YouTube’s Bad Lip Reading: ‘It’s a Wonderful Time to be a Content Creator’ [INTERVIEW]

Try and guess which song has these lyrics:

“Why don’t y’all just float off, now you’re useless/I need a woman with a Benz looking to lose it/I ate the cookie then I gave it back to Benny/There she go, now watch me flow.”

Still haven’t deciphered it yet? It’s obviously Michael Buble’s song “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet.”

OK, I’m kidding, but you can credit these bizarre lyrics to no other than Bad Lip Reading, a YouTube channel dedicated to interpreting lips…although in poor fashion. Since starting off as an experiment in 2011 and going viral with his interpretation of Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” except called “Gang Fight,” the Bad Lip Reader has garnered millions of views and has generated buzz during this year’s presidential elections by skewering candidates like Mitt Romney and Herman Cain.

The Bad Lip Reader has kept his identity a secret because he doesn’t want his videos to influence his other projects and professional relationships. The PoliPop channel’s top star talked to us recently about political humor, how not to read lips and what would happen if someone leaked out his identity, among other things.

How did “Bad Lip Reading” begin?

I would sometimes mute the TV to see what [my mom’s world] was like. And I found I was just awful at lip reading. I was always coming up with the oddest phrases that the people on the television couldn’t possibly be saying. That was sort of my first contact with the concept. But it really all took form in 2011 when I was filming a talk radio show and one of the on-air personalities was silently mouthing words throughout the entire show. When I got the video footage back to my studio, I tried to figure out what he was saying, and the same thing happened that had happened with the TV before. I was coming up with weird phrases. So, I dubbed my voice saying those phrases onto the video and sent it to a couple of my friends who had been on the film crew with me. They loved it and asked me to do more. So I did. And right around that time, Rebecca Black released “Friday”, so I decided to try to process on that, just for kicks. I also work as a songwriter and music producer, so I just made an entirely new song with new random badly lip-read lyrics. I put it on YouTube, and it went nuts. I suddenly had tens of thousands of subscribers, and they wanted me to do more vids, so I did. And it’s kept going and going. And there is a demand for the BLR songs themselves as well. Since they are original songs, with completely original melodies and lyrics, they’re available on iTunes.

You said in an interview with the Village Voice that your mom had a great sense of reading lips. I take it you didn’t do so well in that department?

My mom was a highly-skilled lip reader. I would sometimes throw her intentional curveballs to test her, and she was amazing. I’m getting better at it, but for the most part, my brain will usually pull up odd-but-fitting phrases. I’m sure if I lost my hearing I would get better at it out of necessity, but for a while at least, my world would seem like a bizarre SNL sketch.

What goes into your mind when you try to mute the television? How do you make your bad interpretations into comedic gold? Did you expect people to find it humorous at first?

When I do the videos, I just mute the audio and try to tune out any sense of logic. I just let my brain be receptive to any word combinations that might fit their lips. More accurately, I guess, I make myself receptive to sound combinations that fit their lips, then my brain resolves those into words. I may come up with 5 to 10 different variations for each line in my videos. It’s a matter of sorting through those lines as they reveal themselves and picking the one that resonates with me the most. If something makes me laugh out-loud when I first “hear” it, that’s a good sign. And I do like the fact that the process ends up creating phrases that have never been uttered in the English language. That may be my favorite aspect of the whole process.

I’m a huge fan of absurdity, and I love randomness and non-sequiturs. That’s what attracted me to the process in the first place. Personally, it’s enjoyable for me to see notable people very earnestly saying or singing something totally nonsensical. I love the act of transformation that takes place there, completely changing the context of the moment. I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly it is that makes it so funny. I know there’s some deeper underlying psychological mechanism at work. But the simple explanation is that it’s just funny to see people looking like lunatics.

I wasn’t sure how people would respond to the videos initially. I didn’t actually think about it much at first, to be honest. All I knew was that I found it humorous and that it had made my friends laugh. When I uploaded that first video, I never expected for it to become as big as it has. I admit, though, that there was a moment of slight uncertainty on my part a bit later when I began doing the soundbite videos, as opposed to the music videos. Because the channel started as a music-only channel and existed in that form for many months. So when I decided to try something different with the political videos, I wasn’t sure if I would lose everyone. But what actually happened was that those spoken-word videos attracted an entirely new crowd to Bad Lip Reading. And, in fact, I find there is a bit of a division; there’s one group that definitely prefers the music videos, and one group that definitely prefers the spoken word videos. A lot of people fall in-between, but there is that division.

You told Rolling Stone that your bad lip reading “has gotten less…bad.” How do you try to combat that? Do you aim for more ridiculous political characters?

Yeah, I’ve found that my brain is actually lip-reading more and more accurately. I’m finding that my brain deciphers the actual words the speaker was saying more often now, which is a problem. So, I have to just be aware of that. For the most part, it doesn’t really matter, as long as the bulk of what’s being said in the end is appropriately ridiculous.

How did politics become more of an interesting topic on “Bad Lip Reading”? Do people have a sense of humor when it comes to politicians not making sense?

I really only began doing the political videos as a stopgap between the music videos. Spoken-word videos are easier and faster to create. I happened to choose political videos to do because they are readily available and plentiful. And they were timely. But I could just have easily chosen news anchors or instructional videos. It honestly wasn’t about political commentary. It was about convenience. And, again, I love taking those very serious and emotionally manipulative campaign videos and standing them on their heads. It’s just funny to me.

It seems that people have been responding to them well, even when they support the candidate in the video. I think they can tell that the point of the video is absurdity, and it’s not about being mean-spirited. But I do find that many people want to see them as some sort of commentary, or some sort of criticism of whatever party the candidate represents in the video. It has nothing to do with that. Yes, I’ve done a lot of Republican videos, but that’s just because of the primary. Had it been an election with multiple distinctive Democratic contenders, I’d have been doing those instead. I’m not picking on the Republicans. I’ve already done Biden, and I did Obama, and I’ll be doing more Democrats as well. It has more to do with whether or not the people in the videos make interesting characters. And Cain, Paul, Perry, Bachmann and Romney are all interesting characters.

You say in interviews with Rolling Stone and the Village Voice that you’re not ready to give up “indie cred.” What’s your life like since “Bad Lip Reading” went viral?

Life has gotten very interesting. It has definitely opened doors. I’ve been approached about some big projects and have been offered things I could never have imagined. I’ve had some pretty random meetings with very important people, and I literally have no idea what to expect when I wake up every day. It’s weird. I’ve turned down some huge opportunities, but I don’t have regrets about that. The only thing I can do is trust my gut and choose the things that resonate with me. I have a lot of things in the works at the moment, but I’ll still keep doing BLR and I’ll still keep doing the things I was doing before that.

What would happen if your identity was leaked out? How would you feel?

Well, there is a lot of freedom in anonymity. I love that. It’s incredibly liberating, and that sense of freedom would be missing. I also don’t really want the work I do in one field to overlap with or influence the work I do in another field. I want the work to be evaluated on its own merit, independently from other work I’ve done. That may sound silly, but it’s personally very important to me. People like to put other people in boxes. They like to say “Oh, ok, you do this? Well, that’s what you will be in my eyes forever.” They find it hard to see you as something else after that. And I work in so many fields. I hate boxes. I have other work in the world that might be somehow diminished if it were known that the BLR guy did it. Or, who knows, maybe vice versa. I admit I’m totally over-thinking it; I know this. And as I take more and more meetings, and as more and more people in the industry are let in on the secret, it will eventually leak. At the end of the day, I think I just like the honesty of peoples’ reaction to my work when they have no idea who did it. Whether they like the work or don’t like it, I know it has to do with the work itself, and nothing to do with how they feel about me as a person or about my other work. I like that transparency.

And, as far as BLR is concerned, it also helps people to suspend their disbelief a bit more if they have no mental image of the creator to influence things. Right now, someone can watch one of the videos where I do a female voice and they can buy into it being an actual female voice, because they don’t have a mental image of me to corrupt that. I find that many people are fooled by those videos. They think it’s an actual girl. But none of my friends think it sounds like a girl. It’s because they know it’s me, and they can hear my voice in it. So the anonymity helps in that way as well.

How has social media made such humor like yours possible? Would it have worked if you tried to do this on television (e.g. SNL, MadTV)?

YouTube and other social media have changed the game. They really have. It’s an entirely new world for content creators. As an artist, I find it to be incredibly liberating. It’s like a dream. Now anybody can have an idea, they can make that idea a reality, and then they can put it out there for the entire world to see. Instantly. And generally speaking, I think the good stuff has a way of rising to the top somehow. If people make something unique and worthwhile, others will find it. Eventually. Maybe some creators don’t particularly care whether people find it or not, but they still have a place to put their work where it is accessible.

I sometimes think about the countless talented painters and singers and comedians and musicians in the past who created great art in total obscurity. We missed out on some of the most talented people in existence, simply because there was no means by which the world could know of them. And now that is no longer the case with the internet and creative outlets like YouTube. A 13-year-old girl can record herself performing in her bedroom, upload it to YouTube, and suddenly the world can listen to her sing. It’s a massive shift. And it’s a wonderful time to be a content creator.

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