Will View for Work: Reviewing The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul

musician Weird Paul performing in front of an American flag, Pittsburgh, PA

A real American hero: Weird Paul performing live at the North Side Elks, 2017

We of a certain age are either condemned or privileged (take your pick) to live out our days with one foot each in the entirely separate worlds of pre- and post-Internet existence. Digital immigrants, for sure, but arriving on the beaches young enough to speak the native tongue with only a slight accent.

“Weird” Paul Petroskey, a Pittsburgh multi-media institution for three decades and counting, both anticipated present-day, social media me-TV and manages to reach back into the halcyon low-tech ’80s and ’90s in his current work. Paul is old enough to have begun recording on cassette tape and VHS video, but now obsesses over his YouTube subscriber count and FaceBook reactions.

The themes of a relentless, driven creator, desperate to make a living from an unconventional lifestyle and build a future from an awkward, videotaped past, are explored in the excellent new documentary Will Work for Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul. The film debuts with a world premier this Saturday at Harris Theater.

video still of teenage Weird Paul from the 1980s

The “Original Vlogger”, a teenage Weird Paul on video, sometime in the 1980s [photo: Weird Paul]

Way before YouTube, FaceBook, or Instagram, teenage Paul Petroskey was recording his life and arranging music videos and sketches along with an extremely cooperative cast and crew of parents and young siblings. The crudely-shot VHS bits had a limited audience in 1980s suburban Pittsburgh, but have since been given new life on the Internet.

Today, Will Work for Views argues, these hours of videotape form a sort-of Dead Sea Scrolls for the Media Age, linking the ancient with the modern in an audio-visual archive that predicts YouTube-style “vlogging,” tributes, parodies, and “unboxing” videos. The film may suffer from one too many talking heads restating some version of “this guy was doing this stuff before anyone else,” but it’s an important point.

video still of Weird Paul dressed as a doctor with inflatable skeleton as patient

Still from Weird Paul’s “This Guy’s Got a Bone Disease” music video, 2013

Weird Paul’s teenage to middle age audio-visual continuum forms the backbone of the documentary’s dual narratives. In one, we ride along with Petroskey’s life commitment to a certain kind of low-rent/high-reward entertainment through quick-cut video bits past and present. Paul was a cute, precocious kid with a lot of goofy ideas and an inexhaustible ambition to execute on them. The adult version is still mining the same deep vein, but now it’s intertwined with nostalgia and a mortgage payment.

The other theme is more existential. Paul has the life goal of turning…something–sight gags, joke songs, thrift shop picking–into a career, or at least the occasional paycheck. What does the day-to-day reality of continuing to pursue this unlikely dream actually look like? In a social media landscape where everyone with a FaceBook account is turned into some combination of content provider, public figure, and narcissist, is The Internet the carrot or the horse? The gold mine or the shaft?

photo collage of Weird Paul Petroskey aping for the camera

Bowling for donors: the many faces of Weird Paul Petroskey today [photos courtesy of Interesting Human Media]

“We were looking for a subject for a documentary when we came across [Weird Paul’s] videos on YouTube,” says Joseph Litzinger, executive producer and co-director of Will Work for Views. The film is the first feature for his production company Interesting Human Media. “Our first thought was, ‘This is a great actor,’ but then it became clear Paul isn’t acting at all–this is who he really is. We were attracted by what a genuine, unique, and passionate person he is.”

That YouTube was the filmmakers’ entry point to the world of Weird Paul is evident as Petroskey’s vast musical catalog (some 700+ recorded songs over several dozen album-sized releases) and regular live performances are given a backseat to the video clips. If there’s a criticism of Will Work for Views, it’s that the Weird Paul Rock Band–his steady, hard-rocking, shenanigans-ready bass/keytar/drums backing group for the last decade–only appear in the film as (uncredited) talking heads and never seen, you know, full-on rocking[1].

Weird Paul Rock Band performing at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Weird Paul Rock Band [l-r: Pam Hamlin, Jon Dowling, Weird Paul, Ben Blanchard] in the last days of the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, 2017

It’s a minor quibble, as the movie is really about Weird Paul. Or it’s Paul as surrogate for anyone who’s ever pursued his or her passion–however unlikely–way past the point where every voice of reason has tried to talk sense into them. The line between obsession and sticktoitiveness can be perilously thin, but Petroskey has walked it long enough to not look back.

“I’ve been in a mindset for a good part of my life where I’m ready to share everything with everyone,” Paul says of the filmmaking process. “From a young age I felt like being famous was important for me and that’s what people want from celebrities–people want to see bits of their life…Going into a project like this–you either give it your all, or don’t bother. Give your best–that’s how I look at it.”

video still of Weird Paul dressed as a doctor with inflatable skeleton choking him

Still from “This Guy’s Got a Bone Disease” music video, 2013

The portrait painted in Will Work for Views is supportive and respectful, but also honest in its portrayal of Weird Paul. The filmmakers are clearly rooting for this ultimate underdog of the underground–still struggling with the hassles of working a day job, trying to make enough money to fix his equipment, and fantasizing about having someone to mow his lawn.

It’s unspoken, but the story begs the obvious question: Is there really a (commercial) market for Paul’s brand of low-brow humor and lo-fi goof rock? Personally, I don’t know how any artist makes a living, but the movie has us all hoping Paul figures out the magic combination and is able to realize his dreams–or at least get the grass cut.

promo poster for documentary film "Will Work for Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul"

“Will Work for Views” promo poster

Epilogue

Full disclosure: This blogger has known Paul, his band members, and entourage long enough that no opinion on a feature-length film about the guy could be legitimately objective–I’m a Weird Paul fan. That said, even if The Orbit didn’t have a personal connection to the subject–even if it wasn’t (largely) set in Pittsburgh–we’d recommend Will Work for Views for the simple reason that it’s a terrific documentary.

Co-directors Litzinger and Eric Michael Schrader know what they’re doing. The two have reality TV series producer/editor credits on American ChainsawBachelorette Party: Las Vegas, and Swamp Loggers–so we know they can film timber sports and Jell-o shots. The filmmakers have weaved the archival teenage Paul’s antics into his present-day realities with engaging dexterity and an improvised narrative arc that may or may not actually exist in real life, but plays great on the big screen.

We’ll be there on Saturday, cheering on Paul and the gang. We hope we see you there, too.

Will Work for Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul premiers with a screening this Saturday, June 23 at Harris Theater.
Showtime is 7:00 p.m., tickets are $15, and the event includes a Q&A panel with Weird Paul and the filmmakers.

See also: “Recording Existence: Life-logging with Weird Paul,” Pittsburgh Orbit, June 28, 2015.


[1] This may, of course, have as much to do with the technical challenges of filming in dark, noisy bars vs. the unlimited buffet of already-extant video content available.

Recording Existence: Life Logging with Weird Paul

Weird Paul with his personal archive

Weird Paul at home with his personal archive

Today, Pittsburgh Orbit celebrates a small milestone: this is the blog’s fiftieth post. That half century occurred in almost exactly six months, making The Orbit on an optimistic hundred post-a-year trajectory. I don’t know if that’s a believable or sustainable or even desirable pace, [likely not, we’ve got vacation coming up] but it’s still fun, and it’s still motivating, and there is no lack of things to (un)cover. Dial up another fifty!

Why make this big spiel about digits? Well, today’s story is all about numbers, as well as lists, and collections, and memories, and personal archives. We’re going to get into all of that with a guy who was prescient (or obsessive) enough to start recording and collecting the minutia of his life at a very early age and has kept it up for thirty-some years with no signs of slowing down.

Journal entry reading "stayed home 'cause of cruddy diarheaa not much happened"

Journal entry from 1985

Weird Paul Petroskey is a prolific Pittsburgh musician, raconteur, video-maker, and now television variety show entertainer. But before he got into any of these things, he was documenting himself and the very immediate world around him.

Paul’s habit began with cassette tapes and his father’s tape recorder, graduated to recycled day planners-turned-diaries, and eventually found him filming hours upon hours of videotape and filling entire notebooks with aspirational accomplishments and neurotic achievements. This old schooler has gone full Web 2.0 with his own YouTube channel, Vine, etc.

The Orbit sat down, stood up, took pictures of, and ate Fiore’s Pizza with Weird Paul wherein we got to dig through all the primary sources and see exactly where the magic continues to happen.

video still of teenage Weird Paul from the 1980s

The “Original Vlogger”, a teenage Weird Paul on video, sometime in the 1980s [photo: Weird Paul]

It all started with movies. As a young teenager in the 1980s Paul’s first love was film–especially the weird stuff. With the acquisition of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film–a guide to all things horror/exploitation/sci-fi/B (before the Internet democratized such knowledge)–he began creating separate lists of all the movies he wanted to see, along with encapsulations and ratings of the ones he managed to get to. This list is maintained to this day.

As Sir Weird-a-Lot tells us, he’s “seen 8,460 movies; 2,318 of them are listed in the Psychotronic Encyclopedia. 813 of the movies were either produced in Italy or directed by an Italian. The actor who appears the most is Christopher Lee (98). The most watched actress is Marianne Stone (68).” Paul keeps the films watched list in a special large spiral-bound notebook with his own star-based rating system.

His Weirdness estimates that he owns over 4,000 movies, most of them on around 1,000 VHS tapes. (Sorry, no exact figures here–he stopped keeping this particular stat twelve years ago.)

Hand-written entry page from Weird Paul's movies watched/rated journal

Entry page from Weird Paul’s movies watched/rated journal

The Weird One got into music in short order and there are a ton of videos where Paul assembled his younger siblings into what would become known as “fan videos” lip-syncing and/or acting out current top 40 hits of the day. The likes of Falco, Rod Stewart, RUN DMC, and Lindsey Buckingham all get their due. Then Paul discovered metal.

A great recent video titled “Heavy Metal Memories” recalls The Weirdmaster General’s obsession with Pittsburgh’s first all heavy metal radio, K-Rock 107, its quick rise and fall, back in the day. The fan videos continue, but now include black leather, eye makeup, head-banging, and the occasional thrown goat. Between these two eras, you’ll not find a better encapsulation of white suburban America in the 1980s.

Weird Paul outside with an acoustic guitar

Wading in the weeds with Weird Paul

The avalanche of Weird Paul songwriting, recording, and self-released cassettes begins somewhere in here too. They’re all there: non-stop party rock classic cassettes like In Case of Fire, Throw This InI Need a Pencil Sharpener, and Now I Blow My A-B-Cs. Thanks to Paul, no one can ever again get a piece of meat in their Tang without firing up the earworm machine.

Dr. Weirdenkranz tells us: “I’ve written or co-written over 750 songs – including parodies. I don’t have an exact number, because I was up to 750 but I haven’t added in a few from the new album Ben [Blanchard] and I released [PP2BB].” These amount to literally dozens of album-length cassettes, LPs, seven-inch singles, and compact discs. He’s performed live exactly 527 times.

Stacks of journals/lists

Stacks of handwritten journals/lists

Weird Paul’s musical oeuvre is an enormous subject unto itself, so we’re not going to attempt to cover that here (at least, not right now). Suffice to say he’s the consummate showman and promoter with many avenues of access.

The Weird Paul Variety Show is a whole lot of fun and thoroughly Orbit-approved. It airs Thursdays at 7:30pm on Cozi TV Pittsburgh (59.1 through the rabbit ears) and on Verizon Fios channel 463. [No: you can’t just watch it on the Internet machine.] Check out the Variety Show for a steaming hot serving of Weird Paul and the gang.

Weird Paul in front of the videotape archive

Weird Paul with the videotape archive