Under the Radar

The Therapeutic Value of Action Figure Therapy

I was chatting back and forth with a buddy in TF Creek a couple of weeks back and I made a crack of the combat value of a mustache as force multiplier. He didn't get it. This is an Action Figure Therapy reference, which any AFT follower capable of speech can tell you. Now, my friend is an FO, but even that’s no excuse for not having heard of AFT. Not knowing the value of a mustache in combat as a force multiplier these days is like a Marine of the late 80s not being able to finish Sgt. Apone’s tirade. I’d expect better of a fat-body mall ninja who has more money invested in multi-cam and ATACs gear than hygiene products.

If you haven’t watched an AFT video, they’re simple. 80s era action figures (like Jungle Recon and Angry Ranger) answer questions and vent their issues in therapy sessions filmed for our edification and education.

“How does a mustache help you in combat? Well what the hell kinda short bus special needs nose picking booger eatin’ kinda question is that? It’s pretty goddam obvious, numbnuts. Mustaches are synonymous with everything bad ass.”

So apparently, despite six million views of their videos there are still a few people who haven’t watched the Action Figure Therapy videos. Warning: they are NEFRSFW (that’s Not Even F-ing Remotely Safe For Work), but tens of thousands of fans (at least 70% of them current or former military) think they’re funny as hell.

AFT started in September of 2010 in LA by a standup comedian and comedy writer named Dan Bialek. There have been dozens since then, including such revealing and insightful episodes as Drag Queen Bingo and Shark Week Undersea Mermaid Sexscapade.

The nature of AFT’s dialogue and the way they speak leave many of their fans with the impression that the writers are themselves military personnel. While this is a testimony to their ability to use a military “voice” and a properly profane argot, it’s actually not the case. All the guys that write for them are comedians (one of them was born on Benning to a military family). The characters are just based on military personnel like Bialek’s father. AFT staffers are very careful, perhaps even overly careful, to make it clear who they are.

“We get tons of e-mails and commentary from fans, so many of them convinced we’ve been in the military,” Bialek says. “We don’t ever want to come across as some stolen valor bullshit, last thing on earth we want to do is claim to be something we’re not.”

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How does a mustache help in combat?

“I grew up in Southern California in Huntington Beach, CA,” Dan told me, explaining why his father is such an important part of the creation of AFT.  “My father was a Vietnam veteran who served…driving a tank. He received a Purple Heart when his tank was damaged driving over a land mine and was injured…[He] never talked about the actual incident…never talked about his time in the military at all for the first 20 years I was alive. Later on when he was very drunk (he died of alcoholism and cancer in 2009) he would talk about certain aspects of Vietnam and some of the things that he had done and or seen. But, he never described the land mine incident, the Purple Heart or anything brave or great about his time in the service.”

“According to my mother, who divorced my father in 1996, after my father got out of the military he came back home very different person. Prior to his military service he had been very quiet, meek and polite. And he really drank. After Vietnam he came back very angry, loud and belligerent. He also drank at least a 12-pack of Budweiser a day. And he was prone to getting into fights with anyone. He had said many, many times “I thought I was going to die every day for a year of my life. After living through that, I’m not afraid to die. Everyone can go fuck themselves. If they don’t like it I’ll kick their ass and snap their neck.”

Bialek readily admits you can see his father in much of the Jungle Recon and Ranger characters, but he and his colleagues have done more than channel one belligerent veteran. They’ve managed to speak to the ridiculous, the camaraderie and the crass humor that is uniquely military, and they’ve achieved something of a cult status by doing so. That many people not in the military identify so well with their problems (whether because they’ve faced it themselves or they know with or are related to someone in the military) has also contributed to AFT’s success.

Some of the characters’ redeeming qualities may also be based on Bialek’s father, though. “He could also be a very kind and generous man,” Dan says. “He was the hardest worker I have ever met in my life…By 30 years old, my father had started his own successful company that began by purchasing used, broken machinery out of junkyard and cobbling it together. By 40, he owned several homes and had begun collecting classic automobiles.”

The AFT fan base is a loyal one, using smart phone apps and wallpaper apps and making snippets of AFT dialogue part of the accepted military lexicon. Fans also suggest many of their story lines, like their rebuttal to Soulja Boy, their response to the repeal of DADT and their take reflective PT belts.

 

Bialek offers a few points of AFT trivia for Under the Radar readers (some may not be news to AFT fans that pay attention):

  • They are developing a Marine Corps character, and they think they have the right figure selected for it. They want to get it right and to do gyrenes everywhere justice, which is why it has taken so long.
  • They are working on a completely animated feature of one of their past episodes.
  • They use only 1982 to 1986 period figures on purpose, but you can look forward to some unique figures that are Action Figure Therapy’s own in the near future. The nostalgia factor has been a big part of AFT’s popularity with some fans, but they are working with custom manufacturer to create their own figures. These will not completely replace the characters out there now, so don’t worry. Jungle Recon isn’t going anywhere.
  • They’re doing a USO tour next year. (“Knowing some of your fans will come home in pieces or not at all is sobering…makes it more weighty, it’s heavier…it’d be easier if it was just a bunch of college kids and whatever,” Dan Bialek)
  • Andrew, the voice of the saboteur, is an artist. They intend to do a graphic novel and an ebook.
  • 40% of the traffic off their videos is mobile devices.
Dan told me he’d never had have guessed “in a million years” that they’re level of success was going to happen. “The series and the videos were not made with trying to capture the military demographic in mind. They were created just to be funny to everyone.”

For an accidental success, they’re surely a big one—over ninety thousand visitors and one hundred and sixty thousand page views every month on their website, nearly thirty thousand fans on Facebook. Over six million video views.

“Hell, I could go on and on, but this Negra Modelo ain’t gonna drink itself.”

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