In the first of a series of interviews with content creators, YouTubers and Internet stars, I talk to the guys behind Thug Notes about making literature more accessible and getting big on YouTube this late in the game.
Hosted by Sparky Sweets PhD, each episode of Thug Notes takes the viewer through an overview of a work of classic literature, summarising the story and analysing the themes of the book in a concise five-minute video. Dr. Sweets, played by stand-up comedian Greg Edwards, is a self-described "original gangster" who frames the action of the novel or play in street terms. Think Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo + Juliet' and you'll get the idea.
"I was standing in line at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood to see Barry Lyndon, my favourite Kubrick movie, when I started joking with my friend about how Barry Lyndon does some pretty gangster shit: he kills an English officer, he amasses a fortune through illegal gambling practices, he burns through money like crazy," says Jared Bauer, the show's creator and co-writer. "A woman behind me in line was offended that I would dare describe such a refined film in hip-hop lexicon. But I thought to myself, 'Wait...nothing I said was inaccurate. It's just a different perspective.'"
The series only started a year ago, but has managed to rack up almost a quarter of a million subscribers and just shy of 10 million accumulated views in that time. Bauer attributes much of its meteoric success to luck. "We just blindly uploaded it, sent it to our friends, and tried to promote it. Our first two episodes - Crime and Punishment and The Great Gatsby - made very little traction."
"But then someone on Reddit stumbled upon the show and posted about it. The video flew to the front page and it exploded overnight. If it weren't for that mysterious saint of a Redditor, there probably would not have been a fourth episode of Thug Notes. I know a lot of people making great content that just isn't getting seen. When they ask me why their stuff isn't catching on, I just tell them, 'It's not up to you if your show succeeds or not.'"
When it comes to his favourite Thug Notes video, Bauer cites their 'Moby Dick' episode, "anything with existential undertones, really. I'm also pretty pleased with our most recent episode comparing The Dark Knight to Dostoevsky's famous poem "The Grand Inquisitor." It's based off an article I wrote a couple years back for a culture criticism website called Overthinkingit.com. I think we did a pretty good job truncating the article into a 5-minute video."
On YouTube, Thug Notes is listed under the Education category, which Bauer hopes will draw attention to new ways of teaching literature. "Thug Notes is more a response to the world of ivory-tower academia than overall literature education. Academics are really good at writing books that only academics will read, but they're not very good at making anyone outside of academia care. We want to make these things more accessible to everyone."
"Teaching isn't easy, so I'm not trying to shame teachers for not trying more radical approaches to literature education. But at the very least, I hope the show makes teachers realise that a student won't volunteer their attention. The teacher must seize it."
"Every day we get messages from fans telling us our videos have given them a heightened understanding of the books we cover. It's really encouraging to hear." As well as giving a new perspective on the books being discussed, the unique format of the show seems to have struck a chord with viewers as well.
"The reaction to Thug Notes has been overwhelmingly positive. Whenever you go into something that plays on stereotypes you have to assume that people might not get what we're trying to do. But really, people seem to be getting it. There's the occasional hater who finds the show offensive, but that's to be expected."
"Making the show self-sufficient and pleasing your fans can be a difficult balance," says Bauer, alluding to a Thug Notes episode discussing Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man'. "Our fans were pretty pissed that we interrupted Sparky's lecture with an ad."
Recently, the Thug Notes channel started running a second show: 8-bit Philosophy, which uses imagery and analogies from retro video games to explain philosophical concepts. "I've always been fascinated by philosophy...plus, I've always been interested in video games, so it was logical for me to utilise my passion for it to appeal to an audience that is so active on the web," says Bauer.
"Jacob [Salamon, producer] and I have always known we were going to branch out beyond literature, and 8-bit Philosophy is our first attempt." Over the coming months, the team will transition their channel name to Wisecrack and use it to host a range of "edutainment" shows. "We have a comedic biography show called 'What You May NOT Have Known' in which we describe the accomplishments of some of the world's greatest thinkers...as well as some of their bizarre, less-known tidbits."