A Freaks and Geeks geek on becoming the M'Lady meme
Following several standout roles as a child actor, Jerry Messing found himself at the peak of internet infamy for an unfortunate headshot as a 'poster-child of neckbeards.' This is his story.
erry Messing wasn’t exactly a child star—more like an unusually young character actor. It all started when his mother visited a psychic, who saw his future: He would do big things in showbiz. It so happened that this psychic’s side-gig was managing adolescent actors. He was eight years old when she signed him.
Commercial work came first, followed by a straight-to-video reboot—he played Pugsley in the film Addams Family Reunion, a lifelong if eccentric dream for Jerry. But his peers at private school weren’t impressed: They bullied him so mercilessly that he turned to homeschooling after the sixth grade.
The closest Jerry got to an actual American high school was the set of Freaks and Geeks, on which he played the charmingly oblivious geek's geek Gordon Crisp. Jerry was an unusual teenager. "I fit in better with adults than with people my age," Jerry told Hopes&Fears. This was true of his time on the Freaks and Geeks set: While his soon-to-be-famous castmates formed the memories they'd relate in later oral histories, Jerry spent his time talking politics with the crew members.
At 18, a great fear strikes Jerry. Acting, as a career, comes to seem unstable. What he wants now is a degree in psychology from a reputable four-year university. He settles on a school in Florida and moves there, in the process spending every penny of his life savings. Not wanting to leave college in debt, he tries for scholarships, but none come through.
Eighteen months later Jerry returns to California changed. He is wracked with self-doubt. Not so long ago he'd been thumb-wrestling between takes with Tim Curry; now, at 20, he couldn’t leave his home without shaking. And so he didn’t, for two full months.
When I asked Jerry how he'd spent the intervening ten years, he was forthright and unembarrassed in his answer: "Focusing on myself," he said. Though he was able to go outside after a few months, his anxiety remained paralyzing, so much so that the government recognized it as a check-warranting disability. His one attempt at a regular life—working at a call center—collapsed when a customer asked if he was new (he was) and requested transfer to a more senior employee. He quit on the spot. “I got home and just started shaking," he said.
Eventually he recovered to the point where he could consider acting again. "When I was on set, there was almost no anxiety," he said. "I was completely comfortable." He was out of the loop, his psychic-manager long-gone, and knew he'd need fresh headshots—the ones he had on hand depicted a smiling tween boy. He had new pictures made, but these ultimately proved useless, as he had no one to give them to. But the session wasn't a total waste: He did get a profile picture out of it. It was an outtake from the shoot, a gag shot. He's smiling, and tipping his hat, a standard-issue black fedora purchased just for the occasion.
Maybe you've seen it. In the years since it was filched from Jerry's profile and uploaded to Reddit, the picture has become a meme of uncommon endurance and ubiquity. It remains the first Google Image search result for both "m'lady" and "tips fedora"; the Know Your Meme for the latter, which traces the photo's early history, has been viewed over half a million times. Strangers fluent in Photoshop and meme-speak have spent hours—in aggregate possibly days, months—playing dress-up with Jerry (see him with gold chains, a mustache, a star-spangled bodysuit—you name it). There have been e-cards, tribute songs, hallucinatory GIFs.
This is all fairly standard internet behavior (which is to say, this is a bizarre mass ritual that we’ve all agreed to view as normal). What distinguishes Jerry’s meme is that the people playing around with it aren't purely aiming for absurdist laughs. Messing's peers, in the meme world, would be people like Blake Boston (better known as Scumbag Steve) and Griffin Kiritsy (the College Freshman)—private citizens who have come to stand for some specific sub-group of clueless or uncool young person.
The dude-breed that Jerry has become the unwitting face of might be the most loathed of them all. He is the "poster-child of neckbeards" (according to Know Your Meme), the mute representative of every alienated, woman-hating, "friendzone"-marooned isolate ever to kill time on 4Chan. When Tumblr users think of Gamergate—last year’s eruption of male entitlement, incited, somehow, by a game developer’s relationship with a journalist—this is the man they picture. Jerry's headshot, intended to re-start his acting career, has instead been refashioned into propagandist ammo, a way for one side of a clash—the side its opponents might dub "social justice warriors"—to caricature the other.
o people like this really exist? Sure they do. A moment's wade into the cesspool of Gamergate clarifies that. You see young men calling successful women terrible names, threatening to kill them in their sleep, and you start to get angry. But it's unfortunate that Jerry has become an outlet for this anger. I'll come out as partisan here, fully on the side of those who don't get their kicks from terrorizing innocent strangers. And though I've never personally recirculated the meme, I still felt guilty talking about it to Jerry. It was my people who had made him an icon of everything loathsome and sweat-scented.
For Jerry, all this has been like finding out he’s famous in a country he’s never heard of. "It's from a culture that I so completely don't understand," he told me. "It's kind of like: If you were blind, how would you describe blue?” Messing's internet use is mainly limited to games like World of Warcraft; he has never used Reddit, and he resents the assumptions that various internet users have projected onto his image, assumptions he became aware of once web-kids began to troll him on Facebook. "I have lost track of how many people have assumed I'm an atheist, that I have no hygiene skills. People have assumed that my favorite drink is Mountain Dew."
The real Jerry has no fondness for Mountain Dew and no certainties about God; it's the meme’s link with militant atheism that bothers him most. "I wouldn't call myself an inherently religious person, but I am very spiritual," he told me. “I believe there is a higher power, but I don't know what it is.”
This questing spirit has informed his study of philosophy, which in turn has helped him formulate a kind of personal code, rules for living that have helped him quell the doubting voices in his head and work towards rebuilding his life. When I point out that these principles (avoid hypocrisy, be true to yourself, etc.) have not exactly informed the rise of the "Tips Fedora" phenomenon, he told me, "everyone has their own path in life. If it doesn't align with my own, that's no fault on me, it's no fault on them. It's just how it is."
Jerry meditates daily, and he's admirably zen about his newfound (or re-found) fame. "It would be very easy to be angry and spiteful, but what purpose would it serve?" he said. "It wouldn't do me any good. Nothing has any meaning save for the meaning we decide to give it. And ultimately, who am I going to be shaking my fist at?"
The best we can hope for, here, is that Jerry’s tenure as a meme might further his career in some way. His anxiety-levels have stabilized over the years, and he thinks he might really be ready to return to acting. "I actually plan on using this as a springboard to get myself through the door and break in somewhere," he said. He's not sure how that would work, exactly, but he does know he needs to set up a website at some point. Outside of that, he sensibly has no plans to further immerse himself in internet culture. "If this is what the norm is, then perhaps it's better if I stay distant.”