Interview with Weird Paul Petroskey, the original vlogger

Weird Paul Petroskey is a lo-fi musician, a comedian, a collector, an autobiographic historian, and the first vlogger in the world. A.V. Club calls him “eternally boyish”. Vice calls him “the Pittsburgh prince of DIY weird”, but there are not enough predicates to summarize Weird Paul Petroskey. We interviewed him by email.

TBP: If a young Paul could see the future on September 7th 1984, he would see that thousands of people from all over the world would watch his video tapes on computers and phones. He would see an adult Paul giving a packed concert in Hollywood. How would he have responded?
WPP: He would have been so happy. That was what he wanted. He’d seen other people’s home videos on TV and he just wanted to make ones that would be on TV, too. He wanted people to care about the music he made. He also would have said, “2012! The world will still be around?” I remember thinking how even the year 2000 was ridiculously far off. Just because it was a different century and I wouldn’t be a kid anymore. I didn’t really believe it would ever come!

TBP: If you could say something to young Paul, what would you say to him?
WPP: If I could tell him one thing, I’d say – whatever you have to do, film MORE! Whatever it takes, just make it happen!

TBP: Who was your audience back then?
WPP: My audience was very, very limited. First and foremost, it was my family (and of course, myself). Occasionally, I would make a tape of videos for a friend in school and a few times I was allowed to show my videos in high school classes, which I absolutely loved. But not many teachers were that progressive back then.

TBP:  You have your entire life archived in video tapes, diary entries, audio cassettes, food labels, newspaper cut-outs, etc. What was the reason why you saved everything?
WPP: Well, here’s a reason that I just came up with recently that I never told anyone before. I saved things because I didn’t have much. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was young. I found enjoyment in things that didn’t cost anything, like collecting bottle caps and matchbooks. If I had a magazine or comic book, I wouldn’t get rid of it. It was the only one I had and I wasn’t getting another one, so I’d keep reading it. It was better to have something than nothing. Now, a lot of people think I saved EVERYTHING, like you just asked in your question. I didn’t. I went on binges in the mid-late 80s throwing out bags and bags of stuff. If only I had that stuff now! Some of it, I’m starting to re-collect – but most of it, I’ll never see again. As for the food labels, well I didn’t save those. My mom saved them for refunds that the products used to give. And I convinced her to throw away HUNDREDS of those in the 80s. We’re lucky she still had the ones she did, so I can now share them.

TBP: Were you stimulated by your family to keep everything?
WPP: In some ways. My grandmother saved a lot of stuff, she’d cut things out of magazines and just put them in boxes. I had to watch my grandfather throwing it all away when she died. I was just a kid, but I remember thinking, “Man, all of that stuff is going in the trash…lost forever”. My grandmother always said, “Waste not, want not”. My mother took after her, even though she wasn’t cutting things out of papers. She just collected things. She saw something she liked at a rummage sale and she’d buy it.

TBP:  Wasn’t this a very expensive hobby? Weren’t videotapes expensive back then?
WPP: Yes it certainly was. At least, for my family. My parents had four children and we were very much working class. A VHS tape back in 1982 was over 10 dollars. And that was the cheapest one. I had to film everything in the worst quality mode, SLP (or EP) because I needed that whole 6 hours of tape. Once we used the tape up, it could be awhile before my parents would provide another one. I had no money of my own to buy tapes. It’s a miracle I was able to archive any television at all back then because most of the stuff I’d tape would have to be taped over with the next thing that I wanted to see.

TBP:  Did you ever erase memories from your archive on purpose?
WPP: On video, absolutely. There are a bunch of times on the home movies tapes where you will see a video about to start and then it suddenly goes into something else. That was almost always because the video didn’t turn out as well as I wanted and since tape was scarce, I’d want to make something better, if I was using it up. One time, after we filmed a video, I noticed that my fly had been down. I got really embarrassed and immediately taped over it. The footage of me taping over it is of my sister trying to STOP me from taping over it! I did the same thing with audio tapes. I taped over stuff with new stuff. I just didn’t have the money for more tapes. One thing I do remember taping over on audio tape for another reason was probably in 1983 or so, I was talking about some kid and I called him a dick. I thought, “Oh man, if my parents hear this I’m going to get slapped” – so I taped over it immediately – but only the word “dick”!

TBP: A 23 year old Youtube user named Danny Hepple wrote under one of your videos: “For some reason I always feel a deep sense of nostalgia when watching your videos, like you’re bringing up treasures from my past even though I wasn’t even born when most of your old videos where shot.” I have the same feeling for a different reason. I was born and raised in the Netherlands and when I watch your videos I experience a childhood in the USA that I never had.
WPP: I like to think that I am a good storyteller. Having all the old footage and old possessions that I am talking about seems to really draw people in, takes them back with me. In a way, they feel like they were there with me. And of course, using VHS tape to film the videos makes them look old.

TBP: What do you think that, besides substitutional memories, is the power behind your vlogs?
WPP: It’s a human response. I’m making a connection. I know that I’m looking out at someone who is looking right back at me when they are watching. I’m talking TO them – some vloggers don’t do that, even though it seems so simple.

TBP:  Do you know your audience? How would you describe your audience (demographics, type of people)?
WPP: My audience is pretty wide. Sure, I’d say the majority of my YouTube audience is people more my age (40-50) but all kinds of people watch my videos and especially lots of kids. I hear from parents who introduced my videos to their children and parents whose children introduced my videos to them! Some types of people who don’t really watch my videos are miserable people or people who only care about trends…or trolls. I don’t get many trolls, I guess they just can’t be bothered to check out my videos. People who miss a certain time of their lives or who are interested in the pop culture of a particular era ARE watching them. My music however, doesn’t really seem to have a demographic. I guess people who only care about whether the new Taylor Swift song sucks or not, they’ll never be listening to me.

 TBP: You have songs with titles like “I got drunk at Chuck E Cheese” and “This guy’s got a bone disease”. Where do you find your inspiration?
WPP: Usually either it’s from real life or things I overhear. I hear people’s conversations and I’ll just take one sentence out of the whole thing and base a song around it. “This Guy’s Got a Bone Disease” is an example of both reality and non-reality influences. The main line of the song was something I heard a character in an old movie say. But the “I think he had a seizure” part was something I heard an old woman say at the post office.

TBP: What can we expect from you in the future?
WPP: Well, that depends a lot on how this new documentary does. If it doesn’t really have any impact, then I don’t know that things are gong to change much with me. If it does though, I would hope to start touring and appearing at conventions. Traveling. Quitting my job would be the goal so I can concentrate only on art. No matter what happens though, in 2018 I’m going to slow down on YouTube. I’ve been saying that for awhile, but now there is no choice. I have to work on a new album. It’s been 4 years since my last solo album and I’m really anxious about not working on music. And without new music, there can be no new music videos. I also need time to get all my collections and archives in order. Constantly doing YouTube and working at my job and the little time I get to devote to my music and family is just not leaving enough time to take care of my personal life anymore. I do want to make more videos about my life growing up and maybe less videos about “things”.
Jo Luijten
Dutch-born editor and video maker.

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