Interview: Chris VanArtsdalen and The Nude M&M
I sit down with artist, director, and fellow jack-of-all-trades Chris VanArtsdalen to talk about viral art, memes, and being the guy in your sketch group that knows how to use Adobe Creative Suite.
I’ll be back with another full newsletter this week, but meanwhile…
I’m fascinated by how widely an image can spread online and the culture around crediting artists for their work. Recently, my friend and fellow jack-of-all-trades Chris VanArtsdalen made an explicitly nude version of the Green M&M and it went viral… without being credited to him.
I reached out to Chris about his process and how it felt to have his image go viral. We talked about making art for the Internet, being the guy in your sketch group that knows how to use Adobe Creative Suite, NFTs, and more.
Our conversation has been edited for length and contains NSFW images of an M&M.
Jacob: Hi, Chris! Thanks for doing this.
Chris: It's good to see ya. It's been too long. We met each other around the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater circuit, like 15 years ago. You were in Tremendosaur and I was in the group, The Birthday Boys. So we came up together doing sketch stuff.
Jacob: Wow, I can’t believe it’s been that long. What have you been up to lately?
Chris: I am a guy who does directing and editing and motion graphics and just a little bit of everything whenever I can get it.
Jacob: You also have this varied skill set which I relate to. Many of the things I know how to do – editing, motion graphics, etc – I learned by necessity because of sketch comedy. Is that how it was for you?
Chris: Totally. I was definitely more of the behind the camera guy in my sketch group. Me and Jeff Dutton, we're kind of the two de facto directors. We were the guys who bought cameras and bought [Adobe] Premiere and focused on editing more. I learned how to do After Effects, mostly just to make fake titles for sketches and, you know, little background effects and things.
Birthday Boys had a monthly show at UCB. So we tried to make a video every month for that. I was doing probably the bulk of the editing other than Jeff and keeping the video side on track while we were doing our monthly show.
Jacob: Birthday Boys is one of the all-time great sketch groups. I assume most people reading this are familiar with you guys either for your live shows at UCB or your tv show on IFC.
You make a lot of visual jokes on your social media. Like, you did one a while back of yourself on the cover of an Animorphs book. Where do those ideas come from?
Chris: I think it's just a reading Twitter and looking at the internet. An idea will pop into your head. Sometimes people like them, sometimes people don't. You have to just follow your artistic dreams wherever they may go, I guess. But, in terms of where do the ideas come from? I have no idea. It's just weird shit.
I will often make fun of myself and my own bald head. The Animorphs idea kind of came from, like, if I morphed into an animal on an Animorphs cover? What is the weirdest, ugliest, freakiest animal I could morph into? And, it was like one of those little rodent things — I forget what they're called — but, basically, the idea was what if I morphed into an animal who was still bald? So it's just a little bald freaky animal.
So, yeah, I don't know. I'm, I'm a freak and I guess you just got to make art and hope that some people out there who are as freaky as you appreciate it.
Jacob: It’s a lot of work, though! I assume you had to find the animal photo, it looks like you took a picture of yourself making a similar expression, and then you have to morph all the different images between.
Chris: Yeah, I'm pretty quick at Photoshop. There's a filter called liquefy that I used for that. I used it for the nude M&M as well. You can just take something and morph it into whatever shape you need it to be. I can't focus on anything that I need to do but when I have an idea like that, and I get excited about it, I will be hyper-focused for hours and hours and just bang it out. I think a lot of creative people probably operate the same way.
Jacob: It's like having a song in your head and the only way to get it out of your head is to play the song. And then you put it out there… and who knows if there’s a response.
I compare it to baking a really elaborate cake and just chucking it out the window. You don't know if someone's going to catch the cake and be like, “Holy shit! This is a beautiful, incredible cake.” Or, if it's just going to fall on the sidewalk and people are going to kind of walk around it as they get to wherever they need to go.
How do you feel about the experience of releasing these kinds of images out into the world? Do you have an expectation?
Chris: Yeah. I mean, it's nice when people like them, I would say probably 75% of the stuff I put out there just fails. Probably everyone has the same experience on Twitter or social media or whatever. Most stuff doesn't really catch fire. Every now and then there'll be something that sort of resonates with people.
You just gotta put it out there and see if people like it and see if people engage with it. And it's kind of nerve-wracking and it's usually sort of depressing that people don't like this stuff as much as you want them to like it, but every now and then they do. And then that's just how it goes, you know?
Jacob: You designed the logo for the popular Doughboys podcast. Is there any thought that continually putting out your own stuff helps you get paid work?
Chris: Yeah. The end game is just trying to get some engagement online. Well, now there’s a new end game which is NFTs which I’m thinking about getting into. After the success of the nude M&M, I'm trying to make an NFT out of that. It's a pain in the ass.
I tried to set up that whole thing and found out that my driver's license is expired. I need to prove my identity to make an NFT apparently. So, it's been like a two-week process of trying to do that. I also found out that people hate NFTs now because of the environment and because they're annoying. So, I'm like, should I even go down this NFT route?
But, it's supposed to be a way that people can monetize their art. It would be cool if I could make a couple of bucks off of my work. But, that’s new. For the last 20 years of releasing bullshit online, it's just been to get a couple of likes and that's it.
Jacob: Do you think people are hiring you because they see that artwork?
Chris: There's a little bit of thinking that way, for me. There's also some thinking that when you put some like a naked M&M online, you're going to exclude yourself from a handful of jobs. But, if you want to be an artist, you have to just put some risky shit out there and If it kills a few jobs, it kills a few jobs. You got to follow the art.
But I don't know you, you're definitely right. I try to keep posting stuff to remind people that I exist to get my name out there and blah, blah, blah, and the whole game.
Jacob: Well, let's talk about the M&M. Where did the idea come from?
Chris: Well, obviously M&M just did this big rebrand of their characters, where they made them less sexy. They took away the cowboy boots from the green M&M, and people like Tucker Carlson were complaining that the M&Ms aren't sexy anymore. So I thought it'd be funny to just do an extremely graphic pin-up version of the green M&M and try to make it as realistic as possible with human skin. Just like a horrific, you know, Human M&M hybrid.
Jacob: When did you first know that it was resonating with people?
Chris: Within two hours I could tell was really taking off. You start getting tons of likes and comments, people re-tweeting it. Somebody posted it on Reddit and it got tons of likes on there. It was not my post, which was kind of a bummer, but it was cool to see it go. It got taken down on Instagram, as I kind of knew it would. So I reposted a censored version. But yeah, it's always. It's always great to see people enjoying the work. Especially when you post something with nudity and you look like a real pervert. It's nice when people actually like it.
Jacob: I started seeing it posted by other accounts without any link or credit to you. Does that feel like a bummer to you?
Chris: No, I didn't really care. I mean, you have to know that people are going to do that. You have to know in today's day and age there's — I don't want to say there's no ownership of your artwork, but you have to know that it's just going to go out there and have a life of its own.
Jacob: Do you ever put your name or social handles on your images?
Chris: I probably should do that. It's a good idea. I dunno, I don't really care that much. If it really goes viral, my friends and people who follow me will know that I did it. And that's enough for me. I'll throw it on my website eventually, or try to make an NFT out of it.
Jacob: You mentioned Tremendosaur, and one of the first videos we made in college was a parody trailer of the Jim Carrey movie The Number 23. We put a watermark with our website on the bottom but someone downloaded it, cropped out our watermark, and re-uploaded it to one of those early video sites, I wanna say it was Break.com
It got over 2 million views on this website and we were like, “Holy shit.” Nothing we had ever made had gotten that many views ever and there was no way for people to link it back to us.
Chris: Birthday Boys had something similar. We did a sketch that we called Rough Patch. It was a girl and a guy breaking up and the girl was throwing all the guy’s clothes out of a window. The guy’s at the bottom, and then a bunch of other random men come along and start helping the guy throw his clothes back into the window.
Jacob: I remember that. It’s a great sketch.
Chris: Our sketch was way too long. Of course, they always were. Then someone took it and made a GIF out of it that was like, 20 seconds long. They called it ‘Bro Code,’ which might be a better name. That went super-viral on Reddit. Just the GIF part without our name or anything attached to it. So it was cool to see our work going viral in that sense, but also no one knows we did this. But, that's just how it goes, man.
Jacob: Do you follow Jerry Saltz’s Instagram? He’s the art critic for New York Magazine.
Chris: No, I don't think so.
Jacob: He has half a million followers on Instagram and he posted the nude M&M without your name or anything. It got thousands of likes before Instagram removed it because of nudity. But, let’s say you were trying to get into NFTs or just making a name for yourself or whatever… He has a huge following. If he had given you credit, that could have been really helpful.
Chris: It can be huge. Yeah, it's a bummer, man. I think you just have to trust that people are going to find you if they want to know the original artist.
Jacob: Do you think that's just Internet culture? Do people have an obligation when they're sharing something to think about that or to try and find the original artist?
Chris: It's tough because if you're just talking about a meme or something like some text slapped on an existing photo, then I don't know if you really have an obligation to find a guy who made that.
Jacob: But something like that is so low effort compared to what you make. How long did it take you to make the M&M?
Chris: I don't know. A bunch of hours. A huge chunk of that is just looking at like 700 naked images which is… disgusting. But yeah, I don’t know. Where does a meme become art? Where’s the line? Obviously a painting or something you would want to attribute to the original artist, but a meme maybe don't have to? I think you just have to accept that people are going to take it and it's going to go out there without your name on it. That's okay. That's part of the fun of just seeing, seeing it grow.
Jacob: Do you have a sense of how far the image spread?
Chris: A little bit, but it's kinda hard to tell. I haven't done a search for nude M&M to see who's reposting it. So I'm a little oblivious. But you know, friends and family have reached out. I told my parents about it. They thought it was funny, luckily. I was like, “I have this thing going viral that you're probably gonna hate.” But they actually thought it was pretty funny. So that was good.
Chris: No. Most of that is just me being an incredibly horrible businessman and lazy. I wouldn't know where to submit it. I wouldn't know how to submit it. I have no self-confidence. I wouldn't think anyone would accept it. So. I'm kind of like starving Van Gogh, you know, I just fucking make the shit and don't expect to sell it or monetize it or anything, you know? But I should, and thank you for the advice.
Did you see the nude M&M? Do you post things without knowing who created them? Sound off in the comments.