The world caught its first glimpse of Conner O'Malley, a 33-year-old comedy writer and actor, in 2013, as an early standout on the now-defunct short-form video platform Vine. His six-second clips had a magic about them. Pedaling up to well-heeled Manhattanites on his bicycle, he'd scream through the windows of their convertible sports cars not in reproach, but with fawning, hysterical praise. He called them "gods" and "job-creator pimps" in his trademark growl.
"God made you better than me," he'd shout, and they beamed with pride. But then O'Malley would change key and start to grovel for help. That's when they slowly rolled up their windows or sped off, bemused, down Fifth Avenue.
The internet agreed that O'Malley's muddled harassment of rich douchebags was uncommonly gratifying. His mastery of Vine offered ingress to larger platforms. In 2014, he joined the inaugural writers' room of Late Night With Seth Meyers. In 2016, he began writing for the guileless and endearing Joe Pera Talks With You on Adult Swim. But perhaps his greatest critical success since Vine has come from a riotous body of character work he's produced on YouTube.
The prescience of O'Malley's unnamed Vine narrator is now evident — his early impressions prefigured the fervor and paranoia of the MAGA base. His characters are socially and psychologically beyond the pale. They worship wealth, opulence, and influence but have none themselves. Inevitable self-destruction is expertly guided by their devotion to caustic politicians and the billionaire class. In the torrent of post-election Trump parodies, it's easy to overlook the fact that O'Malley was one of the first and best in the field. (Enter: Mark Seevers, buffoonish online conspiracy theorist, a poor man's Alex Jones. Seevers refers to himself as "White Morpheus," and "the human version of Israel — surrounded by enemies and constantly under attack," though he lives in his grandmother's basement in Rosemont, Illinois.)
In his latest run of videos, O'Malley continues to demonstrate his knack for showing us how absurd things can get before we actually get there. There are details and circumstances within this new material that seem eerily similar to the living nightmare of COVID-19.
The "Howard Schultz tapes" (initially posted on Twitter several months before the coronavirus outbreak but since condensed and cut together into a YouTube short) contain all the horror, pathos, and absurdity of a dream. A deranged 17-year-old boy runs away from his home in Indiana and sets up camp at a construction site, where he broadcasts videos begging Howard Schultz, the billionaire founder of Starbucks, to enter the 2020 presidential race so he can cure him of unexplained and unattended lesions on his face (among other maladies). As the boy grows more unstable, his allegiance to Howard Schultz morphs into self-immolation. What the young man needs is some physical and psychiatric evaluation, and maybe a warm blanket. Instead, he gets kidnapped, waterboarded, and brainwashed by cloaked Starbucks employees. The biting satire has its intended effect: This is an objectively preposterous narrative arc, but is it much of a departure from our current public-health system? At this point, anything is possible.
Another recent upload finds O'Malley hunchbacked, trembling, and incomparably sweaty, but nevertheless hitting Wall Street to "power up the stock market" by handing out cups of homemade Powerade (Listerine and water, blended in his mouth) to nonplussed stockbrokers.
"Everyone's sitting around not doing shit, and meanwhile the markets are in turmoil," he says, demonstrating that the only way to save himself is by saving our most vulnerable financial institutions — a clever perversion that echoes Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who continues to suggest that there's a class of people willing to die from coronavirus to save the economy.
In his latest sketch, "Bike Night Live with Bike Guy," a roving talk show conducted on a bicycle, O'Malley turns to our formidable obsession with livestreaming and reliance on vapid internet content in the wake of the pandemic. Playing himself, or "a woke Regis Philbin, but on acid and from hell," O'Malley delivers nonsense monologue jokes to an empty Manhattan from the uncomfortable and inelegant perspective of a selfie stick while Katy Perry tunes blare in the background and a neon light distorts his ghoulish face.
Other talk-show hosts have defaulted to an artificial conciliatory mode, and most are falling flat without their expensive production and studio audiences. It's difficult not to see the unfettered narcissism in their wan attempts at entertainment. O'Malley is aware of this and sardonically embraces the phenomenon. "If there's one good thing about this disease, it's that we can be on [the] computer more," he yells. "We gotta have fun in the COVID-19. We can't take a day off from content. If we don't get on Instagram Live and YouTube, then China wins."
The four-part sketch chronicles yet another descent into madness. By the final installment, he's in full Joker makeup and a Marge Simpson wig, being inexplicably hunted by a Greg Kinnear body double. He reports that all the other network talk-show hosts also want him dead, but he pledges to keep the content rolling. Things get exponentially more bizarre as the episode unravels, and yet it's arguably more reasonable and less condescending than any other late-night talk show broadcasting at present.
Once again, the world seems to have caught up with Conner O'Malley's comedic vision. Any difference between premise and punchline is immaterial — it's all absurd, so it naturally resonates with life under quarantine.
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