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For the first time since he joined Barely Political in 2007, Mark Douglas and his beloved sketch comedy channel are in limbo. Call it a comedy mid-life crisis.
Earlier this year, Barely Productions—along with other Google-owned channels such as Threadbanger and the VSauce—split from the tech giant and are now owned by their creators. Though Douglas no longer feels the pressure to prove himself as an asset to Google, he’s also been met with a host of new challenges: mainly becoming a boss and supporting his four full-time employees.
“It totally feels like starting over. The funny thing is, I used to get really stressed out about writing and the pressures of coming up with—is this funny enough? Now, I’m running a business, the shoot stuff—writing, producing, and a shoot—that’s the least stressful part,” Douglas tells the Daily Dot.
Douglas is chatting in his Brooklyn, New York, studio space—we’re in the Dia de Los Muertos-decorated conference room. When the landlord asked what his company did for money, Douglas said it was a successful YouTube channel. In other words, he can pay the rent.
For fans of Barely Political, successful doesn’t quite begin to cover the channel’s influence on the evolution of YouTube. Home to 2.1 billion views and 4.8 million subscribers, Barely Productions is credited with being one of the first channels to start intentionally creating viral content. The channel was originally started by Ben Relles who sold the idea of “hot girls and politics” to Next New Networks, a company later acquired by YouTube. The channel’s first hit was “I’ve Got a Crush on Obama” featuring the infamous Obama Girl, and as Barely Political began taking off, the team realized they needed much more content.
Like many comics, Douglas is both an introvert and extrovert—thriving onstage, but quickly uncomfortable in a crowded party. He stayed in New York City following a stint at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts but found that serious acting wasn’t for him.
On the most basic level he wanted to be a funny musician—a role he later played out in a part on 30 Rock and performing sketch comedy around the city. Douglas was hating his job as a bellman, performing standup on the side, when a friend recommended he do voiceovers for Barely Political. Vocal impressions turned into sketch writing and soon, Douglas was hired full-time by the channel.
Today the Key of Awesome is often mixed up for Barely Productions. While latter is the overarching channel that includes sketches, music videos, and vlogs, the Key of Awesome solely makes comedy covers and music videos of popular songs. The first episode of Key of Awesome came out in 2009 and with over 108 episodes in the bank, has become Barely Production’s most popular webseries. Douglas writes, directs, produces, and sometimes stars.
“In the beginning, we were able to do it with a really small team but after a while, we started realizing the aesthetic of YouTube started to get higher with people like Freddie Wong making this incredible content,” remembers Douglas. “Now we have full crews and it gets pretty expensive. I don’t consider myself a filmmaker, my directing style is ‘Get what I have in my head on the screen.’ I don’t dork out over lenses or cool establishing shots. It’s mostly, ‘Don’t fuck up my jokes.’”
For each parody, Douglas is on a time crunch between releasing videos and the popularity of their subject waning. That means writing, casting, filming, and editing often happens in just two weeks—a formula the team has nailed over the past six years. Their most viewed video “Tik Tok Kesha Parody” holds 144 million-plus streams. In years since, Douglas has parodied Bruno Mars, Pitbull, One Direction, Katy Perry, Meghan Trainor, Eminem, and more, and even seen his character actors gain fanbases of their own.
It’s not a stretch to call Douglas one of the godfathers of modern YouTube, along with the original team behind Barely Political: Todd Womack, Doug Larsen, Anastasia Douglas, Bryan Olsen, Tom Small, and Jake Chudnow. Their viral videos paved the way for comedy on the platform and helped define YouTube as not only a space to share videos, but to create consumable, shareable, and exclusive content. The channel has worked with everyone from Hannah Hart and Grace Helbig, to Epic Rap Battles of History, the Gregory Brothers, and even Weezer.
As for the future of Barely Productions and Key of Awesome, Douglas is open to both revisiting the stripped-down style of the channel’s past and embracing a new future. Maybe television? A new webseries? He’s open to whatever.
“The fact that I have a place—the fact that there are people who care what I make—feels huge to me,” Douglas says.
Correction: Douglas attended the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts. He has also worked with Hannah Hart. An earlier version of this article also misidentified the rock band Weezer. The channel is today known as Barely Productions. This piece has been updated to note the original team behind Barely Political.
Carly Lanning is a journalist who covers social media. Her work has been published by Psychology Today, NBC, Thrillist, and Ms. Magazine.