Comedy is hard. It’s hard for amateurs; it’s hard for professionals; it’s hard for dads across the globe. It’s also hard for YouTubers, as Felix Kjellberg - the YouTube millionaire known as PewDiePie - discovered over the past week. Kjellberg was let go from his contract with Disney’s Maker Studios, had his YouTube Red series Let’s Scare PewDiePie cancelled, and saw his YouTube channel removed from Google’s “Preferred” listings - all over anti-Semitic content posted on his channel. Fair enough.
The content was as brainless as you’d imagine - and not in the playing-video-games-and-shrieking way that makes up the majority of PewDiePie’s channel. Kjellberg created a series of YouTube videos in which he paid people - via online freelancing app Fiverr - to engage in an escalating series of public, filmed stunts. The most notorious video depicts two men holding up a sign reading “death to all Jews.” Another shows a man dressed as Christ claiming Hitler did nothing wrong. Others still saw Kjellberg watching Hitler clips while wearing a military uniform; posting swastikas from fans; and performing a Nazi salute. MAGA hats also made appearances in several of the same videos. It’s unsurprising Disney and Google - two of the world’s biggest and most image-conscious corporations - had no interest in associating their brands with that content.
Kjellberg claims he was “trying to show how crazy the modern world is,” but he wasn’t making the satire he may have thought he was. We live in a world where even carefully crafted satire is often twisted into serious interpretations by those it satirises, and the craft of stunts like “Death To All Jews” is far from careful. Maker Studios itself admitted that Kjellberg’s celebrity was founded on being “provocative and irreverent,” but there’s a difference between provocation and outright offensiveness - largely centred around who the targets are. In this case, the targets have suffered centuries of historic persecution, including the greatest human atrocity in living memory (if not in all history). It’s hard to argue that such jokes are “punching up”.
For self-professed “rookie comedian” Kjellberg, this was all a joke. But creating comedy - especially with a large platform - carries with it great responsibility - something that Kjellberg, like many wannabe Internet jokesters, apparently fails to understand.
When I’m not writing for BMD, one of my various means of making a living is professional improv comedy, which I’ve been doing for over ten years. It’s hard, and it’s especially hard not to indulge one’s own worst habits. There’s easy comedy and hard comedy, which often lines up with bad comedy and good comedy (or at least dumb comedy and intelligent comedy), and it takes great discipline to stay away from the former.
Audiences train comedians to succumb to bad habits - the bigger the audience, the more profound the training. Depending on the audience, you can get easy laughs - often motivated by shock or discomfort - from dropping swears, making crude references, or making jokes based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. I’ve witnessed otherwise wonderful people turn into misogynists onstage, because they know they can get easy laughs from some of the audience, and they never feel they’ve done anything wrong - because they got the response they wanted. That laughter is real, but it’s cheap, and for every person who laughs, there’s one who’s turned off. Problem is, you never hear the people who aren’t laughing. The artistic director of my company refers to this diametric as “lols versus laughs,” an apt description given the terminology used on the internet. Improv audiences train performers with their laughter. Twitter audiences train users with likes and retweets. So too do YouTube audiences with upvotes, comments, shares, and subscriptions.
As someone who’s scored many a cheap, guilty laugh, I’m fairly confident that Kjellberg is not an anti-Semite. At least, he isn’t one consciously, which is somewhat emblematic of a larger problem. His problem is one of careless privilege, like so many other nihilistic, lulz-driven trolls. Kjellberg doesn’t have to face the social consequences of his actions personally, so he likely sees little harm in doing them. In making and hosting anti-Semitic jokes, he’s at least complicit in normalising anti-Semitism, just as improvisers and comedians are complicit in normalising sexism or racial stereotypes through their performances. (The same, by the way, goes for the rape jokes he used to make on the regular, before he was a Disney employee and thus worthy of a Wall Street Journal story.)
Anti-Semites will not feel less comfortable after the Fiverr incident - indeed, the WSJ reported that neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer relabelled itself "the world’s #1 PewDiePie fansite" in response. Racist jokes online are often glazed in sarcasm so thick it’s hard to tell the real Nazis from the trolls - but in practice, there’s little difference between the two. The real Nazis smirk behind a convenient guise of plausible deniability, while self-styled “pranksters” - especially prominent ones like PewDiePie - lend visibility, if not credibility, to their ideas. If everything is a joke, nothing is - and therein lies the issue. Intent is nebulous and frankly irrelevant when everyone hides behind the same trollface gif.
The role PewDiePie’s audience played in creating his current image cannot be discounted. They trained him to continue down a certain path, and he allowed himself to be trained, in doing so becoming everything he claims to disavow. “I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary,” he says. “I know my audience understand that and that is why they come to my channel.” But Kjellberg cannot “know” his audience understands his intention, or that they think it’s the same as he does. Some of his audience, after all, comes to him via the Daily Stormer. All he knows is that 53 million people subscribe to his channel, so whatever he’s doing must be right. There’s no motivation to improve his material when he continues to get clicks.
Comedians don’t get to decide how audiences interpret material. Part of the responsibility when crafting comedy that broaches sensitive subjects - which should never be banned or discouraged outright, by the way - is crafting it so you don’t need to protest that “it’s just a joke.” TV shows like Veep or Brass Eye hit on outrageous subject material, but they do it with a clear absurdist tone, with actual jokes rather than unvarnished outrageous statements. They have viewpoints to communicate and statements to make, which Kjellberg and other would-be comedians fail to match when they pay cheap lip service to “edgy” ideas.
PewDiePie isn’t “A Comedian,” but his material is comedy-adjacent at the very least. His formula has obviously been successful and influential, and his more inspired moments have undeniable entertainment value. But it’s cheap entertainment. Easy entertainment. To Kjellberg’s credit, he’s branched out somewhat from the style that made him (and his many imitators) famous, but exploring quote-unquote “controversial” territory requires a honing of craft and authorial voice. Otherwise, he’s just gasping and snickering at “Death To All Jews” banners, legitimising racism even if he doesn’t mean to. His jokes are not about racism, they’re about race - and there’s a vast gulf between the two.
Kjellberg’s Trumpian reaction to the controversy, too, is revealing. According to him, the problem isn’t the jokes, it’s that they’re being taken out of context by the media - particularly the WSJ, at which he pulled the finger in a recent video. Shorn of his joking presentation, he says, of course his material seems offensive, but because it’s meant as a joke, it can’t be. Aside from the intent issues I’ve already covered, and the fact that jokes can absolutely cause consequences, by becoming defensive Kjellberg unwittingly ascribes additional weight to his material. His bitter response makes his content appear more important to him than “just a joke,” and suddenly he’s in the position of vehemently defending anti-Semitic content, backed by GamerGate remnants thankful for another smokescreen. It’s a race to the bottom with this kind of argument, and Kjellberg is right down there with the Pepes.
PewDiePie’s fall from corporate grace should be taken as a major wakeup call for a certain type of Internet celebrity It demonstrates that there’s only so far the juvenile PewDiePie formula can go. As we’ve seen repeatedly recently, large mainstream corporations will not stand to be seen supporting content like this. For years, we’d wondered what the limit was, and it turns out this is it. PewDiePie can say whatever he wants, but he’s not entitled to the platform Disney or Google might have still been providing him. That’s something many rich, outspoken white dudes have been discovering of late: they’re being told “no” for the first time by the media or by sponsors, and they’re getting pissy at the fact their actions have consequences.
Finally: Kjellberg says he “[doesn’t consider himself] a role model,” but what he considers himself has no bearing on the discussion. The fact is, PewDiePie is a role model - to many amongst his 53 million subscribers, including the increasing number of kids who think they can become a millionaire just by playing games and squealing. The existence of mobile game PewDiePie’s Tuber Simulator suggests his lifestyle is a fantasy worth acting out for many people. Whether he likes it or not, he has a responsibility to provide an example worth following.
Kjellberg is at an important crossroads in his career. He can follow his current (and well-established) trajectory towards becoming another ranting “free speech” crusader on YouTube. Or he can grow up a little (it only takes a little!), and apply some discipline to his craft (because it is a craft). He has an enormous platform; better to use it for something more positive than anti-Semitic jokes - and than railing against a media and society that frankly doesn’t care about his whining. If ever there was a time to be responsible and make bold movements against hatred, it’s now. It’s a matter of remaining part of the problem, or becoming part of the solution.
Ignore the lols, Felix. Go for laughs instead. It’s tough - but it’ll improve your work a thousandfold, and you’ll be less of an asshole to boot.