The satirical mischief started by the Archimedes of the clipboard


A mash-up is often simply about treating popular culture as if it’s a tipped-over bucket of Lego

WHEN RELIVING the great innovations of civilisation, no one is going to strike up Also Sprach Zarathustrafor the moment when someone clicked into Photoshop and thought something along the lines of, You know, if I just chop out Capt Picard and put him into this Star Wars cantina scene, I could have myself some fun. But whoever that Archimedes of the clipboard was, they started something big.

Without that person, we would not have had Keith Earls carrying his head, Robbie Keane doing the YMCA, Michael D Higgins in space. You may consider such Photoshopped images to be minor diversions along the information superhighway. They are, in fact, offshoots of the greatest comedy innovation of the 21st century: the mash-up.

There are many benefits to having the vastness of world culture available to you at the push of a button, but the mash-up has become one of the useful natural consequences. Stick two things together: pictures, video, sounds. Ideally, one will be fresh, the other already familiar. A sci-fi reference helps. Doesn’t matter if it’s all a bit clumsy. Then share.

Now more than a decade old, Photoshop fun goes beyond the simple fun of riffing, in picture form, on Michael D Higgins’s jaunty strut, as recently asked people to do, or on Keane’s jazz-hands celebration, as requested for its always entertaining weekly competitions. It offers the chance for simple and democratic subversion.

After a cop was snapped casually pepper-spraying students at the University of California at Davis, he became the subject of thousands of Photoshopped images, a mischievous undercutting of his authority, manhood and arrogance. This won’t have taken the sting out of the eyes of the unfortunate protesters, but it has held that cop up to ridicule in a host of imaginative ways. It’s crowd-sourced satire.

Admittedly, it is often simply about treating popular culture as if it’s a tipped-over bucket of Lego. This week we had Fenton the dog. If you haven’t seen “Jesus Christ in Richmond Park” on YouTube (millions have in recent days) it is a video of a man shouting after his errant sheepdog across the London park. On TV it’s a decent You’ve Been Framedclip; on the web it’s a global plaything.

So there are now Fenton mash-ups featuring Alan Partridge and characters from Alien and An American Werewolf in London, among many, many others. It is the Downfallspoof of the moment. In case you somehow missed that phenomenon, it is the mash-up in which a German film’s subtitles were altered so that Hitler became annoyed at various things going on in the news: Fianna Fáil, Man Utd’s results, whatever. They were sometimes brilliant, very often not, but they went on for some time until everyone became as sick of them as the producers of the film, who really, really hate what the mash-up has done to their creation.

Music mash-ups have, in the main, become tedious because they seldom sound like anything other than two bands falling downstairs together. Besides, most of the true pop classics have been plundered. On the other hand, the web is a constant source of ridiculous and surprising images, so that no one can predict what will pop up and what will go viral. Last year on YouTube, it was the Double Rainbow guy, before that it was Downfalland before that, well, there wasn’t much, because YouTube is still younger than most of the tins in your cupboard.

This is the point in the piece where I am obliged to point out that Shakespeare’s plots were almost entirely taken from other sources, which themselves had taken them from somewhere else, and so on down the line.

All of culture is a mash-up: religion, art, laws, technology, ideas. But right now, little of it is as funny as Robbie Keane’s postgoal celebrations being Photoshopped on to the Village People. That is the result of a special kind of creativity that belongs to a society so advanced it has a lot of time to waste.