Steven He makes comedy sketches, mostly about growing up in China. Even if you don’t know him by name, you’ll probably recognize him from the viral “Emotional damage” sound clip. We had a chance to chat with Steven about how he got started on YouTube, his methodical approach to content creation, his philosophy on failure and more. He had some great advice to share for anyone looking to make a name for themselves on social media, so if that’s you, read on.
Video views: 2,265,080,654
Content type: Comedy
User created: Mar 3rd, 2019
A side-step into social media
Though Steven He is relatively new to YouTube — he started his channel during the COVID-19 pandemic — he’s been acting since he was 13 years old. “I went the traditional route of getting a bachelor’s degree in acting, going to New York, training in the Neighborhood Playhouse and auditioning hundreds of times,” Steven explains. “It was the pandemic that drove me to have to be creative because all of a sudden my entire industry was gone.”
No amount of dedication or prestigious training could overcome the impact COVID-19 had on the entertainment industry. “There were no auditions,” Steven recalls. “The two jobs that I had booked were canceled or on hold. And so while I was sitting locked in the house … I was thinking what I could do to progress my career.”
That’s when Steven decided to give social media a try. Originally, it was just part of a strategy to get more traditional acting work. “I came up with the idea of using social media and reach and viewership that I command as leverage against the auditions of the producers, the casting directors.” Indeed, Steven sees social media and content creation as extremely effective marketing tools, even for more traditional businesses: “I have helped many, many grow in very, very impressive ways with the use of social media … I just think it is extraordinarily effective compared to what we currently have or in the past ten years — 50 years, probably — with TV ads and traditional ads …. Social media is the way to go for businesses in the future.”
So, Steven He began making content, and it wasn’t long before he’d grown a substantial audience for himself. “I realized, ‘Wait a second, this is actually way better than being an actor,’” Steven recalls. “So now I’m a creator through and through.”
A creator, through and through
With experience in both traditional acting and online content creation, Steven He strongly prefers the latter. When asked why, he responds enthusiastically:
“Oh my God — there are many, many reasons for me. The most significant ones are that it is in your hands when it comes to YouTube … I think of all the auditions I went through — it was someone else’s decision and it was rarely ever about your work.”
Steven points out that there are dozens of factors at play when it comes to casting decisions, and your ability to act is just one of them. “It was usually about, ‘Oh, you’re two inches too tall,’ or ‘you got the wrong hair color,’ or, you know, ‘you don’t match the female lead well.’”
Steven also says that, sometimes, the casting directors aren’t really looking for anyone to begin with: “I’ve had experiences where I spend two hours learning my lines … [I] get into the audition and the casting director doesn’t even look at me because they already have the cast.”
When it comes to acting, Steven emphasizes that the decision is always somebody else’s: “You really don’t have power as an actor in an audition.”
YouTube is different
For Steven, YouTube is different. “On YouTube, I believe you do have power. It’s entirely up to you whether your videos get views or not. In a way, it’s kind of like my experience in the traditional world felt like it was someone else’s decision whether I can make a living or I can get a job or I can be successful or not … But on YouTube, it’s the decision of the entire world. Not one person decides who’s successful, but hundreds of millions of people decide, ‘Hey, I like this guy. I like his videos.’”
While that sense of power and control over your own success is a big motivator for Steven, a career on YouTube offers other benefits, as well: “The fact that you’re in control, the fact that you are the owner of your own business, you make the decisions, you work how and when and the way you want to work.”
Making YouTube work for him
While Steven He now considers content-making his career, that wasn’t his original goal. In fact, he was only vaguely aware of the possibility of making money online when he was first starting out.
“I’d seen, you know, the Logan Paul’s driving Lamborghinis. I’d heard that some creators can be financially very successful,” Steven explains, “but to me, I looked at it as a pure strategy, as leverage, as walking up to a producer and saying, ‘hey, if you wouldn’t mind three million extra viewers, cast me.’”
Now, with more than 10 million subscribers, Steven He generates most of his income through YouTube AdSense and sponsorships. He reveals that sponsorships are much more profitable than AdSense per video, but adds, “Of course, not everybody is sponsored, whereas everybody does have an audience.”
Steven and his team sell sponsorships in the form of integrations. These are 60-second promotions that are integrated into each skit. “My format is usually a comedy sketch that lasts about two minutes,” Steven says. “From zero to two minutes is the actual skit. I want to look at the integration from two minutes to three minutes, and then after three minutes, I would add other content like bloopers, extra jokes or just me talking to the audience.” This format helps keep viewers watching right through the sponsored segment, making Steven He’s sponsorships even more valuable to advertisers.
How to write a Steven He sketch
Steven He takes a structured approach to content creation. “I’m friends with a lot of comedy sketch creators on YouTube … and I’m well aware that I’m the only one that developed a system when it comes to writing,” Steven says. “I’m currently the only one that uses it, which is looking at writing not as a creative thing, but as a scientific thing.”
Steven’s writing process begins with research. In this phase, he tries to determine what will lead to the highest click-through rate. This helps him come up with an idea for a video, which in turn drives the thumbnail and title.
“Then I go write jokes about that theme or topic,” Steven says. “That’s the uniqueness — I write about 30 jokes.” These can take many forms, from a verbal punchline to an audio or visual cue to performance, props or even frame composition. “Then, I curate them to create the experience I want to deliver.”
With jokes in hand, Steven then begins putting them in order and crafting a narrative for his video. “Usually, I have my biggest joke in the first seven seconds,” he explains. “Then, in my mind … I can have seven, eight seconds to set up for another punch line.” From there, the cycle repeats as Steven works his way down the list.
In between jokes, Steven weaves narrative beats to keep the video moving. “I weave it through with narrative; I build the characters and turn it into a script.”
Success through trial and error
On YouTube, getting viewers to click is the first step in building an audience. “I spend a lot of time studying and researching … you can look at the trending board, and you can look at the front page,” Steven tells us. He explains that he uses a fresh browser to look at YouTube.com so that his previous behaviors do not influence the recommendations. “Judging by the things that pop up in front of you, those would be the things that have the extraordinarily high interest because this is not skewed by your performance history.”
This kind of research helps identify click-worthy topics, but Steven admits that there is still plenty of trial and error involved. “The way I think about it is it’s nearly impossible to hit everyone head-on … If I make 100 videos, you know, five of them might hit. Five of them might be, well, good performers and they might attract people.” He says he used to worry more about the performance of each individual video, but over time, he’s found that the numbers game works better in the long run.
Failing to predict success
“This is a personal, interesting phenomenon: I’m always wrong when it comes to predicting the success of the video. Always … I will work for like a month on a video, and I’ll think it’s the best video in the world … I upload it. Nobody watches it.”
And the opposite can also be true. “I made a video called ‘When Asians Want to be Musicians,’ and it was like a 90-second skit … Then I was repurposing it for Shorts, so I edited the 90 seconds down to 60 … and I had 30 seconds left of rubbish of things that I cut.” As luck would have it, Steven decided to post that last 30 seconds of material — it turned out to be the skit’s most popular iteration.
The production process
Script in hand, Steven He is ready to move on to production. “I’m really, really lucky,” he says, “and perhaps one of the biggest channels at my … unproduced production level. The majority of channels who are above 10 million subscribers and are generating the viewership that I do have massive teams of dozens of people … [and] take months and months to produce every video. But I keep it right down to the amateur level.”
With such a simple production, Steven can handle most of it himself. “I’m the one that presses the record button,” he says, “I’m the one that sets up my mic and my costume.” This keeps the production simple — and Steven likes it that way: “It feels at home. It feels very intimate, like, to my audience.”
Steven writes and records each skit himself, sometimes with the help of a camera operator when needed. He records all the lines for each character in the skit at once, then switches camera angle and costume for the second character. Recording usually takes about two hours. Then, when the footage is transferred and camera batteries are charging, Steven sends the footage to his editor. He’s been working with an editor for a while now, but he still does his own editing from time to time — “Just when I get a vision that is really, really specific.”
This whole process takes about a week, with writing the script being the most challenging part. “I find the writing the hardest,” Steven says, “but we’ve been finding ways to get more efficient and better at it.”
Time to upload
Once the video is ready to post, Steven uploads it to YouTube with the title and thumbnail he came up with at the beginning of the writing process. “There’s a few different kinds of thoughts,” Steven reflects. “There are some that leave a very vague and wide-open sort of title … so you have no idea what the video is about. But YouTubers are very successful in that.” Steven cites MoistCr1TiKaL as an example of a YouTuber who can attract viewers with vague titles like “I can’t believe this.”
As a comedian, Steven takes a different approach. “I would be the kind to try and deliver a laugh in the thumbnail. I will try to deliver a laugh in the few words I have in the title, and then punch it with the thumbnail.” For Steven, this is an effective way to get viewers to click on his video.
“My main strategies are algorithm-based,” Steven says, “so studying the algorithm first, understanding it, and then [asking] how do I perform within the algorithm? How do I get click-throughs from 9 percent to 15 percent? How do I get retention from 60 to 80 percent?”
In this data-driven approach to content creation, Steven considers everything from the writing and editing to the performance to the color pallet and camera used.
The YouTube Cheat Code
Steven highlights YouTube Shorts as another important factor in his channel’s success: “Shorts are another thing that’s absolutely blown up in the last two years, and it’s an absolute cheat code.” He points out that your reach is automatically about 60 times greater when posting Shorts versus long-form video. He says, “An average YouTube video is about nine to 12 minutes long and the average TikTok is about 15 seconds.” At that rate, the average viewer can watch maybe five to six videos per hour compared to upwards of 300 Shorts in the same time period. “Whether it’s YouTube Shorts or Reels or TikToks or any short-form scrolling system, your reach will be extraordinarily high.”
This is why Steven sees Shorts as a highly effective way to boost your view count. At the same time, however, short-form video does have its downsides. “The good part is the almost exaggerated numbers,” Steven says, “You can reach a crazy, crazy amount of people very fast.” In his experience, Steven has found that a short with an average watch time of 50 seconds is all but guaranteed to reach five million views. “You can explode and go up to 10 million subscribers, 20 million subscribers in a ridiculously short time … in a time that would make YouTubers five years ago just baffled.”
At the same time, this unprecedented reach comes with its own challenges. “It splits people’s attention into 300 videos an hour … It is significantly more difficult to create an impression or a relationship,” Steven points out. “And that’s not the audience’s fault at all. It’s our brains. We’re not capable of making 300 significant memories an hour.” For this reason, Steven still sees long-form videos as an important part of his content strategy:
“The significant audience, those who know my name, those who come back to the channel, those who talk about me in class or with friends, those are the long-form audience for me.”
If you hang out on the internet, you’ve likely been confronted with the “Emotional damage” sound clip on more than one occasion. But when Steven He first posted the original skit, he had no idea that simple line would gain so much traction.
“I repeat, I am the absolute worst at predicting success,” Steven reminds us before revealing the skit’s backstory. He recorded the skit while he was stuck in Ireland for about a month waiting for his U.S. visa to be renewed.
“My mom shot it for me,” Steven recalls. They planned two days of shooting, but after a successful first day, Steven woke up on the second day with a fever: “I was not feeling well at all … And I said to my mom, ‘Mom, I don’t think we should make the skit.’” We can thank Steven’s mom for convincing him to persevere. Her response? “Oh, man up.”
In the end, the skit made it onto YouTube. For a few months, it performed below average. Then, something happened. “I remember all of a sudden in one week, all of my friends texted me, and they said, “Steven, get off my screen. I can see you everywhere!” That’s when Steven realized the clip had gone extremely viral. Despite this, Steven remains humble: “I don’t think I deserve the credit for that at all. I think that’s the credit of the people who are who are using it … I really just sat back and watched.”
For Steven He, success comes from putting yourself out there over and over again, and studying what works and what doesn’t. “My company is called Failure Management, and it is a principle I very, very much believe in after getting rejected 3,000+ times as an actor and making 200 videos that nobody watched.” He says that dwelling on the performance of any single video is a mistake. “You have to make 100 videos and they’re probably not going to work out,” he says, “so you make another one, and you try your best on every single one … by the time you have 300 videos, maybe one is good.” He concludes, “That’s the way I think about success.”
To those aspiring YouTubers just starting out, Steven has this to say: “I would very, very much recommend you get your understanding of the algorithm itself.” He says your choice of platform doesn’t matter as much as understanding how that platform works. Then, you can craft a strategy. For example, you might target a certain click-through rate or focus on viewer retention. “It’s going to fail,” Steven reminds us. “Heads up, it’s going to fail … but by 20 plans later, I think you’re going to hit something good.”
He also advises new creators to create a backlog of videos by posting a batch of 10 or more videos on day one. “If you have one single video of 10 minutes, 20 minutes, then your session time is literally capped to 20 minutes max … that is doing yourself a disservice.”
It takes time to build an audience
It also helps to target a specific audience with your uploads. “Once you have an understanding of the algorithm, you’ll have an understanding of the audience,” Steven says. Then, you can optimize your content to reach that audience. “By optimize,” he says, “I just mean make content that you think that group of people would enjoy.”
Steven says it’s important to take your time in building an audience. “I actually made this mistake myself,” he admits. He recently spent 11 months producing a scripted narrative with a cast full of his best friends and it completely flopped. “The performance, frankly, was the worst the channel had seen in about two years.” He says the reason for this is that he hadn’t built an audience for this kind of content on his channel. “I neglected the amount of time it takes to build on YouTube … that is a massive lesson I just kind of learned myself.”
What’s next for Steven He?
Steven plans to continue making comedy sketches for YouTube, and he still acts on the side for fun. However, he does plan to shift away from content centered on his upbringing in China to focus more on current events.
“I think this is a very interesting kind of place that not many people have taken on YouTube yet,” he says. “I want to be the Jimmy Fallon in comedy sketch format.” His goal is to become a go-to creator that viewers seek out for his perspective the next time someone gets slapped at the Oscars.