On August 15, 1969, hippies from around the country convened for three days at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm in the Catskills for the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. Their numbers totaled 400,000, making the event one of the largest rock music concerts in American history.
In November 2012, comedy troupe the Kloons can draw that many people in any given week. And yet comedians Mitch Lewis, Greg Washburn and Nik Kazoura haven’t been etched into the cultural fabric of Americana just yet. Actually, they aren’t even in a position to quit their day jobs.
That’s because the Kloons are drawing their audience on YouTube, where the audience views for free and where, as a result, revenue streams are trickier to tap into. And so as the Kloons work tirelessly to produce a new video every Friday for half a million fans, the modest bundles they make come based in part on those viewers choosing to click ad banners opening themselves up to superfluous commercials. And really, who chooses to have more commercials in their lives?
The Kloons do. In fact, they made a commercial for free, to help promote Bagelteria (483 Grand Street) after eating there almost every day for three years. When owner Sam Ibrahin lent the Kloons his car to help them move to a new apartment this October, they decided to make a bagel comedy sketch to show their appreciation.
This kind of “aw shucks: community!” story always warms the hearts of Greenpointers, but with the Kloons, the twist is that they’re essentially playing that role in two very disparate worlds: North Brooklyn, and the Internet.
“It’s weird,” said Mitch, 26, in discussing their online fame. “In the world of live theater, you perform and there’s a direct reaction from the audience. With the Internet, it’s so indirect. Right now, I’m probably being recognized on the street about once a month. But I don’t feel that same give-and-take when I’m making the work. People are responding to something I made weeks ago.”
Responses are so strong, in fact, that some fans trek halfway across the earth to meet them. That’s what happened when John Felipo, a Brazilian VFX editor, followed their work, and – after seeing a prompt by the Kloons for all their subscribers to “do something [they’ve] always wanted to do” – got a visa to come to America, then flew out to Anaheim to meet them at a convention and offer up his services. A few weeks later, he was sleeping on their couch in Williamsburg and adding effects to a sketch about bagels.
That online prompt was only one of several the Kloons have fired out to their viewers: audience members frequently send their videos in, and the Kloons splice those fan videos together, part of a process Mitch describes as “blurring the lines between the creator and the consumer.”
Between Mitch and Greg, Mitch more gives off an air of Yoga/Marketing Instructor, and seems to simultaneously express interest in maximizing audience volume and harnessing his Crown Chakra. He is also in charge of media relations, and curates the YouTube message boards closely.
Greg, also 26, is by contrast a wellspring of reserve and control. He shies away from marketing talk and speaks most passionately about the process of creation and collaboration. “With this group, we make our best material when all three minds are involved. With us, one plus one plus one is worth so much more than three.”
It’s easy to understand the videos’ popularity: they’re slickly made, easy to handle, and consistent. The main problem seems to be in the female characters, the majority of whom come across as two-dimensional, morally shallow, and generally antagonistic to the males featured in the sketches. The demographics of the Kloons’ audience reflect that: 75% of their viewers are male, and the female 25% skew considerably younger.
“I think that’s just reflective of the demographics of the Internet in general,” says Greg.
“We’re definitely not sexist,” says Mitch in his group’s defense. “We go to Burning Man every year.”
The relationship between an artist’s work and his personal morality is complicated; the relationship between an artist’s discipline and his output is not. For the Kloons, their work ethic is unquestionable and inspiring, and their experiments with audience interaction is coolly de rigueur for the New York scene… even if the Kloons aren’t fully part of that scene, but rather traveling on fiber optics between electronic data centers, dotted around the world.