by Abe Sauer
When Wisconsin’s tourism bureau launched a war on its neighbor by suggesting Wisconsin is actually the “mitten state,” Michigan saw an unlikely ally come to its defense: a 30-something video pro named John Kerfoot.
Since 2006, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation has run a branding campaign titled “Pure Michigan.” A few years into the campaign, Kerfoot took his camera to nearby Lake St. Clair to shoot a Pure Michigan spoof about the lake’s scourge of fish flies, which appear every year in swarms so great that, as the voiceover goes, “visitors are left wondering, ‘Why the hell do I live in Michigan?’” (Insert blanket headphones-at-work warning for the videos here.) The video logged nearly 500,000 views. Kerfoot made a few more Pure Michigan spoofs and became a regional sensation. Last year he said he’d retire. He hasn’t. And he probably won’t.
Abe Sauer: Your videos have a combined 9.6 million views. That’s almost equal to the entire population of Michigan. How often do you run into people who know you?
John Kerfoot: Ninety-nine percent of people who know my videos don’t know me by face, since I’m on the other end of the camera and my voiceover is… well, not exactly how I talk. That voiceover is trying to be all soft and whispery into the microphone, like I’m about to make love to it. I usually don’t talk that way to people in public. If I did, I’d probably be in jail. Most people don’t know — but my friends will let them. My best friend is a lawyer and he thinks he’s Jerry Maguire and is my agent or something, and as soon as I meet somebody his first words are “Hey, do you know those Pure Michigan spoofs…?” It’s somewhere between funny and annoying.
Help your friend help you! Have the videos led to any further work or development deals?
For the most part, no. I have had a couple small gigs pop up because of the popularity of the Pure Michigan videos, but for the most part they were just small video projects. What I typically get is messages from groups or small businesses that say “Hey, we love your videos and we think it would be great if you did a video on our business. There is no pay, but it would be a good opportunity for you…” First off, I want to say to them, “Look, I can’t go from making a video about the Detroit Lions or the whole state of Ohio to making a video about your power-washing business that has 30 clients.”
That would basically kill the whole thing, like I sold out… and selling out for no money? Maybe my saying “I’m broke” has led people to think I don’t care about money. Well, I do. I like to get paid for my work, and if I’m not, then I’m just going to go make something because I was inspired to, because I think it’s funny. And usually doing something self-serving for somebody’s business… usually not funny.
There are now 20 videos in the “Not So Pure Michigan” collection. Young Michigan natives, especially the diaspora, have almost certainly seen one or passed one around a Facebook page.
Those non-natives who may have some experience with the spoofs probably have done so through the installment “Pure Michigan: U of M Football.”
Shortly after you did the first Pure Michigan spoof, you said nobody should bother suing you because you were “too broke.” With over 9 million views, have you managed to make any money off ad revenue?
I’m still broke. I’ve made a little off of the ad-revenue over the past year and a half, but not enough to live on. Not enough to buy a new car either. But good side money, if that gives you an idea. Truth be told, the amount of work I’ve put it on the videos in total was really not that much. They don’t take me that long to do. So for the time spent, the payoff has been nice. But obviously getting money was never the intention. In fact, my most recent video I was denied ad revenue sharing because I showed little kids drinking beers and a little kid giving the middle finger. That is frustrating because the video is getting a good amount of views and I will see no cash from it. Ah well, it’s still more of a high just getting good feedback. But money is nice too. Someday…
That’s a lesson for filmmakers or young emerging assholes: always be first. It’s not about making the best video sometimes; it’s about being the first one.
What’s the process for making the videos? Do you script it? Storyboards?
The fun of doing the Pure Michigan spoofs was that I never really knew what I was going to get — except with my latest video. With the latest video on Wisconsin & Ohio, the idea came to mock the whole Mitten controversy and I knew I had to act quick and I didn’t have the time to drive to Wisconsin and so I just used pictures and old footage I had. So in that regard it was rushed and lazy, but had I taken another day or two it would have been fairly dead. That’s a lesson for filmmakers or young emerging assholes: always be first. It’s not about making the best video sometimes; it’s about being the first one.
But anyway, with the rest of the videos I’ve gone out and shot renegade style. Half the time I would go to a location having some ideas of what I wanted, whether it’s a Wal-Mart Wolverine-looking dude, or two gay men in Saugatuck holding hands, or fishflies. But even then the fun was seeing things you’d never expect that would give me ideas as I’m shooting. So the quick answer is there was no storyboarding, and the scripting actually comes after I shoot the video. I look at what I have and then write it from the visuals. The real Pure Michigan videos have big crews and cranes and are done commercial style. In that way, mine is documentary, to keep it real… and because I’m lazy.
One reason Not So Pure Michigan is not well known outside Michigan is its focus on detailed places outsiders have no experience with. The Wolverines football video was accessible only because, after Ohio State, Michigan football is the most despised program in the Big 10. But who outside the state even knows where Royal Oak is, let alone enough about it to enjoy a lampoon of it?
After your video on the city of Royal Oak, its city commissioner poo-pooed the effort, calling it something “eighth-graders might think was hysterical.” You seemed to take this as not so much a compliment but as a statement of fact.
I am so glad you asked about this because the newspaper didn’t quote me correctly on what I said and I didn’t understand until later as to why. So I made the video on Royal Oak, basically calling everybody in the city a “douchebag.” The reporter called me, and I could tell she was not a fan of the videos at all but was doing a story (sided with Royal Oak City Commissioner). I was picking up her vibe and was kind of tired from working all night, when she said, “The Royal Oak City Commissioner has said that your videos are just amateurish and not funny. What do you have to say about that?” My reply was, “Well, he’s probably a douchebag, too. Please print that.” They didn’t. I forget what they ended up printing, probably some afterthought I had to try and not sound like as big of an asshole, but my first reaction was really what I thought and meant. Found out later that the word “douchebag” couldn’t be printed. So, yeah, I guess my videos aren’t the only thing at the maturity level on an 8th grader. Did I mention I love Beavis & Butthead?
Do you have groupies?
No, I do not have groupies. Although there was a time, probably a few months after the videos started getting hot, and I was at a popular bar in the Detroit area and a girl recognized me from a video that I was in, where I was playing a disabled lawyer. I never thought that would score me lady attention. Anyway, a few of her friends came over, and I noticed a few feet behind me was Detroit Lions player Ndamukong Suh. He was just standing there with a pack of great looking girls surrounding him, basically standing in line to talk to him. And I’m across from him. So, basically, there was a pack of hot girls around him, and a pack of nice girls (and a couple dudes) around me. That’s about as cool as it ever got. But, no, I don’t really have any groupies. If I did, I’d probably think there was something extremely wrong with them for being such.
Where was that?
BlackFinn in Royal Oak.
Why nothing yet on the Upper Peninsula? Too easy a target? Or would even acknowledging the You-Pee’s existence be a compliment?
Nah, it’s really not that deep. I think the honest answer is laziness. I have to drive six hours to get there. But maybe the bigger reality is that I don’t know the U.P. as well and so I’d be fishing for material, trying to find things, and worried I wouldn’t really nail it.
Some people have sent emails with ideas and some are good. I’ll likely go hit on it eventually. However, the other issue is that the best time to shoot is during the summer when it’s warm and people are outside, and the best places to shoot are popular spots, even events (parades, outdoor festivals, etc.), where it’s good people-watching and the weirdos come in full force, and I can be more hidden in the crowd with a camera. So with the U.P., do they even have any places that have more than seven people congregating together?
When it comes to the U.P. and “knowing it,” do you think this “love to hate it” approach is acceptable as long as the one “hating” is a local?
That’s common comedian stuff. Like only black comedians can joke about black people, or Jews with Jewish folk. I don’t know if the person necessarily needs to be from Michigan to rip on it, but they just better know what they’re talking about and really know the realities that are going on.
The popularity of the videos is a testament that most people have a good sense of humor about where they come from and can take a joke. I have had a few people comment on YouTube something angry about a video like “If you hate it here so much they why don’t you just leave?!” and I think to myself, wow, these people just don’t get it. But most people do, because these videos are a roast, and when people suggest video ideas to me they usually are asking me to rip on their hometown. They want me to make fun of the place that they are from, not because they hate it but because they love it and love to tease it playfully and celebrate it with laughter. And that’s really all I’m trying to do.
I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life and, for the most part, when I do a video I know what I’m ripping on, which just makes it easier and usually speaks from a place of truth. That is why I’ve avoided the U.P. It truly is almost like another state from the Lower Penninsula and I’m a little fearful of treading in like an outsider and roasting everything.
A favorite target of Kerfoot’s, and the universe’s, is Michigan’s pro sports teams.
You teach at Wayne State University. Are your students aware of your Pure Michigan work?
Some of them are. A handful might be impressed or think it’s cool. Many of them don’t give a shit because students, in general, are angry young self-absorbed assholes, and I say this knowing I was just like them at their age. When it comes to film students, I think many of them don’t really care for it because they’re very competitive. They look to criticize first, rather than enjoy. But it’s just the opposite of how most people watch a video or movie. Usually they go watch it for the enjoyment, then get critical later. The film students (supposedly) love movies, they love filmmakers, and they love good filmmaking… but they only love it when it’s 3,000 miles away. They love works made by people nobody knows yet, or that even they don’t know. They won’t like films made by people they know.
I know a guy who blew my stuff off (to my face) with a “puff, that’s just Youtube bullshit, dude.” Meanwhile, he hadn’t made anything for me to even criticize, so I just don’t really pay much attention to what film students think. If Steven Spielberg was in their class and made Jurassic Park or Jaws during the semester, students would be like, “Eh, that’s that geek Spielberg with his glossy action bullshit… it has no real edge, man.”
If Steven Spielberg was in their class and made Jurassic Park or Jaws during the semester, students would be like, “Eh, that’s that geek Spielberg with his glossy action bullshit… it has no real edge, man.”
You also shoot wedding parties. That must be awkward… sometimes.
No, actually it’s not. I like shooting weddings (editing is a different story). But I started doing weddings for side money while I was working on my masters. And when I finished school, word of mouth had spread so it could be my business. I like working from home, having odd hours. When I go to shoot a wedding everybody is dolled up and in a good mood. I think, lately, because of my videos and their popularity with my clients, I’m rather embraced by the wedding party. So yeah, it’s kind of funny how unimpressed my film students are with my filmmaking, but wedding parties, who pay me to be there to work, love the videos and want to party with me. Go figure.
Kerfoot’s has attempted to branch out with his humor. His re-cut of LeBron James’ “decision” has over a million views, though it will not win critical acclaim anytime soon. Last year, Kerfoot submitted a Michigan-focused spot to Doritos’ crowd-sourced Super Bowl ad contest. He says”Digested in Detroit” was “rejected within two hours” by Frito-Lay.
The most recent Pure Michigan spoof was a departure, taking Michigan’s side against Wisconsin in “Mittengate” and correctly pointing out that, like everything else bad, it’s all the fault of that craphole, Ohio. Does this herald a new era where Not So Pure Michigan will look outside the state?
Haha, I don’t know. It has to be tied to Michigan in some way, or else it’s not really a Pure Michigan spoof, right? Don’t want to force it and kill the comedy. Certain topics and subjects work with the Pure Michigan spoof style, but some don’t. I have spoofed local lawyers, but not in a Pure Michigan style video. Their commercials are ridiculous enough for me to parody. But I must say, it spoils you when you find something that clicks like the Pure Michigan spoofs because, quite frankly, the whole format (the music, pretty shots and my voiceover) is pretty easy to me by now, I’ve got it down, and I know that so long as the video is just decent, it’s going to get views because it has a ready-audience. I’ll sometimes try something new, a video parodying something with a departure in style altogether, and it’s just not very popular…and it makes me realize how much I really struck a chord with the Pure Michigan thing. Though for me it can get a little old doing the same style, so I try not to do too many Pure Michigan videos…I average 1/month. But I love trying new things and last summer, I was at a bar with friends watching LeBron James and the Miami Heat lose to Dallas in the NBA Finals. Somebody said, “Go make a video about it” and so I went home and that night I did a spoof of the LeBron James’ decision where he decided he will “now take his talents to the WNBA.’ The video got a million views in one week and for one day it was the #1 video on YouTube. That was probably my highlight, because it was outside the Pure Michigan realm, I wasn’t using that crutch, and it hit. Oh, and because I did it drunk.
The Pure Michigan ads keeps chugging along. Will you keep doing these as long as the campaign continues?
I planned on being done with these a long time ago. Honestly, I feel like the last one, branching outside of Michigan and ripping on other states and actually defending Michigan, might have been my way of capping it. But then a month or two will go by and some idea will hit me and I’ll just grab my camera and go shoot. It’s really not that planned out. In fact, the best videos I’ve done were more “grab the camera and go shoot” in a hurry, not really knowing what I’d get (Detroit Tigers, Detroit Lions Redux, Royal Oak, etc). The videos where I had more ideas and thought, “Oooh, this will be big, can’t wait to do this…” usually were disappointments (Renaissance festival, Detroit Electronic Musical Festival, maybe even the first Detroit Lions video). But truthfully, I don’t see myself doing that many more. I’m not one who likes to be annoying, or I’m at least not unaware of when I’m being annoying. I’m pretty self aware, and I just don’t want to be the asshole who doesn’t leave the party when it’s dead.