The Rulers Of YouTube

I suppose it’s entirely possible that there is someone out there who doesn’t have a computer or a cell phone, who lives in a cabin or cave, and who hasn’t encountered the Gregory Brothers and their contribution to contemporary culture. If you are one of these digitally uninitiated, go find help. Borrow a computer now, go to YouTube, and look up Michael Gregory’s channel, which is called Schmoyoho, and watch/listen to their audiovisual tracks.

The Gregorys are the actual brothers Evan, Michael, and Andrew, and Evan’s wife, Sarah. They are consummate musicians and cultural revolutionaries. I’m not exactly sure when I first started seeing/hearing their offerings, but I definitely recall being fascinated by the case of Antoine Dodson and the surrounding viral hoopla. Antoine was a guy from Huntsville, Alabama, who wound up on a local news channel, WAFF/NBC, delivering a monologue about saving his sister Kelly from a home-invading rapist, “some idiot in the projects.”

Something about Antoine’s witty delivery and hooky street phraseology made the news clip an Internet sensation and the realisation of Andy Warhol’s iconic maxim that “in the future everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.” Enter the Gregory Brothers, who reached out to Antoine and did a musical remix of the news video called the “Bed Intruder Song.” As of right now the original “Bed Intruder” stands at 131 million–plus views. It reached number 89 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became YouTube’s most popular song of 2010. Despite its being a weird novelty event, I always thought “Bed Intruder” was in fact a really great song, and so I kept following the Gregorys’ endeavors. Several years later, Blondie was seeking material for a new recording cycle, and I figured, now is the time to get in touch with the Gregory Brothers.

Debbie; my wife, Barbara; and I met them, and eventually we went to their Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio and shot an episode of “Songify the News,” a recurring program they do setting events culled from the ongoing televised political circus to their music. We wound up along with Joe Biden in a piece called “Naked Men” (only 600,000-some views so far) that dealt in part with Joe’s discomfort talking to other politicians while naked at the Senate gym. Here we are again at the Gregorys’ Brooklyn loft studio, on a now rapidly gentrifying industrial street, to learn more about this unique group.

Chris Stein: What was your first entrance into the YouTube community? Do you date back to the video-responses period?

Andrew Gregory: I think everyone of our generation’s first experience using YouTube was to make a comment on an Ali G video. “Man, this is a great video, but I can’t help wanting to make a sarcastic comment.”

Michael Gregory: We didn’t at first realise there was a community of people doing this; we just put up videos and then found out later.

Evan Gregory: The video responses were a big part of people expressing “fanship” for our material and interacting with it.

Chris: Why did they put the kibosh on the video responses? Because of people piggybacking on the success of others?

Michael: Spam.

Andrew: We see the worst stuff on YouTube all the time; the trashiest stuff becomes funny if you see enough of it. There were channels out there that did nothing but reply videos to the most popular videos in an attempt to game the system by having the same video title.

Evan: As the site grew, the video-response system became more and more likely just to be used as spam rather than a real conversation between community members, so eventually YouTube dropped it.

Michael: There were a whole bunch of channels called the Reply Girl channels. It would be girls who would name the video the same as the original, but it would just be “my response” or “my reaction” to Kanye West taking the mic from Taylor Swift or whatever it was, and it would just be a girl with a ton of cleavage, almost like the camera wasn’t centered on her face, so you just saw her mouth and cleavage.

Andrew: “I just have to respond to Justin Bieber’s new video!”

Michael: I regret not making a Reply Girl channel; it was a huge missed opportunity for us.

Andrew: A year ago, there was a big trend in spam on YouTube that we thought was so funny. This is getting really meta, but it was people pretending to be nerds from Reddit making comments on videos referencing weird trends on Reddit. It surpassed spam and went to art territory. These people had to be working on it full-time, because they were doing it on so many videos, and then YouTube cracked down on it.

Evan: Here you had “artists,” let’s say, who were parodying spam…

Andrew: They were comment artists.

Evan: They were comment artists using the trappings of spam to make their parodies.

Chris: The impression among the masses is that because YouTube is accessible to everyone, it’s somehow easy to break into.

Sarah Gregory: I feel lucky that we got in when we did. We were among the first wave of people to use YouTube as our primary forum. It’s so saturated now, it’s pretty hard.

Chris: What about monetizing this? Do you guys get any dough out of it?

Michael: That didn’t even exist at the beginning — it would just be, “Oh, lots of people saw this video, so we get to write this jingle on the side.” It was really our calling card.

Sarah: Even if you don’t get paid for a gig when you’re starting out, you’re still pumped when 50 people show up. I didn’t ever think we could make a living putting ourselves on YouTube.

Chris: Sarah, when did you hook up with Evan?

Sarah: I met all the guys within the same year.

Andrew: Michael’s first summer living here, I had started a side hustle of picking up free furniture on Craigslist and then selling it on Craigslist.

Evan: Everyone aspires to get in that game.

Sarah: It wasn’t as successful as his attempts to become a Reddit comments artist.

Andrew: It was sort of before the bedbug paranoia that swept New York City; it was easier to flip couches on Craigslist in 2006.

Evan: The YouTube channel we operate today is the one Michael started 10 years ago. Michael had put up a couple of music videos, also really fun. These are ways we can do music as a group when we’re not in a minivan driving around — it’s totally another way.

Chris: Was there one breakthrough moment?

Sarah: There were a lot of breakthrough moments. We were really lucky. It was a big deal when one of our videos got 40,000 views.

Chris: What was the first one?

Michael: It was called “Auto-Tune the News #2: pirates. drugs. gay marriage” [almost nine million views]. Rachel Maddow put it on her show, and that helped it get bigger. She gave us a huge boost.

Sarah: We have to give a lot of credit to Katie Couric, who was featured in that hook.

Michael: She was really cool about it. She was on Leno, and they showed it.

Sarah: And her voice was just gold.

Michael: She is one of the greatest accidental singers of all time. The R. Kelly of singing accidentally.

Chris: I really want to know if the double-rainbow guy was tripping.

Sarah: The “Double Rainbow” guy [36 million–plus views] is just one of the sweetest, most authentic souls you’ll ever meet. He admits to being a user of drugs, but he was not using at that moment. It was just the power of the rainbow.

Andrew: The reason I believe he wasn’t high then is because he readily admits in the video description on many of his other videos to being under the influence in them.

Evan: The other thing that makes him believable is that we’ve met him many times, we’ve hung out over the years and had him onstage with us, and to be in this guy’s presence is to meet a man who is operating on a different plane. At any given moment he’s communing with the world in the spiritual realm.

Evan: He lives on the top of a mountain.

Michael: In the same place where he shot that video. To hang out with Bear for a night is to witness everything as beautiful and magnificent, even if it’s mundane. It’s like living the double rainbow every day.

Chris: Maybe there’s an analogy to Antoine Dodson there. In spite of the miserableness of the situation,  Antoine was able to put this positive spin on his monologue, and that’s what hooked everybody. Did you hang out with him?

Sarah: Antoine was noticeably different because he had called the news station to come and cover this attempted rape. They weren’t getting the response they wanted from law enforcement, so they were like, “Let’s make this a thing,” and they made it a thing.

Chris: You got to meet Joe Biden.

Andrew: It was a dream come true.

Michael: I’d say he’s the best male accidental singer.

Chris: Do you think Obama watches any of the videos?

Evan: It’s hard to say. We know Joe Biden has seen a couple of our videos. So I think we can say with some degree of confidence that somebody has shown Obama something.

Sarah: I’d guess that his daughters did.

Andrew: When we met Biden, he had a really inspirational appearance where he was talking about how you don’t need a handgun to defend your home, you just need a shotgun, and that’s what he tells his wife to do [“Flying Robots — Songify the News #3,” two-and-a-half million–plus views]. It’s really hilarious that he’s telling his wife to shoot a shotgun off the balcony, ’cause she’s, like, 4’11″—it seems like it would throw her backward. His staff said, when that song came out, “We couldn’t stop listening to it.”

Chris: Do you guys identify with the Marx Brothers?

Evan: Great question!

Chris: In my version, Michael is Harpo, Evan is Groucho, and Andrew is Chico.

Evan: What about Sarah? Is she Zeppo or Margaret Dumont?

Sarah: What about the other, the straight-man brother? Gummo?

Everyone: That’s you!

Sarah: Oh, great!

Chris: She’s the good-looking, normal one. We heard a story that the Marx Brothers went to meet some producer who kept them waiting, and he returned to his office to find them naked with a fire made out of all his furniture.

Evan: Once they were stars and on top of the world, they could do whatever they wanted.

Debbie Harry: They were well-hated by many people.

Andrew: They pranked too hard?

Debbie: There were pictures they wanted to do that got blocked by studio heads.

Chris: Do you think you guys could go mad with power?

Evan: We can only assume so… yes.

Sarah: I’d love to try.

Evan: Throughout history, the people who have been given power and stayed sane are a tiny minority.

Debbie: And you assume you all will remain sane?

Evan: I have to guess that we would screw it up.

Sarah: We would totally lose it.

Michael: Being sane is such a bore.

Chris: You are knocking out product on a regular basis.

Michael: We try to put out a video every month or anytime something really embarrassing happens.

Chris: What is your take on Trump?

Evan: Huge fans.

Michael: He’s the best breakout accidental singer of 2015, no doubt. If there were a Grammy for that — and there isn’t yet, but there probably will be by 2020 — he would win.

Andrew: Our profession gives us some very strange incentives about who to root for. I remember the 2012 primaries, when Newt Gingrich won in South Carolina; we literally were celebrating.

Evan: Jumping for joy.

Andrew: Whooping and clapping! “Newt! Newt! We’ve got another two months of Newt!”

Evan: “He’s staying in!”

Andrew: Which was not necessarily what I would have expected my political position to be. Obviously I was a Romney man.

Michael: Not a lot of people know this, but Gingrich was secretly in the first five “Auto-Tune the News.” He was the very first person to sing in “Auto-Tune the News #1” [almost five million views]. Romney has this grumbly voice; he’s only a good singer about 30 percent of the time. Gingrich is on point all the time. He’s like Beyoncé.

Evan: That’s the key to being a great accidental singer:  You are already physically using your instrument akin to the way an intentional singer is using it.

Chris: Is the melody suggested by the rhythm of the speech?

Sarah: Ideally.

Michael: If Romney were to say, “I think poor kids can get by being janitors” in his grumbly, sixtysomething-year-old voice, it’s not going to be a good melody. But Newt Gingrich, who’s older than Romney, has just somehow used his voice really well.

Chris: He was Speaker of the House.

Michael: It reminds me of my voice teachers in college. Even my older voice teachers had preserved their voice so well. They’d sound like a 25-year-old. Newt Gingrich and Joe Biden have taken care of their voices so well, by supporting them on the breath, voice teachers would love them. So when Newt Gingrich says [high-pitched Gingrich imitation], “I think, even if a kid is poor, he can be a janitor and go to school…”

Sarah: There’s this psychological component, especially with men — it has to do with the note they speak on. A lot of guys want to sound tougher, so they speak low down in their chest in a grumbly voice, and it makes them feel more macho. But a guy like Newt, God bless his pudgy little soul, is so confident, he doesn’t care where his natural pitch lies.

Michael: That’s real confidence; speaking high and not caring about it. And that’s also why women are better bets for accidental singers.

Chris: Was there any foreshadowing of your collaborations?

Evan: When we were in high school we would make our own comics, cutting up existing comics and reassembling them. That does somewhat correspond to what we are doing now in video.

Chris: William Burroughs would have been proud of you.

Andrew: It all started with a bad comic strip that we all really enjoyed ironically. It was about a high school coach/athletic director.

Evan: It was one of those dramatic comics.

Andrew: We challenged ourselves to make it funny by combining it with lines from other comics. Weirdly, I later became so obsessed with this one comic strip, Gil Thorp, that I began a correspondence with the author when it changed authors, and I couldn’t tell if it had actually gotten good or if I had gone so deep into my ironic appreciation that I started liking it. He wound up naming a character after me. There’s |a character in Gil Thorp from the mid-2000s named after me.

Michael: What’s the first line about you?

Andrew: “Don’t look now, but it’s my conceited ex-boyfriend!” There’s an online forum for fans of the strip called The Bucket, which is the name of the restaurant all the high school players hang out in. One of the main complaints about the character Andrew Gregory is that for the entirety of his two years at Milford High School, he is always referred to by both names. Why is
Andrew Gregory always “Andrew Gregory”? Jarvis White is just “Jarvis” and Ricky Sanchez is “Ricky.”

Michael: We didn’t do a lot of stuff together in the beginning, because there was a big age gap.

Andrew: Also, I would say that’s the time in our lives when we got along with each other the least. Now we hang out together all the time. We’re working together all the time. When we’re not working, we get together and hang out. When I was 14 and Evan was 17, that’s the worst we ever got along. When I was 17 and Michael was 14, that was the worst for us.

Barbara Sicuranza: Any other major influences in music or comedy, apart from the Marx Brothers?

Evan: When we were kids, we did listen to Smothers Brothers albums. There’s the obvious thread of being brothers that had a stage act.

Michael: We love Monty Python, because it’s so absurd. Newer comedy music we’ve been big fans of: Weird Al Yankovic, Tenacious D, Lonely Island; they’re all examples of the way comedy music has gone. Now you need to sound really good, not just do a novelty parody and throw in a whistle. A song can exist on its own and sound like it’s produced for the radio.

Andrew: Today there’s much less fart folly. Although I recently went back and listened to Weird Al’s “Fat” and there was a lot more fart folly than I remembered.

Evan: You’ve been thinking about it through rose-coloured glasses.

Michael: We should use more fart folly.

Chris: Any Lenny Bruce? He was always intertwining politics with his comedy.

Andrew: Growing up, I don’t think Lenny Bruce would have flown in our household. We weren’t allowed to watch The Simpsons for a long time, which we wound up watching a ton of, and I’d say that’s a pretty heavy comedic influence. We were lucky that we had a Russian exchange student who came and lived with our family, and what better to do with a foreign exchange student to teach him a language than sit him down and watch TV with him? If Vova wants to watch whatever he wants to watch, just let Vova watch it. Our parents were like, If this 18-year-old is in our house watching The Simpsons, we can’t tell our 16-year-old and 13-year-old not to watch what Vova is watching. Then our parents realised this is a really funny, smart, harmless show.

Chris: Were your parents musically inclined?

Evan: They’re great musicians; they are not professional musicians. They’re both teachers. They’re both really strong singers. They both play the piano. Dad plays the guitar. Music was around quite a bit.

Chris: Sarah, did you have a similar conservative upbringing?

Sarah: Yeah, I did, actually. The Simpsons wasn’t allowed in our household, either. I watched it at friends’ houses.

Chris: Do you think Donald Trump is going to win?

Andrew: It’s his to lose.

Michael: I didn’t know there was any question about it. I just assumed everyone had already accepted Trump as Lord and Saviour. I’m just looking forward to him redrafting the Constitution into a weird Old Testament–Constitution hybrid — that’s already been happening. I feel like we’re already moving toward that hybrid. Like, why even separate them when people combine them so much?

Andrew: Right, just back to the true intentions of our founding fathers.

Sarah: Make America great again!

Evan: I can’t wait to be great again.

Michael: One thing I really appreciate from [Ben] Carson, another outsider, is that he’s helped us break this stereotype of brain surgeons having to be smart. That was a real obstacle for people before. They didn’t think they could be a doctor, but now we know.

Andrew: All rocket scientists are now thinking, “Guys, nobody run for office and screw this up for us.”  They won’t be using “brain surgery” anymore. We’re gonna have the smart market cornered with “rocket science.” The next thing you know the CEO of Boeing is going to run for office and screw it up for all of ’em. ■

For the full article grab the May 2016 issue of MAXIM Australia.

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Bloody Maria