How to Succeed on YouTube: Goof Off in Your Basement ... Only Better
Nathan Barnatt in character as Keith Apicary.
PHOTO BY W.B. FONTENOT
Daniel Grimes, a high school student from Ypsilanti, Mich., flew to Los Angeles last July for the YouTube convention Vidcon. He came to see his favorite YouTubers, including Toby Turner, a comedian known in part for his "literal trailers."
"He'll take a video game trailer and sing over it, describing everything that's happening in a painfully obvious but very funny way," Grimes told me, as we sat in an audience of hundreds in a ballroom in the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel.
As I blogged at the time, Turner took the stage to perform his literal trailer for Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, playing the keyboard and singing exactly what everyone saw on the screen, e.g., "Mysterious hooded man joined by other hooded people."
I had a flashback to a family road trip listening to my brothers spoofing the opening song from Disney's Beauty and the Beast: "There goes the toilet cleaner with his plunger/The same old plunger as before."
My family is weird. But as we've learned from YouTube, a lot of people are weird — and don't mind sharing the evidence. The sort of goofing off that once took place in the privacy of your car, basement or backyard has become a form of entertainment, even a profession, whose practitioners will gather at Vidcon this weekend at the Anaheim Convention Center.
"These in-jokes and odd bits of media have always existed, but there wasn't a distribution mechanism for it," says Tim Hwang, co-founder of ROFLCon, a conference on online comedy. "You'd share it with your friends: 'Remember when Tim did that crazy thing?' "
Kids have played video games for decades, but now game-related videos — depicting, say, a person's actual gameplay, or sketches featuring the games' characters — are a massive part of YouTube, via such companies as Machinima, whose network of channels had 1.6 billion views in April. The channel Epic Meal Time is a pioneer of gross-out food videos, a descendant of 2 a.m. sleepover challenges to stuff 17 marshmallows in your mouth and say "chubby bunny." YouTube's No. 1 channel is by Ray William Johnson, who does what people do now in their spare time — make fun of online videos — better than anyone else.
We've always performed "covers" of songs in our cars and showers, but the best ones, such as Walk Off the Earth's quirky version of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" (122 million views), now can fuel the popularity of the original song (263 million views).
"Girls for millennia have been teaching each other makeup, passing along tips through word-of-mouth — 'I have a great blush you should use,' " says Will Hyde, whose YouTube channel The Will of DC comments on YouTube. "Now it lives in YouTube for billions."
Household troublemaking extends to bizarre subgenres. A wave of videos features kids shooting off homemade flamethrowers, often by filling Super Soakers with kerosene. While Miley Cyrus was accidentally caught on video doing the hallucinogenic drug salvia, lots of people do the drug and then intentionally film themselves. One such video, with 1.6 million views, is called "Writing a Letter to Congress on Salvia" (the letter ends up mostly squiggles, the guy cracks up uncontrollably, but it does get mailed). "Everyone screws around in different ways, but now you can learn about how other people do it," Hwang says.
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Dane Boedigheimer's Annoying Orange series is a classic example. One night while lying in bed, he thought up the idea of an orange bothering an apple. "My girlfriend was like, 'What are you laughing at?' and I was like, 'It's stupid to even explain,' " he recalls. It's now a YouTube series with 2.4 million subscribers. A more elaborate version just began airing on Cartoon Network.
As Boedigheimer's success shows, not all of YouTube is aimless; creators now make six figures and secure Hollywood deals. "With some of it there is an intended calculation," Boedigheimer says. "Annoying Orange is to some degree me experimenting, hanging around, having fun, but there's always the hope of it taking off."
It's fitting that YouTubers are concentrated in Los Angeles, which has always been an intersection of leisure and entertainment, says Lawrence Culver, a historian and the author of The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America. Like many YouTube trends, SoCal-influenced practices such as surfing, skateboarding and bodybuilding "started out as casual recreation done by a few, and then someone found out how to popularize it, whether it was the beach movies of the '50s or someone making money on swimwear companies."
It's no coincidence that all of them are platforms for exhibitionism. "If you want to show off, this is the place to do it," Culver says.
Plus, as the Pacific Standard Time exhibits of the last year reminded us, much of L.A. art history is about finding significance in haphazard putzing. L.A. is where Bruce Nauman discovered that art could entail walking in a square. It's where Edward Kienholz and his ilk made art out of assembling clothes hangers or doll heads found in flea markets or on the street. In 1971 in Santa Ana, performance artist Chris Burden had a friend shoot him in the left arm with a .22 long rifle. Would that he'd tried that in the YouTube era.
"I hear the expression all the time — 'That person has too much time on their hands.' It's used as a pejorative," says Kevin Allocca, trends manager at YouTube. "I think to myself: A lot of the cool things in the world were made by someone with too much time on their hands."
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