Friday, October 23, 2015

Interview with "Obama Girl" Producer Ben Relles

When I worked for ReelSEO, I scored this interview with then-Barely Political head Ben Relles in early 2013. Unfortunately, Relles has changed positions so this interview is no longer relevant to what Relles does or what Barely Political currently is. However, Relles was so kind to lend his time to me and what he said was so insightful that it should be published somewhere. So here you all go:

The 2008 election, featuring a ready-made caricature in Sarah Palin, was the first Presidential Election in which YouTube was part of the cultural ethos, and by most standards Barely Political emerged as the biggest buzz generator of that election cycle with Amber Lee Ettinger AKA Obama Girl, who made appearances on SNL and Bill O'Reilly after her hit "I Got a Crush in Obama" (ironically, made in 2007 when he was still a Senator) became one of the internet's most viral videos with 25.8 million views and 100 million overall channel views in 2008.

While Ettinger played the role of Obama Girl, it was Ben Relles who recruited the talent, co-wrote the music, and invested $2,000 of his own money to create the video series that would go on to revolutionize the way YouTube would eventually influence political elections.

Relles, a Pennsylvania native, is a 1997 graduate of the University of Wisconsin with a degree in journalism and a certificate in business administration, and started his first online marketing company his senior year of college. A decade later, Barely Political, would be his second venture as he foresaw that internet video would be the new frontier.

Six years later, Barely Political is currently the 40th most subscribed channel on youtube at 2.35 million subscribers and ranks 23rd in page views with 1.6 billion. The site has expanded to an in-house team of writers, performers, producers and the channel's director/editor in Tom Small. The content has also expanded to music video parodies (known as the "Key of Awesome" series) as well as parodies of comic book characters among other series.

Additionally, Ben Relles served as VP of programming and content development for Next New Networks which helps YouTube artists increase the visibility of their channel. Next New Networks was bought out directly by YouTube and in March of 2012, Relles was named head of creative development for YouTube's Next Lab.

Q. Who are the comedy influences of you and the crew at Barely Political?A: For me personally, my dad.  He just cracks me up and it was fun when we were launching the Barely Political channel that I was able to get his advice on all that early decisions..  Aside from him, I'd say sketch comedy shows I grew up watching -- Saturday Night Live and Mr. Show being the biggest two.

I think the crew at Barely Political (the writers are Mark Douglas, Todd Womack, and Bryan Olsen) all have different influences but that's part of what keeps our videos unique.  We have writers with years of experience with sketch, improv and stand up and that serves us well for a YouTube channel. 

Q:  What inspired you to go in the field of comedy?
A: I always loved comedy and tried my best to find project where I could try and be funny.  I middle school I made short silly movies at home.  In college I wrote a humor column.  After college I tried doing stand up for a few years.  But I really felt like I landed on a something when I found YouTube.  With YouTube you can make a short funny video, and if it hits on something really funny then a few days later millions of people are sharing it with their friends. That never gets old to me so I want to stay connected to that.

Q. How do you think the landscape for politically oriented comedy is different these days (in terms of both making comedy and watching comedy) then it was 15 years ago before the widespread use of the internet and how is it the same?
A: I think it's different in that the internet democratized political comedy -- especially that's the case with what YouTube did.  A lot of that started with Jib Jab in the 2004 election when their videos were being seen as much as Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show or any other mainstream political comedy channel.  And then recently you see hundreds of funny sketches on YouTube being done by people all over the world that are funny and really original.  Bad Lip Reading, Alphacat, and Sarah Silverman all come to mind.  I also think individuals have a chance to shape people's perception of candidates through YouTube in ways you couldn't before.  Gaffes do become more costly when they are being remixed and spoofed within 12 hours.

On the other hand in some ways the fundamentals of what makes for great political comedy are very similar.  People love seeing politicians get called out on their BS, and I think the best political comedy does that.

Q: Most rewarding part of your job for you and the crew at Barely Political?
A: For me it's getting to work with the Barely Political team.  I started the site but had no idea I'd get to work with such hilarious people who would build the channel to over 2 billion views.  I love that they have built such a huge, loyal fan base.

Q: What would you say to newcomers who aren't familiar to your brand about what Barely Political is today and why should they check it out?
A: We started as a political comedy channel, but that's not our channel any more.  We have different comedy videos for different people.  Comic book fans should check out our series "Super Therapy."  Pop music fans should check out "The Key of Awesome".  Everyone should check out our recent sketch "Deck Maintenance".  I thought it was pretty hilarious.

Q: Is it fair to say that you didn't do as much in the 2012 Cycle with politics? How much ambition on the part of your site was there to replicate the magic of Obama girl.
I made the observation that you are more focused on comic book geeks than political wonks in your demographic?
A: That is fair to say.  I wouldn't say its comic book geeks as main audience.  Key of Awesome is nearly half our views, and that's more aimed at music fans.  

Obama Girl was a unique thing.  A lot of people think that character genuinely shaped people's opinions of Obama and the video is in textbooks, museums, was on SNL, GMA, etc.  But in terms of audience, our channel still is more geared toward pop culture than politics. Obama Girl is at about 100 million total views across the series. Key of Awesome is closer to 1 billion.

Q: So in the last four years, you've moved away from political humor. Was that a conscious decision at some point to decide to move in a different direction or did you simply watch the traffic and follow it?
A: Right, during the 2008 election we were doing mostly political sketches.  We made a lot of Obama Girl videos, and we were working with the Gregory Brothers on the Autotune the News videos.  Then we wanted to start a new channel for non-political sketches, but we already had so many subscribers on the Barely Political channel we figured we'd just put everything in the same place. 

Q: Was rebranding your site from Barely Political to Key of Awesome a difficult move? 
A: The Key of Awesome took off and became popular so quickly it made the decision easy to have the Key of Awesome series on our Barely Political channel.  But I'd say it was tricky in 2009 trying to balance the Obama Girl videos with the Key of Awesome with some of the remixes Michael Stevens (now the host of Vsauce) was writing which I thought were brilliant, but were tricky to have all on one channel.  I think we have about 2 billion views so far on the channel, and over 1 billion of them are from the Key of Awesome so we've made it work.
Q: You're current position is to promote people's channels and help people promote their channels better. Do you think that the success of one channel on YouTube happens at the expense of another person's channel (in other words, is it a zero sum game?), or that in your position, you can help competing channels each get more views?

A: No I don't think the success of one one channel happens at the expense of another channel, there are always new audiences coming to YouTube and spending more time on the site. 

Q: On an appearance on Anderson Live, you helped a girl follow her passion of making videos for her own YouTube channel. How often do you get the opportunity to directly reach out to someone like that and help them?
A: I love working with people who are brand new to making videos YouTube.  My usual advice to people is to just get started and posting videos and not over think the first one.  Make videos about something you love and see how it goes.  When they make that leap and then become a regular YouTube creator I love it.

Q. According to UW-Madison News You invested $2,000 into the Obama Girl video when you created it. Did you expect to recoup your investment monetarily? YouTube lowers the barrier for entry significantly, but for the people that invest money into making a better product, do you advise them to invest that money with the mindset that they'll be able to make it back if the video is good enough?
A: I did think we'd make the money back.  I thought the video would be popular and we were ready to go with iTunes, T-Shirts and ring tones and all that.  But creators certainly don't need $2000 to make great content on YouTube.  In most cases I think YouTube creators first build an audience, then once they do they start putting more of the adsense towards more ambitious videos.

Q. Could you elaborate on the music making process at Key of Awesome? If I'm not mistaken, you have some people do the singing beforehand and everyone on screen is lip-synching. Why do you do it this way? Also, why do you only have a couple people sing rather than some of the actors singing themselves?
A: The actors definitely do the singing usually.  They just record it in advance to make sure they get a version that sounds great.  Mark Douglas writes the lyrics.  And often he also sings the lyrics and stars in the video.

Q: Is Kristen Brancaccio of The Intern Diaries really still an intern [Ed Note: Kristen Branaccio was just featured on Project Greenlight as a finalist], or is she like the Tonight Show's Ross the intern, where she was originally an intern, and then kept the title after graduating the internship. 
A: Right the latter.  She started as an intern, and now helps with all aspects of the channel.  She's awesome.

Q: Key of Awesome is very interactive with the Comment Videos, is that part of some strategy to pull people in or is that just fun to make?
A: I would say they are fun to make, but end up being a great way to interact with fans.

Q: You've hired more than a couple people at Barely Political to help write. Is that helpful to have different people write one parody song or does it tend to clutter up the process. Does one person write one parody song or is a Key of Awesome song written by committee?
A: I would say with these guys it helps.  Everything is written by Mark Douglas, Todd Womack and Bryan Olsen.  Those guys work really well together and I think most videos at this point the writing is collaborative in one way or another.

Q: You, Ben, are fairly anonymous to Key of Awesome/Barely Political subscribers which is ironic because even the director shows up in the videos here and there. Is that by design?
A: I wouldn't say it's by design.  I started the channel 6 years ago, and I love the whole team and the channel, but day to day I don't get involved in the production process of the videos.  And I can't keep a straight face on camera for some reason.

Q: How much are you a music studio? Is it easy to reproduce the music (do you just use a pre-recorded track like karaoke?) for the Key of Awesome, or do you make the music from scratch?
A: Not a music studio, but do make music from scratch.

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