Ray William Johnson takes being funny pretty lightly. The comedian, who catapulted to YouTube fame courtesy of well-timed quips on his viral video review show Equals Three, recently became the most subscribed video channel of all time. With five million subscribers and 1,439,000,000 (yes that's billion) views of his viral videos, one indisputable fact has emerged: Ray William Johnson is winning the Internet.
But for being the alpha-comedian, Johnson has shockingly modest thoughts on his own success, describing his show as a "generic idea" and crediting his rapid rise to little more than simple predictability and "just being himself," resisting the urge to credit even his own charisma. And, coming from one of the web's most audacious personalities, a man who has built his comedy empire from scratch to include an animated music group Your Favorite Martian, and quasi-reality show Breaking New York, his admission is as baffling as it is refreshing.
Complex spoke to Johnson about his new world record, how his unusual combination of unfaltering enthusiasm and self-aware charm works for him, and the ways in which an Oklahoma boy manages to survive in Los Angeles on wit and humility alone. And ultimately, we tried to understand the most perplexing thing of all: How anyone can stay so damn excited about the internet's offerings from week to week.
Interview by Shanté Cosme (@ShanteCosme)
What was your initial reaction when you learned you'd broken the Guinness record for most YouTube subscribers?
I thought it was fake at first. I was like, that's not a world record. Because, they notified me through Twitter so I thought it was fake, because I get a lot of people trying to get my attention who make fake pages. But one of my friends was like, "No, it links to the Guinness World Records website and they've got a whole article written." So I checked it out and I was like, "Oh, cool!" Sometimes it takes something like that to be like, wow, we really are doing cool things over here. We are sort of impressing people, to a certain extent. Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of that.
That's always a good feeling. Are you motivated by impressing people?
I'm motiovated by entertaining people. If we happen to impress the Guinness Book Of World Records to the extent that they want to give us a record, it's a nice byproduct of the whole thing. And it's one of those things you can throw into a conversation if you need to. Like, "Oh, by the way, you should go out with me because I happen to be in The Guinness Book Of World Records."
Does that one actually work? I can see that being pretty effective.
So I'm told.
Did you do anything to celebrate?
No. I just worked more. I've really yet to stop and reflect on the whole thing, so I don't actually go out and celebrate anything pertaining to work and accomplishments that often.
Are you superstitious that celebrating is going to thwart you somehow?
I'm not. I think it's just one of those things that I'm just never satisfied with where I'm at. I'm like, "But there's more. We can do more. We can entertain more people, we can do more projects!" So that makes me think when we do that stuff, I'll celebrate then. We'll go out and have a good time then, but of course when you reach that point, there's always something else in the distance that you want to get to.
If you had to peg your success on something, and pinpoint what you think got you there, would it be that hard work ethic?
That's part of it. Part of it is consistency, being loyal to your audience and giving them what they want when it comes to entertaining them, really feeling out their needs and how they want you to perform, what they laugh at the most, what so they enjoy watching the most. Sometimes comedy and entertainment is not all about telling jokes; sometimes you just have to be you for a few moments.
Do you feel like the person you're putting out through video after video is your genuine self? If someone were to hang out with you, would they meet the same person?
If I did the Equals Three me 24/7, I would annoy everybody to death for sure. They'd be like, "Hey, Ray, calm down."
Yes and no. It's not a character by any means, but it's certainly a performance and it's often joke, joke, joke, joke, observation, joke, joke. Whereas if you met me in real life, you get some of that, but then you would also encounter a calm, collected version of myself. Because, if I did the Equals Three me 24/7, I would annoy everyone to death for sure. They'd be like, "Hey, Ray, calm down. No one can really be that excited over chicken wings," or whatever it is. The rapid fire jokes, the kind of performance I give is what that particular audience wants to see the most, so that's absolutely what I give them. And that goes back to your question, what is the key to my success. I don't have all the answers, but I know that is what certainly helps.
On your YouTube channel, you describe yourself as "a regular guy with an entertaining hobby." But when you write, produce and edit two videos (three every other week), it's clearly more than a hobby, wouldn't you agree?
That blurb is pretty old; I have the option to go back and change it I guess, but I think it still accurately reflects what I'm trying to get out of this and what I'm trying to do. I guess that the alternative would be that it would be a business, and I don't feel like I treat it that way at all. I try to have fun, I try to inject myself into my work and have a good time along the way and not lose sight of who I am, and who my friends are, and all of these things that treating it like a business might hinder. I try to keep that hobby mentality.
Do you keep a hardcore schedule? You're obviously doing a lot of work. Are you regimented in the sense that you keep a 9-5 kind of routine?
It's both. [Laughs.] It's more than 9-5; it's like 9-9. I enjoy what I do, but I also do it on time, because my audience is very pervasive, they're everywhere, and they will constantly remind me if I'm not on time. They'll be like, "Bro…"
You keep a very strict schedule for producing videos. Is that as much for your fans as it is for you, knowing have to produce on certain days and keep that obligation to them?
A large part of it is for them, and a large part goes back to my roots and coming from a blue collar family. Your work and how you contribute to society, even if it is in the form of goofy entertainment, is very important and its very important to who you are as a person. I think putting stuff out on time is reflective of who I am, not just my show. I am that guy that shows up like five minutes early to everything, it's just part of me.
You can definitely see that intense work ethic from the volume of stuff you've done in such a short amount of time alone.
I certainly picked that up from my grandfather, who's like the hardest working man I ever met. He was an electrician and he taught me a lot about what I'm telling you now, about how your work represents who you are and all of these things that I won't go into, but that give insight into who I am and why I do what I do the way I do it.
Whatever advice he gave you, its obviously working well. Grandpas—they're full of knowledge!
[Laughs.] Yeah, Grandpa was a smart guy.
Is there anything that you modeled Equals Three on, in terms of another show or comedian?
Well, just shows on television in general. One thing I've noticed about, really, every entertainment property is that they have a very rigid structure that they don't deviate from. Every movie and every TV show that you'll see, they incorporate these elements of structure and at the time, when I started, this was not the case on YouTube.
People would put out very random videos. And I was like, "No, I want to stick to a structure." I did get some criticism in the beginning. They were like, "Wow, every video is like the same." Except you're reviewing different videos, and telling different jokes. But I stuck with it, because I wanted people to know exactly what they're getting.
Do you think your viewers take comfort in the predictability of your shows, in a positive way?
They do. I don't know what shows you watch, but when you watch Jeopardy! You're not getting any surprises, right? It works, right?
Right. Remember that show Who's Line Is It Anyway? You knew exactly what you were getting into every time, but it was a good premise and you came for that premise.
Yeah! They're actually a good example. But you have this structure, this format that you work within and then you perfect your performance within that format, and that's kind of what I was going for,and it worked almost immediately. It was weird to me that it was foreign idea to most other people when I did it. It was like really, you don't think that structure is key? But they jumped on board; at least the audience did.
Do you think that structure proved crucial to getting the attention you did on YouTube?
It's possible, but I think it's one of those things that you only notice it if it's not there. Most audiences don't go, "I really enjoyed the structure of that movie," but if the structure is not there, they're like, "Hey, that movie was all over the place!"
There are lot of articles out there that dissect your rise to fame and market your tenchiniques as a template for success. Do you think there is an actual formula for Internet fame?
No, there is no formula. My only philosophy is… Well, I have two. One, I don't know everything. And two, what I do know is that different things work for different people. So when people ask me for advice, I preface it with those two things. I only know the formula for what works for me.
What is it about your material that makes it stand out? There's a lot of funny stuff on YouTube, but not many can claim the numbers that you do.
There are aspects of everyone's personality that the people around them enjoy, so my thought was why don't we just extract that and put it on camera?"
I have a very specific style of humor that very much represents my style of humor in real life. So what I had attempted to do was take the aspects of myself that my friends and people around me really enjoy, and translate them to a performance format. So when you watch me it will often feel like were in a bar having a beer and I'm explain this great video I saw.
It's a very specific style of hosting, and its definitely unique from a lot of other hosts. But I did know that YouTube was very personality driven, and I do know that there are aspects of everyone's personality that the people around them enjoy, so my thought was why don't we just extract that and put it on camera. Even if you're not telling jokes the whole time and your just kind of excited and charismatic in the way your friends enjoy.
And that goes back to your sense that being yourself is very important. So you'd say that's what truly works for you, just being yourself?
Of course. And I'm sure, without a doubt, that there are people out there who could be themselves and surpass me, because they have better personalities or whatever, whatever it is about them. And in a way that can be limiting, because that's all I can really do, be myself. And, one can either jump on board and have a good time, or not. That's okay, too. But I'm grateful for the people who have. Not everything I put out is for everyone.
So what are your future options? You've said you're not into TV, but will you ever venture into that realm?
I'm open to other mediums. I put that "I'm not interested in television blurb," I guess you're referring to the blurb on my YouTube page. I think that this is what I was trying to get across is, what I'm doing now is not necessarily a stepping stone to television or whatever. Because in my mind television isn't necessarily a better medium than the internet, or movies, like it is in the minds of others. I have a lot of respect for the medium I work in.
That being said, I am open to doing things on television in movies or whatever. But in the beginning, I was getting hit up a lot and getting a lot of offers, and they were all garbage, or they were fake or were people trying to get my attention by saying, "I can get you on TV." So I kind of put that out there to weed out those messages from all off those people.
If you were to actually get a legitimate offer, would that lure you into that medium?
It would be a combination of, is this going to challenge me? Is this going to stimulate my creativity? Am I going to be hindered by execs who are going to be all over me about this and that?
Is it your fear of losing creative control that keeps you from going to that realm right now?
No, not at all. I wouldn't say I have fear of giving up creative control. If I got a lot of restrictions, it would just be another challenge to me. But, there's a lot factored in when someone is pitching an idea to me. It's like how much creative control am I going to have? Because certainly if someone gave me 100% creative control that would be incredibly attractive.