Smosh: YouTube Gods and Unlikely Online Video Superstars
Smosh is really, really big and the two young men behind it are giants on YouTube, but only for viewers of a certain age.
For online video viewers over a certain age, the word "Smosh" doesn't mean a thing; it's just a nonsense word. And for online video viewers under a certain age, Smosh are kings, two of the funniest, strangest, most original guys working today.
That says everything about online celebrity in the age of YouTube. Cable television gave us niche programming. Online video gives us micro-niche programming, where creators can be really, really big, but only to a particular group.
Make no mistake, Smosh are really, really big, even though most people have never heard of them or watched one of their videos. They have the third most-subscribed-to YouTube channel, with well over 5 million subscribers.
Smosh are Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla, two guys from California, both now 24. With no rules on what they could create, they tapped into a need for fresh, anarchic, surprising youth-oriented online comedy. Their success has been so great that they will certainly never need to have what they call "real" jobs. Smosh might have started out as two guys and a video camera, but through strategic partnerships and smart expansions, it's grown into something much bigger.
"It was pretty crazy; we just started doing it even before we found out about YouTube," said Hecox. "We started about three months before we ever found out about YouTube, and I was just hosting the videos on Smosh.com, and posting them around on MySpace, back when that site existed. It got pretty popular, and we were really excited that people liked it, so we decided to make some more."
That's how Smosh started: not as a business plan with investors, but as a fun hobby. Hecox and Padilla, both 17 years old at the time, started creating videos for their own enjoyment and quickly found an audience. They tapped into YouTube at just the right time, when the site was taking off. Two years later, in 2007, they were tapped to be one of the first YouTube partners, and they began making real money from the site.
"At the beginning, we didn't have any plans to make videos or comedy at all. We were just going to community college, not sure what we wanted to do," said Hecox. "We thought the videos were fun, so we just kept doing them, and then, when we finally started -- when it finally started making money, we were like, ‘Oh wow, okay, cool, so maybe this is actually something we could turn into a career, or a full time job.'"
Hecox and Padilla's comedy skills were obvious from the beginning, even in no-budget creations. One of their first hits was a 2005 parody of Pokemon set to the show's theme song. It landed on YouTube's front page and earned Smosh millions of views. It also got a little unwanted attention from Pokemon's parent company, Nintendo.
"The Pokemon sing-song video definitely helped us get out there to a lot of people," said Hecox. "Then it got copyright claimed, and we were like, oh -- we were pretty upset about it, but I mean, what are you going to do? We used their song. And we always kind of thought it was fair use."
While the official copy of the video had to be removed (after getting 24 million views), a little YouTube digging will turn up a reposted version, perhaps from a fan. At the time of writing, it had more than 14 million views. Smosh had the last laugh, creating a revenge Pokemon video that makes merciless fun of Nintendo for not getting it, while continuing and building on ideas from the first video. That video has more than 15 million views.
"A couple of years ago, we made like, a revenge song to the tune of the Pokemon theme song that was basically taunting the people that removed the video, and saying, try to sue us now, because we changed the lyrics, and [are] having fun with it," noted Hecox.
The Way of the Smosh
While Smosh has grown greatly since Hecox and Padilla's first 2005 videos, their method of creating new work has stayed casual.
"One of us will come up with an idea, we'll be like, ‘Hey, I have this idea about a killer teddy bear,' and then we'll just kind of sit around and talk about it, and then get sort of an idea down, and then I'll write down an outline, shoot it over to Anthony," explained Hecox. "He'll tell me if it sucks, and what could make it better."
"Usually it does," said Padilla.
"Yeah, and then we turn it into a script, and then we do all the preproduction on it, and then shoot it a couple of weeks, or a week later," said Hecox. "Then it goes into edit after that. So it's a pretty long process, but we've sort of found a ..."
"Schedule," said Padilla, finishing the sentence.
"Yeah, sort of a schedule," said Hecox. "So we're actually a little bit ahead ... can't really say that for a lot of YouTubers."
"I know most YouTubers, they're like, ‘Oh crap, I've got to make a video this week,'" said Padilla. "We were definitely in that same group for, like, you know, three years."
That dedication to producing on a schedule is something that many successful YouTube creators share, and it's the first piece of advice they'll offer newcomers. Video makers can't slack their way to YouTube success, said Hecox. Sometimes it means 24-hour workdays, even if it's to turn out something that looks like it was cranked out in 10 minutes.
Because they come off as likeable (if crazy) guys next door, Hecox and Padilla's fans develop a strong association with them. One thing that Smosh's fans are especially passionate about is Hecox's and Padilla's haircuts. If one of them changes his hairstyle, he knows he's going to hear about it.
"People flipped when he cut his hair short," Hecox says of Padilla.
"For the very first time, they did, in 2007," shot back Padilla.
"Yeah, and they would not shut up about it until he got his hair long again," said Hecox.
"We made a whole video about it, and then Ian cut his hair short, and he's like, no, I don't want to make a whole video about it," taunted Padilla.
"Then people flipped out about that, too. ‘Go back to your full haircut,'" remembered Hecox. "That's one thing with YouTube. I mean, you've got all these people telling you to do something, so you know, it's always important to listen to your fans."
"But then there's the people that say, ‘Your emo hair sucks,' or ‘Your hair -- you look like a hippie,'" said Padilla.
"It goes both ways," advised Hecox. "You can never please everyone, that's another thing you have to learn about YouTube."
So always please the fans, but don't worry about pleasing everyone.
Smosh Meets Barry
Something happened early on that turned two goofy, video-loving friends into new media moguls. That something was Barry Blumberg, a former Disney exec who spotted the duo's raw talent from the start and became a partner in Smosh. Blumberg handles the backend deals, allowing Hecox and Padilla to focus on being creative.
"My history with making entertainment for teens and young adults at Disney was sort of what I relied on as my experience," explained Blumberg. "When I saw them on YouTube, I saw an opportunity of two guys who clearly had a connection with their audience. They demonstrated with a couple videos that had gone viral on YouTube, and I felt with the right production schedules and management and creative that it could be built into a brand."
After a few miscommunications, a few phone calls, and a trip to Sacramento, Calif., to meet with Hecox, Padilla, and Hecox's father, the three formed a partnership. Blumberg won't disclose the specifics, but the three have worked together ever since.
In 2008, Smosh hired its first staff and built out its website. In 2011, Smosh was acquired by teen media powerhouse Alloy Digital, LLC (the terms weren't disclosed). On April 30, 2012, Smosh branched out with Shut Up! Cartoons, an original animation channel on YouTube. Shut Up! Cartoons was a monster hit from the start; it currently has 600,000-plus subscribers and more than 61 million views. Smosh has four other full-time employees as well as support from Alloy staff and freelancers.
"The people who are engaged with Smosh are very, very engaged, and it's almost like a bit of an exclusive club that the people who are aware of it are very, very rabid fans and watch a lot of what we do. When people get exposed to it, they join in," said Blumberg. "We grow our subscriber base and the traffic to the website. And something like Shut Up Cartoons -- we're growing constantly, and adding new feeds constantly. I think Smosh, proper, remains one of the fastest growing channels on YouTube."
Smosh to the Future
Whether or not anyone over 30 has heard of them, Smosh are kings on YouTube with millions of fans and multiple successful channels to their credit. They've released albums and merchandise. The have a large multimedia company backing them up. Can they continue to please their young viewers as they get older? They say they already are.
"Our videos' humor has just kind of grown and expanded," said Padilla. "The overall tone, I think is the same, it's just the jokes are a little different. And I think we're just -- I think as we go along, we just get better at timing and writing and stuff, so I'm not sure if it's our sense of humor is changing, I don't think our sense of humor is changing, I think it's just our ability to tell a joke, I guess."
"I think some of our earlier stuff was more PG. Now it's a little bit more PG-13," added Hecox.
Just as important, what new mountains will they climb? Not surprisingly, Blumberg wouldn't answer a question on whether or not a TV deal is in the works. With Smosh's following and humor, it would be surprising if several cable channels weren't looking at them. Smosh themselves, however, are more interested in building up their core online strengths.
"We'd like to continue with Smosh, and then grow the brand out to more talent and bring more people into the Smosh brand," noted Padilla.
"Our goal is really to expand it to be more than just two guys. We've already done a pretty good job with the website and Shut Up Cartoons," Hecox added. "I think our goal is to pretty much expand it to just a bunch of different venues -- it's kind of hard to explain, but just basically Smosh humor in more places."
Padilla and Hecox, both with fan-approved haircuts, get ready to go on camera at VidCon 2012 in Anaheim, Calif. (Photo at top of page: Melly Lee 2012. This photo: Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen)
This article appears in the October/November, 2012, issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "Smosh Is Really, Really Big. Did You Know That?"
The annual gathering of video-makers and video-watchers shows that YouTube has a strong community, but perhaps too much passive devotion.