"Hamlet Gettin' All Crunk": Thug Notes Mixes Classic Literature With Hip-Hop
Greg Edwards is Sparky Sweets, PhD.
Photo courtesy Napkin Note Productions
Your 10th grade literature teacher announces Hamlet as the next reading assignment and the class groans. Shakespeare sucks. Like anybody can understand what's going on when the characters are practically speaking a foreign language.
But then she loads a YouTube video of Sparky Sweets, PhD, a thugged-out dude with a scull cap on his head and thick ropes of gold around his neck, sitting in a library holding a snifter of (probably) Hennessy.
"What's happenin', yo? This week we gettin' regal with Hamlet," he says. "The shit's goin' wack up in the kingdom of Elsinore. The old king's brother Claudius gone and married the king's old breezy Gertrude. Queen Gertrude's son Hamlet gettin' all crunk since his mom actin' like a HO!"
Welcome to Thug Notes, the YouTube series that's making sense of classic literature by presenting it in hip-hop lexicon - or, as Sparky Sweets might say, crunkin' up the classics. CliffsNotes were never this cool.
It all started with some casual intellectual elitism. While waiting in line at a local theater last April to see Stanley Kubrick'sBarry Lyndon
' creator, screenwriter and producer Jared Bauer was relating the lead character to a rap gangsta.
"When you think about it, Barry Lydon was a social climber. Just like Scarface. He kills British officers, marries a super rich woman, swindles his way into a fortune by illegal gambling - pretty gangsta stuff," Bauer says. "But when this woman in line heard me talking about it in rap lexicon, she was like, 'You obviously don't get the movie.' No, that's bullshit, what I'm saying is true. There's this narcissism [in academia] and we wanted to say, no, it's about making literature universal."
Producer/animator Jacob Salamon and Bauer met at the University of Texas at Austin before launching a company, Napkin Note Productions, in L.A. during the fall of 2012. For Thug Notes, Bauer recruited a buddy of his still based in Texas, co-writer/producer Joe Salvaggio. Actor/comedian Greg Edwards was recommended to them by a mutual friend in the industry. Together, the team launched Thug Notes last June.
The premise was simple: along with some clever illustrations, Sparky summarizes and analyzes a classic book in a five-minute clip. It took a few episodes for the series to gain traction, but they now have 200,000 subscribers, a book in the works, kids reading again and grateful teachers all across the country singing their praises. On a recent Wednesday, we met the guys at the bustling YouTube Space LA in Marina del Rey to find out how it all went down.
How did the idea come about?
Salamon: The initial spark of the idea was during [another web series] we had called Bubala Please, a Jewish comedy that ran from November 2012 until June 2013. We had two characters, a black gangster and a Latino gangster. Everyone fell in love with Jaquann, so we said, how can we spend more time with Jaquann? What if we had like, Jaquann's Corner, where he sat and talked about movies? Then we thought pulling footage from movies might be really hard, and we hit upon the idea of literature.
Bauer: Everyone's aware of these books. They're pre-established brands. There are big science shows, big math shows, very successful shows with movie or video game reviews, but there really wasn't a successful literature show. Everyone has to read To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies. These are identifiable things. So I thought we could take advantage of that, and also fill a void, since there's no successful literature education on YouTube. And there's no education thing at all on YouTube that mixes comedy with education.
How long did it take from idea to execution?
Bauer: I had the idea in April 2013, and we filmed the first three episodes. But it took me a while to edit, because at that time we thought it was just going to be [Sparky] and the chair. That didn't really work, so we needed to put animations in it to make the story a little clearer. Jacob has some graphic design background, so I said, hey can you animate this?
What was the first book you did?
Bauer: Crime and Punishment. That's one of my favorite books. Joe [Salvaggio, who is Thug Notes' co-writer], who lives in Texas, is a sick fuck. He's a workaholic. I've known him since I was four years old. He was getting his masters in Classics, and he was the only person I knew who I could have really pedantic talks over comic book movies, something no one likes to do.
So when I had this idea, I hit him up. He was exiting academia and was so down. He reads every book cover to cover, and sends me a document with key passages and all this analysis. I write the script based on those notes. Then we come together by Skype, go over it line by line. The week before shooting is always really crazy - a lot of researching, a lot of reading, a lot of listening to rap music.
Edwards: Which he loves!
Bauer: Which I've come to love. Before this project, I never listened to rap, but now I can't get enough of it. I'm still in the sandbox!
When did you realize you were onto something?
Salamon: It took a few episodes. We thought, "Well, Bubala Please ended, Thug Notes isn't working - we might have to go get real jobs." And then one day I remember saying, "Jared, have you seen the email inbox?!" You get notifications of subscribers. And it was just like, oh my God!
Bauer: I went to see Man of Steel, which I hated, and I walked out of the theater depressed and checked my phone. I was like, whoa. And by the end of the night, it had exploded.
Salamon: I hoped.
Bauer: This teacher, when I was in 9th grade, showed us Clash of the Titans when we were studying mythology - even though there's nudity in it. I imagined this would be one of the tools the "cool teacher" would use. I wanted to challenge teachers and say, look, you're willing to teach Macbeth, which has killing children in it, but we're not allowed to say "bitch" in the classroom. For high schoolers, who are reading these texts, I'm sure that's language they're using often.
This couldn't have happened until the past five years or so.
Bauer: Right. Because even if you don't listen to hip hop, you're exposed to it.
Another thing I was going to ask regards the possibility of critics calling it a minstrel show. Thug Notes could've been - in today's blogosphere - the thing that launched a thousand think pieces.
Edwards: Right, right. "Stereotypical," etcetera.
Bauer: It's a very fine line. There's obviously something deliberately challenging about Thug Notes. But I said going in, if the show isn't smart, that's when it becomes offensive. But because the show is smart, because despite what kind of language or stereotypes we use, you can't get a better summary and analysis in five minutes. That's the joke. The joke is that there is no joke. You may expect someone who embodies these stereotypes not to be able to blow your mind and educate you on literature, but actually he CAN.
We always go by the adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover." This show sort of trivializes the idea that literature has to be very refined and ivory tower. No, you don't have to use huge words that inhibit clarity, it doesn't have to be obscure. I can take it to the exact opposite and communicate the ideas much more effectively.
As far as the racism thing, there's in this thing in our culture that if race is an element in [something], it immediately breeds hysteria. Yes, we're using racial stereotypes in the show. That doesn't mean that it's implicitly racist. Is it not possible for art to trivialize stereotypes, to satirize stereotypes? That's what our goal is with Thug Notes.
But for some people, merely including the stereotype is promoting it. And some people just jump at any chance to be outraged. And also in our culture, we have this thing where the offended party is always right. I think that's bullshit.
Edwards: I'm a comedian, so I think of it like, it's funny. It's good. I tell everybody just fuck off. [laughs] Don't go Kramer on us! But we're just trying to relate. Help out kids, give them education with a bite of humor that will get them attached.
Okay, personal favorite episodes?
Bauer: The Oedipus episode. Lord of the Flies.
Edwards: Slaughterhouse-Five. Jane Eyre.
Salamon: I do all the illustrations, so whenever there's one with a lot of characters, I'm like, "Oh, FUCK." Jane Eyre was that way, but it turned out great.
Currently, Thug Notes is funded through merchandise sales, advertising from YouTube, donations and, of course, their own money. Visit www.thug-notes.com for more. The guys would love to shoot at a public library, so if you're a librarian, holla.
Rebecca Haithcoat on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter:
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.