Can chickpeas prolong orgasm? Yes – but only in LiarTown

It’s the satirical powerhouse for the fake news era. LiarTown’s creator Sean Tejaratchi tells us how he dreamt up cooking with tears, angry cow stamps – and that old Smiths classic Lovely Gary

Rodward Manshawl’s crosswords are not easy. Here’s 47 down: “Cockney rhyming slang for excessive banking fees” (six letters). Now try 46 across: “Carbonated urine” (four letters). What can the answers be? We will never know. Why? Because the clues were made up by graphic designer and ex-photo-retoucher Sean Tejaratchi, a satirist who was included in Rolling Stone’s 25 funniest people on Twitter in 2012.

Tejaratchi spoofed the New York Times crossword and, as a final touch, came up with a daft compiler name. Like everything else in Tejaratchi’s world, Rodward Manshawl is fake, but not so fake that he lacks verisimilitude. “What I try to do,” Tejaratchi says, “is create a zone of plausibility.”

Since 2013, the 47-year-old has posted such meticulous fakes on a Tumblr blog called LiarTownUSA, a blend of satirical takedowns appealing both to fans of the Onion and to graphic design nerds yearning for perfect pastiches of 1950s erotic fiction or 70s knitting magazines. He is at his funniest, though, when he goes beyond the zone of plausibility and sends up today’s smug mores. There’s his takedown of celeb magazines, called Not Those Assholes Again, and his range of hectoring vegan stamps, the 40-cent one depicting a cow with the slogan: “I died for your sins.”

‘I know what it’s like to be different’ … Diaper Horse.
‘I know what it’s like to be different’ … Diaper Horse. Photograph: Sean Tejaratchi

Now the best have been published as LiarTown: The First Four Years. It’s certainly a very strange place, with its range of artisanal lubricants called Vermont Pleasures, one of which is “body hummus”, which harnesses the power of chickpeas to prolong your orgasm. There is also a 140-page colouring book called Diaper Horse. In one image, a sweet girl pets the eponymous animal and tells it: “I know what it’s like to be different.”

“My secret hope,” says Tejaratchi, “is that some people will take what I’ve done for real.” Maybe they will. His cover sleeves for Mouthful of Fingers and Lovely Gary so fondly and meticulously pastiche Smiths albums that fans may just think these are hitherto undiscovered classics.

And some of the fakes may give people ideas. There isn’t a book called The World’s Worst Golf Courses yet, but I wouldn’t bet against one appearing in the run-up to Christmas. Nor is there one called Too Late Now … Your Child Is an Asshole: A Guide for Parents Who Are Most Likely Assholes. But I wish there were, so I could send copies to all those smug parents I know.

Undiscovered classic … Lovely Gary, the Smiths single that never was.
Undiscovered classic … Lovely Gary, the Smiths single that never was. Photograph: Sean Tejaratchi

“I’d like some of my ideas to be realised,” laughs Tejaratchi. “And then maybe I could make money from them.” Personally, I’d love to subscribe to a niche fetishwear mag called Corduroy Secrets or order a pigeon wig from Amazon. But I can’t. At least not yet.

Among my favourite pastiches are two takedowns of Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Why target Gladwell? “His books have that faux-sophisticated aura,” says Tejaratchi, “and the jackets have these little visual gimmicks that make me cringe.” So he imagined two fake Gladwell books: one called Overfull: What Happens When We Put Too Much Stuff Into a Container; the other The Power of Several: Variable Amounts Beyond a Couple But Fewer Than Half a Dozen.

Especially delightful is how Tejaratchi spoofs Gladwell’s jacket design: The Power of Several has a cover image of five paper clips, Overfull a blue puddle leaking behind the title. Is this the revenge of the art department? “Oh, it so is,” Tejaratchi laughs. “So often as a book designer, which is something I’ve done for a long while in my life, you do some beautiful work and then the various echelons insist you tweak it so it looks just like” – and here Tejaratchi snarls somewhat – “every other goddammed book.” Does he think Gladwell will see the funny side? “I hope so, but often people don’t.”

Perfect present … the uncles calendar.
Perfect present … the uncles calendar. Photograph: Sean Tejaratchi

Although Tejaratchi is the least cruel of satirists, there are exceptions. Take his poster for a missing pet. “Have you seen your cat?” it asks, while depicting a pet being restrained by a ski-masked brute declaring: “He’s mine now, I love him.” Now that’s just sick.

Has he ever been sued for appropriating other people’s work? “No, I’ve got very good lawyers. Plus there is the Streisand effect.” This is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to censor information has the unintended consequence of publicising it more widely. Maybe that’s why Ann Coulter, the conservative commentator and author of In Trump We Trust, hasn’t yet sued Tejaratchi for imagining her next book, a lavishly illustrated number entitled Ann Coulter’s Handy Guide to Competitive Speed Fisting.

“I’ve never been sued,” he says, “but I did have a problem with Tumblr.” Tejaratchi had produced a sendup of ambulance-chasing lawyer billboards, featuring an oleaginous suit touting for business. “Injured?” screamed its headline. “Go fuck yourself, you injured piece of shit.” He recalls: “I posted it and then it got pulled by Tumblr. I had to protest and say it was a parody.”

More subtle are the cutesy Social Justice Kittens. Tejaratchi created a calendar featuring 12 sad-eyed little pussies with captions that chime with #MeToo’s world view, while gently teasing it. “Biology is a construct,” reads September, featuring a tabby glowering constipatedly from a litter tray. January’s kitten contemplates a glass of red wine spilled on a white carpet. “Toxic masculinity ruins the party,” runs the slogan.

Faux sophistication… spoof Malcolm Gladwell book jackets.
Faux sophistication… spoof Malcolm Gladwell book jackets. Composite: Sean Tejaratchi

There are also the Social Justice Puppies, who are Weinstein-like creatures – but properly repentant. “Realising the extent of my privilege is a constant excavation,” says one remorseful labrador. “Calling myself an ally has allowed me to pretend I’m not part of the problem,” says one shifty-looking terrier.

Tejaratchi learned to monetise fakery early. The college dropout was bored while working in a Kinko’s printing shop in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon. So one day he decided to make flyers for a made-up band called Toad Licker. “I wish,” he says now, “I’d come up with a less obvious fake name.” The flyer attracted the attention of a local indie music venue publicist who hired him to make real ones.

Since moving to LA, he has designed feminist postcards, done graphic design for his film-maker friend Miranda July and retouched photos for a porn firm. He also worked on real book designs, including one for an LA homicide detective photo essay called Death Scenes that’s not to be viewed while eating your tea.

“It was a job like any other,” he says of his porn years. “I’ve become very nonjudgmental about people’s fetishes.” This is borne out by his nostalgic cover for the 1997 edition of Safe Words: 1,001 All-New Fun and Sexy Choices for Open-Minded Couples Engaged in Outrageous Consensual Lovemaking. It depicts a happy middle-aged couple smiling in front of a backdrop of terms they might find useful in sexual extremis. Remember when “hospice”, “tinnitus” and “yacht” were your safe words? Me neither. “I guess working in porn made me reflect a lot on it and joke about it in my work.” It would also explain The Occult Art of Dildomancy.

‘I’ve become very nonjudgmental’ … Sean Tejaratchi.
‘I’ve become very nonjudgmental’ … Sean Tejaratchi. Photograph: Los Angeles Review of Books

Tejaratchi’s next project is a book about unhappy people, based on a database trawl. “The time’s right. Just as LiarTown is right for our era of fake news, so I think a big unremitting book looking at images of sad people at a time where we’re told all the time to be happy will resonate.”

Personally, I’d like him to stick to the silliness of LiarTown, with its Bionic Woman colouring book in which she kicks a raccoon into the sky for eating cat food. I want an edition of Jane Eyre illustrated not with a Victorian lady but, for no reason at all, a mud-spattered biker. I want a TV series about a man who turns into a crime-solving tiger, to the dismay of his wife and kids. In many ways, you see, LiarTown is better than the mundane real world.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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