We’ve all judged someone for a book we saw them reading in public. But that’s all that happened—we indulged in a bit of superficial, negative stereotyping and then moved on with our lives. Comedian Scott Rogowsky on the other hand, experienced that same reaction and found within it the kernel of one of the most viral and funny stunts in the history of the publishing industry.
Intending to exploit that contagious reaction last month, Scott put together a social experiment as part of a video series he was doing for Playboy. Printing up a number of absurdly fake book covers—from “Ass Eating Made Simple” to “Mein Kampf: For Kids!”—he hit New York’s subway system to fake read them. Almost immediately, one of them was photographed by a redditor and went viral (racking up over 1 million views there). The video that followed did more than 4.6 million views and was covered by multiple outlets including The Guardian, Complex, and The Huffington Post. And this week, he followed up with part two of the video.
Given that publishing stories tend to be on the boring side, and industry attempts at humor evoke more douchechills than laughs (examples here and here), I wanted to reach out to Scott to see how he managed to pull off his hilarious video. He replied with far more than I could have hoped—and below explains all sorts of excellent tactics for anyone looking to get their work seen.
Tell us a bit how the idea for the stunt came about. If I understand correctly, it was after you were feeling self-conscious reading a regular book on the subway?
I’ve always enjoyed playing subtle, clever pranks on my fellow New Yorkers—I’ve produced many videos in that vein over the years, lots of hidden camera stunts on the streets. The seed for this idea in particular was planted a few years ago when I was reading “How to Be Black” by Baratunde Thurston. It’s a provocative title and the design was very bold—white lettering against black background. I remember reading it on the subway and thinking how strange it must appear to others to see me (a very white guy) reading this book. Usually I’m the one silently judging my fellow straphangers on their choice of reading material—it was strange being on the other side of it. But I wanted to exploit that feeling and see if I could get an even bigger rise out of others, so the idea coalesced to print a bunch of fake, outrageous book covers and “go fishing,” so to speak.
Besides being funny (which it clearly was), what were you hoping to accomplish here? Did you have scope and scale in mind? Were there goals? Was there one outlet you were hoping to interest in it? How were you expecting it to go?
This video was made as part of a “five-picture deal” I signed with Playboy at the end of 2014, and by “picture” I mean a 2-4 minute YouTube video. I pitched them this book cover concept in April 2015, they approved it, and then…I sat on it. I got busy with other things and put this on the back-burner. Thankfully, they nudged me to finish the deal and asked for the book cover video. The hard part was actually getting the covers printed. Once I cleared that hurdle I was off to the races.
I thought I had a good concept here. Didn’t imagine it would get this big. It’s always the ones that you THINK will go viral that don’t, and the ones that you put out with no expectations that do well. I really wasn’t trying to accomplish anything other than creating a funny product. I figured if we got 8-10 good reactions—double takes, scowls, gasps, laughs, sideways glances, picture taking, maybe a verbal confrontation?—we’d be golden. Frankly, after we spent 4 hours shooting, I wasn’t sure we had enough. My cameramen were busy running around the train cars trying to capture the reactions. It was a tough shoot for them with the movement of the train and the constant flow of passengers on and off. I thought we’d might have to go back at night and try to mix it up with some drunk riders to goose some better reactions, but thankfully I found enough good ones when I went through the footage.
I had a romantic notion in my mind of riding the rails all over the boroughs, going to the extreme ends of the subway lines, exploring the city underground. But ultimately, we settled on going back and forth on the L line from 8th Avenue to Myrtle-Wyckoff.
Now, walk us through the actual launch. After you made and edited the video, what was the plan? How did you proceed? How did the video spread?
This was a very unique situation. A photo of my reading the ass eating book went viral a few days after the shoot. We shot on April 1st, April Fool’s Day. A random, unknown subway passenger snapped a photo of me, posted it to Reddit, and by April 4 it had received over 1 million views on imgur.com, had been Instagrammed by the Fat Jew to his 8 million followers, and become a bona fide meme on social media.
My phone started blowing up with texts and notifications from friends who had seen the picture here and there. Once the photo took off, I emailed my Playboy contacts and told them it’d be wise to get the video online ASAP. So instead of waiting a couple weeks to edit, I pulled an all-nighter to get the video edited and into Playboy so they could upload. The second it hit YouTube, I blasted it to my contacts in the blogging world, and before long, the video was on the front page of Reddit too. The video ended up being a mechanism for people to prove to their friends, “SEE! I told you the photo was fake!” which I think helped to fuel the spread. I suspect there are some who think the photo was leaked as a calculated measure to hype the video…in reality, I had nothing to do with the photo, and frankly, I would have preferred to not have had to rush into the edit the way I did.
My friends the Sklar Brothers tweeted out the link, and Max Joseph of Catfish fame retweeted it. They have over 600,000 combined followers. Australian blogger named Ozzy Man was the first I noticed to post the video, which is odd. Never had heard of the guy before, but he has a huge following (over 1 million Facebook likes). HuffPo and EliteDaily posted it early. Laughing Squid, BoingBoing, Mandatory, Death + Taxes followed suit. Mashable was a big hit the next day. Funny or Die tweeted it. It just spread and spread and spread, got picked up by international outlets. Fox 5 news interviewed me for their April 8 broadcast. The Daily News interviewed me over that weekend. I’ve since done interviews for El Mundo, The Guardian, and I’ll be appearing on CBC’s ‘q’ this Friday.
Was there are reason you launched it from The Chortle’s channel rather than your own? Did their follower count help in getting it going?
The Chortle is Playboy’s comedy vertical. I think they’re in the midst a brand overhaul—they recently stopped publishing nude girls in their magazine—trying to get back to their subversive, urbane roots; when people actually did buy it for the articles. Their follower count didn’t really do much for this one—they only had around 2,000 subscribers when the video launched. Now they’re up to nearly 15,000.
Even though millions of people read and the book industry is a multibillion dollar industry, isn’t it kind of weird how few outlets there are dedicated just to book news or book stories? Was that something you thought about? Did you try to go wider than just the literary community?
Really had no thoughts about where the video would find an audience or who I was trying to target. I made book covers simply because that’s what was necessary to pull off this concept. The goal for me was proving that people “eyedrop” on their neighbors on the subway. In order to do so, I needed to make fake books. I had no idea that there are “book people” and book Twitter accounts and many of them have tweeted the link or reached out to me to say how much they enjoyed it. My interview with The Guardian appeared in their “book section.” There’s also a contingent of “subway fans” and subway bloggers who also tweeted the link and expressed their delight. Lucas Wittman who used to be the Books Editor at Newsweek/The Daily Beast is an old friend of mine. He emailed to say he thought the video was hilarious. We’ve kicked around the idea of actually publishing a few of them. The demand seems to be there!
A lot of comics out there would dream of replicating that success you had with the video. Given your experience with this one, what are your thoughts on how they should think about in order to create something similar that catches on? What would you do differently, having seen this play out now?
This impossible to answer. There is no formula. I’ve been making videos and putting them online since 2009, to varying degrees of success. The first video I ever did got 200,000 views over a weekend, which was “viral” for me. My partner and I thought this was going to be a breeze! Our next video got a few hundred. Like I said earlier, the higher your expectations, the bigger the flop. The more you plan for success, the quicker it escapes you. The best advice is to just put your stuff out there. Try to build contacts in the blogging world who can post your stuff and help get eyeballs on it. And then maybe, after 7 years, you’ll have one hit it big. And you’ll be interviewed by Ryan Holiday. And you can die happy.
What’s next for you? Are you planning on doing more similar ideas given the success of this one?
I’m continuing to host my live talk show, Running Late with Scott Rogowsky, and I have many video ideas in the hopper for that. But I’ve been talking to the folks at Playboy and they’re gung-ho on a Part Two for the subway video! I doubt it will replicate the numbers of the original—it’s always difficult to produce a quality sequel, especially in comedy (don’t see: Caddyshack 2)—but if we can build on the success of the first one in a smart way, I’m all for it. And maybe if we go viral again, I’ll finally earn an invite to the Mansion.
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and he lives in Austin, Texas.
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