An Interview with Mark Douglas
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Mark Douglas, if you haven’t already heard of him, is a part of the Key of Awesome. Previously Barely Political, the Key of Awesome team has been making videos for YouTube since its early days and has to date accumulated close to 3 billion total views and more than 5 million subscribers since the channel’s first viral video, “Crush on Obama.”
Sitting down with Mark was a little surreal being that he’s kind of internet video royalty. He and his colleagues started making videos way back when a dog riding a skateboard still had the power to break the internet and email forwards weren’t just coming from your one lonely uncle. Mark, being buried under work all morning, hadn’t spoken to any other humans yet, so we chatted about the weather a bit, and then I jumped right into those early days before he started making videos.
“In those days I was a struggling comic and in a sketch comedy group. Every time I did it though, it was like a one man sketch just trying to figure a way to get some funny characters in there or segway into some funny songs. I remember then, too, there being this kind of feeling where if you would go on stage and do an impression, people would automatically tune out and think it was lame. It was like, not cool to try too hard. Then I just started doing 3-minute YouTube videos doing a lot of the same things and pushing all of my talents forward there, and it felt like it was much more appreciated and still does.”
“Did you start out with your own channel or team up with other video producers?” I asked coyly. I knew a bit about Mark’s early years, but it was interesting listening to him tell it. You could tell he still loved what he was doing and enjoyed talking about it.
“I was actually lucky enough to come onto Ben Relles’ channel, which was called Barely Political at the time. He had a big hit, “Crush on Obama,” which was kind of one of the first big viral hits that was actually intentional. Other videos at the time where just like dogs on skateboards and stuff like that.”
I laughed a bit to myself remembering watching “Crush on Obama” with a group of my classmates in college. We thought it was hilarious and loved how much hard work people were starting to put into internet material then.
I’M GOING TO DO EVERYTHING I CAN TO WORK HERE.
“The company Next New Networks got interested in the channel after that and eventually bought it. I used to hang out with the main writer at the time, Rusty Ward, a lot, and he asked me to come in to do some voiceover stuff. It was a great time for politics, too, so I was doing impressions of Giuliani and John Edwards and Bill Clinton, and I started doing these fake phone calls between different candidates, which got me in the door. When I saw the environment these guys were in, being able to just come up with this stuff and get it out the next day or week, the immediacy and how many people were seeing it, I was just like, wow this is amazing, I’m going to do everything I can to work here. I started writing songs for the channel and eventually they offered me a full time position. I think of it as, not the beginning of my profession career, but definitely where things started to happen for me. I haven’t had a day job since then.”
During that last sentence, I’m pretty sure he was knocking on his desk.
Managing a Channel with 5 million + Subscribers
Mark started as a contributor and now oversees everything at The Key of Awesome. I’ve always wondered whether creators find is easier to specialize and join up with a team of other specialist creators or try to have a hand in everything and switch positions when necessary. Mark clued me into his process.
“Well early on it was all sort of shared. I wasn’t involved in everything at the time, we were all sharing the responsibilities and we were all kind of in the dark and figuring it out together. Ben Relles was really smart about that, and Michael Stevens from VSauce was working at the same channel at the time, and he was always really smart about analytics and just knowing how YouTube worked in general. I was always a little less interested in that aspect, but I always kind of benefitted from having these smart young people around me who did geek out on those kind of things. I just kinda tend to focus on the things I enjoy more, like making funny stuff.”
From Barely Political to The Key of Awesome
Barely Political went through a lot of name changes before landing on The Key of Awesome. They somehow maintained consistently good viewership throughout their lifetime, though — no easy task for any brand.
“Tell me about the many changes to the Barely Productions brand and how you worked within those. I understand you all took a couple turns before eventually getting to The Key of Awesome.”
A LOT OF IT HAPPENED ORGANICALLY, WHICH IS THE BEST.
“A lot of it happened organically, which is the best. Right before Obama got elected, it was a time when pop culture and politics merged so you could put out political stuff every day and everyone one was actually paying attention. Once he got elected though, everyone kinda chilled out and there wasn’t enough to really talk about, so we had to make a move. We were called Barely Digital there for a while, and we were doing tech and gaming stuff and just finding a new niche. But eventually Key of Awesome became the main thing. We were trying to have Barely Political be a variety channel, but The Key of Awesome became the most popular thing and as time progressed, I suggested changing the name. We went through a couple other name changes but now it’s landed at The Key of Awesome.”
“Did you ever feel out of element during the changes? I know some creators struggle with falling in and out of fashion as fads change”
“Well the early political stuff for me was a little outside of my wheel house; I was always just a little outside of my element then, but we made it a broader and broader which was a little more me.
I had done a couple songs that had done really well so, Ben asked, if there was something a little more like what you would wanna do, what would that be? I had an idea for a series where I would write a song every week. That was something I used to do, and I remembered some advice that Stephen Colbert said once which was to ‘get yourself in a jam.’”
“So you adapted that to your creative process for YouTube as well?”
“Yeah, I said every week give me a funny suggestion, and I’ll write a song and play on an acoustic guitar, and I would sing and play it in front of the camera. I pitched that to Ben and he said well, what if you made a new song and video every week? I thought it would be really hard, but I said I would give it a try, so that was kinda where the Key of Awesome came from. The title kinda of just happened, too. As we were putting out the first video, we were still on the fence about it, and Key of Awesome was the least objectionable title we had on the list. We also needed some kind of outro stinger, and someone sang something kinda silly. So I found those notes on the keyboard and we slapped it on there, and that little stinger was what made everyone actually like The Key of Awesome as the title. Like everybody was a little lukewarm about it but once it had that outro, it kinda stuck in everyone’s head.”
Adapting to Your Audience
Having done nothing remotely as successful as Barely Productions has, I felt a little nervous about the next question, thinking it might come off as a offence, but Mark was really receptive. “When it comes to your content do you have a problem with adapting to what viewers want to see, or do you see that as part of the process?”
“Yeah, well, it’s one of the things actually I kinda pride myself on actually, the ability to adapt. A certain percent of what you make on YouTube just has to be topical. There’s room for characters and things that are evergreen, but a large percentage just has to be current. Obviously, you can do whatever the hell you want with it, but I have tons of ideas and demos of original funny songs just sitting around because I know if I parody the next One Direction song it’s gonna do way better. Even a shitty one will do better than the original really funny idea that I have because nobody is looking for it. You are always trying to grab the tail of something until you have your own tail. But even then it’s still kinda hard.”
“How do you keep it going? You’ve been making videos for so long.”
“Doing improv, I found out that you can make something amazing out of just a suggestion that somebody throws out, and it can be way funnier than a brilliant idea that you have ruminated on for months that you think is going to be a masterpiece. It’s always kind of worked like that, and I feel like ideas are cheap and it’s more about execution. It’s just a volume business, so just being willing to try anything really helps.”
Making a Key of Awesome Video
If you don’t already follow The Key of Awesome, you can see behind the scenes videos of a ton of their songs on their channel. I wanted to hear straight from Mark, though, how the whole process takes place.
“Can you walk me through the production of a parody from start to finish?”
“We are always kinda of looking at the charts and Vevo. At that point, if we can’t decide between say a Taylor Swift video where she’s in the middle of a desert with real tigers and elephants verses a maybe a Bruno Mars video where he’s dancing in front of a white sheet by himself, we’re gonna do the Bruno Mars one. Mainly because we can recreate it cheaply. We have gone out and done videos like “Bad Blood,” where we went nuts and spent some money on it, but it’s always kinda of a gift when it’s just a simple video and its popular. Sometimes there will be a video where it’s hard to find anything to make fun of, but I feel like we can usually find some kind of premise and make a video around it.
Most of 2016 I was kind of writing by myself, but now I’ve brought some writers into the mix. We brought this guy Evan Kaufman in, who is a really funny improvisor sketch comedy guy.
To begin, I will schedule a voice conference with Evan, and we’ll brainstorm for whatever song we are doing and we’ll just spitball for about an hour and try to find something funny about it. We really take the video apart and make notes on everything, about a page of notes gives me confidence that we can do a good job on a video. The biggest part of that process is just finding some kind of premise that we can hang the whole video on conceptually and what we should and should not comment on. We usually know the right premise right when we come up with it, and whoever is the point person on that video will then write a rough draft. A couple days later we will take a look at the draft, make more notes and make another draft and take it from there. I try to think of it as that three-part process of writing.
IT’S ALWAYS KIND OF LIKE PUTTING TOGETHER THE CAR AS IT GOES DOWN THE ROAD.
While all that’s happening, because we’re always on a timeline and trying to catch the crest of an original videos popularity, we will have a pre-production meeting to figure out everything we’re going to need while it’s being rewritten. Even though the script isn’t done by that point, we should know some of the things we’re going to need, which actors we’ll be using, locations etc. Cara Alpert is my costume person, so if there are any big things we’re going to need, she works those things out — like a special Nicky Minaj outfit or pink wig or something like that. We’ll start doing those broad things and as soon as the script is done, we’ll have another full meeting with everyone involved in that video. Everyone includes Doug Larsen, who is our swiss-army-knife, Lisa our producer, Cara, and if it’s something fancy we will contact an outside DP or hair person or what ever else we need. It’s always kind of like putting together the car as it goes down the road. Then hopefully we can record the song just before we shoot it; sometimes we’ve recorded the whole video with just a demo and then we have to go in and record over the voiceover, which isn’t ideal because it makes it a bit more difficult, but it can be done if necessary. Then we just hope everything lines up, and everyone is available and we can get it out as quickly as possible. We always try to post on Saturdays so I tend to come home late every Friday because we are finishing up the video.
Soon as we’re done shooting, we start the edit and then while they are doing that, I’m thinking about what the next video is going to be. So just that repeating itself over and over and over. Its rare that we ever have videos lined up; usually it’s video after video back to back. Sometimes we’re able to get ahead, and it’s a nice feeling, but not normally.”
The Future of the Key of Awesome
“Where do you see the future of KoA going? I noticed you have been plugging a Patreon recently; are you hoping to move little closer to that platform?”
“Yeah we do use Patreon, which honestly took me a little while to get comfortable with just because I’ve never really done anything like that before and I feel like I’m a little more firmly planted in generation x. It has become a nice little sort of fan club, though, for people who are really into what we do. And through the rewards in Patreon, we have a lot more communication with this group of people. Like some of the rewards on Patreon are things like I’ll call you for a chat, and they’re actually into that. Its funny, too, because sometimes I make those calls and I’m like “Hey man how’s it going.” One guy told me once, “You know, I just like what you do, I don’t really do it for the rewards or anything. I’m glad to talk to you, but I just love what you do, and I want you to keep doing it. Don’t feel any pressure!” Which is great. Most of our hardcore fans I can tell are more like me when I was growing up, they’re like super nerdy about comedy. Those are the kind of people I like to talk to, and they have very specific questions about process and you can just tell they really want to make videos, too. In some ways though I hope I’m not responsible for them getting into such a tough industry. When I first came to New York, my acting teachers would always say if you can do something else, please do it, because this is a harsh field. I remembered being like wow, but when I started getting into sketch comedy and getting really specific about what I wanted to do, I knew I was happiest doing music and making people laugh, so there was no other choice.”
Finding Your Craft
“Do you have any advice for YouTubers with that same passion who are trying to get off the ground now?
“If you aspire to be a YouTuber, I would recommend figuring out what your craft is, the thing that you just like doing when no one’s even watching. Try to find a thing that is more of a craft, like if you really love sitting there and editing or something like that, do that. I have been just sitting here working on lyrics for this thing that I’m writing and it kinda feels like I’ve just been whittling wood all day. I can really get into the minutia of it; sometimes, it can drive you crazy, but when you’re done it’s an amazing feeling. For example, there was some industry party that I didn’t get invited to last week but I had so much work to do anyway, I thought well if I would have gone to that I would have been thinking of all of this work I had to do, and it just made me happy that I have this thing that I can go in the lab and do. It’s more important to get specific about exactly what it is that you like doing. It’s not enough to kinda like this and that and that; you have to pick the one thing that you can’t live without and really go after that. You’ll probably end up doing some of those things you’re interested in also, but if you’re not one hundred percent in love with say acting, then you’re not going to have the drive to keep doing it and putting up with the hard times of doing it. I sorta like being in dramatic plays, but if I was working on something I didn’t really like or the piece didn’t work, it was very difficult for me to get any enthusiasm for it. And that’s kinda how I ended up writing. When I started doing my comedy duo writing songs and making sketches though, even the bad shows were worth it. Once, we literally got booed off of a stage in Connecticut — they actually booed until we left — but I was so in love with sketch comedy it didn’t deter me from pursuing it further. Find the one thing that you can’t live without and really go after that.”