So much internet, so little time. Our Good on the Internet series is a running attempt to highlight things that, in contrast to most of the toxic sludge found online, might actually make you smile.
A six-season run is nothing to sneeze at, but until recently it would have been hard to argue that American Chopper had any sizeable or memorable impact on American life. The show, set at a family motorcycle manufacturing business, premiered in 2003 amid a glut of reality TV programming and stopped airing new episodes after its cancellation in 2010, having never quite achieved the cultural juggernaut status of some of its contemporaries like America’s Next Top Model or The Osbournes. All these things make its recent resurfacing as a popular, ubiquitous even, internet meme very curious indeed.
In the version of the meme that’s been zipping across social media, we see five stills of an intense argument between Paul Teutul Sr. and his son Junior. (If it won’t shatter the meme illusion for you, you can watch the scene from the 2009 episode the pictures come from here.) Senior yells and gestures, Junior yells and gestures back; Senior bellows his reply, Junior throws a chair, Senior shouts and points accusingly at him. Meanwhile, blocks of text stand in for the dialogue of the argument, where the viewer imagines the two squabbling over the sort of topics you wouldn’t think would lead to such vociferous disagreement: respecting women (“All women are queens!” “You’re wrong! If she breathes, she’s a thot!”), Garfield (“He’s a good-for-nothing, lazy slob who doesn’t contribute anything to society!” “He provides snide commentary on the crazy world around him!”), Star Wars (pro-Ewok vs. anti-Ewok), etc. As with object-labeling memes, the intentionally ugly plain text boxes allow for infinite remixing.
All of this is pretty standard 2018 meme-ing. What elevates the American Chopper meme from simply amusing to officially Good on the Internet is the meta journey that followed its emergence. Very soon after Senior and Junior and their extremely expressive argument entered the collective consciousness, people started having all sorts of discussions about the meme and what it meant … using the form of the meme itself. And so we celebrate the idea that, for anything you have to say about the American Chopper meme, you can say it with the American Chopper meme.
Discussions of whether the meme is offensive and plays on classism can play out in the meme itself:
So can debate over whether Senior or Junior is winning the argument, a conundrum relevant to which side in any version we’re supposed to read as correct.
In yet another version, the meme enacts a discussion about its own dimensions, which are not well-optimized for Twitter, that major platform of meme distribution:
And this one pretends to be confused about the whole concept of memes:
This American Chopper image isn’t the first meme to go meta, but its path toward self-referentiality did seem particularly speedy. I think this has to do with where we are right now in meme history (hear me out for a second!): Memes as we think of them today started out as a niche internet phenomenon, on the fringes of mainstream culture, but with the advent of publications like BuzzFeed and the growth of the social internet, lately they seem increasingly mainstream. Memes are, kinda, mass culture now, and we also seem to churn through them faster than ever. A meme turning inward, then, feels like an effort to preserve the weirdness of memes and to keep them true to their internetty roots. The American Chopper meme may illustrate conflict, but I think just about everyone can agree that there’s something heart-warming in the internet’s collective attempt to keep things weird.