

Dawkins went out the window.

Flash forward thirty years. Today, our concept of a “meme” is usually a grainy video we watched online this morning of a teenager shattering his pelvis in a parkour accident, or perhaps a painfully addictive looping animation of a singing cat with a Pop Tart body zooming through space.

In filmmaker Matthew Bate’s provocative new documentary, Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, we’re given a front row seat to the birthing pains of what is now known as the “viral” pop-culture phenomenon, back in the early days of pre-online America.

Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitch D. were kept awake by the late-night ravings of their neighbors, Peter and Raymond.

It is the story of two punk roommates, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D., who in the late 1980’s moved into a decaying pink apartment complex called “The Pepto-Bismol Palace”  in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, only to discover too late that:

A.) The walls of the apartment were paper-thin.
B.) Their neighbors, an elderly pair by the name of Peter Haskett and Raymond Huffman, were extremely loud and, on many occasions, insane.

After several months of sleepless nights spent listening to Peter and Raymond at 4:00AM, trading insults and death threats that would make a Red Light District serial murderer blush (“You cocksucker. I was a killer before you were born, I’ll be a killer after you’re dead”), Eddie and Mitchell decided their only recourse was one of self-defense; they would begin recording their haplessly drunk and angry neighbors as court evidence in the event the shouting matches ever escalated into actual violence.

“Shut up, little man! Shut up, little man! I got, I got a decent dinner ready. Nothing happened with the dinner. Because you crucified it! You ruined it. God damn you! Shut up, little man!” - Peter Haskett

“If you wanna talk to me, then shut your fuckin’ mouth… I can kill you from a sitting position.” - Raymond Huffman

And, of course, they could always pass the cassette tapes off to their close friends so they could laugh at them.

Soon afterward, unbeknownst to either Sausage or Mitchell (or Peter and Raymond, for that matter), these recordings were copied by those friends, who passed them on to friends of friends, and so on.

The rantings of Peter and Raymond had become the first viral audio.

The lasting appeal of what was eventually dubbed the Shut Up, Little Man! recordings can be difficult to describe to anyone uninitiated, mainly because the troubled relationship of Peter and Raymond is so perplexing unto itself. Why would two men who despise each other so vehemently– one, an unapologetic homophobe with a penchant for alcoholism; the other, a flippant homosexual prone to screeching provocation– choose to live together at all? How did they become friends/roommates/antagonists?  Were they still capable of normal human interaction, or had they gone completely demented from liquor and loneliness?

As the tapes continued to proliferate amongst mix-tape collectors and audiophiles, so grew their cult status within the counter-cultural underground as a rare window into honest and unfiltered human misery.  The faceless and often poetically circular bickering of old men took on a quality of almost existential dread, like characters trapped in a Samuel Beckett play if they had been written by Charles Bukowski on one of his worser days.

Eventually, the tapes were published by the San Francisco indie magazine Bananafish, and their popularity exploded into realms hitherto unseen. Without warning, Shut Up, Little Man! was being adapted into short films, staged as plays, sampled by musicians like Devo, and drawn into comics by artists like Ghostworld author Daniel Clowes.

It was a bonafide legend.

Here, the documentary veers into fascinating territory.  Until this moment, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. had taken an extremely “hands-off” approach to their recordings by issuing a free license to whoever wished and sitting back to watch with puckish glee as their neighbors’ infamy grew.

But one evening in 1993, Eddie and Mitchell were approached by a major record label about distributing the tapes, so they set about tracking down the surviving neighbor Peter (Raymond had died the previous year from complications of his alcoholism) in the bar across the street from their old pink apartment building.

Miraculously, they found him and struggled valiantly to explain what had happened over the past six years. Peter wasn’t angry, but he seemed understandably confused. He politely declined the money they offered him for his pivotal role in the unintentional melodrama. With that, they left, never to see him again.

It was the very next day that Eddie and Mitchell were invited to the premiere of a Shut Up, Little Man! play in the heart of Los Angeles.  Surrounded by rich film executives and entertainment industry moguls, the former punk roommates watched with increasing uneasiness as a room full of strangers laughed at the misfortunes of Peter and Raymond.

The play climaxed with Peter sawing off Raymond’s head and disemboweling him.

The documentary Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure attempts to explore not just the strange brew of viral culture, but also the moral implications behind it.  The issue of who actually owned the copyright to the Shut Up, Little Man! recordings (which is more complicated than you might think) becomes not just a question of intellectual property, but one of responsibility, both to the subjects of viral media themselves and the legacy their unwitting stardom creates.

The conclusion of the film ends with the somewhat uncomfortable confrontation of a man named Tony, whose value to this story lies in the fact that he was a friend and possible lover of Peter Haskett during the years the original recordings were made; he also inexplicably lived with them for days on end during that period. (He can often be heard referenced on the tapes themselves: “Tony is having to listen to this, you know!”)

More importantly, since Pete Haskett died in 1996 and they were largely friendless, Tony is the only surviving witness to this whole affair who could actually explain who Pete and Raymond were… and more specifically, the nature of their relationship and why it existed at all.

In the scene, after nearly two and a half decades of dealing with an abstract simplified version of their miserable neighbors (as filtered through the interpretations of thousands of strangers), Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. are almost overwhelmed with conflicting emotions when they hear from Tony’s lips that the two known as Peter and Raymond — despite their incessant nitpicking, boozing, seething, and abuse– were two lonely old men who genuinely cared for each other.

Some of the reviews of Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure have labeled it as a “cautionary tale… in a digitally obsessed era.”  Personally, I disagree.  What exactly is there to be cautioned against? The trend of mass voyeurism we have named “viral” culture isn’t looming in the distance. It’s here. We’re living it.  With every click of a mouse, with every forwarded email of “OLD RUSSIAN MAN STRUCK BY LIGHTNING!” or a racist local newscast blooper, we’re feeding the beast, and the beast is us.

In the end, the tale of Peter and Raymond and Eddie and Mitch somehow manages to be profoundly sad and undeniably hilarious in the same stroke.  What may be most discomfiting about their story is how easily we can categorize their raving lunacy as entertainment without remembering that they aren’t paid performers acting out a dark fantasy for our amusement. They are real people with estranged families and stranger friends, and medical conditions, and lost love.

And perhaps therein lies the appeal of Shut Up, Little Man. The human condition isn’t pretty. And because it isn’t pretty, we’re compelled to stare.  And maybe laugh… just a little.

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About Aaron J. Waltke

Aaron J. Waltke is a writer living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the National Lampoon, Comedy Central and in his secret diary that his older sister is never, ever supposed to find. He enjoys antiquarianism, obscurantism and sesquipedalianism.

Posted on September 9, 2011, in Aaron Waltke, Comics, History Lessons, Movies, Pop Culture, webcomic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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