Once upon a time, James Rolfe, a.k.a. the Angry Video Game Nerd, had one of the biggest channels on YouTube. This was during YouTube’s neolithic era, when you could still rate videos on a 5-star system instead of the less nuanced like/dislike bar, before Ray William Johnson or Fred came on the scene, and before YouTube Rewinds dropped at the end of each year to remind us just how out of touch the “brains” at YouTube are. This was a time when people didn’t need cinematography or editing skills to make it big on YouTube. All you really needed was talent and/or charisma, though, truth be told, even those were optional. As long as you had a camera and an internet connection, you had a shot at becoming an overnight F-list celebrity.
James Rolfe was (and still is) one of those F-list celebrities. That isn’t meant as a put-down to Rolfe, it’s just a fact. He’s internet famous, which means millions of people are aware of his existence online, but when he’s out and about in the physical world, very few people stop him to ask, “Hey, aren’t you the Angry Video Game Nerd?”
For those of you unfamiliar with Rolfe and his work, here’s a rundown: Rolfe is an independent filmmaker who founded the production company Cinemassacre, best known for the series The Angry Video Game Nerd (AVGN). AVGN is about the bespectacled, foul-mouthed Nerd who drinks copious amounts of Rolling Rock while playing shitty vintage video games. A good chunk of the series’ entertainment value comes from the creative expletives and similes the Nerd uses to describe a game’s poor graphics or unresponsive controls. These are usually of a scatalogical nature. For example, if a platformer has slippery controls, the Nerd might say something along the lines of, “It’d be easier to catch a cheetah’s turds while it’s running at seventy miles per hour than it is to land on these damn platforms.”
It was all pretty juvenile, but since I was in middle school when it came out, I loved it. A lot of his videos are close to twenty years old now, but they’ve managed to age gracefully, unlike similar videos from YouTube’s early years.
Rolfe recently published his autobiography, A Movie Making Nerd, which, apparently, he’s been working on for more than twenty years. Here, Rolfe recounts his early cinematic experiments making crude horror films, his love for the Universal monster movies, and his rise to internet stardom. As far as e-celeb autobiographies go, it’s better than I had anticipated. Rolfe manages to tread that thin line between showcasing his flaws while still presenting himself as a likable guy. This is likely due to the fact that he actually is a likable guy who tends to stay out of drama. (The only time I can remember him sticking his neck out was when he said he wasn’t going to watch the 2016 Ghostbusters remake, which compelled a small Twitter mob to attempt canceling him. Apparently, his not wanting to watch a remake that no one asked for made him sexist. Rolfe did the smart thing and didn’t respond to the haters, and since the Ghostbusters remake turned out to be such a disappointment anyway, the mob soon lost interest in trying to destroy Rolfe’s career.) It helps that Rolfe is also humble and understands his strengths and limitations. So many other YouTube reviewers I remember from childhood turned out to be control freaks who greatly overestimate their abilities (I’m looking at you, Doug Walker) or lazy scam artists who use mental illness as an excuse for being total scumbags (cough cough, Noah Antwiler), but Rolfe was and remains just another nerdy Gen Xer with a wife and kids. When the camera’s off, Rolfe’s a normal guy with a normal life. And you know what, good for him. When the most interesting thing about an online personality is their content and not their life (cough cough, Onision), that’s a good thing.
I honestly wish I could say more about A Movie Making Nerd, but unless you’re really interested in the technical aspects of film editing and the making of Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, you might find this title a bit of a slog. Really, the most interesting parts of A Movie Making Nerd are the things that have nothing to do with what made Rolfe an e-celeb, like that time he got suspended from a Philadelphia arts university for filming his roommates trash their room. This part of the book is pretty damn funny, not only because it recounts how his roommates punched holes in walls and lit trash on fire, but because Rolfe decided it would be a good idea to film these wanton acts of destruction and edit the footage together into a mini-documentary. And though he didn’t participate in any of the mayhem himself, it still shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that he got suspended when the telltale documentary landed in the hands of the university’s dean. Rolfe writes about this incident as if he was the victim of a grave injustice, even though he should have been grateful to receive only a one-year suspension instead of getting expelled.
A Movie Making Nerd is also the first time James Rolfe has opened up about his experiences in special education. Every now and then, Rolfe has alluded to having ADHD and behavioral problems as a kid, but he never went into much detail. As someone who attended special ed. for four years, I appreciate Rolfe’s openness. Chances are, you know multiple people who have been in special ed., but because there’s so much stigma around “sped classes,” most of them choose to keep mum about it. Being in special ed. often has less to do with your actual intellectual abilities and more to do with how you behave or how you process information. Since the American education system kind of sucks at teaching outside the constraints of what’s considered “normal,” a lot of kids get placed in sped classes because the system doesn’t know what to do with them. Which would be fine if it weren’t for the social stigma of being in those classes.
What fascinates me about Rolfe’s special ed. experience is how certain parts of the internet have reacted to it. Both 4Chan’s /tv/ board and Reddit’s r/TheCinemassacreTruth have reacted to Rolfe’s special ed. revelation as if it were this scandalous, shameful thing he should have revealed years ago. On one level, this isn’t too surprising. 4Chan is populated by chronically online shitposting nerds who’ll rip apart anything that exists, while Reddit is populated by chronically online nerds who aren’t intelligent enough to properly shitpost on 4Chan. Chances are, if you participate in an online discussion about e-celebrities on either 4Chan or Reddit, you’re a massive nerd who, despite possessing above-average intelligence, is too lazy to create anything more ambitious than a Reddit post. These kinds of people aren’t creators. They’re the kind of “smart but lazy” types who think nitpicking a self-published autobiography is punching up.
It’s jealousy, pure and simple. Knowing that one of the “retards” or “speddies” from back in the day is a professional filmmaker while your screenplay or novel still lives in your head is a special kind of hell. And for those of us who were called “retard” or “speddy” as kids, it’s a special kind of heaven knowing that you’re pursuing your passions while so many “normal” kids grew up to be miserable working stiffs who can’t find the motivation to be creative. Rolfe’s life story is just another example of how it’s best not to worry about the labels you’re stuck with in school and just keep doing what you love to do.
A Movie Making Nerd isn’t particularly well written, but it’s the kind of autobiography that makes you think, “You know what, if this guy can make something of his life, then so can I.” And I may be biased as someone who spent a good chunk of his adolescence on early YouTube, but A Movie Making Nerd also left me feeling nostalgic for a time when the internet was a lawless, sordid backwater where no one took anything too seriously.
Nowadays, I don’t think a guy who films himself spraying shit in Bugs Bunny’s face could become famous online, because the internet is a stuffier, more “normie” place than it was a decade ago. The difference is especially noticeable on YouTube. YouTube used to be the intellectual equivalent of kicking off your shoes after a hard day at work, drinking half a bottle of whisky, and firing a paintball gun at your living room wall. We didn’t have things like BreadTubers or video essays because we didn’t need them. If we wanted content that melded entertainment with education, we could have read The New Yorker or watched a foreign film. YouTube was for watching people eat cat feces and falling down escalators.
I doubt I’m the only one who misses the days when AVGN was the pinnacle of online humor. I’ve watched YouTube go from a wild west hamlet where the currency was trash talk and no one gave a damn about being “advertiser friendly” to a comfortable Midwestern college town where people watch three hour-long video essays about Knives Out instead of just watching Knives Out. Is it a less toxic environment? Of course. But it’s also bland. Just as the best restaurants are the same restaurants where you’re most likely to contract food poisoning, a website needs at least a hint of danger and edginess if it’s going to be exciting. Let’s face it—YouTube is in desperate need of an enema.
But until that enema comes, I can always rewatch AVGN. Or watch his new stuff. The series really hasn’t evolved, but that’s not a bad thing. You know what they say—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.