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Rhett and Link on the changing face of YouTube
We caught with them at VidCon about protecting the “age of innocence,” creating a spin-off, and why they love picking their fans’ brains.
Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, friends since grade school, have been making YouTube-like videos long before YouTube even existed. They went to college for engineering, but they quit their jobs soon after graduation to make videos, music, and online content, and they haven’t stopped since.
Over the course of a decade and counting, they’ve created low-budget commercials (they introduced the world to Chuck Testa), made music videos, and performed comedy sketches on everything from a rap battle of geeks and nerds to singing “All Night Long” all night long and a middle school production of Breaking Bad. They even appeared on America’s Got Talent in a zebra suit—and later in an LMFAO music video.
Like many stars on YouTube, they eventually made the transition to TV. McLaughlin and Neal were two of the first to make the jump with Rhett & Link: Commercial Kings on IFC, but it only lasted a season.
But that setback hasn’t stopped them. They still make content on their original channel, and in January 2012, they started their morning talk show, Good Mythical Morning (GMM), in which they talk about their personal lives or a top news story. Since then they’ve made hundreds of episodes over the stretch of five seasons; the sixth season kicked off earlier this week. Between the two channels, they’ve got well over 600 million views, and GMM has taken over the main channel in number of subscribers.
They also launched a podcast called Ear Biscuits in which they sit down and talk candidly with other content creators. And until recently, McLaughlin and Neal did all of it on their own; they signed with Collective Digital Studio in 2012, and they have help when it comes to creating content.
I caught up with them at VidCon about protecting the “age of innocence” on the Internet, creating a GMM spin-off, and why they love picking their fans’ brains.
Earlier, you were part of a panel discussing the future of online video. In layman’s terms, what changes have you noticed since you started making videos, and what do you think will happen?
Neal: There was an interesting discussion on the panel. One question from the audience referred to preserving the age of innocence on the Internet, and it’s an interesting thing. As more money comes into “Internetainment,” it’s necessary in order to create higher-quality content—and I mean in terms of it being better and better—you don’t want control to move from creators to just suits with money.
So I think it’s an interesting question: how are we going to protect the innocence of this environment? I don’t know.
McLaughlin: I think one of the things is, the typical model on YouTube now is a lot of things are very personality-driven. So you typically have somebody who builds an audience around themselves. And then at some point, because they either have higher creative aspirations or they want some sort of longevity, they start producing content that isn’t necessarily the same; it isn’t necessarily a vlog.
They want to start creating stuff, right? Some creators are gonna be good at that; some are not gonna be good at that. I think that we’re gonna start seeing more and more people who started as a YouTube personality and now have their own studio, and they’re gonna start creating things: story-driven stuff, longer-form stuff that people have an opportunity to enjoy.
We’re already seeing a little bit of that. I think we’re gonna see more and more of that. I mean, that’s what we’re gonna be doing. We’re gonna create more stuff. It is still personality-based, it’s still coming from us, it’s still a Rhett & Link production, but it isn’t necessarily gonna be the same exact things we’ve been doing all along.
Do you have any of that coming out in the near future, or is that down the long road?
Neal: The first major project that we’re working on launching is—I call it a sister show to Good Mythical Morning, or you can call it a spin-off show—but it’s the female version of our show. So we’re excited about turning the final corners so we can launch that back-to-school timeframe. Hopefully that will happen. That’s a major thing we’re working on. It doesn’t have a title yet.
Have you figured who will be on the show yet?
Neal: We’re very close. We received a ton of auditions, and we went into the far-reaching corners of the Internet and found candidates as well. So we’ve got two really good candidates, and we’re very close.
What do fans have to look forward to on the next season of GMM?
McLaughlin: We’re gonna do some new and different stuff. We’re doing something new with the way we handle the fan mail, we’ve got an all-new intro and theme song. It’s gonna be the same stuff that people like, but [with] some differences.
Neal: Pomplamoose made our new theme song, so we’re pretty excited about that.
What changes have you noticed since attending your first VidCon?
McLaughlin: I think that the biggest change to VidCon is, originally, everything was very motivated by what was happening on YouTube, and it was building out from what was happening on YouTube. And now there are a lot of people who are interested in YouTube content. You have a lot of people who may or may not really understand the space as well and who are coming in and saying, “Hey, I want a part of this. What can we do? Let’s set this booth up. Let’s do this thing.” And it’s just interesting to see how there’s this natural validation in what’s happening on YouTube because there’s so many people who want a piece of it.
Neal: It’s kinda switched from a pirate mentality, like raiding and taking YouTube talent and concepts—that even happened to us. Our show on IFC… it wasn’t pirated, we migrated it to TV, but it’s getting a piece of the action.
How does balancing and prioritizing what to create when work out?
Neal: GMM really surprises and has become the vehicle for our brand. So we’re very much focused on continuing to develop the show and add value to it and grow our audience from that baseline of GMM. And after that, Ear Biscuits is kind of a side project, more of a passion project for us. Not really making a lot of money off it, but important to document the stories of influencers and creators, and we really enjoy doing that.
McLaughlin: The way we have balance though, is that we have a team that helps us now as opposed to doing every single thing ourselves. We still have a pretty regimented schedule of working during the day and ignoring it to be home with our families at night and on the weekends. But we have a lot of people who help us make this happen.
Was this a recent development?
McLaughlin: In the past two years. We’ve always had help, but in the past two years we’ve moved from having one or two people at a time to having a team of seven or eight people.
What’s been your favorite part of VidCon so far?
Neal: It’s always helpful to pick our fans’ brains to see what their favorite videos are and to figure out what the momentum of our channel is. Not just based on views or likes or dislikes, but anecdotally. When everyone’s talking about GMM last year, it’s like, “Oh, maybe we’re onto something.” This year, now we understand that. Not just meeting fans, but asking them pointed questions. “OK, what’s your favorite video?” You develop a profile we wouldn’t have otherwise.
What’s surprised you about fan responses?
Neal: This year, what did we learn? We just came from a signing. We just spent two hours signing. What did you learn?
McLaughlin: What was the question? What did we learn from the fans?
Neal: That’s my question, yeah.
McLaughlin: I think that in the past, the majority of people would’ve said, “I know you from your music videos,” but now the majority of people say, “I know you from GMM and I watch.” I think it’s a great way for people to be a Mythical Beast. That’s what we call our fans. Almost every MB is a fan of GMM and a regular watcher of GMM. And then they find out about all the other stuff we’ve been doing from GMM as opposed to people finding out about GMM from a music video.
Do you have anything else coming up?
Neal: We’re excited about laying the groundwork for more narrative content that you can sink your teeth into.
Photo by Michelle Jaworski
Michelle Jaworski is a staff writer and the resident Game of Thrones expert at the Daily Dot. She covers entertainment, geek culture, and pop culture and has brought her knowledge to conventions like Con of Thrones. She is based in New Jersey.