Meet Vic Berger, the Genius Behind This Election’s Dopest Viral Videos
It was the morning of the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and Vic Berger was feeling a bit stressed. For more than a year, the 34-year-old video creator had been chronicling the 2016 election—and the media that’s covered-slash-enabled it—via a series of skillfully edited, sneakily incisive video clips he’d created from his home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. But the Trump-Clinton debate, Berger knew, would present one of the biggest challenges of his relatively short satirical career: An internationally televised primetime showdown that would be viewed and commented upon by a huge audience, meaning extra pressure for Berger to come up with a must-watch response. It didn’t help that he’d just come down with a cold, and that he was feeling the same election-fatigue as the rest of the country.
“I’m honestly looking forward to the whole thing being over,” he said a few hours before the debate began. “But you’ve got to make the best of it. So I’m planning on staying up and editing through the night, if I can make it.”
He did. Today he put “Trump Has A Total Meltdown At the First Presidential Debate” on YouTube, where it joined many other Berger-produced videos you might have seen in your social media feeds. Perhaps you saw the one in which Jeb Bush’s earnest announcement that he would withdraw from the race is undone by blaring air horns and bellowing Trump-taunts; or the one in which the camera zooms in on a bunch of GOP candidates mid-debate, reducing them to a series of puckered mouths and desperate eyes; or the one in which Chris Christie’s wife is edited to appear as though she’s flirtingly darting her tongue at one of his supporters. Berger’s clips may not have the sheen or talk-show-host star-power of other electoral-minded clips, but they’ve drawn millions of views, earned online praise from the likes of Bob Odenkirk and Julie Klausner, and turned the amiable father of two into one of the most essential, incendiary political comedians of the weirdo-video age, where the preferred mode of humor is often more Mulholland Drive than Mark Russell.
Vine First, Video Later
Berger’s debate-night output actually resulted in a pair of videos. Shortly after the event wrapped, he posted a Vine in which Donald Trump appeared to refuse to shake hands with moderator Lester Holt, set to the tune of the wah-wah-wah loser theme from The Price is Right; as of this writing, it’s been looped more than 4 million times, and shouted-out by the likes of Questlove and John Leguizamo (though it’s worth noting that Trump did, in fact, shake hands with Holt post-debate).
His nearly 3-minute-long debate video, meanwhile, turns the Trump-Clinton match into a strange tragicomedy that finds one candidate rambling repeatedly and near-incomprehensibly about Rosie O’Donnell, and the other yelling “wooo!” way too much. (There is also a long meditation on Trump’s assertion that Clinton “doesn’t have the stamina” interspersed with lots of discomforting close-ups of a parched Trump sipping his water.) It’s a distillation of the way modern political debates are absorbed nowadays, with the loudest, looniest moments overshadowing actual policy discussion.
Making the clip, Berger says, took about 16 hours. “I try not to take too many notes [while watching], because I never really know what I’m going to do with it,” he says. “Usually, I try to create a new story out of it, and find a way to comment on the situation. Then, as I’m editing it, I always feel like everything’s coming apart. But then, after hours of work, it usually comes together.”
The Trump/Clinton debate clip is similar to the dozens of videos on Berger’s YouTube page—at once alluring and off-putting, aided by bare-bones effects that turn their subjects into awkward, stilted, almost alien-like creatures (the clips are also available on the Super Deluxe YouTube page). And while Berger’s hilariously strange clips have taken on everyone from apocalypse-peddler Jim Bakker to fame-twisted hip-thruster Chubby Checker, it’s his ability to zero in on the venality and vanity of the modern political class that have made him a crucial commentator in the 2016 race—even if his ideas are often layered under a haze of uncomfortable jokes and strange, Space Ghost from Coast to Coast-like rhythms.
“I’m not always great at wording what I’m frustrated about,” says Berger. “That’s why I make these videos—so I can get my thoughts out as an art piece. That way, I’m able to really hit on what the issue is.”
The Strange Path to Internet Stardom
If Berger’s videos, with their sustained pauses and blaring sound effects, feel a bit coarse, perhaps even occasionally amateurish, that’s not entirely by design. “I don’t have any training,” he says. “I’m just doing what amuses me and makes me laugh.” Berger only began editing about two and a half years ago, following a decade-long career as a music therapist. In his spare time, he’d begun making clips for a few songs he’d written, prompting him to start fooling around with editing software. His subsequent flood of clips and Vines caught the attention of Tim Heidecker, one half of the smart-absurdo comedy team Tim and Eric, and helped get him on the radar of the newly revived comedy outlet Super Deluxe, which hired him full-time last summer. Since then, Berger’s covered the conventions for Super Deluxe, and got national attention for a prank in which he promised to tattoo the name of Jeb Bush—whose campaign was a sort of semi-obsession for Berger—on his neck.
But Berger’s most biting clip came in late September, following Trump’s infantilizing, hair-mussing appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Titled “Donald Trump and Jimmy Fallon Are Best Friends,” the video uses zooms and slow-motion to isolate the host’s manic pandering, the guest’s glib cynicism, and the audience’s easy appeasement; the whole thing ends with a montage of Fallon being joke-slapped by his own guests. For those who were grossed out by Fallon’s Trump-hugging, “Best Friends” was a cathartic condemnation. But it’s also a remarkably astute bit of media commentary: So much of this election has consisted of candidates trying to sell themselves in quick, prefabricated, ostensibly viral-ready moments, whether it’s via a wooden catchphrase or a non-spontaneous ‘do-tussle. Berger’s videos, by contrast, highlight the small moments that no one wants called out: The jittery stares, the feigned laughs, and the dead-inside eyes that belie the illusion that things are going smoothly, and point out the panic and fear beneath the surface.
“Thanks to the way my brain is—and thanks to the anxiety I have in general—I’m hyper-aware of people’s facial expressions,” Berger says. “I’m thinking, ‘What’s this person communicating non-verbally?’ And if I can cut through the public image of them, and get more to the human aspect of them, that’s exciting to me.”
The Trump clip wasn’t the first time Berger had taken on Fallon, and he sees a through-line not only between the talk-show host and Trump, but also between nearly all of the public figures he’s spoofed so far. “I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re all seeking power—or they’re all in the power position and they want to keep it,” Berger says. “Trump has billions of dollars, or at least he says he does, and he’s seeking to become as powerful as you can, as the president of the United States. Fallon is at the top of his game in the talk show world, and he’s going to do whatever he can to keep his job and not ruffle any feathers. And Chubby Checker still wants to be on the charts.”
Berger’s own ambitions are slightly less grand: Mostly, he wants the election to end, and for Trump to go away. “At some point in the last three months, I stopped finding him funny, because he’s been so hateful,” Berger says. He’s hoping that, after November, he can turn back from politics a bit and refocus on the equally weird worlds of terrifying televangelists, tortured game-show hosts, and condescending celebrity chefs. “I’m not exactly worried about lack of material,” he says.