Every week, Dane Boedigheimer drives to the Ralphs near his home in Riverside on a specific mission. One time he bought 10 kinds of apples. Another time he bought avocados and walnuts. He recently bought a cheese plate.
Other shoppers probably don't realize that Boedigheimer is conducting a casting session for "The Annoying Orange," the YouTube channel he started a year ago. He voices the title character, an orange who badgers his guest star with insults like "you look fruity," until a knife slices the guest in two. These videos consistently get at least 3 million views.
"There's something to the knife moment," he says. "There's almost become an expectation to it. If I don't have it in those videos, people get upset, because 'What happened to the knife? Why didn't the character get killed?'"
YouTube is a chaotic heap of video content, and Boedigheimer is one of a core group of comedy stars who have clawed their way to the top, leading a burgeoning and bizarre form of American entertainment. These digital auteurs aren't interested in flash-in-the-pan viral hits or polished Web series with narratives — they create videos in their apartments on pocket-change budgets, post consistently, and turn their YouTube channels into fan magnets.
"YouTubers," as they call themselves, serve as director, producer, star, editor and marketing director and can earn six-figure salaries through their share of the ad revenue. As they've become celebrities in the 25-and-younger demographic, they increasingly face the quandary of whether to give in to the lures of Hollywood and risk giving up their scrappy authenticity.
The videos are some combination of sketch comedy, reality show, video blog, song parody, animation and 3 a.m. activity at an over-caffeinated slumber party. Their comic sensibility is irreverent, surreal, self-deprecating and fixated on lampooning cultural touchstones like Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus. "It's the sort of the comedy that you would get on television if there wasn't an infrastructure for filtering it, vetting it," says Tim Hwang, a founder of the Boston-based research group the Web Ecology Project and an organizer of ROFLCon, a conference on Internet comedy. Some think these videos are hilarious. Others find them mundane, sophomoric or crude, and wonder: Why would anyone want to watch this stuff?
Shane Dawson, who lives in Sherman Oaks and runs two of the top 10 most-subscribed YouTube channels. In his sketches he plays multiple male and female characters, like the recurring Shanaynay, who first appeared in the video "Ghetto drive-thru from hell" to say lines like "Welcome to Crackdonald's" Dawson dresses as Sarah Palin and sings about performing sex acts on John McCain and parodies "Twilight" by playing a vampire who drinks menstrual blood. "I think popular YouTubers are people in high school who were the outcasts, the nerds and weirdos," he says. "I know I was."
Shay Carl Butler, a.k.a. Shaycarl, who lives in Pocatello, Idaho, is a former granite countertop salesman and Mormon missionary who spotlights his family in a channel called "Shaytards," featuring his wife, whom he calls "Mommytard," and kids, including "Babytard" and "Princesstard." "If I had known we would have gotten this big I wouldn't have done the 'tard' thing," he says. "People who watch me know it's not offensive, but I can see how first time people would be like 'What?!'"
The comedy duo Smosh — YouTube elders whose channel began in 2005 — focus on sketch comedy. Dave Days is more into song parodies, while Ray William Johnson pokes fun at viral videos.
Then there's Fred, a hyperactive, helium-voice 6-year-old who rants about everyday activities like going to the dentist or getting a haircut — a creation of the 17-year-old Nebraska native Lucas Cruikshank. Fred, whose videos have netted more than 590 million views, is the biggest crossover success story of the bunch, as "Fred: The Movie" premiered last week on Nickelodeon.
This odd form of comedy is not without precedent. Evan Weiss of the Collective, a management and production company in Beverly Hills that targets online talent, compares Cruikshank, his client, to mavericks such as Sacha Baron Cohen, Ernie Kovacs or Jerry Lewis. Boedigheimer defends "Annoying Orange" by pointing out, "There's all kinds of annoying characters throughout cartoon history — you've got Bugs Bunny, Woody the Woodpecker, who might not be as annoying as 'The Annoying Orange,' but they're annoying in their own way."
YouTubers aren't too worried about their place in the cultural pantheon. Kevin Yen, YouTube's director of strategic partnerships who helps run the company's "partner" program, says, "YouTube stars reflect what the mass population needs or craves but is not getting from mainstream media."
Some young viewers, for instance, note that, behind Fred's insanity, he's a loner whose mom is an alcoholic and whose father is in prison. "Kids can relate to it, because I bet you there's a lot of kids who don't have friends and there's a lot of kids who don't have a dad," he says. After posting the video called "Fred on Fathers Day," "a lot of kids messaged me saying they were happy they saw that because every year they're dreading Father's Day."
Shaycarl says that his channel inspires family values. "I have so many e-mails from people who are like, 'I never knew a family could be happy like this.... My parents hate each other. I hate my brother. We fight all the time. I never wanted to have kids before I saw your family,'" he says.
YouTube enables its creators to target niche demographics. Justine Ezarik's channel ijustine is a grab bag of videos with a techie bent, including dance parties in Apple Stores and an impersonation of singer Ke$ha getting an iPad. Ezarik, who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in L.A., says her main audience is young girls who love technology, because her videos reassure them that "it's OK to love your iPhone or not want to go to prom and stay home on your computer."
There are also a conspicuous number of Asian American stars, like Ryan Higa, Kevin Wu and Freddie Wong. "The only comedians that are Asian American you can find are on YouTube," says Wu, whose channel is called kevjumba and who's a college student taking time off to pursue entertainment projects. "Asian Americans don't really have [mainstream] entertainers that they can grow up watching. They're the ones begging for my autograph."
While content is crucial, YouTube success also requires creating a intimate relationship with the audience. Performers chat with fans over e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, and create videos based on fan suggestions. Almost all of these YouTubers have some videos in which they speak directly to the camera.
"The audience really, really wants to know you," says Lisa Donovan, a.k.a. LisaNova, whose Web stardom led to a spot on "MADtv" before she was let go and returned to YouTube life and is now living in Venice. "Most actors want to portray a character — they don't want you to know about their personal life and what they eat for breakfast. Most successful YouTubers have a real intimate bond with their audiences." As Dawson puts it, "My biggest videos aren't ones where I'm drinking period blood. They're ones where I'm talking about my life."
YouTubers' accessibility makes them an odd sort of celebrity. KassemG, who lives in Santa Monica and whose channel focuses on man-on-the-street interviews and a talk show with porn stars, says he gets e-mailed naked photos from women and men. Dawson says kids aren't afraid to come up to him at a mall and give him a hug.
The top YouTubers have formed a tight-knit community, bonding with one another over Twitter or at events like Vidcon, a conference held in July in Century City. Many have moved to Southern California, making it easier to create video collaborations, or "collabs," which help up-and-comers gain exposure to more potential subscribers, or "subs."
Their popularity enables creators to include product placements for brands aimed at young viewers, such as Pop-Tarts or T-Mobile's Sidekick. But such gigs come with a cost. "I'm always afraid that my subscribers will think I'm selling out," says Jodie Rivera, who lives I southern Florida and creates song parodies for her channel, VenetianPrincess.
YouTube versus mainstream media
Hollywood has also come calling. Boedigheimer is working with former "Pinky and the Brain" writer Tom Sheppard to turn "Annoying Orange" into a "SpongeBob SquarePants"-type series. Mystery Guitar Man, who creates impressive mash-ups of instrumental music and special effects, got gigs directing national commercials for McDonald's and Coca-Cola. Wu is set to appear on " The Amazing Race."
But not everyone can cross over. For many YouTube stars, the right venue might just be YouTube. "For something to jump to TV from the Internet it has to be more than cute and quirky," says Marjorie Cohn, president of original programming and development at Nickelodeon, which is airing "Fred: The Movie." "What we're looking at is fully fleshed-out characters, and that's what's so hard to find."
Some YouTubers get impatient with mainstream media, because they'd rather spend time on their videos than run around auditioning to be Waiter No. 2. Higa, a Hilo, Hawaii-bred sketch comedian whose channel has 2.6 million subscribers — the top channel of all time — has been burned by Hollywood more than once.
He starred in an independent film called "Ryan and Sean's Not So Excellent Adventure" which, he says, "didn't come out quite the way I wanted it to or quite the way I expected" because he felt like more of a hired hand than a creator. Later he developed a series with a cable network, which was going fine until he was asked to take down videos deemed inappropriate. He refused. "I've definitely been too innocent in the past, too trusting," he says. He's had agents and managers, but his business inquires are now handled by his mom.
Frustration with traditional gatekeepers has spurred some YouTubers to create studio-style infrastructures. LisaNova and her business partner and boyfriend, Dan Zappin, started a channel called the Station and brought on other YouTubers, including shaycarl and KassemG.
The Station, which has almost a million subscribers, is one of many channels under the umbrella of Maker Studios, housed in a 4,500-square-foot loft-style office on Washington Boulevard near Venice. Thirty full-time employees, a few interns and about a dozen performers handle editing, writing, advertising, graphics, props and wardrobe.
The concept, says Zappin, "was kind of like Grand Central Station — the audience would come into the Station and see these videos and then be driven back out on individual trains to other people's channels."
Though their business is booming, YouTubers are unlikely to give up on a core principle: creating a two-way relationship between creator and viewer. Earlier this year, Boedigheimer did a spoof of "The Ring" called "The Onion Ring" and told viewers to send the video to five of their friends or he'd turn them into an onion ring. One mom sent him a frantic e-mail. "Her daughter was like 11 years old and she was terrified," he recalls. "I had to e-mail her to assure her that she wasn't going to get turned into food." You don't see that kind of full service from George Clooney.