Sad Man Eating: Epic Meal Time and the Sadness of Online Celebrity

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Image from HuffPo.

The entire concept of YouTube celebrities has bypassed me in a way that reminds me of my declining youth. I’m only 25 but there’s something about the plethora of fresh-faced chipmunk-happy make-up gurus and screaming gamer commentaries that makes me go all Old Man Yells at Cloud. That’s not to day that I don’t find some enjoyment and certain strains of this burgeoning cultural phenomenon: I like to watch speed-runs of video-games, travel vlogs and the occasional cooking tutorial. I tend to consume large quantities of such videos in an aggressively short amount of time, like marathoning a show on Netflix. One YouTube series that I enjoyed in this manner was Epic Meal Time.

As someone who watches a lot of cooking shows, despite my lack of culinary skill, I know how rare it is to see changes in the formula. The preferred route of production is pretty simple: Cook (usually a pretty skinny white woman) prepares dishes to a vague set theme for a special occasion, an array of guests who probably aren’t real friends arrive and enjoy the picture perfect fruits of our host’s labour to the sounds of light jazz. It’s easily consumed comfort viewing more than instructional entertainment. You’re probably never going to cook any of the prepared dishes. You’re mostly watching for the particular lifestyle being sold to you.

Epic Meal Time is a fascinating anomaly in that genre. It features a group of male friends who eschew polish in favour of bombast, serving up gargantuan culinary creations from the most artery clogging of ingredients. Imagine towers of bacon, butter, cheese, steak and sugar, crafted into monstrous forms, all set to overdramatic music with commentary to match. This is less Nigella and more Frankenstein by way of an Eminem video.

A few months ago, I watched countless episodes of the show in one session, and I found myself oddly gripped by the train wreck bonanza. The guys were too dorky to be truly cool and seemed to know it. Their white boy gangster talk was clearly too silly to be anything other than that. The grotesque ingenuity of their work made my stomach simultaneously churn and growl, much in the same way the dishes on Hannibal do. It was an ideal night of viewing for someone looking to turn off their brain, but it also provided a surprisingly deft alternative to the minutely managed Food Network shows I tend to have on in the background while doing other things. It was so stupid it swung back around to genius. Ina Garten sells a traditionally feminine domestic ideal with expensive flourishes to provide a gentle fantasy. Epic Meal Time shoves parodic masculinity in your face, reveling in gluttony and ego.

I decided to watch a few more videos of the show recently, and the magic just wasn’t there anymore. Laughing with the crew turned to laughing at them, before descending into sad sighs. It just didn’t seem fun anymore. I’m sure this is mostly a personal preference, and a product of the immense intellectual growth one goes through in the space of a few months, but I can’t help but notice little details. Everyone looks that bit more tired – no surprise given their hectic schedule and inevitable caloric intake – the creations seem staider and executed with less enthusiasm. The frequent appearances from busty women suggestively fondling slabs of meat have moved from self-aware parody to just gross. It’s begun to feel like Jackass 3-D: A contractual obligation everyone involved with is too exhausted to deal with. Honestly, the videos reminded me of the big shadow looming overhead the entire concept of YouTube fame.

Their show remains wildly popular, with close to 7 million subscribers, but their cookbook undersold and their TV show Epic Meal Empire is popular enough to be renewed on an obscure cable network but the show’s intense internet-based popularity doesn’t seem to have transcended into traditional media. Their views will probably sustain them for a good long while thanks to ad revenue, but they remain a YouTube exception to the rule of low-paid content creators who struggle to scrape by in an age of AdBlock and an oversaturated market. A recent article on Fusion explored a surprising problem with burgeoning internet fame – most of these vloggers, the ‘middle class’ of the site, are too well-known to work in regular jobs, but too poor not to. The field, like the entertainment industry in general, just doesn’t pay enough.

It’s this fear that seems to be driving other YouTube celebrities to diversify their portfolios. A number of them have published books to mixed sales (Zoe Sugg and Tyler Oakley represent two of a handful who can call themselves bona fide best-sellers), some have gone to radio and TV while others have put their names to products such as make-up. It’s something of a surprise to see the supposedly democratizing tool of creativity and celebrity have to rely on traditional methods to remain sustainable.

For those not lucky enough to have reached that level, the pressure is on to create content for the masses of teenagers who make up the biggest demographic of the site. Even for those who have made their names there, it’s a constant struggle to retain that interest, and as such their means of employment. You can’t have off-weeks: You need to be on the ball every day and working on videos that retain the brand you’ve formed that’s proven so popular. That thing you probably started for fun, or a means to entertain yourself, is now such an indelible part of your life that you can’t just drop it, even if it becomes a chore.

I understand that slog: We’ve all done work we didn’t want to do because we had to, and I know the urge to roll one’s eyes and sneer at privileged people’s problems is high. I’ve done it myself with these people. Yet I continue to find myself drawn back to them, forever perplexed by their appeal yet sympathetic to the very public ways in which they must live. There are so many big YouTube stars my age who I just can’t bear to watch because the strain of it all is etched into their faces. I freak out writing blog posts that maybe 200 people will read. The mere thought of videos of myself reaching millions makes me overwhelmingly anxious.

In 2013, two members of Epic Meal Time left the show over disputes with the show’s creator and head presenter Harley Morenstein. Both expressed disappointment in the way their work was devalued by Morenstein and how that left to splintering of trust in their friendships. When asked why they left, one member simply said, ‘Business just got in the way of being fun’.

I think about that sentiment a lot, especially since I passed the 5 year blogging anniversary. What do you do when this thing that has defined you for so long, and is the sole definer of you to so many people, stops being fun? Because eventually and inevitably, it will stop being fun, and some people don’t have the luxury of coming to terms with that and walking away. When the hot new thing comes along and your views don’t pay the bills anymore, and you lose more than you gain, how do you return to normalcy? Can you?

I’m probably reading too much into this, or projecting a great number of my own anxieties onto something too frivolous to merit it. Media evolves. Pop culture changes with the times, often faster than we care to keep up with it. The generations that follow us craft their own stories and create new heroes and idols for the rest of us to bemuse over. This is nothing new. These concerns of mine will come up again for a whole new medium until I’m in my hover-rocking chair complaining about the loud robots downstairs. We’ll adapt and we’ll get on with it, but my worries remain for those who fall behind. When the fun disappears, what do you do?

I guess you just keep cooking.

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