On a Friday afternoon in late August, Joel Jensen and Joe Matsushima are setting up a hot dog–eating competition in a soundstage on the 41,000-square-foot campus of YouTube Space L.A. The massive Playa Vista compound (seven stages, 10 editing suites, a 47-seat screening room) is offered at no cost to YouTube channels with at least 10,000 subscribers. With more than 75,000, HelloDenizen is a shoo-in.
The channel owes most of its subscribers to an 83-second video whose plot doesn't stray far from the title: "Tiny Hamsters Eating Tiny Burritos." Uploaded to HelloDenizen's channel in April, it has been viewed more than 8 million times.
The sleekly packaged videos often are mistaken for advertisements, an easy assumption, since the channel owes its existence to Denizen, the social media/advertising agency Jensen and Matsushima own with Matsushima's sister Amy. But there's no product being sold. There's also, thus far, no revenue. There are only YouTube views — millions of them.
Credit tiny hamsters for that. Jensen and Matsushima found themselves watching hundreds of GIFs and YouTube videos depicting hamsters feasting on carrots. They wondered what kind of comedy would ensue if the carrot were replaced with something more human, with more cultural cachet: a burrito.
"The mathematical equation of it just made sense, right? Cute animals, cute little pieces of food and then, like, gluttony," says 29-year-old Jensen, who wears square-rimmed glasses and a Hawaiian shirt. But the ad execs knew their clients would never agree to finance a project quite so self-indulgent.
"We got frustrated by the idea that we had to wait for clients to give us approval to make something," says Matsushima, 31. "We were thinking about what we were good at, and we realized that our best asset is that we're able to make cool content that's shareable, and we shouldn't have to wait for brands to give us the approval to make something fun."
So they decided to shoot the video on their own dime, hiring an animal trainer to provide the hamsters, casting a friend to play the discerning burrito chef and filming it in the same Glendale house they were renting to shoot "Bubble Porn," a tongue-in-cheek video that uses optical illusions to make innocent activity look like explicit sexual acts. (Even on a shoestring budget, "Bubble Porn" was also a hit, notching 3.5 million views.)
"Because the budget was so low, we spent half the day trying to get the hamster to eat tiny burritos and the other half trying to do 'Bubble Porn,'?" Jensen says.
The setting for today's shoot, the third installment of the popular hamster series ("Tiny Birthday for a Tiny Hedgehog" was Part 2) couldn't be more different. It's not just the fancy studio — this time, the lead actor is world champion competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi. The New York-based, six-time Guinness record holder came to the YouTube Space straight from LAX.
Jensen and Matsushima had emailed Kobayashi through a contact form on his website and were shocked when his manager responded. Kobayashi was already a fan of "Tiny Hamsters" and immediately wanted to be involved, even though his weekend was booked solid — Cinefamily on Saturday for the L.A. premiere of his new documentary, Hungry, and Redondo Beach on Monday for the Gringo Bandito Hot Sauce & Chronic Tacos Challenge.
Kobayashi, who sports an emerald green mohawk styled like a pompadour, had competed against an animal once before: a grizzly bear he challenged to a hot dog-eating competition for the Fox show Man vs. Beast. At least this time there weren't electric fences or gunmen separating him from his furry competitor.
Bogart the hamster and his four stand-ins (all of whom also portrayed the title role in "Tiny Hamsters Eating Tiny Burritos") needed only one wrangler, soft-spoken Cheryl Harris. Her hamsters also had recently appeared in a nationwide series of Sprint commercials. She'd trained them since they were 8 weeks old, using a food-based reward system: mostly corn, rice, grapes, apples, peas and sunflower seeds.
To create the hot dogs, HelloDenizen enlisted Kristin Bjorge, a wardrobe stylist who discovered a new calling when she made an edible car out of dog treats for a recent film shoot. She's brought a stack of Tupperware, each filled with hamster-approved foods, which she sculpts to look like hot dogs: chopped-up dates, halved grapes and carrot sticks dipped in beet juice to darken their color. There's also a Tupperware of cooked brown-rice pasta, which can be used as hot dog buns, since the hamsters aren't particularly fond of bread.
Harris estimates that a hamster can eat four or five "hot dogs" in one sitting, but it's hard to know for sure, since hamsters "pouch" their food, storing it in their cheeks for later. Kobayashi is doing a little pouching, too. With the taco challenge just three days away, he's on a serious pre-competition diet intended to stretch his stomach by limiting foods that aren't so easy to digest. Between takes, he pauses to spew out the hot dogs.
By the end of the competition, which lasts no more than 40 seconds in the final cut of "Tiny Hamster vs. Kobayashi," Kobayashi swallows his pride and accepts defeat. Just as the grizzly bear was victorious in Man vs. Beast, the beast has won again.
Unable to contain his giddy smile, Kobayashi places a tiny, handmade medallion on the tiny, adorable Bogart, who suddenly starts gulping the hot dogs Harris had begged him to eat earlier in the shoot.
"I've never seen anyone take so much time and dedication to making a video about a hamster," Kobayashi, a native Japanese speaker, says through his translator and longtime manager, Maggie James. "When the video comes out, it's going to be very cute and it's really funny, but nobody will ever really know how serious the scenes were behind that — the number of mature adults in the room really taking this really seriously."
HelloDenizen feels like a dream come true. "There's nothing quite like the satisfaction of having an idea and then making it, without second-guessing it or over-thinking it or compromising it or asking for permission," says Jensen, an Upright Citizens Brigade alum who founded monthly sketch improv show Room 101.
He met Matsushima and older sister Amy as interns at the Viral Factory, a U.K.-based ad agency specializing in viral videos, many of which predate YouTube. Within three years, Jensen and both Matsushimas were managing the company's U.S. office, which has since relocated entirely overseas. The trio founded Denizen in 2010 and has since become a viral factory of sorts. Clients include World Wildlife Federation, Proactive and Snapdragon.
In the short term, the YouTube videos are a way to experiment with creative projects Jensen and Matsushima might otherwise never get the chance to do. But they still fantasize about a day when the YouTube channel is financially independent of the ad agency. They might even consider branded content, as long as it's carefully curated.
"Ultimately we have to face the question of how do we make this profitable, or at least break even?" Matsushima says. "That's a question we're hoping not to answer for a while." In the meantime, there's no shortage of tiny human food to feed tiny hamsters. It's the one thing the Internet may never grow tired of.
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