LOL WITH YOUTUBER JASON HORTON
By Jennifer Buonantony
We sat down with Youtube sensation and serious funny man Jason Horton to talk about being one of the most popular comedic actors and improvers on the Internet. He has appeared in videos scene by over 150 million fans and has two feature films in production based on his work. Now that's nothing to laugh at!
Horton is a self-professed "open-book". "I can ask him anything", he says as we sit down for our interview at a local Coffee Bean, a place both he and I find a bit too Hollywood for our liking. There is something very-unHollywood about Horton. But make no mistake, he is certainly a star.
Having grown up in Hackensack, NJ (a fellow New Jesrey-ian), there is an instant connection and ease to our conversation. It is this same 'normal guy' likability that makes him so appealing to millions of Youtube users worldwide. Horton started as a comedic actor and improver and began making videos for other notable Youtubers. He worked with Michael Gallagher on the comedy channel Totally Sketch, which boasts hundreds of millions of views, before starting his own Jason Horton Youtube Channel (now with over 2 million views). His recent hit "Interactive Sex" of his "Choose Your Adventure Series" has more than 73 million views for just one video! The video starts the viewer on a journey through an awkward sexual encounter, and the user gets to choose the outcome (just like with those books you read as a kid, just less PG-13). It features actress-comedian Nikki Limo, who appears in many of Horton's videos, and has similarly begun to make a name for herself in the Youtube world.
One of Horton's hit videos has even turned into the feature script "Wingman" and is currently being brought to the big screen. Horton also writes and develops content for Rogue Pictures online. When he is not creating the next online hit, Horton regularly still performs live sketch and improv comedy around Los Angeles, at shows like TBS's Conan and Spike TV's Manswers, as well as teaches at some of the top improv comedy theaters. In fact you can see him live this week as he performs at the 10th Annual LA Improv Fest (June 3-9th) at iO West.
We were surprised he had time to sit down with PPLA in person (we would have settled for a Skype chat!) to talk with us about how he became an Internet sensation.
PPLA: You recently started a podcast called Two White Guys which is now on your Youtube Channel. Tell us about how you decided to add this content to your channel and how where your Youtube fan base is at right now.
HORTON: I try to put things online that I know will be popular and then have the audience stay for something else. I have a new podcast called Two White Guys Podcast with myself and Josh Mattingly that's blowing up like crazy. What I do is I am having very, very large Youtubers promote it or retweet it. What I do is I am having awesome and interesting YouTubers, comedians and...adult stars, and they are always cool with promoting and retweeting it. I put out an interview with for example, Jenna Marbles, so people will come for her and then I hope stay for me! We are making videos on our own terms. We don't need a casting director to say it's okay to act, or a director to say, "yeah, I'll direct you". It's a new medium; we do it ourselves. Everyone is good looking, everyone is funny, everyone is talented. You need to create your own content. I've used my videos to parlay into very, very large meetings. I have a great agent. I optioned a film and have another film that's with one of Happy Madison's sub-companies which I made sure included social media in the script itself. I thank Youtube and I thank Improv for all this."Interactive Sex" which is one of the videos in our "Choose Your Own Adventure" series has over 73 million views... one video. You can't tell what someone can do from a piece of paper or a resume, but you send a link with a video and it's right there. I've probably been in over 250 million viewed videos now, maybe more. On my personal channel, I have 2 1/2 million views and on Totally Sketch it's in the hundreds of millions.
PPLA: "Interactive Sex" is one of your most popular videos, I bet the name alone makes most people want to click and see what it's all about! Tell us how that came about.
HORTON: We shot that as an after thought, it was the second video we shot that day. Nikki's (the girl opposite Horton in the video) is a good friend and she had stopped by and had to leave in like twenty minutes, so we shot the whole thing in that time. We just decided to play around and that's what we got.
PPLA: Why do you think people like the 'choose your own ending' format so much?
HORTON: In the "Choose Your Own Adventures" a lot of that is me. I'm really known and good at doing awkward sex videos. I was never a cool guy that was like let me act like someone who is awkward around women…no, that's really me! A lot of it's heightened but essentially I'm playing me. What's great about Youtube or the Internet community is you can tell someone like me that we suck or you don't like the video. You can't tell someone on say The Office that they suck... no one is going to hear that. On Youtube you can say, "I think you suck/I think you're great/I love you" and we will know. There in an instant connection; there is real feedback and communication. You're invested in the outcome.
PPLA: Can you give us a brief background of how you came to LA and decided to start putting your work on Youtube,
HORTON: I feel close to east coast people, there is a camaraderie…especially Jersey, love Jersey people! I just saw Springstein for my birthday; it was great! I go the Jersey shore ever summer, not ironically (laughs). I grew up in New York and did some comedy in high school. I used to go to tapings of that show The State that was on MTV. I loved comedy but never really had an outlet or focus. Then I moved to San Diego. I'd never been to California before but I just moved there one day and then eventually made my way to Los Angeles. I started getting involved in comedy in San Diego and I wasn't young when I did it. But it was fun and it fit me, and ever since then I've never stopped. I've taken maybe a week off but I've been improvising for the last eight years. Now I teach and I do a lot of sketch comedy at Upright Citizens Brigade, IO West, Second City. I've never done Groundlings but I've worked for a ton of Groundings people. From there, I'd take a good sketch and think, 'this would make a great video'. You meet a ton of talented people. I did some stuff for Funny or Die, Comedy Originals, and then Totally Sketch. I'm one of the cast and writers on Totally Sketch which is its own Youtube channel. I met the director of Totally Sketch, I literally showed up at his house for a first meeting and we shot a video right then! I do stuff with Steve Green and then I met Nikki Limo and we did "Sexual Activity" (the Paranormal Activity spoof). We just met and were doing all these sexual scenes. She's a really genuine actor. It's not somebody that has to 'act' like that…people see the fakeness on there (elsewhere on YouTube) and they don't buy it. The audience is really, really smart.
PPLA: How did you first decide that Youtube was the way to go to launch your career?
HORTON: Now I've been doing videos with every popular Youtuber Shane Dawson, Kassem G, Lisa Nova, The Annoying Orange...but I used to just look at Youtube for funny scenes in movies. Now there are "Youtubers". There is a whole world of original content on there. In 2009, I really got involved with this world. I am a comedic actor first and I was doing so many videos, with so many popular Youtubers, in such a short amount of time. I wasn't doing Youtube first and acting second. It's always been acting and comedy first and Youtube second. People would see me in other videos and ask me to do theirs. Somebody once told me, you're famous. I thought, "what are you talking about?" I used to dig ditches in New York, literally. I know what famous is…when I see somebody that was on Beverly Hills 90210, they're famous. I'm not famous. But then I decided I should start to point this attention back at myself and create my own Youtube page. I did that about three months later and that was about two and a half years ago, and we are now going strong.
PPLA: Did you think this would all take off so fast, in a matter of a couple of years?
HORTON: No. My world is completely surreal. I make my whole living now making videos. I am also a writer and I write and make a lot of Youtube videos for other people. Imagine being a guest star on a bunch of popular sitcoms and then you get your own sitcom. Everyone thinks, "oh I know this guy because he was an all those other sitcoms". It's the same thing. So I have kind of created my own sitcom but I still try to collaborate as much as possible because you want to cross those audiences. I want their audience and they want mine. And I do a very specific thing. It is a bit rated R, awkward sexual kind of National Lampoon's sex romp type stuff. And that's what I do and what I am known for. I'll stray from that a little bit but not too much.
PPLA: What are the video series currently running on your site (or should I say, sitcoms on your network)?
HORTON: On my site, I have a lot of one off sketches, fake movie trailers, being awkward with women, and the podcast which has taken over in a good way... there is one called Wingman that is now optioned into a movie! I'm not a writer. I never went to school for writing, but now I have an optioned movie script. It's co-written but it's my idea that I cowrote with an actual writer. I am just good at writing jokes and characters and stuff like that. So that has been insane. I am meeting with lawyers and executives all the time which is crazy. I think, "I don't wan to meet with lawyers, I want to make a movie". But it's a different thing. The good thing is I can always go off and make a Youtube video on my own whenever I want. The Two White Guys podcast is new and also on my site. I got into podcasting about three months ago and never listened to a podcast before that. Now we are broadcasting from the iO West Improv Festival with Horatio Sanz, Mo Collins, Ike Barinholtz. I just did a show at Bang Comedy with Kate Walsh from Private Practice. I am also doing it a VidCon...imagine 6,000 rabid Youtube fans in one place and every big Youtuber is there. It has big sponsors; it's huge. We are also doing a kickstarter right now to raise funds for new microphones for the podcast.
PPLA: How do you balance everything- live performances, shooting videos, writing, auditioning?
HORTON: I remember I used to get bummed out if I didn't have any commercial or comedy auditions. But now, I have so many things going on- Youtube, performing improv, commercial stuff…so now if one thing is not going well I can go do something else. I very rarely get bummed out.
PPLA: In Los Angeles, you have some of the most talented, creative people with diverse skills. However this industry constantly tries to box talent into one category. How do you work around that?
HORTON: I've had some trouble with larger agencies and companies who say, "you've got too much going on, I don't know what to do with you? He's got this, he's got that-popular writer, successful on Youtube, a comedy actor"... it's almost easier for them to say "pick something". I think, "Oh, I'm sorry I have too much to offer". It's like saying a guy is good looking and smart and funny and someone says I wish he could just be funny. I get that to an extent but I think what I take from that is you just have to prioritize. You can't do everything at a ten all the time. Either you burn out or you're not really doing them all at a ten.
PPLA: How do you prioritize?
HORTON: Comedy comes first - whether it's Youtube or on the stage, it doesn't really matter. Youtube is my home and my leverage. I really enjoy it and would sometimes rather tend to my Youtube stuff than go on a pretty decent size audition. That's because with Youtube I am on my own terms, rather than go to an audition and sit in a room with all these other people making decisions.
PPLA: How often do you shoot your videos? What is the planning- crew and process- for a shoot?
HORTON: Well with the podcasts, I did seven podcasts in a row last Monday. They are between 18-35 minutes. I don't know how long they should be, but I just decide when I feel they are done. People have to want to watch them so when it feels right, I just end it. People get bored, You can't stay on one thing…the camera can't stay on one angle for too long. People are trained to move their eyes a bit. I've learned how to shift gears when need be. Our crews, always have someone to shoot, sometimes I direct, sometimes there is another director, there are production assistants and light and sound crews. It usually depends how big the cast is... the bigger the cast, the bigger the crew. Back in the day, it was a beg borrow and steal thing to get people to help film something but I don't have to do that anymore. If people feel they will get something out of it they are more likely to come on board. I said yes all the time until I could say no. In the beginning, you do everything. As long as you don't burn yourself out…well it's ok to burn yourself out as long as the quality of the work doesn't get affected.
PPLA: What's your goal in the next few years? Do you hope your Youtube videos become a TV show, more films, more writing?
HORTON: I've done so much acting and performing these last few years, but I've also done some developing- meetings with large movie studios and social media companies. I like taking nothing and making something. I want to do a bit more behind the scenes, more writing and developing, and growing with this insane, awesome industry…if you want to call it that. And of course keep doing live comedy, and I don't care if it's in front of two people or 700 people. I have two movies that I wrote that are going to get made (Wingman based on the Youtube video) and Sports Fans about two guys who never took that chance in life and decide to go on a road trip and get autographs of everyone on their fantasy baseball team. Sports Studio which is owned by Happy Madison is one of our producers. Those are both green light and set to go!
PPLA: Do you have any advice for our readers who might be thinking about starting a Youtube channel or venturing into a new project?
HORTON: A few years ago I worked at E! in the legal department and was just hating it because the whole time I was working on that sports movie and my Youtube on the side, so that when the day came that I eventually got laid off or left, I would have that. That is my advice- always keep everything up and going so that when you're done with your day job for whatever reason, you never have to start from zero. I consult people on Internet stuff and I teach workshops at iO West on how to be more successful at the Internet, how to optimize your videos and your social media, especially for comedians. If you're selling life insurance, I probably can't help you or I don't care, but for comedians I am one of few people that has had this much success from Youtube and make a full living at it. So I just want to create, create, create, create whether I am behind the camera or in front of it. I just want to keep creating. You don't need someone to tell you that you can do comedy or you can create. Do it yourself, find like-minded people that want to share in it, and if you have to spend a little money to get someone to shoot and edit and make it look good then do it. It doesn't cost all that much. People are hungry and they are out here to get a chance to shoot and edit just as much as we are to act, direct, write. Work something out, make a community but don't skimp out. I'd rather have something look like a 9 and be funny like a 7 then be funny like a 10 and look like a 5. I'd rather it be a little less funny but look good. Also, if you are on Youtube, have a consistent schedule. If Friends (the sitcom) was on maybe on Sunday, maybe on Monday, maybe on Tues, maybe at three o'clock, it wouldn't have had any success. Try to have a schedule so people know when to tune in and try to have genuine content. Don't think, well this format really works for *blank*, so I am going to do that too. Do something that you like, that you are going to want to keep doing, and then success will come. It takes time but it will grow. Try to keep your twitter, your Facebook, all your social media up. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate! If you have a whole bunch of friends that have all the same friends on Facebook, and you all post something on Facebook, the same people are going to see it. You are not really promoting that thing. But if you have other people, and your friends and my friends, and your Youtube viewers and my Youtube viewers... if you cross promote that way, you will not get all of their audience, but you will get some. That's how things start to grow. That's how I got here.