Bad Lip Reading: An Interview With the Man Behind The Beautiful Nonsense


For several months, it’s been hard to take a stroll around the internet without tripping on the Bad Lip Reading video series, which overdubs new speech onto familiar popular videos.

The results bear a superficial resemblance to the Autotune the News empire, but are much more interesting. Where Autotune the News is based on finding the music hidden within the bland pronouncements of politicians and talking heads, Bad Lip Reading dispenses with their tedious meanings altogether, tearing open a surreal hole in reality through which much stranger and more improbable things can pass. So Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video is seamlessly re-imagined as a narrative about a gang fight, Mitt Romney speculates on the benefits of Madonna marrying a giant, and Rick Perry grudgingly offers to share his Kwanzaa CDs with the press corps.

Watching the videos, we had a lot of questions: Who made these things? How did they get started, and what was their process?

The identity of the creator, unfortunately remains a mystery. When we spoke to him on the phone this week, he told us he doesn’t want to be identified because he doesn’t want the levity of the Bad Lip Reading series to impact his more serious work.

All he’ll say is that he lives in Texas, is “out of college,” and works primarily as a music producer, songwriter, and musician.

As for the other questions though, he had a lot to say:

Village Voice: So what’s the origin story on this whole project?

Bad Lip Reading: The seed of the project was the fact that my mother, a few years ago, when she was in her 40s, suddenly lost her hearing. She suffered rapid and complete hearing loss. It was pretty traumatic — she had been a musician. It was hard for everyone, but it was very hard for her. But she learned to read lips very quickly. It was very impressive to watch. It was remarkable how quickly she picked it up and how skilled she became at it.

And so what I started doing occasionally, as a way to sort of simulate what she was going through, or to see what her life was like. I would mute the sound on the television to see if I could do what she was doing. And I was just awful. I would see things that it definitely looked like they were saying but that they definitely could not have been saying.

Those were sort of the first interactions I had with the concept, but it really started earlier this year: In march I was hired to film some talk radio hosts on air and one of the hosts, when one guy was talking, would stare at him and silently mouth words, It’s hard to understand how disconcerting this was to watch. The other host was just used to it, but to us it was so strange. The guys that I was shooting with, we were all sort of mesmerized by this. So when I got the footage back to the studio and I was watching it all again, I was thinking “Maybe I can figure out what he’s saying.” Were they random mouth shapes? Was he speaking on topic? And so I tried to do the lip-reading thing on that, and again, the same thing happened, where I started pulling out strange word combinations. Things like “bacon hobbit,” you know, weird stuff: “Poke me. Moose, I’d do it.” It was making me laugh, and so I grabbed the microphone and I recorded those into the computer. And when I played it back, it looked like he was saying “Bacon hobbit.” I titled the video “What He Really Said” and sent it to my friends, and it just destroyed them. They said “Do more!” So I did some more, but only of that guy, and they would only circulate between us. It was an inside joke. But that’s where that started.

Right at that same time, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video came out. Like everyone else, we were bewildered by it. And it was right when I had realized that “Hey, I can do this weird thing where I look at mouths and come up with words… Does it work with songs?” So I muted her video, it looked like she was saying “gang fight.” And it was just so incongruous. I love how out of synch it was. And because I’m a musician and producer, I was able to write and record an entirely new song from scratch with this new set of lyrics from her mouth-shapes. Again, I was just doing this for my friends, to make them laugh. I never thought anyone else would hear it. They encouraged me to make a YouTube channel. So I made a channel, and I named it Bad Lip Reading, and then it just kind of went crazy. In two or three weeks, it had passed a million views, and it had over 20k subscribers, which I hadn’t really anticipated. And they wanted more content. So I started doing more of them.

Beyond the novelty aspect and the parlor trick aspect of it, it was interesting from the standpoint of context – how I could change the way the images onscreen were perceived dramatically by changing the audio. Even though nothing had changed on screen, what you felt about it, and the people, changed a lot. I was also fascinated by fact that they still function as pop songs, even with those ridiculous lyrics. People still want to listen to them. People are listening to these songs in their cars and when they work out, away from the computer and the visual component. So that’s an interesting thing. It’s interesting to me to create this little alternate universe of music videos. They’re things that look and sound at first glance like they should be real things, but they’re not. They’re just strange things.

VV: So where did you go after the Rebecca Black video?

BLR: I did the Justin Bieber one, which was just a small one, and then the Black Eyed Peas, and Miley Cyrus. They were videos chosen partially on who is popular, and who would it be interesting to see, but a lot depends a lot on the video itself, if there’s sufficient facetime. Some videos lend themselves to the process better than others. Everyone’s been clamoring “Do Lady Gaga, do Lady Gaga, but problem with Lady Gaga, as with most modern videos, is they change camera angles every second, and she’s rarely on screen for more than two or three seconds. If she is on screen, she’s one of thirty dancers and you can barely see her mouth. There are a lot of songs where the singer is acting out a part but not actually lip-synching to their own song. they’re not actually singing along, they’re just watching.
I don’t chose videos because I’m trying to bash anyone or make fun of anyone. There’s no ill will. I’m not trying to pick on anyone. It comes down to which videos come down to the process the most. The words are random based on their mouth shapes, so there’s nothing malicious about it.

Michael Buble saw the one I did of him, and really liked it. I had some interaction with him. He’s just a genuinely nice guy. Someone had sent it along to him, and he loved it, so he had label people track me down so we could talk. I thought it was nice of him, and it was great that he genuinely got it, that it had nothing to do with him. It wasn’t making fun of him, it was just taking his video as the raw material to make something new.

VV: How did you move from the pop music videos to the political figures?

BLR: When I did “Gang-fight,” I didn’t spend long on that at all. Because I didn’t think many people were going to see it. As I realized I had a bigger audience, I thought I should labor over these a little more. And so they began take longer to do. Plus I have my professional workload as well. So the process began to stretch out, and it began to be a month and a half or two between songs. I wanted to be able to offer something to people who were waiting for a new song – something to chew on. I knew the spoken word pieces don’t take that long, because it’s just strictly the words. And so I thought “Maybe I can do just a few spoken word things to give them in the meantime.”

I’m not a particularly political person, but I landed on Rick Perry. Yes, I do live in Texas. But it was more that I knew that newscasts, interviews, press conferences, and things like that would have a lot of face-time. I think I searched for “press conference.” That’s what led me to the Rick Perry video where he announced he was running. And when I saw that I did what I do: I pull the video and hit the mute button and see what my brain lands on. If it lands on something that I think is funny, I flag it. So I started looking at the Rick Perry one, and knocked it out pretty quickly and uploaded it. It was just a stopgap. I didn’t expect it to do as well as it did. But it did, and it started airing all over the place – on national programs. I started getting contacted by well known programs and people. And that’s when I realized that I had stumbled on another level which had a broader appeal than the music videos.

So now I’m kind of stuck where if I upload a sound-byte, my original fan-base while they appreciate those, they still wish for more music. And the new fan-base, if I release a song, they’re like, “Ah, stop doing the songs! Give us more speeches!” I can’t please everyone.

VV: Do you find one more satisfying to work on than the other?

BLR: I like them both for different reasons. The sound-bites are satisfying for how quickly I can do them, and my friends and I can sit back and laugh at them. It’s a more instant gratification. The songs – I love making music, even if they’re just these silly songs, It’s just great to sit back at the end of the song to sit back and listen to the song, and to learn that other people are liking them too, as songs. I’m going to be making music no matter what. That’s just who I am. I can’t stop making music.

I play all the parts and sing all the vocals. Even the girl parts are me. It’s a party-trick of mine: I can do a girl voice. I used to call up my friends and speak in the girl voice and they wouldn’t know who it was. It’s just a thing I can do. But there’s also some electronic trickery involved. It’s not even the style of music that I typically make. The good thing is that this has led to a lot of interesting new opportunities that I can’t really speak about, but that are intriguing.

VV: Can you tell us anything about those? Are you going to pursue any of them?

BLR: I’ve just been approached about a lot of things by a lot of people. So it’s a matter of figuring out which of these things I want to do. I’ve maintained anonymity because I work in different spheres and I don’t want those to overlap and affect each other. Because even though I can be a silly person, there’s a very serious aspect to a lot of the work that I do.

VV: Do you expect that at some point people will burn out on the Bad Lip Reading videos?

BLR: Of course. I always think that will happen. I just don’t know when it will. That’s part of why the songs fascinate me more than the political bits, because they exist on another level, beyond the gimmick of “Oh, those words match their lips.” But sure, I expect for the novelty to wear off at some point. But I’ll keep doing it as long as I find it interesting.

VV: What’s your actual work process on these videos?

BLR: I do it section by section, so I’ll just loop over a section until my brain resolves it into a phrase of some sort. It’s not a conscious thing. There’s a point where a line reveals itself and I’m hearing it for the first time, So if it’s funny it makes me laugh, because I didn’t sit down and craft that line. There’s that moment when it’s new to me. It’s almost as though I serve as an editor. I sit there and my brain will come up with stuff, and I’ll say, “Nah, that’s not funny.” There’s stuff that’s not very funny: a lot of mundane lines, like “How are you.” Or things that are extremely foul.

VV: Yeah, it seems like you’ve been conspicuously PG-rated in your work. Is that deliberate?

BLR: The foul stuff comes up a lot, but that alone doesn’t alone make it funny or worth including. But I do make an effort not to go past a certain point, not because I don’t use those words or I object to hem, but because I want it to be workplace friendly. But it’s not from any prudishness.

VV: How long do the spoken videos take to put together?

BLR: Rick Perry was done in two and a half days. The songs, I construct them and evaluate and refine them. Whereas with the spoken word, I just have to figure out what they’re saying and how they’re going to present it and work on any post-production embellishments, and I’ll write a little score to accompany it.

VV: So after you fool around with each shot, you’ve got a working script?

BLR: Actually, I’m taking audio notes, instead of writing down things. I let it run through, and I’ll record my ideas over the video so I can evaluate. I use Logic. I’ll keep going until I hit a line I like. And usually the last take is the one where I say, “That’s where I’m stopping.” Some of them aren’t funny, but there’s something about the words that I like. Though for some of them people do end up laughing, and I’m surprised. When Herman Cain said “Phone’s broken,” that’s not funny necessarily, but people thought it was funny.

VV: Do you feel like there’s a sort of surrealist element of your process, using the randomness of your lip-reading to access a kind of creativity you wouldn’t otherwise have?

BLR: Yeah, definitely. I’m a huge fan of non sequitur and of absurdity and randomness, and I’m a fan of words. It is interesting how all these disjointed lines coming form people, but they’re delivering them very earnestly. I’m also fascinated by the slight of hand aspect and the illusion that’s created.

VV: When you’re working on these, do you feel that there’s a personality that you’re channeling or bringing to life, some alternate Herman Cain or Michael Buble?

BLR: Sure. I find myself creating new characters for these people. The perfect example of that is the lead singer for Rascal Flatts. That guy is now a completely different character in my mind, who exists completely apart from the real guy. Part of the concept originally was that if a deaf person is watching this and misreading the lips, they wouldn’t know what these people sound like anyway, so what would they imagine that they sound like?

In the beginning, I made no attempt to sound like the people in the videos. Justin Bieber, “Gang Fight,” I wasn’t too worried about it. But starting with Black Umbrella, when I did a Snoop Dog impression, which I always had in my pocket but never had any reason to do it. I wanted to comment on the phenomenon where a rap artist is just shoehorned into a song, just to give it some credibility. I wanted to comment on that. And then I did it with the Beegees and Magic Man, so people sort of expected them to sound like they’re supposed to. But there’s only so far I can go with that — I’m not an impressionist.

If you look at all of the videos together, there must be something you can distill about me. I don’t know what it is, but… I don’t know, food comes up a lot.

VV: I wanted to ask you about that. It seems like a sort of homage to Weird Al or something.

BLR: Yeah. everyone’s like, “This guy needs to eat some food, he’s starving.” But it has nothing to do with that. It’s just that, when I’m sitting there trying to let my brain be open to this process, there’s this huge segment of the English language that doesn’t get used in songs, and that is food and animals. The last two songs I released both have the word bullfrog in it. I have to be the only person ever to have done that. But when you’re saying no words are out of bounds here, there’s a ton of food names, and a ton of animal names, and if you allow yourself to be open to all words, there’s this big pool of nouns that you can pull from all of a sudden, that would never have been sung about previously.

VV: Do you have to get into a particular state of mind to come up with the lyrics?

BLR: I find that getting to that point where I’m about to fall asleep is really productive. Because you’re brain just opens up, and it’s not paying as much attention to boundaries. I’ve found even in my regular work, some of my best lyrics have been written in that period when I’m about to fall asleep. The brain just opens a bit more. But most of the time, I just have to be in the mood to do it, period. It isn’t anything I could do well under duress. If I’m forced to do it, the results are never going to be as good as if I get into that state of being creatively invested. This goes back to the fact that I don’t know what they’re going to say. It’s a funny process, because I’m just waiting for them to spit out those lines. It’s like hunting for treasure.

VV: Are there lines that really resonate with people more than others?

Sometimes I know what they’re going to be. In the Rick Perry one, the whole “Save a pretzel for the gas jets” chunk, I knew that even if I bombed on the other sections, that still made it worth doing it. But I’ve been surprised how popular the end tags have been. Like on the Rascal Flatts song, when he said “Cheese-fries next time.” Or, “It’s real convenient how you threw us out and now I’m sad for me.” When he said that, that made me laugh out loud. That’s such a strange thing to say. So if it made me laugh, I figured it would make other people laugh, and I was right.

It’s also interesting to watch someone saying “Ah this is the worst one you ever did, followed by someone saying “This is the best one you ever did.” You just have to accept that, and do it for yourself.

VV: By that standard, do you have a favorite to date?

I am fond of the Russian Unicorn one. There are a lot of things that I strive for that I was actually pulling off in that one. Also the Miley Cyrus one. That was the first one where I thought, “Oh, I’ve really done what I really wanted to do.” Which is to take something and completely change the context and still have it be a satisfying musical production. That was the first one where I said, “OK, this is something different for me now.”

As for the spoken-word ones, there are phrases that stick with me. Someone will say something that is the beginning of a phrase in one of my videos, and it will trigger that phrase, and I’ll either say it out loud or not, because you know, people may not know, and it could be really bizarre and random if I say it out loud. The other problem is a little while after I do the videos, like the Mitt Romney voice, he has this very specific way of speaking. And I was working on that for a concentrated period and then I would walk out into the real world and keep using that voice, which was embarrassing.

The Mitt Romney one definitely had some lines in it. “Boy these rappers and their beautiful Mexicans… Gotta keep my mind free.” That matches so well to my eye, and there’s just the question of what exactly does he mean by that? And I thought the best line was where he talks about the centurions from East Asia, near Mumbai. Just because that’s not even right, geographically. “And they got my cooler and they took my spider-jars into prison, and I said ‘I’m going to let you do this.'” And no one has ever commented on that, but it’s a personal favorite.

The only measure of success I have of anything I do creatively, is I have to like it. Because if you start worrying too much about what people like or don’t like, you get into a really strange place.

VV: Do you have a trusted audience you test your material with?

BLR: I really don’t. I usually finish these things by myself at 3 a.m. and I’m just ready to get it up. I just don’t take that time. It’s not always about being funny. It can just be about being weird, or just a creative combination of words. That fascinates me. In the Mitt Romney one, Madonna comes up twice. It’s bizarre. But it happened. She never came up in any of the other pieces, but twice in that one. Chicken comes up a lot. And that’s not because I have any fixation on chicken, it’s just, apparently in the English language, people’s mouths make that shape a lot, so it fits.

VV: What does your mom think of this?

BLR: Unfortunately she passed away like a year prior to this all blowing up. And I know this is the kind of thing she would have loved. She loved words and language and she would have also enjoyed how familiar she was with what was happening. She would miss cues occasionally, and she was brilliant at lip reading. It was fascinating watching my grown mother learn a new skill at that age, a skill that was vital to her survival and mental health. I’ve heard from a lot of hearing impaired people. saying, “This is my life in a nutshell. This is my everyday existence. This happens all the time.” I hear from tons of them, and they think it’s funny, and it’s all too true. It happens for them. They’ll read something, and they’ll say, no, there’s no way that person just said that.

VV: All right. Let us know when some of these new projects come together.

BLR: Sure. It’s going somewhere. It’s never the things you think it’s going to be in life. The things you planned for don’t pan out, and the things you do just as a lark, end up taking off and leading to other things.