We rarely know when we’re in the middle of a life-changing moment. Despite what movies tell us, very few people meet their future wife and immediately think, Oh dang, that’s who I am destined to wed. Likewise, artists don’t know what work will connect with a larger audience and become what they’re known for. Writer, comedian, filmmaker, and Amber Ruffin Show writer Demi Adejuyigbe put an almost negative amount of thought into his first “September 21st” video. After his roommate, Ben Cahn, told him that it was the date from the Earth, Wind & Fire song, things just sort of came together. “I just thought it would be very funny to make a remix just saying that it’s September 21st over and over. So I did that,” he told Vulture. “Then in my closet, I saw a blank gray shirt and thought, Here’s an even better idea. I guess it’s a video now. I’ll make a shirt that says ‘September 21st’ on the front, and on the back ‘That’s today.’”
The video was willfully unaware, which is perhaps why it took off the way it did. September 2016 was full of “but her emails” tweets and despair over celebrity death. As Brian Raftery wrote in The Ringer, “It seemed as though Adejuyigbe was the last person still having fun on the platform.” The September videos remain a source of pleasant nonsense in a world increasingly full of a more malicious chaos.
But the success of these videos has made Adejuyigbe the “September Guy” to a huge chunk of the world. It’s something he tries not to think about for most of the year, telling himself that this time he’s really, really not going to make another “September” video. But this year — his fifth annual “September” video — he’s putting the fate of the series in the hands of the people. Rather than fret over whether or not this is the last September video, Adejuyigbe has agreed to make one next year if viewers donate $50,000 to charity through his website sept21st.com. Adejuyigbe spoke with Vulture about the pressure of being other people’s source of joy, the perils of fast fashion, and how linear time kind of sucks.
How does it feel to come back to this project every year?
It kind of feels like a prison I’ve built myself. September 22nd is a very nice moment when I don’t have to think about that. Then, as I get closer and closer to September, I start feeling like, I guess I should figure out what I’m going to do this year. And I get lucky, because for a lot of time I won’t think about it. Then I’ll just have this idea, and build from that. Or I go to a craft store and just see a bunch of things and just let my mind go.
But it’s a strange experience to feel it coming on. Every year, for the last three years, I’ve thought, I should not do it this year. Or else I risk setting myself in a perpetual cycle: I guess I’m gonna do this until I die. So every year, I think, I won’t do it this year. I tweet, “I won’t do it this year.” And then I come up with an idea and I go, Okay, that might be fun. Maybe I’ll do that. That’s the cycle every year.
Did that cycle feel weirder this year, since days no longer have meaning?
Not really. At first I thought maybe that was an excuse to not do it this year. But it started really early this year. We got into quarantine, and people were like, “You gotta do it this year! We need it! No pressure!” And that’s not … I don’t want to hear that.
In preparing for it this year, I didn’t really feel like I had to specifically account for the fact that everyone’s stuck in their homes, just because I feel like I’m generally always stuck in my house. It didn’t feel like I had to change it up or do something different this year. But there were things — like I can’t involve too many people; I can’t involve too many different locations. So I was trying to figure out how to keep it small but also make it feel like it was escalating.
How does it feel to be other people’s beacon of joy in these dark moments?
It feels strange, because I don’t really identify as that. So it feels like (a) a lot of pressure, and (b) a lot of cognitive dissonance between who I am and how people interpret these videos. Like, I couldn’t even explain the idea behind the first video, so it makes sense that people go, “Oh, that’s joyful to me, so that’s what it means.” It’s not like I’m upset by that or anything, but it doesn’t warm my heart to hear people feel that way as much as it feels like a lot of pressure. I feel like I have to do things a specific way and can’t get as weird with it as I would personally like to, because it means a lot to certain people. For example, it’s got an audience of children, so let’s just keep it light. Keep dancing and whatnot.
I also feel very much like this is not my personality in real life. People ascribe my personality to this one thing. I’ve become the September Guy, very much thought of as this super-positive force. I’m extremely cynical and bitter, and ultimately very upset a lot of the time, but I try to stay away from being outwardly any of those things. There’s a weird disconnect for me in that. But you can’t really control how people interpret you. But also, I wouldn’t want people to be like, “Oh, that Demi is so sad.” So this is better than the alternative, I guess.
I’m honestly the same way. There’s a lot of cynical and anxious thoughts inside me that I have no interest putting out, and I don’t know why.
I will say that a lot of the things that make me anxious are other people’s anxious and cynical output. It makes me feel sort of unsafe and not able to trust. I get on Twitter, and it’s people who I generally like and am generally friendly with, but being very cynical and out-hot-taking each other. It feels like the only way to establish some sort of superiority is to try and call out a facet of human behavior that no one has called out. And therefore, it’s like, I’m a genius because I said this thing sucks. Shit-talking in a way that I don’t feel is constructive, but that’s just how we talk On Here. It makes me feel like, at any point, these people could turn that on me — and I don’t know that they haven’t in private. So I feel this desire to not contribute to that.
It also sounds like, at least for the September videos, you’re almost intentionally not putting thought into them. That sounds mean. But you’re putting the active suppression of thought into the work. Does that make sense?
It’s not as much active suppression of thought as me going, I don’t have to think about it because it’s not gonna happen. It’s not real. Which I think helps me cope and do other things, and put off the pressure of being the September Guy for 11 months.
This year is definitely different though. My co-producer last year was Marina Shifrin, who loves it. The first two years — even the third year — I didn’t ask anyone for help, and it was very hard and very stupid. I learned a lesson that third year: Just literally reach out to anyone. You’re not a burden to anyone, it’s fine. She was so gung-ho to help that it’s her thing as much as it is mine now. So she’s been texting me since like March, saying, “Whenever you want to think of ideas for this year, let’s do it.” So we’ve been kind of stewing on it for a while, and early August this year was when I decided I was gonna do it. This is the year that I’ve actively put more thought into it. Which is nice.
Have you learned anything making these videos that’s affected your other directing projects?
I feel like these videos are a very good way for me to get out this thing within me that likes things that feel like a magic trick: You’re not expecting this thing to happen, so when it does, it’s a little rush of dopamine. Being able to do these informs what I like about filmmaking a lot of the time. So for many years now, I’m left feeling like, I’m glad I got to do this thing because it was hard to do, but it created this very satisfying effect. Now that I know that’s what I like about the physical act of filmmaking, how do I take that into actual music videos or shorts? How do I take that and transfer it into a medium that actually involves story or visual art?
This is a busy month for you. Were you editing this while working on another music video [for Open Mike Eagle] and starting a writers’ room?
Yeah. It’s funny, I had just started that first music video in August when I said, “Let’s start on the September video.” Preproduction and brainstorming on this was simultaneous to the Open Mike Eagle thing. And that all swirled with The Amber Ruffin Show and also this other show that I’m writing an episode of, so it’s a lot of stuff at the same time. It feels like I went from doing nothing to doing everything. But that’s sort of pushed me to realize that I want to do it all.
Let’s talk about the idea of holding next year’s video ransom. Where did that come from?
A big part of it was learning that single-event T-shirts, as fun as they are, a lot of them get worn for a couple of months. People are like, This isn’t relevant to my life anymore, so I threw it in a donation box. Then no one wants to buy a shirt from an event they don’t have context for, so that ends up being in a landfill. Just a lot of environmental damage that, unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of before. T-shirts will still be available for people that want them, but I’d rather drive people to donate for the video. We can raise more money, and guarantee that I’ll do this again next year.
Sort of in line with the donations, I saw the Nithya Raman sticker in the video. That was cute.
There’s always this debate about what role comedy plays in politics, or whether political comedy does any good in an ever-encroaching fascist police state. What do you think the role of an artist is?
It’s always weird whenever people treat art or artists as something that should be completely separate from any sort of politicization, because it suggests that artists are not also people — that their art is not also a reflection of their values. I don’t want to make anything that feels like you have to take it separately from what I think as a person. It feels important, now more than ever, to use this thing that’s going to have so many eyes on it. The video has always been politicized by having the charity aspect. But I’m using it to go, Here are the things I’d like you all to see if you’re going to watch this video anyway.
I don’t want to do anything right now that feels like just a fun distraction. I feel very weird about people saying comedy is what we need now more than ever. Sure, we can do comedy, but it doesn’t have to be separate from [politics]. I feel like comedy is a very fun and easy way to get your real opinions and feelings out into your art, in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re hitting people over the head and going, “Believe what I believe!” or whatever. It’s a pill in the applesauce.
Okay, my last question is really abstract: How do you feel about time passing, generally? That the universe we occupy moves forward linearly through time, and that time is demarcated by dates?
My husband is laughing at me for asking this.
I feel like it’s a weird necessity that we can never really come to terms with. I feel like, by human nature, we are always desperate for more time. Doing something that marks time so distinctly is like running a race, and you’re like, I just passed a lap, I finally did it! And you look forward and you’re like, Oh God, another lap’s coming. You’re always more paralyzed by what’s in front of you than what’s behind you. And so I think time is a … burden? And I hate it? But it’s also so much easier to think of time as something that happened, and how that’s great, as opposed to something that’s about to happen, and how that’s a frustration. Which is a long way to say my perspective on time is “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it’s happened.”
It sounds like you look forward more than you look back. You’ve said before that you hate repeating yourself. Is that a reflection of always looking forward?
I think it’s partially because there is a period of time between me having finished a thing and the world experiencing that thing, and in that short time, I’m already over the thing. I remember, in shooting this video, I was sort of like, I hope this turns out well. It’s gonna be really weird. I don’t really know what to expect. I’m sort of dreading a lot of this. And the first take we did, just seeing how it turned out, I got very happy and jumped around and was like, This is why I do this! This very feeling. Then there’s so much time and I’m anticipating the responses to it, and the work that I have to do, and the worry that it’s not perfect. And by that point, I’m already thinking about what’s next.