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What's the secret to turning a low-budget commercial into a YouTube phenomenon? Full-time YouTube producers and self-proclaimed “Internetainers” Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, better known as comedy duo Rhett & Link, have the formula down. Friends since first grade and YouTube collaborators since 2006, the North Carolina natives made their first low-budget commercial in 2009 for the Red House, a furniture store in High Point, N.C. With its campy aesthetics, catchy jingle and tongue-in-cheek tagline — “where black people and white people buy furniture” — it has 4.5 million views on YouTube.
“We've always been a fan of those horribly awesome local commercials that you see all across the country,” Rhett tells the Weekly. “It's kind of an American staple of late-night television, and we started realizing, if we can go and offer them for free to a business and they get millions of viewers, it's a win-win” — not just for the local business but also for Rhett & Link, who write, direct, score and make cameos in every commercial they produce.
In fact, what started as a goofy side project eventually led to an IFC show, Commercial Kings, which ran for a season in 2011. It documented Rhett & Link's process of working with small businesses to produce YouTube commercials that often are as bizarre and schlocky as they are endearing and memorable.
But it wasn't until the pair of musical comedians moved to Los Angeles for their IFC show that they stumbled upon their most celebrated local business to date: Arlen's Transmission, a Burbank auto shop whose owner, Gorgen Zargarian, is a pop star who records in Farsi and is well-known among L.A.'s Armenian and Persian communities. After noticing Zargarian's flamboyant signage while taking a walk near their namesake production studio, the duo “just walked right in, introduced [themselves] and immediately figured out that this guy was a huge personality,” Rhett says.
Made for less than $500 and released on YouTube in April, their “Shift It” ad for Arlen's is a remake of one of Zargarian's Farsi-language songs, with its lyrics rewritten in English with the promotional refrain: “Shift it, shift it in forward/Shift it, Shift it in reverse/Domestic or foreign/How could you beat my service?”
With nearly 4 million YouTube views and appearances on The Ellen Show, Chelsea Lately and TMZ, “Shift It” has become both a household catchphrase and a national dance craze. It has catapulted the auto shop's reputation far beyond Burbank Boulevard, thanks to the video's poorly executed green-screen, amateur dance moves by Craigslist-enlisted models in jean shorts, and expertly comedic — if not painfully awkward — editing by Rhett & Link.
Videos like “Shift It” are so convincing as stand-alone low-budget spots that Rhett & Link often don't receive credit for strategically designing them. “You want to believe that this guy had a crazy idea and made some phone calls and made this commercial,” Rhett says of the ads' appeal. “You don't want to pull back the curtain and learn that two comedians made this commercial.”
But if anyone's having the last laugh, it's Rhett & Link. Their myriad commercials, web series, musical-parody albums and other viral songs and videos have allowed the duo to make a living, thanks to the corporate sponsorship and ad revenue generated by their two YouTube channels. How could you beat their service?
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