Welcome to Creators Going Pro, where in partnership with Semaphore — a creator-focused family of companies providing business and financial services to social media professionals — we profile professional YouTube stars who have hit it big by doing what they love. Each week, we’ll chat with a creator about the business side of their channel, including identifying their Semaphore Moment — the moment they truly went pro.
On January 26, 2005, exactly 19 days before YouTube was founded, a group of friends began running a daily comic on their website, Explosm.net.
Called Cyanide & Happiness, the comic was made entirely in Microsoft Paint. Each installment featured stick figures, a purposefully simple style, and a distinctive mix of ridiculous and existential humor. The comic strip rapidly gained hordes of fanatics across early social media hubs like MySpace and LiveJournal, inspiring fan comics and earning a star spot in the internet’s hall of meme fame.
Now, nearly 15 years later, Explosm founders Rob DenBleyker, Dave McElfatrick, and Kris Wilson are still making Cyanide & Happiness on the regular. But in addition to uploading a comic every single day, they’re also running a YouTube channel — started in 2009 — that has so far amassed 9.2 million subscribers and nets between 25 and 45 million views each month.
On YouTube, Explosm primarily posts animated Cyanide & Happiness shorts. YouTube is also where The Cyanide & Happiness Show, a longer-form animated series, got its start in 2014. (It now runs on digital video platform VRV.) Expanding into animated content has required a whole new set of creative skills, so to help create their YouTube content, DenBleyker, McElfatrick, and Wilson put together an animation studio that now has 20 full-time employees. (The Cyanide & Happiness Show, by the way, isn’t the trio’s only long-form production. They also have a live-action YouTube series called Drawing a Blank, where they film the entire process of creating a spontaneous comic.)
DenBleyker, McElfatrick, and Wilson’s latest project is a Patreon to fund the creation of Explosm’s various projects. Crowdfunding support for their creations is necessary because, as they explain on their Patreon page, nowadays YouTube often demonetizes their Cyanide & Happiness shorts for being advertiser-unfriendly. Those who support Explosm on Patreon are granted on-brand rewards like “eternal forgiveness for all ad block-related sins.” They currently have 2,232 patrons and have fully funded their current top goal, nabbing an extra reward for patrons, which is: “Dave comes to live at your house!”
As Explosm approaches 10 million YouTube subscribers and continues to produce tons of content at a breakneck speed, DenBleyker, McElfatrick, and Wilson sat down with Tubefilter to talk about how the internet brought three comic-loving strangers together, and how they turned Explosm into what it is today.
Tubefilter: So for those who may not have read the extensive and entertaining bio on your site, what got each of you into comics? How did the three of you meet?
Kris Wilson: I’ve been making some form of a comic since I was in preschool, and the art quality has only decreased since then. Any time I could get my hands on paper or a cartoon maker on the PC, I’d go crazy on ’em, and pass the comics around to friends. Later, in high school, I was making Cyanide & Happiness comics. and looked up to the stick figure flash animations Rob and Dave would make.
I ended up posting the earlier comics on their website’s forum, and they seemed to like them a lot. Next thing I know, Rob and I are sending comics back and forth for fun. They were making a new website that was more broad than their stick figure animations, and asked if I’d like to bring the comic over to their website. All in all, it was like passing drawings and notes in class, but instead of classmates, it was strange men I’d never met over the internet.
Dave McElfatrick: As an only child, I quickly got bored of drawing fake brothers and sisters on my parents’ wallpaper for me to play with as a young’un, so I drew cartoons and comics on paper instead. Old British children’s comics like The Beano and The Dandy were my comic nourishment, and as a child I aspired to work for them one day. Long story short, then the internet happened and I met these boys and thought, “I’ll draw comics with them instead.” I’m a good storyteller, me.
Tubefilter: What was the tipping point that got the three of you to take your content to YouTube? Why did you choose YouTube over other platforms, and why have you stuck with YouTube?
KW: We grew up on newgrounds.com, and the type of user-submitted animations that’d end up on there — and seeing as we come from more of a background in animation than comics, it was a pretty natural progression for us. Animation allows us to hear the sound of someone turning themselves inside out, or put to motion a well-endowed man dancing. Animation gives us more to work with when we have a concept.
DM: As an only child, I quickly got bored of drawing well-endowed men dancing on my parents’ wallpaper, so I decided to put them on YouTube instead.
Tubefilter: Can you talk a bit about the effect YouTube has had on your careers, and on the Explosm brand?
KW: YouTube allows us to entertain audiences we normally couldn’t reach. Even to this day, there are people who watch the animations but have never seen the comic, and vice-versa. It’s also allowed us to give steady jobs to talented people we’ve been working with for years. YouTube gave us the stability to really dig our heels in and make something bigger than the comics alone.
DM: As an only child, YouTube has allowed me the opportunity to buy my own property, where I can draw on my own wallpaper. I’m incredibly lucky and blessed to have such an opportunity.
Tubefilter: When did you get your first check for online video revenue? How much was it for?
KW: It was early 2010 when we started seeing money from the animations via YouTube. The feeling was very surreal, and it got us inspired to make more weird cartoons. I can’t recall how much it was or what day we got it, but the first thing we did was put the money back into the animations so we could make them regularly on YouTube.
Tubefilter: Launching The Cyanide & Happiness Show seems like it was a huge undertaking. When did you hit a point where you knew your fanbase would support such a large-scale production?
KW: There was a time when we only made animations ourselves when we had time, so there’d be large gaps between our uploads — often spanning years. We saw that people were asking for more both on YouTube and off, so we tried crowdsourcing funding for a full show season, so we could bring more animation to the table and less restraints as we made it. We like making them, so if people like watching them, it’s natural and symbiotic.
DM: As an only child, I quickly got bored of drawing animations and cartoons by myself, and longed for a beautiful team of lovely boys and girls to make cartoons on a larger scale. The world smiled upon me, kissed me on the forehead, and said, “Here you go, Dave. Have two beautiful boys called Rob and Kris. Take them and make use of them. Go now.” I took them, and together we made beautiful animations together, but in time, I, like the insatiable tyrant I am, wanted more. Nay, I demanded more! I yelled loudly into my computer mic at the internet, saying, “GIVE ME SUPPORT SO THAT I MAY ASSEMBLE A FINE TEAM OF ANIMATORS AND TALENTED BOYS AND GIRLS.” And the internet said. “Yes.”
Tubefilter: How is the creative process of making content for YouTube different from the process of making other Explosm content?
KW: The animations have us all in a room taking a concept and adding on to it as a group. Or we’ll take an inside joke that made us laugh and see if we can structure it into a cartoon. I’ll bring in a concept like, “You know how a mother will Hulk out and lift a car off her baby? What if that was a superpower?” and another writer will throw out, “Yeah, and she throws her baby into trouble so she can Hulk out.” Another writer will add that her baby is taken away by the villain, but she’s recently pregnant, so she can still put her baby in danger. After that, more ideas are added to the pot, from voice-acting to sound design and music. Then we take our ideas and compile them into an episode or short. It’s a lot more of a group effort than other things we produce.
DM: As an only child, I quickly got bored of drawing the comics on Explosm and decided to make animated content with a full team for YouTube instead. The difference is obvious: animation is largely a collaborative effort, whilst comics are best produced deep within the darkest recesses of your home office/masturbation lab, or drawn on your parents’ wallpaper.
Tubefilter: What was that Semaphore Moment for you—the first time you realized you were a professional YouTuber?
Rob DenBleyker: To be honest, I still haven’t totally processed it. We’re so focused, one day at a time, on the content itself and making ourselves laugh that it’s sometimes easy for me to forget that other people are even watching our cartoons. There are definitely moments when it all becomes real. A big one for me was when we decided to do a Banana Bar Crawl in Dallas, and invite our fans to dress like bananas and drink with us. About 300 superfans showed up in banana costumes. That’s about as real as YouTube gets.
KW: People are watching them?! If my parents see them, I’m dead meat!
DM: As an only child, I got quickly bored of staying at my parents’ house. I realised I’d made it the day I peeled a red convertible Corvette out of their driveway, flipping them both off, shouting, “Sayonara, you old dirtwheels!” as I wore a supermodel’s butt like a hat. That was the day. But I still wanted more!
Tubefilter: You guys put out a metric ton of content on a regular basis. Do you have a set filming/uploading schedule for YouTube? How do you balance all your various projects?
KW: We keep a release schedule for everything — same goes for YouTube. We try to work ahead enough that projects can get a solid foundation, and avoid a lot of question marks that can arise when your funding is from the internet.
Tubefilter: Have any of you experienced creator burnout? How do you combat it?
KW: Yeah, all the time. It’s as common as a creative boon. Something that helps me is getting out of the mindset of writing a joke or idea, and soak in content that makes me laugh. With our line of work, some of the ideas you like the most are out of nowhere while you’re distracted with a different activity. It helps you find that groove that you started with, and get the perspective of being a first-time viewer of what you’re making.
Tubefilter: How many people work on Explosm content behind the scenes? Do you have a production studio? What about a manager or network?
KW: We have an animation studio with talented people to make us look good. Some of them work on the YouTube animations, some work on the seasons or other content we make. As far as a manager or network goes, we’re represented by Studio71. It’s surreal that we went from working out of our bedrooms to managing several teams of like-minded talent.
RD: We have about 20 employees and even more collaborators and contractors working with us on the YouTube shorts, and our long-form animated series on VRV. These include animators, artists, sound designers, etcetera.
Tubefilter: What do you think are the most vital skills you possess as a creator?
KW: I have imposter syndrome, so naturally I feel like everything I make is awful. When fans of what we do give us compliments, I’m very skeptical about them. It keeps me trying new things and learning new skills in the fruitless quest of being satisfied with what I make. Plus it keeps the ego in check.
Tubefilter: What’s next for you and Explosm? What are you building toward?
KW: For me, an agonizing death. But we’re trying our hand at other platforms like card games and video games because it’s fresh and fun for us. We’ve also been toying around with some ideas for musicals in the future. As for Explosm, we’ve wanted to make a safe harbor for animation on the internet, and it’d be great to give other animators we know the kind of opportunities we’ve had. Hopefully we can make those happen before the whole “agonizing death” thing.
DM: As an only child, I got quickly bored of not having a child, so I made a child with my wife. I’m currently taking some time to enjoy my new family alongside a couple of secret Explosm projects, including teaching my child to someday draw all over my wallpaper.
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