It's Never Just Joking / by Jefferson Geiger

Last week the YouTube star PewDiePie—pronounced like cutie pie but with a “P”—made headlines by posting a controversial video a month prior. Why does this matter? Because he has one of the largest platforms on the planet.

PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, has been a member of the video service since 2010. In just six years his channel reached more than 53 million subscribers and his videos have been view more than 14 billion times. In 2013 he claimed the top spot as YouTube’s most watched channel and has held it almost continuously. All of those eyeballs generate a lot of advertising revenue. The magazine Forbes says his earnings were approximately $15 million in 2016.

So what are all those people watching exactly? A young Swedish guy playing videogames on camera and talking about it. It’s hard to explain appeal of the videos, called Let’s Plays, when I’m limited to just words but basically watching someone else experience a game can be as fun as—or sometimes more fun than—playing it yourself.

Whenever Kjllberg plays a game, particularly when it’s a small independent title, he has the same sales-boosting effect has Oprah’s influential book club. Sales of Ryan Clark’s “Crypt of the NecroDancer” went up $60,000 after being featured on one of his videos.

With that context in mind it’s easy to understand why Time would call him one of the most influential people in 2016. But, as Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” And what Kjllberg did recently was highly irresponsible.

In January, instead of playing a video game, he performed what he defends as a social experiment. He used the freelance service Fiverr to pay two men to hold up a handwritten sign that said “Death to all Jews.” Viewers watched him react gleefully as the original video of the freelancers plays in the corner.

Once Maker Studios, a subsidiary of Disney, was made aware of the video via The Wall Street Journal they dropped Kjllberg from their network. Shortly thereafter YouTube cancelled production of the second season of a PewDiePie show made exclusively for YouTube Red subscribers and removed him from their Google Preferred program.

Genocide isn’t exactly something to chuckle about as hundreds of thousands watch.

The majority of Kjllberg’s audience is young males, like my pre-teen cousins. The demographic looks up to him with impressionable minds and they want to be him. They believe they could make it big with their own YouTube series and emulate his mannerisms. It should go without saying that anti-Semitism shouldn’t be emulated.

I don’t have the column inches, energy, or time to get into the complex issue of comedy and “politically correct” culture but I’ll summarize. In short, millennials aren’t booing jokes because the punch line is too edgy or insensitive, it’s because the jokes are flat-out bad.

Comedian Kumail Nanjiani tweeted that he sees bad comics lean on shock often because it’s a way to get the desired reaction without having to be funny. Nanjiani believes that nothing is off limits but the comic has to have something to say about the topic because otherwise it’s cheap.

I’m younger than Kjllberg and have a much smaller platform than him but I understand that my words have an impact. I studied journalism to make sure when I write I do so responsibly. Kjllber isn’t exactly performing at an open mic.

This isn’t the first time he did something controversial, though it’s the first of this magnitude. He has apologized for videos early on in his career that made fun of rape and LGBTQ people. After he became the first person to have 50 million subscribers in December he said that he would delete his YouTube channel. Instead he pulled a fast one and deleted a secondary channel used only once. People weren’t happy yet the stunt is harmless compared to being a privileged jerk that simultaneously makes fun of poor people and the Holocaust.

Making mistakes and learning from them is vital to growth, but it’s hard to tell if Kjllberg is actually growing. He did apologize by saying it wasn’t his intention to offend and he denounced his new neo-Nazi supporters. Yet in a later video Kjllberg claimed that he’s a victim of The Wall Street Journal’s unfair coverage and the joke was taken out of context. Is he only apologizing because he got caught and there were financial consequences?

If you want to make music, you study how notes interact. If you want to bake, you learn the proper techniques and the science behind it. If you want to be a comedian, it helps to understand what make something genuinely funny, especially when you’re extremely influential. Here’s a lesson on the house: punch up, not down.

This column was originally published in the February 22, 2017 edition of the Valley Courier.