In today’s age of YouTube and digital streaming, the line between traditional television and online entertainment is getting blurrier by the view count. People often use YouTube to try to get on television, while TV shows such as Key & Peele grow massively in popularity thanks to clips on YouTube. It’s a give-and-take relationship that will one day probably just merge into one platform, but there’s still a desire for many people in the YouTube generation to make the jump to television.
That’s what happened for Rachel Bloom, whose music videos such as “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” and “You Can Touch My Boobies” helped her become a bonafide YouTube star, and who is now in the middle of her first season as the creator, writer, and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on The CW.
The A.V. Club: What steps did you take before making your first video, “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” in 2010?
Rachel Bloom: I was doing comedy and going to school and a lot of my friends were doing stuff with the Upright Citizens Brigade, and this was during the time when doing videos on YouTube became big. I saw friends of mine and people I went to school with graduate and simultaneously do stuff with the UCB and put stuff up on YouTube.
When I graduated, I was director of my school’s sketch comedy group and I knew that I wanted to be writing and performing my own sketch comedy. It kind of made me want to do my own one-person sketch group. So I put up a sketch show at UCB New York and was simultaneously saying, “Oh I should do internet stuff.” I had this song that I had written when I was in college and it didn’t work for sketch—it was just this disembodied song—so I thought it might be a funny music video that could be my calling card of, “Hi, I’m now a writer-performer.”
That’s what inspired me to do it. I saved up and I used up all of my savings to make that video in the hopes—not that it would go viral, especially since it wasn’t topical; Ray Bradbury had been a writer for many years—I just wanted to make something that felt like me and that was funny. I didn’t expect it to go viral.
AVC: How fast did the “Ray Bradbury” views come in the beginning, given it was your first video?
RB: It was insane. I learned how to use Twitter, and I posted it and I remember going about my day, and then I watched the view count climb, and then I’d Google it and I’d see articles come up. And I remember that night I saw that Neil Gaiman tweeted about it and I was like, “Whoa!” That was crazy. Then the day after that it was on Wired, Io9, Huffington Post… it was very surreal. I remember I spent the whole day after it responding to Facebook messages of people saying, “Great video!”
I spent all day on the internet getting a little punch drunk from looking at the screen for 10 hours but also so grateful. It was overwhelming. It was the most fortunate, lucky thing and I felt then what I do every day when I come to work, which is that I can’t believe this is happening. It’s all amazing. When that video went viral, I really thought that 10 people would watch it and that it would maybe get me on a Maude Team at UCB. Anything—like the fact that I have fans—it’s all wonderful to me.
AVC: What would say is the single most important thing that you did or a piece of advice that you got that helped you find success through YouTube?
RB: Well, if we’re talking about my original video, it was my friend Nicole and she said, “Post your video on a Monday,” and I did, and I actually think that really helped the video go viral. Because at the time it was like, that’s how you wanted to post stuff to let the week build. So that was probably the single most important piece of individual advice.
The other one I would say is that my husband always said, “Film what you write.” He sold his first script to NBC when he was 23 and he sold it because he made his own pilot presentation with his own money. Film what you write. People always want to watch something rather than just read it on the page. I took that heart very much.
AVC: You put all of your own money into that video. What would you tell a young person who thinks it might be too expensive or too risky to spend a lot of money on making a video?
RB: I think people are over-eager to make content and the thing I tell people when they ask me is, “Listen, you’re going to spend a shit-ton of money. Be sure that it’s something good.” I also say that if you’re going to learn comedy, don’t start by posting YouTube videos. Start by doing it live. You can’t learn comedy in a vacuum.
For myself, the way that I learned comedy was doing it live for four years and only after doing sketch for four years did I feel confident enough to be like, “Okay, I feel good about starting to put stuff on the internet where it lives forever.” As opposed to one time at a college sketch show where it bombs and we never speak of it again. People are over-eager now to put things online. Most of my stuff hasn’t gone viral. I have been successful on YouTube and I’m very proud of the stuff that I’ve done, but compared to the people who are actual internet stars and making a living off of it, my views are nothing. My most successful video has 3 million views. There’s some YouTube stars that get that every single day.
AVC: There are shows on TV that get watched by less people than some YouTube videos and channels. Is that just the way that it is now?
RB: I think that there is so much content that it’s like if you are an Alaskan fisherman who wants to watch a show about other Alaskan fisherman who are also drag queens in their spare time, you can probably find that show. I think stuff is starting to blend together. Kevin Spacey gave a great speech about this a couple of years ago when House Of Cards was picked up, like people don’t watch show live anymore. Like, “I spent the weekend binge-watching Breaking Bad.”
Part of the reason there’s been a golden age in TV is that good content is good content, and people are really starting to not give a fuck where it’s coming from. If you look at YouTube stars, much of their clientele is 18 and younger. That’s where you get a lot of people that are watching stuff solely online. I think stuff is just going to start blending more and more until it’s just content and it doesn’t matter where it comes from. The platform is mattering less and less. What matters is, do people like it, what’s the quality, who is this for? I think that’s really cool.
AVC: What was your thought process when “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” went viral in terms of how you’d follow that up?
RB: I didn’t want to release something just to release it. I knew that I wanted to be proud of it and for it to be good. Even the “Ray Bradbury” video, I recorded it in February of 2010, shot it in April, and released it in August because I wanted the edit to be perfect. And we added animation. I never want to put anything out there that I’m not 100 percent confident with. I try not to read comments, but every single comment that says “this isn’t funny!”—if I didn’t put 100 percent effort into it, I’d be like, “Oh God, they’re right.”
So it’s protecting myself and my pride in my work.
AVC: As you had risen as a comedian and performer from YouTube to now having your own TV show, was there anything about the experiences of doing all of this that you didn’t expect, or that wasn’t as good as you thought it would be when it finally happened?
RB: As far as putting stuff online goes, the satisfaction of the process—going through the process of writing, and putting together the music video, recording—is different than the day I’d put a video online; I’d just be fixated on my computer all day. Constantly tweeting, constantly putting stuff on Facebook, and when you’re that glued to a screen, when your success is so tied to a number on a screen—when you’re looking at that count number it feels very divorced from the actual process of making the thing you’re proud about. Also, getting fan mail like, “I love your videos.” The effort of every time I put out a video it was like, “Okay, I’ve got to put it on my Facebook, I’ve got to put it on my website, what’s the view count now? What’s the view count now? What’s the view count now?” You get obsessive with it.
That’s just what it is when you do stuff on the internet. It’s also the way my brain functions, when you look at a ton of stuff on the computer all day and you don’t look up—it releases a lot of dopamine and I already tend toward slightly lower serotonin levels. Maybe slight depression. So if I’m too glued to a screen and I don’t look up, it affects my mood and makes me depressed. So that’s something I had to find a balance with.
But now that I’m doing the show, I’m so busy all day that I’ve naturally found a balance between checking the internet and doing stuff online because I have to be looking up for most of the day. Now when I check the count on social media, it’s actually just really fun and at the end of the day, the hit count is not dependent on how many people I email. Whereas before it was like, “It only has 5,000 hits? Oh, I didn’t blast it out on my MySpace!”
AVC: Do you see any negatives with the open forum of YouTube that just allows millions of people to put their stuff out there for the world to see?
RB: Yeah, I mean look, I think there’s an ADHD nature to all of this because there’s so much good content, there’s so much happening, that good stuff is maybe hard to find. I know that I’m overwhelmed with the amount of sketches, TV shows, and webseries that I need to watch and still haven’t watched. If you were doing really good stuff on YouTube in 2008, 2009, it stuck out, and now everyone is doing stuff that looks beautiful and there’s a lot of really well-written stuff.
The other thing I’d say is that there are only so many ideas in the world. I know that there are ideas that I did when I was learning how to write comedy that I’m sure other people did. I wrote a sketch about someone eating a Luna bar and turning into a woman while they were eating a Luna bar. But the odds that someone else has done that sketch are really high.
When I was writing for Robot Chicken, before I had a sketch idea most times I would Google to make sure someone hadn’t done it before. I don’t always do that but there are only so many things you can talk about and people are going to have the same ideas so I guess would I worry about a young comedian seeing all this out there and thinking, “Oh they are already did a take on this, I guess I can’t do a take on it because it would be plagiarism.” But I think there are certain tropes you need to explore when you’re learning how to write that other people straight up have done and that’s okay.