Nick Lutsko: The Sweaty, Deranged Hero of Halloween

Photo: Spirit Halloween

Nick Lutsko’s Twitter bio reads: “former president of halloween // producer-director-writer-star of gremlins 3: dawn of desmond // ‘songs on the computer’ streaming everywhere.” If you’re not familiar with his work, that might sound like two jokes followed by a plug for an album. And you’d be correct, to an extent. But Lutsko’s fans understand it as references to the chaotic, unsettling, and absurdly funny world he’s created through low-budget music videos filmed in and around his home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Featuring a sweaty Lutsko shout-singing directly to camera about ridiculous topics ranging from Donald Trump Jr.’s Instagram presence to cat piss, each video deepens the lore for this character (also named Nick Lutsko). In addition to being elected president of Halloween and creating a third Gremlins film, we learn that this bizarro Lutsko lives with his grandma and her boyfriend, Mel; idolizes Dan Bongino; and has an ongoing feud with Jeff Bezos, who may or may not lead an army of men living in the tunnels under his house.

If it sounds like you’d need way too much context to jump in now, that’s something Lutsko is actively aware of and trying to avoid. His latest video is a follow-up to his viral hits from last year: an unsolicited theme song for the seasonal chain store Spirit Halloween and a sequel paid for by the company. In a conversation over Zoom, Lutsko told Vulture that when the company reached out about writing a third Spirit Halloween song this year, he was worried about alienating potential new fans. “It was really tough trying to think of a way to do something that furthers the story of the first two songs without making the audience shrink with each new one.” What he ended up creating feels weirdly appropriate and accessible for everyone who has lived through this absurd, world-altering year and a half: a post-apocalyptic hellscape themed entirely around Spirit Halloween.

That continuity reset actually makes “Spirit Halloween Planet” the perfect place to jump in to Lutsko’s world — and jump in you really should. His videos regularly rack up view counts in the hundreds of thousands on both Twitter and YouTube; his biggest hit, the sequel to “Spirit Halloween,” currently has 2.2 million views on Twitter. But Lutsko’s success is also deeper than that: During quarantine in particular, his output has tapped into a mood that’s hard to articulate. For Lutsko’s fans, nothing has matched the feeling of going slowly insane during a pandemic — not to mention a distressing election cycle — like the raw, unhinged energy of a red-faced man screaming about skeletons and Jeff Bezos.

You’re sharing “Spirit Halloween Planet” with us, your anniversary follow-up to “Spirit Halloween Theme Song.” The video is way more technically involved than the previous two installments. How did that come about?
That was all done by Brielle Garcia, who’s an incredible animator I’ve been wanting to work with for a while. I don’t even understand how she does what she does — it was like we were shooting a Marvel movie in my garage. Usually I work so spontaneously; I have an idea and put it out within 24 to 48 hours, so there’s not a lot of time or room for collaboration like that. This was the perfect opportunity, because Spirit hit me up early this year about doing this video, so there was a lot of time to plan things out.

Where does this world go now that you’ve destroyed it through this apocalyptic video?
That’s an awesome question that I have not considered so much. I released the first Songs on the Computer album last year and it was 13 songs, and I’ve been releasing these songs all year with the intention of releasing another follow-up record. And this is the 13th song, so I do think that things are winding down. I have so many other things coming up — I have some television projects that I’m working on right now — so this might be a good place to put a pin in the Songs on the Computer saga, but I truly don’t know what will happen next.

Can you talk about the TV projects?
I don’t think so, but it’s all stuff that I’m very excited about.

Did those come about because people saw your songs on Twitter?
Oh, totally. It’s just been this crazy thing — people that have enjoyed my songs reaching out and being like, “Do you have interest in doing stuff in film and television?” I feel like I’m on this weird Wizard of Oz path where I keep finding the right people and cool things are happening.

You’ve been doing musical comedy for a while, though, with Super Deluxe (RIP) and CollegeHumor.
I really fell into musical comedy. I was a musician first and foremost. I went to school for commercial songwriting, and I was just trying to find a way to make a living through music by pretty much any means necessary. I was wearing so many hats, trying to get somewhat of a collective income that could sustain a living.

The Super Deluxe thing kind of fell into my lap, because I did an unsolicited theme song for Vic Berger and Tim Heidecker’s election special in 2016. A producer on that project reached out to me to ask for the rights to use that. I said, “If you guys need anything else, I would love to write stuff for you.” He pitched the first “Emo Trump” idea to me. I was obsessed with Blink-182 in elementary school and middle school. I had the Tom DeLonge Fender Stratocaster guitar. I felt like it was a divine moment — I ran into my closet, dusted off that guitar, recorded the song in like twelve hours, and sent it back.

What I learned about myself at Super Deluxe is that I’m very good at assignments. My producer would say, “Let’s do this Ivanka Trump thing in the style of Lana Del Rey” and I’d be like, “Yup I got it, let’s do it.” I wouldn’t have ever thought to do those things. When Super Deluxe shut down, and after the stint at CollegeHumor ran out, it was almost like a baby bird getting pushed out of the nest, and it was up to me to come up with whatever the next thing was. That was really challenging for a while, because I do feel like I excel at being told what to do and executing whatever that mission is. I really approached musical comedy as letting the universe tell me what to write about on any day that I had free time — the most famous example being the morning of the RNC.

What’s so cool about some of your songs is that, like with “Brendan Fraser Is Back,” it’s funny even if you don’t know that Film Twitter is obsessed with Brendan Fraser right now.
Yeah, that’s definitely the goal. I don’t want anything to be just so dependent on that moment that someone will find it ten years from now and be so devoid of context that there’s no humor in it any longer. Before it’s funny, I want it to be really catchy, and have good production, interesting harmonies, and whatever else just from a songwriting standpoint. On top of that, I’ve done three Spirit Halloween songs now, and you would think that if a guy is doing the theme song for Spirit Halloween he’s gonna put on the David S. Pumpkins jacket, and I never lean into that. Part of the joke is that this character doesn’t even get what Halloween is. The songs don’t sound remotely spooky. I think I’m also trying to subvert whatever expectations go along with that cultural relevance of the day.

That’s interesting that you say you want the music to be good first. Does that come from you being a trained musician?
I think that’s definitely the case, since I pursued music as a career with no comedy element whatsoever for ten-plus years. I enjoyed the stuff that I did at Super Deluxe and CollegeHumor so much, but it really was my day job. I learned pretty quickly that I had a good knack for creating comedic songs, but really a lot of it was like puzzle solving: combing through hours of footage of these people speaking, finding the most entertaining little sound bites, then trying to find some sort of rhythm and rhyme scheme and placing them in some kind of sequence, and then placing that in the context of some other musician. It was a very complex and intricate process, where I felt like there was the beginnings of a comedic voice taking place just in the choices that I was making, but it was very much like remixing existing materials.

Because of all that, I was never super anxious to call myself a “musical comedian,” because it was just like I’m a musician, who’s doing a job, and yes it’s funny. It wasn’t really until the pandemic where I decided to lean into that element, the comedic element, with my face attached. I don’t know if I had imposter syndrome or what, but it was just something I was very hesitant to do. It was definitely uncomfortable at first, but it’s interesting because not only have I always been a fan of comedy, I’ve been fascinated by it. Now that it’s accidentally sprouted, I wonder if I had this subconscious part of my brain that was always wanting to explore this more.

I’m interested in this character you created. Did it help that imposter syndrome to be able to separate yourself a bit, or was it more of a way to delineate Nick Lutsko the musician from Nick Lutsko the comedian?
I think it’s probably a little bit of both, even if it was a subconscious thing. In the moment, when I got all sweaty for the first time, it was just a creative choice that added to the chaos and made it funnier, but in continuing it and developing that character, I do think it is getting some distance from myself as a person who is also named Nick Lutsko and has released music for years. It’s kind of nice having this thing that I’ve been doing, and here’s the evil twin. This sheen of sweat on my face is what indicates that I’m on this different path. I guess it’s like Peter Parker and his Spider-Man suit.

How do you get your face so sweaty? It’s incredible.
Well, there’s a process. I think for the first one I legitimately did some sprints or pushups or something, but there’s a lot of this stuff involved. [Nick grabs a container of petroleum jelly from offscreen.] Off-brand, Family Wellness. This also. [Nick reaches down and picks up a small handheld steamer.] It shoots steam out and I just hold it in front of my face. It depends on how intense I’m trying to get with the song. There’s a lot of holding my breath and making my face red as well, depending on what the scene calls for, of course. I used to be very secretive about this, but I stopped caring about that.

Amazing. Thank you for taking us behind the curtain.
Yeah, of course! I’m happy to. It all just happens to be right here, because this is, if you didn’t notice, where I shoot all my videos.

It also kind of looks like a sauna.
That’s definitely a conclusion that many people jump to.

The King of Halloween. Photo: Courtesy of Nick Lutsko

A big buzzword on Twitter recently is this idea of “parasocial relationships,” especially as it relates to comedy fandom. I wonder if you’ve felt any of that pressure to have this weird pseudo-relationship with strangers who are doing things like commenting under pictures of your baby with Dan Bongino references. What’s that like?
I’ve actually been very proud — I don’t know if proud is this right word — but I’ve been happy that most of the people who are following me and have been fans of my work have been so respectful and cool and understanding that I’ve created this very strange world and character. I was hesitant at first to post anything personal about my wife or my baby or anything that’s not directly related to this world because I thought maybe I would just get “Boo! Dan Bongino!” But it seems like the majority of the people who are into what I’m doing are overwhelmingly sweet when those moments happen. They’re able to switch in and out of that world, like I am, for the most part.

Since you brought up my baby, I would like to go on the record and say I’ve been struggling to form a coherent thought during this interview. I think it’s worth noting my wife went back to work this week, and I am on full-time dad duty. The baby’s with my mother-in-law today, but I have to blame the lack of my brain capacity on the fact that I am a full-time father.

No, you’ve been doing great! And congratulations!
Yeah thanks, it’s been awesome.

The men in the tunnels are coming. Photo: Courtesy of Nick Lutsko

In a few of your songs — including the “Spirit Halloween Theme Song” — your Venmo handle is in the lyrics. And fans are actually sending you money on Venmo because they enjoy your work. Was that a conscious choice to essentially say, “Yes, you should pay for my content!”?
It’s definitely a very passive-aggressive move. I don’t like being on Twitter and giving the sappy “Hey it’s a rough time for artists. You should support artists!” routine, but I can do it as this insane character and no one has to judge me as a person. I’m definitely guilty of that, but at the same time, I’m happy that I was able to find a somewhat clever way to grift on the internet. I don’t know how many people have inserted their Venmo handles into pop songs as a way to raise money during the pandemic.

You have relationships with people like Tim Heidecker, but there are still comedians like Patton Oswalt retweeting your videos asking, “Who did this?” Do you think not being in a bigger city like New York or Los Angeles has meant you’ve missed out on a built-in comedy community, or does it give you a little bit more freedom?
I do feel like there’s two parts to that in that yes, I’m not super plugged in because I live in a city that’s far away from where everything is happening — not to belittle the Chattanooga comedy scene, because there is a great comedy scene here. But I also didn’t really ever feel like I embraced that side of what I was doing until the pandemic started, and now I don’t leave the house. It’s not like I’m doing shows or anything like that.

We’re about to start — we booked two shows in Chicago that we had to reschedule for next year. I’ve been performing for years and years, but now the show will be dramatically different than anything it was before, because so many people will come into it as a fan of my comedy work. So now I’ve got to learn how to be funny onstage in addition to playing songs. So much of my career has just been some opportunity falling into my lap, and me just being like, Yeah, sure, let’s do it!

Nick Lutsko: The Sweaty, Deranged Hero of Halloween