The new video for They Might Be Giants' "Can't Keep Johnny Down" feels like an homage to Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video, except instead of two rival gang leaders knife-dancing, it features an 80-year-old tank-topped Rip Torn bare-knuckle-boxing with a shirtless whippersnapper. We called TMBG's John Flansburgh to explain this odd collaboration.
"In this video, we were trying to figure out how to complement the idea of the song without illustrating the idea of the song. The Johnny character is this very uncivilized dude. There were a lot of different scenarios about how to make him a badass guy, but once it was clear that the character was going to be played by Rip Torn, it seemed like it was easy to connect the dots for the rest of it. You don't need a lot of other ideas when you've got Rip Torn street-fighting at the age of 80.
"We actually were on The Larry Sanders Show years ago. I met Rip then, and he was hilarious — exactly as you would imagine. He was very present. It was like he was made of electricity. But because of the way the scheduling worked, I didn't get to meet him again this time. It sounds like he's more eccentric now. Did you ever see that video of a young Rip Torn with Norman Mailer? It's very hard to tell what is real and what's super-real. Basically, Rip Torn comes over some grassy knoll in Italy somewhere and starts attacking Norman Mailer. With a hammer. And at some point, Norman Mailer does a Mike Tyson and bites his ear. It's all just very strange. It makes you realize that with Rip Torn, there are no rules."
"The hot sauce, the hand gesture — that's all him. Basically, Brian [Palmer, who codirected with Brad Palmer] just interviewed him and they talked about street fighting, and that was his improvisational spark. He's a very physical dude. And as you can see in the video, he's in really good shape! I think it would take me a number of years just to get to where he is now.
"We actually had a video contest for this song; it was judged by John Hodgman, and there were many, many very worthwhile entrants. The contest winner [below] is a very funny, charming, extremely craftily constructed thing. But the spirit of it is very different than this. The Rip Torn video is much darker and works on a much more cinematic level. So it's interesting to see the two alongside each other, because I think they both really work fantastically in the service of the song, but they're very different."
"Did I ever consider fighting Rip Torn myself? Oh no. After seeing the Norman Mailer video, I would never dare. To fight Rip Torn is to lose to Rip Torn."