Buried somewhere in every bodega, amid the Crunchy Mini Donuts, 40-ounce malt-liquor torpedoes and greasy pork rinds is a certain urban truth. Leave it to the Internets Celebrities, a trio of guerrilla filmmakers, to uncover it.
“This isn’t Whole Foods,” said Dallas Penn, after riffing on all the chemically enhanced cakes, chips and beverages he found in a South Bronx bodega.
“It’s part foods,” replied Rafi Kam.
But it is totally funny as part of “Bodega,” a short video that explores the meager options that residents of poor neighborhoods have for healthy eating. The video, which Mr. Kam, Mr. Penn and their friend Casimir Nozkowski made in 2006, joined a growing online oeuvre that has brought them cult status as wisecracking social critics who deconstruct the worlds of check-cashing outlets, street vendors and even sugar-laden breakfast cereal.
Assailing their targets with staged stunts and gleefully blue language, the three men, all New Yorkers in their 30s, conjure up a world in which Michael Moore might meet Dave Chappelle.
“They have the magic touch, where they can take a topic and turn it into a T-shirt slogan, yet not lose touch with the issue,” said Ben Popken, one of the managing editors of Consumerist.com, a Web site specializing in consumer advocacy and personal finance. “They’re geniuses at doing that.”
Their most recent and ambitious effort, “Stadium Status,” which will be shown for the first time Tuesday evening at the Brooklyn Public Library, takes on local sports franchises that get millions of dollars in tax breaks and other incentives while their neighbors scramble to make ends meet in a sour economy. The idea that luxury lives next door to poverty is not lost on the filmmakers.
“In this city you can have the poorest and the wealthiest, sometimes in the same ZIP code,” Mr. Penn said. “But even in this huge city, people feel separated and that shouldn’t be. I hope our films can show that one way or another we are all connected.”
Befitting an Internet invention, the trio’s origins date back to the days, four years ago, when Mr. Penn and Mr. Kam were fans of each other’s blogs.
“I felt like there was a voice in my head that I didn’t hear anyone else using,” Mr. Penn said. “I wanted to read between the lines, to write about what was going on in New York City with politics, relationships, movies. Anything that came through my head.”
In one blog post, he told readers how to create a Big Mac for a fraction of the cost by combining items from the McDonald’s dollar menu and requesting free items like Big Mac sauce. Some readers may have thought he was promoting the fast-food chain, but Mr. Penn saw himself as a subversive.
“The idea was how do you get over on McDonald’s,” he said. “I didn’t want to just do something that added to their coffers.”
Mr. Kam knew Mr. Penn was on to something. “I thought this could make a good short video,” he said. “YouTube had just started, so I thought, “Let’s get it out there.’ ”
He enlisted Mr. Nozkowski, a high school friend and filmmaker who had worked on music videos and promotional shorts for AMC and other cable channels. The three went to a McDonald’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, ordered the necessary ingredients, made a few Big Macs, ate them, then posed outside. The resulting video, “Ghetto Big Mac,” has attracted more than a million views on YouTube.
Their next topic gelled when Mr. Penn read that the Bronx was the nation’s poorest urban county. He had spent time in Hunts Point for his job as a construction manager, and knew that the neighborhood had almost no place to buy healthy food, despite its proximity to the wholesale food market.
“But you can find a bodega everywhere,” Mr. Penn said. “There’s that yellow and red awning. Bodega! Oh, yeah!”
Working on impulse, the men spent two days in the area, filming running commentary as they strolled through aisles of junk food.
“We had the bodega food pyramid,” Mr. Penn said. “You have the 40-ounce food group, the chips food group, the snack-cake food group and on top, the quarter-water food group,” which includes small containers of flavored water, each costing 25 cents.
The video struck a chord among viewers who recognized serious commentary amid the banter. A city-run literacy program asked to use the video, but proposed one change. “We thought it was the language, when we cursed,” Mr. Penn said. “But it turns out they wanted us to remove the list of politicians we thanked at the end for keeping the Bronx poor.” The men agreed, but the literacy program did not follow up on the idea.
More recent videos have kept the poor in focus. “Checkmate,” about the lack of financial services in some neighborhoods, delves into the check-cashing business and their hefty fees. But it points out that big banks impose their own raft of charges.
“All the fees at a check-cashing place are up on the wall,” Mr. Nozkowski said. “But when I get a credit card statement from my bank, there is all this tiny print on the back of the form. In some ways those banks are shadier than the check-cashing places.”
In “Stadium Status,” the filmmakers lament that sports franchises promise trickle-down benefits to local merchants who never get the same type of economic incentives. “You go to the stadium, you’re not going shopping or eating on River Avenue,” Mr. Penn said. “Yankee Stadium is like a mall, where everything happens in the confines of the stadium. At the end of the game, you just go to your car and get on the Major Deegan.”
For all their popularity, the three men have yet to quit their day jobs, said Mr. Kam, a Web designer. They have attracted small investments to offset production costs, and modest payments for showing their videos on Web sites. One, the Daily Reel, paid them to cover the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where they worked themselves weary.
Right before they left on that trip, they named themselves the Internets Celebrities.
“We wanted to encourage the idea that anybody on the Internet can be a celebrity,” Mr. Kam said. “Of course it’s different from real celebrity. When you’re an Internets Celebrity, instead of standing on the red carpet, it’s just on your shaggy basement carpet.”