Graphic by Christopher Ikonomou (Xe/He)
Sourced from FilthyFrankTV (left), Skyler Barberio for Rolling Stone (right)
To say Filthy Frank was an incredibly significant part of my childhood is an understatement. Yes, I hopped on the Filthy Frank train when the original “Harlem Shake” video was at peak popularity, but I eventually came to know the lore of the Filthy Frank Cinematic Universe; his backstory as described in the prequel novel “Francis of the Filth;” the general contract between Frank Prime (as opposed to Doppelgänger Frank — very long story, you had to be there) and the demigod Chin-Chin; and the track listings of both PINK GUY albums — if you know what any of these words mean, you too understand the heavy burden this useless knowledge puts on the soul. For the entirety of high school, I genuinely enjoyed almost everything George Miller, best known by his current stage name Joji, put out under the Filthy Frank name. Hell, some of those videos still hold up as absurdist Adult Swim-esque experiments in just how far YouTube’s guidelines can be pushed (spoilers: way, way, way too far) short of making literal snuff films. Nostalgia is a powerful thing; in fact it may be the only remaining value I find in the Filthy Frank catalog beyond the simple guilty pleasure of watching someone pretend to be a reactionary prick on camera.
This is, of course, a perspective informed by the passage of time. I can’t access the part of my teenage pseudo-libertarian brain that found pleasure in “ironically” using slurs or edgy conservative talking points anymore. Four years of college have made me well aware of the impact that individual behavior has on the normalization of toxic masculinity, racism, ableism, and queerphobia — all consequences that, regardless of intention, are very real despite their apparent invisibility to the vocal irony-poisoned masses. Outside the classroom, the work of video essayists like Dan Olson, Innuendo Studios, and Hbomberguy has helped me understand the effect media has on those who view it, allowing me to develop the critical lens through which I now consume content. All of this has undeniably made me better off — I do not envy teenage me at all, that boy had problems. Now equipped with that awareness, I can’t laugh along to “RACIST WORDS IN JAPANESE” or “ILLEGAL CRAWFISH RACING OLYMPICS” as easily with the knowledge that sensationalizing racism and animal abuse is a bad thing that minimizes the impact of systemic bigotry and violence against animals while normalizing both for an audience of millions. Whether ignorance of the sheer magnitude of these effects is an adequate excuse for blissful enjoyment of this content is another discussion entirely, but it’s fair to say that lack of exposure to structural criticism makes the cancer jokes in the “hair cake” video a lot easier to swallow (pun absolutely intended).
All of that said, even considering the fact that Maxmoefoe and iDubbbz — two of Joji’s close friends and frequent collaborators — have their own host of much more fucked-up opinions than anything portrayed within the fictional hellhole of the Filthy Frank universe, I can’t say I’m completely stonefaced watching some of these old videos. I still giggle at some of the stunts, extended bits, and even the raunchier jokes. Pink Guy’s music is still very listenable and at times genuinely great from concept to execution, even if some jokes run a bit longer than they probably should or ultimately just aren’t that funny. DO NOT TAKE ANY OF THIS AS A RECOMMENDATION OR AN ENDORSEMENT, YOU TRULY HAD TO BE THERE IN ORDER TO ENJOY THIS MATERIAL.
Is my present enjoyment of some cuts off Pink Guy’s eponymous debut or the “I HATE MEMES” video a sign that I’ve got some internalized bigotry left to purge from my system? I still find a lot of Monty Python episodes funny despite repeated use of racist Asian caricatures, neurodivergence as a punchline, and literal, actual blackface, so already that works against my case that I’m not a secret racist. What gives me some hope that I’m not doomed to fall down a reactionary rabbit hole is the fact that I now recognize that the repeated use of these tropes is, at the absolute least, unambiguously distasteful; where I might have once put a long essay about how it was “a different time,” I now reserve space to acknowledge the harmful effect of this brand of humor and recognize that it is indeed bad to use actual goddamn blackface to add “edge” to your funny sketch comedy show. Filthy Frank may not be as distinct in scope, but the effect of the character on the audience was much more harmful. Like many other young (at the time) men in need of a personality, I emulated a lot of the behaviors and comedic stylings I saw on the front page of YouTube at the time. Years of my life were spent trying to do edgy rants and ironic acts of indecency, interacting with the community in the comments section, and, perhaps most damaging, trying to justify my real-life embodiment of a fictional character whose intended purpose was to display the worst qualities a human being could possibly have. The most damaging element of the Filthy Frank brand was the people who didn’t get the joke, the folks who saw the success of a sensational figure and tried to repeat it without understanding what was actually worth emulating. Whether Joji should be considered a node within the alternative influence network on YouTube is debatable, but it’s impossible to ignore the lasting impact, intentional or otherwise, of his particular brand of “satire” on an entire generation of internet-dwellers.
I don’t know this dude personally, all I have access to is the content he puts out for the world to see, so the following take is at most a deeply invested fan theory. I sincerely believe Joji wasn’t trying to do harm with the content he produced under the Filthy Frank name. He was a couple years younger than I am now when the TVFilthyFrank channel was at its peak relevance, skyrocketed into the spotlight by the Harlem Shake meme and further boosted by his circumstantial ties via iDubbbz to the growing genre of commentary channels. Given how shockingly negative the response to his initial attempt at breaking character was, I can’t imagine what that level of attention and demand for exclusively Filthy Frank content was doing to him at the time, especially considering the physical toll his neurological disorder was already having on him prior to “coming out” as a real human being to his audience of terminally online edgelords. This context doesn’t do much to absolve him of the responsibility that comes with creating one of the most disgustingly reactionary fictional characters in history, but it is important when discussing how this happened on the scale it did.
Joji’s struggle to balance his own artistic vision with the demands of an invested audience he doesn’t always understand has been public knowledge and an explicit lyrical theme in his work since the release of “Pink Season” in 2017. As successful as he is now, and as well-served as he was by the YouTube algorithm in the past, I don’t trust him to be a good ally — it’s clear that he’s in no position to take on such a task and has no intention of making it a part of his current brand. The best elements of his old shtick are still there, those few signature mannerisms that indicate he’s ultimately just trying to do weird stuff to make people laugh, and so long as he doesn’t make any major fuck-ups on the scale of his previous missteps, I think we’re good. All parties are in agreement that the bit isn’t funny anymore, and the most I ask is that he does something else he’s genuinely invested in. It was a unique experience knowing Francis of the Filth, but that character is no more, a time capsule to a darker era of YouTube culture suspended in digital stasis. The story of Filthy Frank is over, yet the world keeps turning.
Joji, I sincerely wish you the best; please don’t mess up this time.