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SNL's 'milkshake' miss and the limits of viral video fads

Saturday Night Live's first post-strike episode was surprisingly solid this weekend, thanks to Tina Fey and her love of slightly sexist humor and poop jokes. Only one sketch bombed (a TMI drunken wedding toast) and an otherwise brilliant Rock of Love parody was ruined by Amy Poehler's annoying one-legged farter.

The most interesting bit came near the end, when a scene opened on Bill Hader doing a spot-on impression of There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview inside an old-fashioned soda shop. Sure enough, it was an "I Drink Your Milkshake" sketch. And it got an interesting audience response — not crickets or forced laughter, but what seemed to me to be chuckles of sheer bafflement. Most of the audience simply didn't know what was going on. It was a great lesson in the limited reach of Internet fads and viral video.

The sketch is based on a scene from There Will Be Blood in which Daniel Day-Lewis' crazed oilman shouts "I drink your milkshake!" I haven't seen the movie yet, but I gather it's roughly equivalent to Borat saying "I crush her," only more violent. Various geniuses made viral videos parodying the line, or mashing it up with the Kelis song Milkshake, or otherwise creating Internet hilarity. New York magazine's Vulture blog called it "2008's fastest-growing catchphrase" (they were only being semi-sarcastic, as far as I can tell) and provided a guide to its proper usage. Various mainstream media outlets picked up on what the cool kids were blogging about, and soon you had the Associated Press noting in its Oscar roundup:

"Despite the art-house nature of There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis' performance has seeped its way into popular culture. A line he bellows during the film's stunningly violent climax — 'I drink your milkshake!' — has become a bit of a catch phrase."

Note the hedge "a bit." Judging by the response to SNL's milkshake sketch, the catch phrase hasn't seeped very far beyond the in-the-know audience from which it came. It's saying a lot if Saturday Night Live's audience — not a hip bunch like the Daily Show crowd, but probably a good barometer of general pop culture awareness — missed the joke.

The sketch is a good reminder of how even the best pop culture blogs are still largely self-contained, inter-referential and off the general population's radar. The same thing happened last year when VH1's Best Week Ever blog discovered Chocolate Rain, a strange YouTube song performed by a guy best described, in the blog's memorable phrasing, as someone who prompts this response: "Why is Barry White's voice coming out of Webster's body?"

Best Week Ever kept posting about the song, trying to turn their discovery into a pop culture phenomenon; viral video parodies ensued; and singer Tay Zonday appeared on Jimmy Kimmel's show — again, to the audience's utter bafflement.

"I Drink Your Milkshake" and Chocolate Rain are both fascinating examples of pop culture's real-time, Internet-era metamorphosis. Their relatively narrow reach, and the hipster blogs' attempts to recreate old-school fads like catch phrases and characters in viral video form, show that maybe things aren't changing as quickly as we thought.

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SNL's 'milkshake' miss and the limits of viral video fads 02/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 8:55am]
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