Broken Dreams, Bankruptcy & YouTube: The Ballad of Duke Fightmaster

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More often than not when it comes to YouTube, all we are exposed to are the success stories. We are rarely interested in reading about somebody dropping everything to pursue their dreams and failing. Stories about scrappy startups and YouTube creators making six digits are much easier to swallow because they give each of us a small level of validation. These stories-turned-pseudo-myths prove that if this person can gamble and win, anyone can.

In 2007, would-be talk show host Duke Fightmaster gambled on YouTube and lost almost everything in the process.

After the housing bubble burst in late 2006, Duke lost his well-paying job as a mortgage broker and was soon displaced to a job as a telephone sales person. Duke was married at the time with two kids and a standard of life that came with a successful mortgage broker’s salary. In a “This American Life” story by Sarah Koenig, Duke explains the phone sales job, saying, “You were on the phone all day calling people who were deciding whether to file for bankruptcy and I was just like thinking this is so depressing.”

Around the same time, Jay Leno announced that he would be stepping down from “The Tonight Show” and that Conan O’Brien would be replacing him, which would leave an open hosting spot on “Late Night” — a spot Duke thought he could fill. Duke’s first shot at talk show hosting came in the form of a YouTube video starring Duke and a few of his friends in a cramped bedroom.

 

You can still find the first show on YouTube. Duke’s greenness shines through the entire first show amid a smattering of applause from his single-digit audience. The first show, after 24 hours, received 72 views, which for Duke was enough reason to quit his job the next day. “I think a lot of people don’t necessarily have what I have, which is an ability to just say ‘fuck it,’” Duke explained in an interview with NMR.

“The Duke Fightmaster Show” was born, and with each show Duke’s loyal fans grew in numbers, packing his already cramped bedroom. “I had like two people in the bedroom, then four people, then eight people and then like 30 people in my bedroom. The place was packed, and it went from like my friend and my wife to a whole cast of characters,” Duke said, explaining his show’s rise in popularity. Over time, the show featured a house band, an ensemble cast and longer run times.

For everyone else, it seemed like the show was taking off, but for Duke, it meant a new level of pressure for him. “I was like doing everything, you know? Like, not only am I getting audience members there, I’m getting cameras, I’m telling the camera men what to do, creating set, directing, editing, booking guests, writing. Doing all this stuff was just like too much for me to handle,” Duke explained.

Production pressures aside, Duke was struggling to bring in any income from the show. In 2007, YouTube had just introduced the partner program to the biggest names in YouTube, and a relatively unknown bedroom talk show wasn’t going to make the cut. So, over time, Duke’s savings dried up, and the realization came that “The Duke Fightmaster Show” was on its last leg. After all, Duke had quit his job with two children and bankruptcy looming on the horizon. For two and a half years, Duke filmed his talk show for YouTube with little to no income and an increasingly dire financial situation. Eventually, Duke realized that the dream had died, and “The Duke Fightmaster Show” dissolved.

Looking back now, Duke contributes much of the show’s decline to his inexperience with YouTube as a media format. “I think that even in the beginning I knew that it was a mistake as it was getting longer and longer episodes. I would research and see all the successful people on YouTube and see what they’re doing,” Duke explained. “Even some of the successful ones were just like some 15-year-old kid with acne just sitting in his bedroom or whatever and has a million views. So, I knew that big views were to come from well-edited, well-produced short type videos.”

If you visit Duke’s YouTube channel, you can see the last episode of “The Duke Fightmaster Show,” but in reality, Duke never really stopped putting out content. There are still skits by Duke and his friends, and now his most recent project “The Comeback.” Duke’s comeback has the performer still on YouTube but with a separate goal in mind. “I had to get away from the whole ensemble and just work on doing stand-up comedy, and for me, stand up is you don’t have to worry about other people; you just get up there by yourself if you write your own material. You don’t have to rely on others,” Duke said.

Although leaving an unsuccessful YouTube career for a stand-up career could seem like an “out of the frying pan into the fire situation,” Duke isn’t too concerned. “You know, I mean a successful person fails a lot, you know. So, I don’t know — I could be delusional. I’m going through my failures to get to that success. I think that you can’t quit, right?”

With a career in stand-up on the horizon, Duke has committed his past to memory. “If I could do it over, I feel like I built this home on a bad foundation, so I have to rip apart this home and build a new foundation, and my life sucks, and my family lost stuff, but now I built a solid foundation. I feel like there’s at least a solid foundation. Hopefully, one day, there’ll be a house there,” Duke said.

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