How Shira Lazar launched the first talk show of the Internet age
The view from the What’s Trending offices in Los Angeles is gorgeous, with glass windows overlooking the iconic Hollywood sign. It’s a fitting vantage point for a company that’s bringing together the best aspects of mainstream entertainment and the new YouTube model.
Inside, it’s loud and bustling with a flurry of writers, interns, and coordinators and a setup that rivals that of a network TV production company. There’s a writers room and a white board with endless lists planning out every day, trip, and segment by the hour.
On my first visit, I rode up in the elevator with Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob Squarepants. No sooner had the doors opened was he whisked away backstage for makeup, while the rest of the cast of Comedy Central’s Brickleberry chatted in the green room.
The upstairs studio’s reminiscent of Carson Daly’s Total Request Live on MTV, except updated for the Twitter era. Along with a stage for musical guests and a balcony, there are big screens with What’s Trending’s social media info. Each show now has an associated hashtag or social media tie-in.
Behind the scenes and in front of the camera, Shira Lazar is the focal point of What’s Trending. She’s not just the host. She’s the perfect hostess for the office, rushing back and forth making sure everyone is having a good time, always with a smile on her face. She’s the reason why fellow YouTube stars like Kaleb Nation and Vitaly hang around the set, even when they’re not appearing on the program.
On this particular show, Lazar showed a compilation of parodies of Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” music video by the likes of Bart Baker (a close friend of Lazar’s), Shane Dawson, and Brittany Louise Taylor. Later, YouTube singer Meghan Tonjes performed “The Fault Is in Our Stars,” a song inspired by John Green’s similarly titled novel. The social media synergy is stunning.
“This isn’t just a place where you have these kind of breakout, random, overnight successes, but you also have a legitimate network growing,” Lazar told me after the show, referring to both her channel and YouTube at large. “This could be the future of media and entertainment. It’s a place where you could get a show you would have watched in the past on TV.”
Lazar has always been ambitious. She didn’t start as a typical vlogger, sitting in her bedroom making videos with a webcam. Her show (cofounded by Damon Berger) originally launched on the Web in 2011 for CBS, but it severed ties with the network soon after and briefly lived as a weekly pop culture show online. Even when the show struggled to find its purpose and audience, Lazar maintained her professional outlook, always choosing quality over mere quantity.
In 2012, Lazar reformatted again to make What’s Trending a daily YouTube show, which meant expanding ad sales, partnerships, more employees, and syndications with mainstream publications like USA Today, Virgin America, iHeartRadio, and Gas Station TV. In the process, it picked up an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Original Interactive Programming.
“I was building my own brand, company, and my own startup, and that can be a lonely process,” she said. “There is a lot of stress to it. It can be intense for a business model like ours that basically has no rules. Anything is possible online, which is exciting, but anything being possible can also be a scary thing.
“I was never like the individuals who make a whole week’s worth of programming alone, though. If you’re not ready for the fame, it can be a really crazy experience and you don’t get a sense of how many people are watching you daily. To realize these translate into real humans watching me, it can be unnerving.”
Even though she has help now around the office, Lazar can’t stop herself from overseeing everything. Long after the show finished broadcasting, she was in the control room discussing the minutia of edits and writing emails about booking. The show likes to pair Internet celebrities, like the guy behind the #StarbucksDrakeHands meme, with traditional stars. (Both director Kevin Smith and Snoop Dogg, among countless others, have appeared in the past.)
That’s perhaps the show’s biggest strength. It taps into virality of the Web, curating the best content for its audience and spotlighting YouTube’s new A-list, but still casts it in a larger pop culture context. Not surprisingly, Lazar has been approached about moving the show to TV, and she’s open to the idea.
“The fact is good content is good content and it rises to the top and it’s not an exec who chooses it,” she said, name-checking YouTube hits like Annoying Orange that have made the leap. “The audiences are the ones who do that.”
Things are really just getting started for What’s Trending. The show only recently launched its app, which allows viewers to watch on their iPhones. During live shoots, viewers can enter a chat with cohost Ethan Newberry and post questions for the celebrity guests. Lazar said around 40 percent of What’s Trending’s viewers are currently on mobile.
“That changes the way all of us should be approaching our content and engaging with our audiences,” Lazar said. “It will definitely create a shift in the traditional viewing experience and what we look at as real-time network viewing. They’ll have to figure out apps and the on-demand experience, making it as accessible as possible for the fans to connect to our experience.”
Two weeks later, I returned to the studio to catch another show.
It featured a strange double booking of Paris Hilton and offbeat duo Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim from Adult Swim’s Tim & Eric. Before their segment, while Hilton was being interviewed, Heidecker tweeted a photo of her with the caption, “I hate.” The awkward factor didn’t disappoint.
Hilton proved a tame interview, but Lazar still seemed like they were best girlfriends hanging out at a slumber party. Since the show is live, Lazar has to be sharp and wholly present on camera, every time it’s rolling. She has considerable help in the form Newberry, the Andy Richter to her Conan O’Brien. He often plays the put-upon doofus, like, in July, when he took certified YouTube star Jenna Marbles on a date in the studio.
During the Tim & Eric segment, while Heidecker was pretending to be high on cocaine Hilton gave him, the comedian spilt water all over Newberry’s laptop. Without missing a beat, Newberry continued the show, playing along with mock-fury at the guests.
When the cameras turned off, the four were all smiles. Later, Lazar compared the interview to “an improv game” with everyone playing their parts.
The bits would be great clips for What’s Trending’s YouTube channel, she said over a tub of Red Vines, because they weren’t boring.
Photos by Gaby Dunn