The first thing you should know about Chris Leavins is that he plays serial killers on Canadian TV shows. That’s actually how he earns his living. The next thing you should know is that for the past two and a half years, he’s been posting on YouTube a weekly Internet video show called Cute With Chris from his Los Angeles apartment. His show is based on pet photos — yes, kittens and puppies, plus the occasional parakeet or kangaroo — sent to him from around the world. Killers and kittens: Is Leavins bipolar? Not at all; he’s just Canadian. From Saskatchewan, if you want to be specific.
Each five-minute weekly episode of Cute With Chris (www.cutewithchris.com) is now viewed by 100,000 to a million people, depending on where it lands on global search engines. As a result, Leavins sardonically describes himself as both a cult leader and a microcelebrity.
Leavins records the show from the one bedroom of his Mid-Wilshire apartment, with a $500 Panasonic digital camcorder he bought at Target. He has no production assistants, no assistant director, no crew. The camera sits on a tripod in his closet, aimed at his desk across the room. From that desk, with a microphone clipped inside his shirt, he reads from a script on his MacBook while clutching the camcorder’s remote control. Each shot lasts five to 15 seconds, and he’ll shoot each one two to five times, with slightly different line readings or camera angles. The shoot lasts an hour to 90 minutes. He then spends two to three hours editing the footage, adding visual collages and a soundtrack.
Leavins’ solo, live standup routine, Cute With Chris: Live, which he’s performed at various clubs and theaters in L.A. and Toronto, is a comedic explanation of his Internet mission. He uses his Web casts to promote his live shows, which he uses to promote his Web casts. He uses both formats to promote his Cute With Chris T-shirt and button-merchandising enterprise, which helps to subsidize Leavins’ micro-empire.
Boxes of newly arrived product line one wall of his living room when I visit. Leavins, whose apartment has hardwood floors, an ascetic décor and lots of cardboard boxes, says he has to live frugally in L.A., his adopted home since he left Toronto in 2003.
“I didn’t want to come here, but I didn’t want to regret not coming here,” Leavins says. “I was surprised to discover that I really liked it. I expected L.A. to be fake and shallow, and I discovered it’s a creative magnet for people from all over the world. It’s really exciting to be in a city where nobody knows you. I look back on it to think that I moved here to quit acting on T.V. . . . I go back to Canada to work, but because I don’t live there, I work way less than I used to.”
The shirts, which cost $20, are mostly designed by viewers and manufactured by American Apparel. Leavins holds up a T-shirt designed by one of his regulars, a 24-year-old woman who moonlights from her regular job as a phone-sex operator in Sweden. “I pay her a flat fee,” Leavins says. For the shirts.
“At first, I felt that selling shirts for the show sent the wrong message,” Leavins goes on, “but it’s proved to be sustaining for the show.”
Still, he has to be careful with his audience. One Web-cast segment, called “Theatah News,” drew a complaint from a 22-year-old Milwaukee viewer named Lynette, when Leavins’ face filled the screen giving a newsy report on the stampeding crowds rushing to see a recent Toronto performance of Cute With Chris: Live — “audiences of 125!”
“Hi, Chris,” wrote Lynette on the comments section of Leavins’ Web site. “Your show has really gone downhill. All you do is talk about your theater shows and your T-shirts. You used to keep it real, but now you’re too busy selling out. I miss the old Chris.”
And so, Leavins opens video Episode 180, “Keeping It Real,” by reading Lynette’s complaint. “Thank you for your e-mail, Lynette,” he replies politely, and straight into the camera — before he all but disembowels her, using sarcasm delivered with unwavering cheerfulness:
“I miss the old Chris, too,” he continues. “The old Chris would have taken this opportunity to rip you a new asshole for writing such a rude e-mail. The old Chris might have looked into the camera [here, he looks directly into the camera] and said, ‘Gee, Lynette, I wish I was as awesome as you.’ The old Chris would have said, ‘Thank you, Lynette, for taking a little time away from your job making meatball subs at a Quiznos [in a] food court in Wisconsin to let me know that I’m not keeping it real.’ I truly value the opinion of a grown woman who lives with six hamsters and an iguana named Dumbledore. The old Chris would have turned to the other camera and said, ‘Get out of my cult, bitch.’