Last year during the pandemic, I stumbled upon WBUR’s Endless Thread podcast, which mines and explores cool stuff the hosts find on Reddit. The first episode I listened to was about a guy who rented out the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts to screen his girlfriend’s favorite movie, Sleeping Beauty, only he secretly filled the audience with family and friends and screened a version of the film that he re-animated with the set-up for a marriage proposal. I am not a fan of public proposals, but this one is a gem:
I got hooked on the podcast from there, in part because it digs into fascinating Reddit finds, but also because it’s a podcast I can listen to with my son, who is a big Reddit user and a lover of memes. Karmically, a little over a month ago, Endless Thread launched a new series on famous memes, and it is fascinating. I’ve only listened to five of the eight episodes, so far (we’re parceling episodes out slowly over long road trips), but it’s quickly become a favorite.
Most of us do not give a lot of thought to the memes we use online, or how they affect the often otherwise obscure folks who are the subjects of those memes. The Endless Thread podcast explores their backstories, speaks to the meme subjects, and investigates why they are so popular. Scumbag Steve, for instance, is a real person whose mother took this photo, and who also has to live with the fact that he’s known to the world as Scumbag Steve.
He and his mom are also hilarious characters with thick Boston accents who have tried to make the best of a flukey viral situation. “Kilroy Was Here,” meanwhile, explores the origins of what is unofficially the first-ever meme, which originated during World War II. I’ve seen the meme hundreds of times, but I didn’t know anything about it.
You can’t have a series on memes without covering the granddaddy of them all, the Rick Roll, its origins, and its enduring popularity. Yes, they do have a lengthy and delightful conversation with Rick Astley himself, who otherwise left the music industry after his first album because he didn’t like the trappings of fame. It’s ironic then that the Rick Roll has made him more popular than ever.
There’s also a weirdly fascinating episode on “Big Man Tyrone, The President Of Kekistan,” and how the Internet — and Trump/Alt-Right supporters, in particular — have taken advantage of the man behind the meme, Gordon Hurd, and how he allowed himself to be taken advantage of. The Cameroon-born UK resident couldn’t otherwise find a way to support his family in the profession he was trained in, journalism, because of racism in the UK.
Weirdly, the most fascinating episode of those I’ve listened to, so far, is about this meme:
We’ve all obviously seen this meme a million times, but unless you’re a follower of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (I am not), then you probably don’t know the tragic backstory behind the meme. That’s Taylor Armstrong, and she’s reacting the way she did in that meme because another one of the wives had revealed that Armstrong’s husband abused her. Armstrong is upset because she fears that her husband will literally kill her when the episode comes out. In reality, it led not to her death, but her husband’s, who took his own life after Armstrong filed for divorce, citing abuse. Armstrong has since found a way to be at peace with the meme, but it must be strange to be reminded of your abusive ex-husband and his suicide every other time you open up the Internet.
Still, even with the darker backstories, hosts Ben Brock Johnson and Amory Sivertson manage to bring levity and a real sense of wonder to the series of episodes. They are infinitely charming and dorky in all the best ways, and this meme series is some of the finest work I’ve heard in the podcast space.
You can listen to here, or anywhere else you regularly listen to podcasts.
Header Image Source: WBUR