Teenage Stepdad Is the Bob Ross of Unhinged Memes

Nathan Sims on Seize the Memes. Photo: Means TV

What if you took The Joy of Painting, switched Bob Ross’s artistic medium from landscape oil painting to retro-inspired memes, and aired it on an anti-capitalist streaming platform where he used his art to muse on topics like how modernism and art school suck the fun and variety out of design, the importance of just making cool shit for the love of it rather than pleasing others or profit, and “diarheha” and “boaners”? That’s the spirit behind Seize the Memes, a new six-episode series that debuts today on Means TV, a worker-owned streaming service that launched in 2020. The show is arguably just as soothing as The Joy of Painting, too, as long as you take comfort in the idea of living in, as the series’s intro puts it, “the last days of the American empire.”

Instead of Bob Ross, the mastermind behind the new how-to meme show is Nathan Sims, an Arizona-based artist better known on the internet as Teenage Stepdad. Sims — the man behind @teenagestepdad and @pamplemousselacroixmemes on Instagram and a former Super Deluxe creator — decided to make the series for two reasons: He often gets questions about how he creates his memes, but more importantly, figuring out how to tackle new and unfamiliar projects scares him. It’s through that fear and discomfort that Sims keeps growing as an artist, and through Seize the Memes, he hopes to encourage more budding artists to adopt that approach too.

Ahead of Seize the Memes’ premiere, Sims spoke with Vulture about why he created the show, the absurdity of arguing that memes aren’t art, and why he has hope for the future of making funny things on the internet.

A big theme in your show is encouraging people to be self-taught in their art. You’re also self-taught — what was the journey for you of that eventually turning into a career?
I guess the beginning of that journey started when I was 15 years old, and I was looking into applying to art schools because that’s really all I ever gave a shit about, and I had this revelation of deciding that that’s not what I wanted to do. I decided I was just going to do whatever I wanted on my own time and work jobs and keep those things separate — making money and my creative expression. I didn’t want to mix those up, because I just had this sense that that was going to get really complicated.

So that’s kind of how I proceeded — working at gas stations, and my first job at Carl’s Jr., and working at some print shops here and there, and always doing whatever I wanted on my own time. It wasn’t until I started a meme page shortly after my first kid was born that I was approached by Super Deluxe, just based on the shitposting stuff I was doing back then. Other than selling a couple $20 paintings at a coffee shop when I was 19, the Super Deluxe gig was the first time I’d ever made money on creative expression. That made me rethink my whole 15-year-old epiphany.

I don’t think I would be the artist that I am without that experience of just doing whatever I wanted and embracing that as my guidepost of never having to actually mix that consideration of, Will this sell? What’s the client? What’s the audience? So I was able to pursue all these different disciplines whenever I wanted to. It started off with shitposting, but gradually, all my other things that I’ve been interested in my whole life got fed into that and through that process. All those things informed me being a shitposter who made memes on his phone to a guy who created a show in his garage on his own.

When I talk all this shit about not going to art school and stuff, for me, it’s an expression of my personal path and what I believe in as an artist. I hope it doesn’t come across as too dogmatic. I’m sure it does a little bit, but I think everybody should do what they feel comfortable with. Every artist has to look at themselves in the mirror every day, and whatever they’re comfortable with doing isn’t really any of my business, but when I sit down, and I’m creating stuff, that’s just what’s in my head.

It’s also just an encouraging message to people watching who don’t have access to art school.
Yeah, and maybe even it’s just that I’m sounding the warning about what it’s like to mix art and commerce. When your livelihood and feeding your kids is tied to your ability to be funny and clever, it’s rough. It’s really hard.

You described your show as “making the case for memes as an art form.” What do you say to people who argue that memes aren’t art?
Well, first of all, art is defined by the creator, not by the audience. It’s always people who don’t make memes that say memes aren’t art. There are these hierarchies in art and design where we’re given this ivory-tower, top-down narrative about it where it’s like this holy thing, but really, all it is is sitting down and looking at a blank thing and turning it into whatever you want, whether that happens on your phone with some free apps, or whether that happens with oil paints and 30 years of experimentation and instruction. If you’re creating something that didn’t exist — even Twitter shitpost jokes — to me, that’s art, and it’s defined by the process of losing yourself in it a little bit and giving into these voices inside your head.

It’s not going to be the big-ticket stuff at the galleries, but I think that that’s freeing and good, too. I think of how Alan Moore described working in comic-book art and how freeing that it was; when you work in a form that nobody takes seriously, that’s incredibly freeing because you can be like, Okay, nobody takes this seriously, but I do. So let’s see what I can do with that.

Why did you want to create a show?
It all started with some DMs of people asking, “How do you create this stuff?” So that’s kind of where the nugget came from. Then I was talking to a comedy outlet, and they were like, “Hey, put a pitch deck together.” I’m like, “What’s a pitch deck?” So I learned about how to do that.

As a creator, even before memes, the thing that really gets me excited is doing stuff that I don’t know how to do, to the point where it kind of scares me to approach it. Even doing this interview — this is all stuff that isn’t in my comfort zone, but it’s like exercise: When you do these things that aren’t in your comfort zone, you grow and you get these different skill sets, and I think that as a creator, being comfortable in that discomfort and that fear is really one of my strengths as an artist.

So this whole show was kind of that. I had never written a script. I had never operated a camera to this extent, other than a phone camera. I’d never done sound setup, audio recording, all this stuff, syncing things together. I only installed Premiere when I started making this show. I felt so uncomfortable about approaching this whole project because I had no idea what I was doing, and that’s where I like to be creatively.

And you made the show in your garage, right? What was the process there?
I keep saying “my garage.” I actually edited in my garage, and I filmed in my neighbor’s spare bedroom, because she doesn’t have kids running around screaming. I did get a lot of support in the form of friends loaning me audio equipment, and Nick [Hayes] from Means was really good about giving me technical support. But really, it was just me in that room kind of figuring it out, and it was a really weird process, because I’d never really performed in front of a camera, either. So it was just all kind of making it up as I went along.

It dragged on a lot longer than I thought it would, and then when the filming was over, it was kind of a bummer. It was a little bittersweet because I knew I was going to have to get out of that room that I had grown so used to being in. So it was a weird, isolating experience, but thankfully, after every day, I would turn everything off and go be with my family and kind of snap out of it a little bit.

There’s an episode titled “Copyright Is Fake” that made me think about huge meme accounts like FuckJerry that became profitable businesses based on reposting other people’s work without permission. On the other hand, I’ve seen it argued that monetization of memes goes against the spirit of them. What’s your take on ownership and monetization of memes, especially with those kinds of accounts in mind, and the happy version of all this that’s not gross?
The term “Copyright Is Fake” is super-broad, and it’s meant to be kind of provocative, and there’s not a lot of context provided there. But if I was to kind of expand on that idea — and I think I did this in the show a bit — I guess my idea is that, as we grow up, we’re bombarded by this commercial imagery and these really savvy marketing techniques to warp our minds into these worldviews that serve these people who are doing this. I just feel like if we’re going to be bombarded with all this imagery, we should be able to respond to it, and how are we going to respond to it if we’re not allowed to use that imagery? And that’s not in a monetized context — that’s just in the context of art.

So if you’re just going to make a piece of personal expression, I feel like you should be able to use just about any sort of commercial imagery. And we do have protections for that; if you’re specifically trying to say something about a company, you should be able to use their recognizable imagery and techniques to do so. As far as things like FuckJerry and these accounts who are really savvy about monetizing everything, I don’t know. They’re not really coming from the same place that I’m talking about. They’re coming from just every day, everything is monetizable — even other people’s personal expression, other people’s personal photos. And they’re really doing it strictly for the reason of monetization. There’s no other artistic purpose behind it.

I don’t know the first thing about monetization because I don’t give a shit about it, so I don’t know. It’s hard for me to comment on those sorts of accounts, because I don’t really understand that world very well. I mean, it is kind of funny — we’re talking about FuckJerry, and at the Shorty Awards, he won in a category I was nominated for the next year, and I, somebody who makes everything that I post, lost to another repost account. So yeah, that’s really what people think memes are. I’m not really part of that in the mainstream. People think memes are FuckJerry and the guy who runs @kalesalad. They think that memes are these monetized platforms that people post other people’s jokes.

I think what they’re doing is obviously pretty shitty and pretty cynical. I guess that’s really what happens anytime somebody’s primary function is to generate income: They’re going to exploit, and they’re just going to assume ownership and the right to do so.

On the show, you recommend some other meme creators for people to follow, which is a nice touch.
When I was first starting out making memes, I was spending a lot more time online and doing a lot more. I was a smaller account back then, and now that it’s kind of grown over the years, I’ve adopted this philosophy of Hop in, post my work, then hop out so my kids don’t grow up with Dad on the phone. So I don’t take a lot of opportunities to shout out other folks. I’ve always kind of felt like I could do a better job at that.

So when it came time to do the show, I didn’t want it to all be about me, and the community that I’m part of is really vibrant and amazing and full of great artists — working-class people using the brute force of the algorithm to get their voices out there. That was actually the hardest process of this whole thing for me. I had this gigantic list of artists I wanted to feature in there, and I really wanted to do an interview component — which I think if I’m able to make more of these, I will do — but I ended up with this number of slots that I could fit in. So whittling that down to the 11 people featured was really hard. There’s so many people that I wasn’t able to include. I’ll just have to make more of these so that I can get through that list.

I’d never seen your face before the show because I just knew you from Instagram. So it was nice to pair a human being to the work.
Totally. And I always really liked the anonymity. I mean, I’ve kind of flirted with it a little bit — if I had to create a piece of content and I had to be a character, I’d film myself and slip it in, but there was always this question: “Is this you?” And I’m putting on different disguises, and I look like different things. Even in this, the mustache was kind of a disguise to kind of give myself a little bit of a character to hide behind, because it was a really weird decision to be like, Okay, I’ve enjoyed five years of creator anonymity, relatively. Let’s just go ahead and throw all that away right now. I kind of wish I had made this when I was about ten years younger and had a little bit smaller of a forehead, but it works for the character.

I actually credit myself as Teenage Stepdad throughout. I don’t mention my name in any of the credits or anything. That was a conscious decision to just kind of hold onto a little bit of that. It’s a weird thing, and it makes me nervous. This whole process has made me nervous and scared, but like I said earlier, I kind of thrive in that fear. So I’m just trying to embrace it at this point.

Is there anything about the way memes are covered in the news or discussed that bothers you, that you think is wrong or misguided, or that you think people just miss because they don’t understand it enough?
Well, I think we touched on it a little bit, but I think that most of the people trying to define what memes are are people who don’t do the daily work of sitting down to make them. And a lot of the coverage is about these big accounts, because they have the numbers and because there’s all this money behind it. But there’s this whole art movement of memes that has been sort of ignored and isn’t taken seriously.

In some ways, I think that that’s a good thing. I think that it’s really freeing for creators to be creating in an art form that’s not taken seriously or even covered. But I also feel like there’s some omission going on, where there’s this whole other world that people aren’t aware of because it doesn’t have the same numbers, because it doesn’t have the same profit motive behind it. So people have defined memes as just one thing, where for people like me and my community, it’s a whole other thing. I think we’re all fine with that, honestly, and there’s something good about being ignored.

Between your memes and having worked for Super Deluxe, what do you think of where we are now with making funny things on the internet and how opportunities have evolved?
Super Deluxe totally changed my life. It was such a blast, and it was in this era where these different outlets were throwing money at the wall and seeing what would stick. When I look back on that time that I got to kind of define those social platforms along with Vic Berger and Nick Lutsko and all these incredible creators, it was a really cool time, and like I said before, that was my first time ever making a dollar on creative work, and it changed my perception of what my life could be like as a creator. So I’m always forever grateful for that.

Then shortly after, when I quit my day job to pursue this full-time, was around the time that things busted up in Super Deluxe as another corporate merger happened. I’ve been kind of left in the lurch as a freelancer toiling away doing that for a while. I have some consistent clients, but really, it’s been a challenge to figure out how to navigate the post-Super Deluxe world. It’s way more of a grind. I’m a terrible businessman. I know how to sit down in front of my computer and see what happens — that’s where I’m comfortable.

So to have found something that embraces my values has been the best part of that. We were talking about monetization of memes and how it really thrives as a free art form — putting this whole show that I put all this time into behind a paywall was a little uncomfortable, but the fact that I’m doing it for Means TV, which is a worker-owned streaming co-op, and we don’t have venture capital, and we don’t have advertisers, and we’re allowed to do things like a sliding-scale subscription even down to zero dollars if the person who’s interested can’t afford the streaming service? That’s something that I was way more comfortable with.

I mean, things have changed a lot in five years, just from my perspective as one of these many creators out there trying to make a living and hopefully break even at the end of the year from the glory days of Super Deluxe and all these other outlets that were supporting these large, large numbers of creators. It’s been a bit of a transition, and where it’s headed, I’m excited to see. I guess I could say it this way: When I was growing up, my only dream was to work for Mad magazine, and we’re at a point where you can kind of be your own Mad magazine. You don’t need so many of those outlets to latch onto. You can figure out how to navigate it on your own.

That’s something I’m trying to figure out, because I’m terrible at that shit, but it’s possible. At the very least, as an artist, you can say your piece and immediately put it out there to your audience, and that’s pretty amazing. I never thought that that would be possible. I never thought that more than the people in my life would give a shit about anything that I made. To be at this point has been pretty cool, and I think in the future, people are going to be able to speak the stories that aren’t being told about the real world that we live in and get it out there and have other people respond to it and feel a little less alone.

That’s very optimistic.
I mean, one of the only things I have optimism in is art — that we can make these connections and feel a little less alone.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Teenage Stepdad Is the Bob Ross of Unhinged Memes