Look What’s on the Tube!
The new YOMYOMF network on YouTube has the potential to cash in on the Asian American audience, while bringing together two generations of Asian American artists. Will it become a for-us-by-us factory of Warholian proportions?
by EUGENE YI
The end — of the world, of course — will consist of the following elements: fighter jets, exploding cars, flamethrowers, automatic weaponry. Beheadings by lightsaber. Necks broken by starlets. And the solemn intoning of the Bruce Leeism, “You offend me, you offend my family.” T.S. Eliot was wrong. The world won’t end in a whimper, apparently, but with a series of very loud bangs.
At least it will in the revelation as revealed in “The Bananapocalypse,” the trailer for the new Asian American YouTube channel YOMYOMF (pronounced yawm-yawm-eff), an acronym of the Bruce Lee bon mot that gives the channel its name. Millions have already witnessed the Bananapocalypse, so to speak (2,162,711 and counting, as of this writing). The channel has 404,865 subscribers, and it’s been in or around the top 10 original YouTube channels since it started on June 4. That’s a big win for its players, an Asian American Dream Team of stars from screens big, medium and small: YouTube’s KevJumba, Chester See and Ryan Higa; Danny Pudi of NBC’s Community; Fast and Furiousdirector Justin Lin and one of that film franchise’s stars, Sung Kang. It would appear that for-us-by-us entertainment is finally here.
Artists and businesspeople have long sought to wrestle the Asian American market into some sort of viability. In the dark ages before social media, Asian American indie films blasted emails on opening weekends to urge fellow Asian Americans to fill up first-weekend theaters and coffers. Asian American cable networks tried and mostly failed to find advertisers interested in supporting them, let alone enough content to fill the hours without resorting to a cynical but practical mix of anime, Bollywood and K-dramas. Time and again, attempts to corral Asian Americans into exerting their influence as a market force have come up short.
Time and again. Until YouTube.
Since the beginning, Asian Americans have been among the most popular YouTubers. Ryan Higa, Freddie Wong and KevJumba are all in the top–15 subscribed channels on YouTube. HappySlip, Filipino American Christine Gambito’s channel, had a comparable run before retiring. Whatever barriers exist for Asian American artists in the offline world simply do not seem to exist in, as it is endlessly referred to, the Wild West of new media. It’s allowed Asian American artists to find an audience, and it’s allowed the Asian American audience—the most Balkanized ethnic audience in the country—to flex something resembling collective might.
Illustration by Inki Cho
In this regard, the Bananapocalypse isn’t the end of anything, really. It’s a continuation of the work of performers like Higa and KevJumba. The only difference is the galloping of studio executives and Internet moguls racing to bridge the gap between new and traditional media, with dollar signs in their eyes. YOMYOMF is just one of many beneficiaries. Wild West indeed.
That the YOMYOMF network has actively embraced its Asian Americanness reveals an ambition beyond subscribers. Young talent like the YouTube stars have connected with established Hollywoodcommodities like Lin. More, with the continuing development of shows, there seems to be a system to give the best of Asian American content a puncher’s chance to succeed. YOMYOMF has the potential to cash in on the suddenly powerful Asian American audience, and develop an Asian American creative class for them. It hasn’t really done any of this yet—the network is still only a month old, as of this writing—but if they pull it off, it could be the beginnings of something like an Asian American studio, a factory of Warholian proportions. And I’m sure their parties are crazy.
Piano-playing cats and a kid hopped up on laughing gas are one thing, but there’s a line in the sand with some of these YouTube stars. Either you get it or you don’t. To me, it feels like one of those cruel markers of generational passage, one demographic’s tastes giving way to another’s.
Initially, Brian Hu, the artistic director with the San Diego Asian American Film Festival, didn’t totally get it. “When I first saw KevJumba, [I thought] ‘I would never subscribe to this,’” Hu, 30, said of KevJumba, nee Kevin Wu, who runs the 11th most popular channel on YouTube. “But I would have interns come in for programming and helping select films. And I always wanted to show them what is the state of Asian American media now. And I would always turn to KevJumba for some reason. And watching more of it, I get it. Seeing a lot of submissions that we do get, I kind of appreciate what KevJumba is doing—the kind of charisma he brings as an actor and even as a media maker.”
Joanne Lee, a high school student from Rancho Cucamonga, perhaps has a more typical younger fan’s perspective. In a response that casually threads together strands of identity politics, entertainment and the Internet ethos of free-everything, she wrote in an email response, “These YouTube artists are just as talented as famous actors, comedians and singers, but the fact that their content is free and that I am able to easily stream videos at the touch of a button makes them more appealing. YouTube stars are also more relatable. The videos that Kevin Wu posts on his channel KevJumba are hilarious because, as an Asian American, I can relate to his experiences and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I know exactly how you feel.’ The comedy of Kevin Wu and Ryan Higa is unique. Their jokes and punchlines are original, and the story lines for their skits are one-of-a-kind.”
For all the handwringing every time a stereotype-affirming study comes out, the notion of Asian Americans as early and avid adopters of technology had to be true to support these artists. Asian Americans spent an average of 10 hours and 19 minutes a month watching online videos, almost four hours more than the closest group, Latinos, according to a 2011 Nielsen study. African Americans came in third, watching about six hours a month, while white people watch the least, according to the study, at just under four hours. The information is rife with possible extrapolations about what this means for people of color seeking out their own representations outside of the mainstream, though African Americans by far watch the most television, so it’s probably best to take all of this with a grain of salt. That said, being the heaviest online video users makes it much more likely that Asian American YouTube stars can even exist.
As of this writing, Higa has 5,389,753 subscribers, and Wu has 2,365,674. They both earn six figures from banner ads alone, according to video marketing company TubeMogul. Demographic information on the subscribers of Wu and Higa (who both did not respond to requests for comment) has not been made available, but anecdotally, it’s fair to assume the majority of their fans are Asian American. Most of their public events are heavily attended by young Asian Americans.
“There’s this right time, right place, there’s a little luck, a little magic involved,” said Sung Kang. “It’s very Gladwellian,” he added, referencing Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s book about success. The book specifically cited Bill Gates’ luck at being born in the right time and place to start using computers before anyone else. The Beatles are also mentioned for the roughly 1,200 shows they played in Germany to hone their skills. Ten thousand hours of practice, Gladwell surmised, are required to get good at anything. A Ryan Higa or a Kevin Wu has been online since their teens. They not only grew up with YouTube, they grew up on YouTube.
If there’s an origin story for the YOMYOMF network, it would start with the wastepaper basket and staring contests. In 2008, webcam challenges became something of a mini-rage on sites like ibeatyou.com. Wu decided to aim high, challenging actress Jessica Alba to a staring contest, and NBA player Baron Davis to a game of wastepaper basket (crumpled up paper balls being tossed into, yes, wastepaper baskets). Surprisingly, they responded.
“It snowballed after that,” said Julie Zhan, one of the producers of Uploaded, a documentary about Asian Americans and YouTube. “It was a serendipitous kind of situation.”
Alba and Davis are linked to Cash Warren, a producer, who is also Alba’s husband and Davis’ high school friend. Warren has run a series of new media ventures, including ibeatyou.com, so there may have been some planning behind the seemingly impromptu responses. Still, it marked the early days of what became a series of collaborations between Warren and new media stars like Wu and Higa, who produced a promotional video for the site.
Meanwhile, YOMYOMF, the website, started in 2009 as a way for Lin, Kang and their cohorts to maintain the friendships they had forged navigating the Asian American film circuit of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Despite rosy marketers’ assessments at the time, many Asian American filmmakers struggled to draw audiences to their films. Lin, the filmmaker behind the groundbreaking Asian American indie Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), even posted a manifesto of sorts on the YOMYOMF website in 2010 titled, “Am I ‘retarded’ for making Asian American Films?” He might be, he concluded, but he wrote he would continue. The site, thanks in part to its wry observations on race, and no doubt helped by its famous contributors, became one of the most popular Asian American pop-culture blogs.
When Google started meeting with mediamakers to hear pitches for funding for original content early last year, Warren and the YouTube stars approached the YOMYOMF crew about a potential channel.
“[Cash Warren] felt that it was a great way to marry a lot of their YouTube assets and a Hollywood sensibility with this network,” said Anderson Le, one of the original YOMYOMFers, and now one of the channel’s programmers.
YouTube allocated $100 million for 97 announced channels. Once divvied up, it came down to “a pittance compared to a traditional Hollywood type outlet when it comes to a network show or a film budget. It’s really nothing,” according to Le. Still, the network’s ambitions seemed to channel the frustrations of years of struggling in the independent film and media circuit. Philip Chung, the creative content head of the YOMYOMF network, wrote in a blog post last December, that they intended to “create a new online channel comprised of interesting and ‘high quality’ programming that will ‘redefine Asian America,’ (yes, that is essentially the mandate we have been given).”
Taking stock, Chung wrote that there were more than 40 ideas in some stage of development last December. “What’s … exciting is seeing all the different genres and diversity of ideas on that list—we have the opportunity to show Asian Americans in a way that I’ve personally never seen them represented in the American media, and that’s not something to take lightly,” he wrote.
The YOMYOMF network could also provide a way for YouTube stars like Wu, Higa and See to start transitioning to offline fame. All have made plain their desire to not just be known as online commodities. The opportunity to essentially apprentice under Lin, Kang and their network provided an instance where Asian American solidarity and straightforward careerism could meet. “I’m sure that people look at Justin [Lin’s] Trailing Johnson [production company] as that entrée, that inroad into an arena where a lot of other Asian American folks probably don’t provide that immediate access,” said Abe Ferrer, director of exhibitions with Los Angeles-based Visual Communications, an Asian American media nonprofit that holds the city’s annual Asian Pacific Film Festival.
In a winking nod to the dynamic, Kang developed a show called Acting for Action. In the series, the film actor shows up as the preening persona he introduced in his “Car Discussion” parody sketches from the YOMYOMF website, giving acting advice to young YouTube stars. Before the start of the network, Kang had never met the YouTube stars and admitted he was a little hesitant about working with them. “I had my concerns. Are these guys actually trained and disciplined performers, or are they just kids who come in and f-ck around?” he said.
What Kang found was not only a sense of professionalism, he says, but also a shared goal among them. “They do what they do because we all kind of share that similar artistic need to kind of be seen and share this thing that we have, this voice that we have,” he said.
Photo of Sung Kang by David C.P. Chan
Kang continued to wax rhapsodic about doing the show. “It ranks number one in terms of the most fun and most liberating,” he said. Part of it was “because it was an Asian American element to it, all trying to cipher something,” he said. “I don’t really even know what it is. Maybe just our voice.”
Film is often referred to as a collaborative medium, but it is on YouTube that collaboration has become an established strategy. David Choi, 26, is a Korean American singer and songwriter who commands more than 900,000 subscribers. Choi is considered an Asian American YouTube trailblazer of sorts, and has partnered with Wu, Higa and See in the past. In fact, See reached out to him recently to write a song for a YOMYOMF project, Choi said.
“Doing any collaborations on YouTube will bring in a new audience,” he said. “That’s the awesome thing about YouTube, you instantly can share fans.”
Online video has its own aesthetic, prioritizing relatability, frequency and even a lack of technical ability as the hallmarks of authenticity. Also, importantly, videos can’t be slow.
“You have to wow your audience within the 10-second mark, or you’ll lose them,” said Le. “There’s always going to be a punchline at the end … It’s like this very interesting, different kind of film language that we’re learning.” Le is also the artistic director for both the Hawaii International Film Festival and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and he curates The Short List, YOMYOMF’s program of short films pulled from past film festivals. As a supplement to the original content on the site, he considers it crucial.
“We see the network as a chance to present stuff for educational purposes, or just to spread awareness, or to celebrate this amazing content that was made in the past,” he said. The challenge, though, is to find shorts that fit the YouTube aesthetic. Wes Kim’s engagingly off-kilterProfiles in Science, an animated Super-8 film that won the Best Animated Short film award at the 2002 SXSW Festival, made its appearance on The Short List early on. With its gentle embrace of the spirit and the pacing of mid-century educational videos, it might be the spiritual opposite of the quick-hitting, jump cutting, shenanigan-filled YouTube norm. The reaction to the short took Le aback.
“[Commenters] are like, ‘What? What? What the hell is that?” he said.
Some of the criticism for Kim’s Profiles short film changed over time, Le said. “Slowly but surely, it’s getting really good views. I’d say it’s not as divisive as before. I think there’s more positive comments than I’ve seen—and it’s great to see comments of people who watched it and hated it and revisited it and say, ‘Oh, I get it. It’s really funny.’ And that’s what’s cool about feedback. In a way with Shortlist, we want the kind of stuff there that really challenges audiences. It really contextualizes and trains the audience.”
YOMYOMF programming, “The Book Club,” with Parvesh Cheena and Danny Pudi.
It’s another ambitious goal. The notion of training an audience feels like film festival talk more than Internet talk, where the aesthetic is about immediacy and easy pleasures. More, because there are generational differences in tastes at play, the question of growth is a constant one. Chung, in his December blog post, compared today’s burst of online youth culture with the early ’60s, when teenybopper music dominated the American scene. Most bands didn’t survive the decade. The Beatles, however, did, because they “trusted that their audience—those very teenyboppers—would grow and mature with them, and if they were going to alienate some of their fans in the process, so be it ,” adding that “our partners—Ryan, Kevin and Chester—seem to be willing to do this.”
I asked Chung to elaborate, and he wrote via email, “That’s where we come in. Here they can push themselves and do material that’s edgier or more mature, and they know we’ll provide them with a safety net. For example, Chester has a very funny dating story that would make a great video, but it’s a little too racy [for] the audience on his own channel. But it’s definitely something that fits into the YOMYOMF aesthetic, and if we can do it here, it’s an opportunity for him to show a different side of his talent and also potentially reach an audience that might not know who he is.”
There is a strong whiff of didacticism in Chung’s comments, an older generation lending a guiding hand to the Young Turks. The problem, though, is that no one really knows what growing in the YouTube era means.
Certain trends are apparent. Better production values have infiltrated YouTube to the extent that there is a backlash against high-gloss videos. There is also the anticipated move to mobile, where most people will consume video via their phones (as has been visible on South Korean subway trains for years now). Hollywood and tech companies will likely continue to pump money into original content. Philip Wang thought the increased interest from the mainstream had already started changing the once-wide-open YouTube world. Wang is one of the trio behind the popular Wong Fu Productions, which makes comedic and melodramatic short films, and occasionally collaborates with Wu, Higa and See. “Many channels are much more commercial and highly produced. Which is great, but it also pushes out the ‘little guys’ who are just trying to start out now,” he said. “By that same token though, people are starting channels with more of an intention to be ‘famous’ and get paid quickly, rather than slowly work on their content and craft.” Business models are being built around YouTube success, something hard to imagine just a few years ago.
YOMYOMF, of course, isn’t one of the little guys. As far as what YOMYOMF has lined up, it plans to introduce a new slate of programming every quarter of the year, according to Le. Up next are a sci-fi show starring Captain America’s Kenneth Choi and TV veteran Lance Reddick; a comedy starring Danny Pudi; and a talk show for single Asian women. Chung added that there are about 50 shows in some stage of development, and that viewers can expect a Jeremy Lin appearance (Lin had, famously, done a video with Ryan Higa which found a second life during the peak of Linsanity last February).
Chung blogged about one show in particular, a platform for Andrew Ti, a photographer who runs the Tumblr “Yo, Is This Racist?” where he answers reader queries about potentially racist situations, generally with a profane affirmative. “Just a few months ago, both our YouTube channel and Andrew’s ‘Yo, Is This Racist?’ Tumblr didn’t even exist. It’s pretty amazing to see how quickly things move and change,” he wrote.
It is this third aspect of YOMYOMF’s mission that holds the most promise. Videos from the Wu/Higa/See camp are nigh mandatory, as are vehicles for Asian American actors normally relegated to supporting roles. But with shows like Ti’s, YOMYOMF could become an incubator and developer of new Asian American talent, and give them a chance to connect with the Hollywood elite and the YouTube audience.
On the one hand, it’s troubling when there’s just one gatekeeper. YouTube could start prioritizing its original content in search results, layout and suggestions, making it harder for artists to break out on their own, without help from one of the official channels. And with only one official channel for Asian Americans, if in a year, whatever it is that’s on YOMYOMF isn’t to your liking, it might be harder to find alternatives. A single gatekeeper, whether it be the YouTube original channel initiative or YOMYOMF itself, is never a good thing.
But on the other hand, there’s nobody else out there with the connections and the resources that the YOMYOMF network has. It’s a scaled-up version of the long-hoped network of Asian American artists. One of the more stirring moments for me on the network came at the beginning of Kang’s Acting for Action video, when a logo for the YOMYOMF network comes up. It’s not at the head of any of the other content, which is a shame. It channels the logo for the Golden Harvest studio, which dominated Chinese cinemas with its run of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films during the ’70s and ’80s. I was reminded of the earlier days of Asian American film, when I wondered if we would ever be able to channel the world-beating energy of those old Chinese movies, and mold it into something of our own. It was a nice reminder of how far we’ve come, and how far yet there still is to go.
One of the first commenters wrote, “I hate the beginning.” Oh, Internet. Grow up.
This article was published in the August 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August issue, click below.