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."