Let’s get this out of the way: Jack Wagner is mostly known for making memes. Dank memes. The 28-year-old, L.A.-based filmmaker is the brains behind @versace_tamagotchi, an Instagram account that boasts over 125,000 followers and features posts that satirize millennial tropes like fuccbois, “influencers” and even meme-makers. Yes, there are plenty of accounts just like this and, sure, most will be forgotten in the near future. But Wagner is more than just a starter-pack creator who momentarily entertains people while they sit on the toilet.
I first became interested in Wagner after watching Hungover & Depressed, a short film of sorts he posted on Instagram early last year. It remixed the Kenan and Kel intro to instead feature himself wallowing in Saturday morning self-pity. Everything about the clip was perfect, from the character watching Roseanne reruns to his buying Camel Crush cigarettes, despite the thing being only 15 seconds long. It suddenly made sense why Wagner’s Instagram bio said “filmmaker, etc.” and it turned out I was already familiar with his work, including impressive music videos he directed for Wavves, Boogie and producer Dillon Francis.
What made me obsessed with the guy wasn’t the memes or Eric Wareheim-worthy directing chops; it was the number of hoaxes and tongue-in-cheek art projects (for lack of a better term) he’s successfully carried out. Over the past year, Wagner convinced large swaths of the internet that Kim Gordon was bit on the face by a coyote in a Whole Foods parking lot; that John Mayer was the new face of Costco’s Kirkland Signature shoes; and that JNCO Jeans started sponsoring skaters. He created a sculptural installation for Four Loko and was involved with an LA art collective’s scheme to build a pyramid of Jerry Maguire VHS tapes in the California desert.
“Somebody once called me the Mephistopheles of the internet, and that was the greatest compliment ever lmao,” Wagner texted me after we spoke over the phone and emailed. “I have always been doing things that involved manipulating large groups of people into a weird, larger joke.”
On the surface, all these pranks are pretty dumb. Not dumb as in poorly thought out, but dumb like someone ripping a bong full of Monster Energy is dumb, which Wagner did in the aforementioned “skate video.” They’re immature, but they’re also elaborately original comedy experiments in the vein of Nathan for You or Andy Kaufman, had the latter grown up a digital native. Wagner uses his social media clout to hold a funhouse mirror in front of modern web culture. By telling bizarre stories on nontraditional platforms, he attempts to subvert the rules, trends and protocols of social media while embracing and exposing its absurdity. And while Instagram may be his current medium of choice, it’s only a matter of time until he finds a new space to flex his inventive sense of humor.
You said you originally started your Instagram as a joke. What did you hope to gain by growing a following?
I always had an Instagram account, but last January a friend and I were joking around about people who kind of act like or get treated as pseudo-celebrities for having an unusual amount of social media followers. I found it ridiculous—people who had more than an average amount of social media followers were assumed to be more important than a typical person, especially since you can literally buy followers. And living in L.A., I’d notice a good amount of people who have 10,000 followers and don’t really do much other than hang out and be cool.
I bet my friend I could get to 10,000 in a month and decided to do it just to prove to myself how easy it would be to accomplish. I wanted to show that I was essentially a random guy, and having followers would make people think that I was more than a random guy, even though I am just a random guy. I didn’t really want [followers] at the time, nor did I take it seriously—and I still don’t. There was no true goal other than a dumb joke, but once I had a small audience I started to take advantage of it for shenanigans. I have always been the last person you would want to stumble across the intercom microphone in high school.
You went from posting jokes and memes to using your clout for elaborate pranks. How did that start?
The first public one was JNCO Jeans. I had a realization that being a “Professional ______” just meant that somebody is paying you to do it. Many years ago, I tried to get Nature Valley to sponsor me for Ping-Pong just so I could show up to the office I was working at and proclaim that I was now a “Professional Athlete.” Later, I came up with a similar idea to get JNCO jeans to sponsor me for skating, even though I don’t really skate. Coincidentally, JNCO DM-ed me and said they were interested in doing something with me. I think they wanted me to do promoted posts, but I asked them if they would say they were sponsoring me for skating and they agreed.
I announced the “sponsorship” and started acting very cocky without showing any evidence of skill. Then I added in a few meltdowns by posting screenshots with my conversations with JNCO and acting obnoxious in the comments. Then we convinced Thrasher to publish my first JNCO-sponsored “professional” skate video, but it featured almost no skateboarding. The whole thing ended up being way bigger than I expected. I went to New York and started getting recognized as a skater [laughs]. I wasn’t paid, but now I own a lot of huge jeans. I think “influencer” marketing and the way brands try to insert themselves into trending situations is absolutely hysterical and lazy. It’s easily my favorite thing to joke about.
People have described the hoaxes as “conceptual art.” Do you see them that way?
It’s more that I’m challenging traditional uses of storytelling and subverting the ways in which people use and perceive social media in order to create a larger narrative. For example, during a later prank, I fabricated a story about Kim Gordon being bit on the face by a coyote in the parking lot of the newly-opened Whole Foods in Silverlake. I kept going with it and continued peppering in some bits of reality and truth, on top of the fictional narrative, until the story got to a super bizarre and dark place. I didn’t even know it was taking off until Business Insider called me asking for an interview. A bunch of other sites ended up covering it, too. After that one, I realized how much I enjoy telling fictional stories over unconventional platforms. I love mixing fiction and reality and always have.
I think ‘influencer’ marketing is absolutely hysterical and lazy. It’s my favorite thing to joke about.
What has your social media status taught you about the world of advertisers, web-related jobs, and the general concept of “influencers”?
Oh man, how much time do you have? It’s pretty clear that my entire existence online is a critique of the influencer pseudo-celebrity culture. Granting people social capital/status because they have a following online is simply funny to me because it is so easy to manipulate your presence online or entirely fabricate it. Likewise, many people whose status relies entirely on their social media accounts can have whatever they’ve achieved come toppling down instantly if their account is deleted, which happens a lot. Social media has become a kind of extreme version of the old question, “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” For many people now, posting the evidence of a good experience online is more important than the actual experience. On the contrary, with the stuff I have been doing, there was never a tree in the first place, or a forest. I have just been going online and telling people how loud the sound was.
You also take photos, make clothing, direct music videos, work on art gallery projects and more. Are there any projects in particular that you’re proud of?
Some of the things I have enjoyed making the most have been total no-budget projects. A huge one for me was the “Bitter Raps” music video for the rapper Boogie. I have been working with Boogie alongside my friend Clayton, who manages him, since the start of Boogie’s career. When I directed that video he was still pretty unknown. I had this concept idea that was entirely based on a weird feeling I get sometimes, like a lingering uneasiness that something bad is going to happen, but not having a true reason for thinking that. Kind of like how dogs can tell when a storm is coming. Boogie trusted me with the vision, and at the end I felt that it was a truly complete project. It was the first time I have ever felt that way. When the video came out, it did very well. A lot of the articles written about it referenced that feeling they got from the video. Having something in your head, especially something that you don’t quite understand, then translating that into something visual and having what was in your head understood by a stranger without cramming it down their throat is an incredible feeling.
Any goals for 2017?
Ira Glass once said that everyone has to spend several years making terrible projects before they even have the ability to take their own idea and turn it into something that is as good as it was in their head. That is such a bizarre obstacle faced by most creative people. I feel like finally now I am at a place where I am starting to make things that I actually think are good. The problem now is staying on task and dedicating myself to longer form projects. If there is one giant downside of social media-based content, it’s that you get addicted to fast-paced creation and release. I make something in 10 minutes and release it immediately with instant reactions. That starts to distract you from making longer-form projects that you really care about. 2017 ideally for me is the year where I can focus more on larger things.