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A man in a ninja turtle motion capture suit swings his weapon while a phallus bean bag prop hangs between his legs Image: The Onion

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I’ll never forget the Ninja Turtles’ hyper-realistic CGI genitals and neither should you

Did TMNT peak with The Onion?

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

This week’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem marks the seventh big-screen outing for Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo, who never go on hiatus — the heroes in a half-shell have almost always had a TV show or comic keeping their turtle power going between movies.

And despite the quantity, TMNT has a property has a decent hit-rate for quality: 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles goes way harder than anyone would expect, the sequel Secret of the Ooze is more cartoonish fun, 2007’s all-animated TMNT revived the thrills on a budget, and the Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at least nailed the casting behind some polarizing motion-capture-spirited CGI. With high marks thanks to a star-studded but still passionate creative team, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem should continue to evolve the franchise in the right direction.

Here’s the only thing: No feature-length or episodic TMNT saga will ever eclipse The Onion’s take on Ninja Turtles back in 2014. Today, whenever pop culture reminds me of the Turtles, I think of this video. It’s a joy and a curse. Once you see the imagery contained in the below video — nay, film — there is no unseeing it. There will be then and now. Michael Bay Gives Fans Sneak Peek At Ninja Turtles’ Hyper-Realistic CGI Genitals is a work of true comedy genius.

Released in July 2014, right around San Diego Comic-Con, The Onion’s Michael Bay Gives Fans Sneak Peek At Ninja Turtles’ Hyper-Realistic CGI Genitals was a spot-on parody of Entertainment Tonight or Extra segments filled with gushing praise and press-kit jargon. It was also an excuse for the artists at The Onion to add floppy penises to the Ninja Turtles.

“Everything we did was a headline that was pitched and selected,” says director JJ Shebesta, who kindly responded to my email subject line “Question about Michael Bay’s Turtle genitalia” with genuine enthusiasm. “Then the whole group of writers producers and directors shaped the script and end product. [...] We were on the fence about it being too silly or slight of a target at first. But I know I was excited about it because I always loved anything that lent itself to being world-building spectacle and super playful.”

Nailed it. The finished product is bathroom humor to the extreme and done with seamless motion graphics. The green CG phalluses added to footage of Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles look very real. The delivery of every line is uttered with a specific strain of mundane hype that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has watched studio-produced featurettes from the last 20 years.

“Michael Bay was very hands-on for a producer,” says one fake VFX artist in the video. “From day one, he said these turtles have to be gritty with realistic-looking facial expressions and veiny, textured genitalia.”

Shebesta says the team’s ear for making-of promo jargon came from a devout love for making-of promos — while it might be exploiting Michael Bay’s finely crafted TMNT movie for laughs, it’s also a love letter. And everyone accepted the mission to push it as far as possible. Shebesta recalls the actor who played the entertainment journalist refusing to use scripted dirty language because it would have poked holes in the actual spoof. “I think that not being punched in the dialogue helped soften something that was already pretty gross,” he notes.

As mountains of content cascade onto the internet, it becomes harder and harder to locate gold that was fully produced for the internet. The Onion’s video era always struggled to break through to the same degree as Funny or Die or creator-driven YouTube channels, stuck gunning for bigger fish — did you know there were two different Onion TV shows on IFC and Comedy Central? — or just being too niche, weird, and sophisticated for the viral audience. Even the videos that blew up (and Michael Bay Gives Fans Sneak Peek At Ninja Turtles’ Hyper-Realistic CGI Genitals was one of them) today have no place in any comedy canon beyond vague memories of those who think “Twitter used to be good.”

But they should. The videos are fantastic. (See also: True Detective: Yellow King Theory.) We should be rewatching Michael Bay Gives Fans Sneak Peek At Ninja Turtles’ Hyper-Realistic CGI Genitals whenever a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles thing happens. The team at The Onion should have Oscars for Best Short Film. Shredder’s spiky metal sword schlong should probably not be in Mutant Mayhem 2 for the well-being of children, but still, it’s an achievement.

While the video team at The Onion may be unsung heroes of a bygone era of internet goofs, Shebesta says the actual day-to-day was a bewildering wonder where anything could and did happen.

“I remember we had a talented intern doing renderings of monster dongs and he couldn’t believe this was a job people do,” he says. “We couldn’t either. That was a common experience at that job.”

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