Welcome to YouTube Millionaires, where we profile channels that have recently crossed the one million subscriber mark. There are channels crossing this threshold every week, and each creator has a story to tell about YouTube success. Read previous installments here.
Charlie Berens can fill a comedy club.
But what about the people who can’t be there?
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Berens, who’s 35 and was a journalist for a variety of outlets before going full-time on YouTube, had this thought after a standup set at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. He’s from Wisconsin, and his Midwesternness has become a major part of his comedy identity. During that set, a member of the audience happened to be from Berens’ hometown, Manitowoc, and really dug his routine.
“[T]he show went great, and the next day I wanted to make a video out of it,” Berens says.
Why a video? Because “if you’re lucky,” he says, you might draw a crowd of 50 to a club. You might give them your best stuff, and spin a great show, and then you go home and it’s done. Not so with video. If he replicated his routines as YouTube videos, he could share them forever with the vast hordes of potential viewers the internet has to offer.
And it turns out the vast hordes really dig his routines, too.
We’ll let him tell you all about it below.
Tubefilter: If somebody’s reading this and they’ve never seen your content and don’t know who you are, tell them a little about you! Where did you grow up? How did you get into journalism?
Charlie Berens: I grew up in Wisconsin and I went to school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At that time, MTV had this street team and they were hiring a journalist from each state to cover the 2008 election. So, a while ago, but I ended up being the one they found from Wisconsin.
That kind of got me into doing the one-man-band type. That’s what they called it in the news biz—or a multimedia journalist—where you shoot, you edit, you’re the on-camera talent. And that prepared me not just for the news business, which I ended up going into, but then it also prepared me for doing YouTube, where all of that is really required.
Anyway, I did that. Then that caused some weird things to happen. I ended up getting arrested covering the protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Saint Paul. There were a lot of unique things like that, which—this was even in the early days of Twitter—and I got arrested, I was in jail all night, and they took my phone, but my last tweet was just on this bridge, and they connected the dots that that’s where a bunch of journalists got arrested. It was back in the day where you would text your tweet and then do a hashtag after it, and that would send it to Twitter. So bizarre looking back on that now.
From there, I graduated. I worked as a production assistant in Los Angeles. I was the guy who set up the lights and the cameras to do like backstage or behind-the-scenes interviews for DVDs. So we would interview people like Johnny Depp on Pirates or, who else was it? I’m trying to think of a few other names, but we would interview actors and directors, so I set up the lights and the cameras and all that.
And then afterward I would go back to the office, set up, and shoot my reel, which was a mix of comedy and news, kind of in the vein of John Stewart or Tosh 2.0 or whatever. And that got me a job at this company called One Minute News, which was a YouTube-first news organization. That company didn’t last very long, but that got me really into doing more news-type stuff and blending comedy with it. I then went to Dallas, and I was doing more traditional news there. I was anchoring the 9 p.m. show for a show called Newcap, which again, blended news with comedy. They tried that for a little bit, and it didn’t really work. So they went more traditiona, and then I got into more traditional journalism. I mean, for one video, I did the cost of water, so I did some actual journalism there in addition to the sort of aggregating with snappy jokes, you know?
Then I went to Los Angeles and I was a red carpet reporter, but I didn’t really enjoy that. So I started doing standup at night, and one of my standup characters had this sort of Midwest accent. It was based off my time in local news where, instead of taking all the things people said I was doing wrong and changing them, you know, ’cause I had this accent the whole way, but instead of changing the accent, which I tried to do in local news and didn’t quite work out so well, I just doubled down on the accent and doubled down on everything that people said I was doing wrong.
That’s where the Manitowoc Minute character came from. I was doing well at comedy shows. I was doing a show at The Comedy Store in LA and there was a guy from Manitowoc in the audience and the show went great, and the next day I wanted to make a video out of it. Because, you know, only 50 people see you a night at a comedy show, if you’re lucky.
That was my first Manitowoc Minute. And as soon as I put that out—I had put out sketches before and they didn’t really take off—but as soon as I put that out, it really took off. I did another and another and expanded outward and slowly started doing Midwest sketches and really focused on the Midwest stuff. It’s been a real fun journey.
Tubefilter: So why’d you end up starting your own YouTube channel in the first place?
CB: I think I started my own channel because…Well, I really started at just making videos for my family, I think. Like a birthday video for someone, for my grandpa or my dad or mom. And then eventually I started putting some of my interviews and some of my news stuff on there and it just kind of existed for a while. I would throw up some interviews I had done working for various news organizations that I thought more people would want to see.
Then it got to one point where I was sick of doing the red carpet stuff and I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna do a sketch a week until something hits.” I didn’t quite do a sketch a week per se, but I got close, and nothing was hitting, but then the Manitowoc Minute thing really start to hit. And that’s when I fully embraced YouTube and getting this stuff up there on a consistent basis.
Tubefilter: Do you remember the first video you had that took off?
CB: The first video actually was probably If Jack Dawson Was Really From Wisconsin. That came out of a standup bit where I was trying to like, okay, Jack Dawson in the Titanic is from Wisconsin, but he doesn’t sound like he’s from Wisconsin. He talks with a pretty standard accent. So what I did is I just took his words and I put a very Midwest accent underneath and changed some of his words as well. That was the first video to really take off, and that was maybe six months before Manitowoc Minute. I knew there was an appetite for Midwest stuff, but I didn’t realize that it was to the degree that I realized when I put out Manitowoc Minute.
Tubefilter: What’s the blend of things you’re doing now? Is YouTube a full-time gig?
CB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I do YouTube and the other social media platforms as well. I’m doing standup every week around the country. I just got back from a show in Hawaii, I’m gonna do Detroit next week. Then we have a podcast, The Cripescast Podcast. Other than that, I’m just making video content, working on some longer-form scripted stuff. There’s a lot of development going on in addition to the day-in and the day-out. And the day-in day-out is working on standup and working on new videos.
Tubefilter: So what does the average day look like for you? How much time are you spending on new videos per day?
CB: It’s different every day. I have to say I’m especially lucky to have an amazing team now. That was really the game-changer, when I could start bringing people on. I’ve got just an amazing team. I couldn’t do it without these folks. They allow me to basically, every day, stay writing, and focus on the writing aspect of it, and focus on the travel and the standup.
We’re about to release our standup special. What that means is you gotta have another hour of material, so I’m working on developing that right now. But every day’s different. That’s kind of the fun thing with YouTube, or at least the channel we’ve created. There’s so many new types of sketches you can do, and it keeps it fun and it keeps you on your toes.
Tubefilter: When did you hit the point where you were confident enough to start hiring people? Like, did you hit a specific subscriber number? When did you know YouTube was actually a serious thing now?
CB: It wasn’t that, it was that I literally could not do it anymore on my own. I was kind of losing myself in the work, and it was like, what’s the point of this if there’s no way to grow and keep my sanity? And frankly there’s no way to be more creative by myself. Bringing new people in brings new creative energy and new ideas. And I love that! I love that we are all building it together.
It really happened very slowly. We do get to the point where like, “Okay, this isn’t fun anymore because we’re all overworked. We’ve gotta hire someone else.” Then it gets fun again.
I think there’s that risk, “Oh my gosh, can I afford to pay someone consistently?” But I think what I’ve found is that when you invest in people, the right people, they make it better and they make it more fun. It’s a little bit of a leap of faith, but I’m so happy I did it.
Tubefilter: Short-form content is clearly a big part of your channel. What has shorter stuff done to help grow your channel?
CB: Oh, it’s been amazing. YouTube Shorts has really caused our channel to explode—double, even, in the past six months, and perhaps more than double. For me, I have an improv background, and I like to view the different things that are popular, like Shorts are popular now, as different improv games or different comedic games. It’s fun.
Some don’t like being put in a box with rules or time restrictions or captions or titling and all that stuff. But for me, I feel like once I’m put in a box, it’s almost fun to see how you can work outside that box. It’s a new comedic gain. And I think the comedy stays the same, the format just changes, but we view it as a game to play.
Tubefilter: What was it like for you to hit a million subscribers? Was that ever a goal or a thought for you or did it just sort of sneak up on you?
CB: It really snuck up on us. I was so focused on, like, I was shooting my standup special at the time, and it happened,, and I was solely focused on that standup special creatively. It happened I think the Monday after we wrapped. I was doing shows all weekend and then that Monday it surpassed a million, and it’s just one of those things that I had never thought about.
I never thought I’d honestly hit a million—and I didn’t really need to need to do that, I don’t think, creatively. I just needed to keep being fulfilled creatively and keep having fun, as cheesy as that sounds. But when we hit a million, I was like, “Oh, that’s really cool.” I don’t even think it’s officially registered in my mind yet because we keep focusing on creating more content. I think that’s really the trick in this business is to enjoy the wins and embrace them and celebrate them, but you still have a lot of work to do today, you know?
Tubefilter: Has anything changed for you aside from hiring a team? Anything personally, professionally?
CB: I’ve had a ton of amazing opportunities and have honestly just been really lucky, because there are so many people out there who are funnier than me. So I just feel very lucky to be able to do it, but I don’t think anything’s changed on the underlying deal. I try to keep myself as close to what I have been in doing this. I think the work that goes into maintaining it keeps you grounded and keeps you humble. I put out videos that don’t do great and still end up scratching my head like, “Ah, well, it’s over.” You know?
Tubefilter: I do know.
CB: But that’s the stuff that keeps you humble and also keeps you in that creative zone instead of like…I don’t want to embrace cockiness or whatever, because it doesn’t make good creative energy.
Tubefilter: Do you have any goals or plans for your channel for the next year or so?
CB: That’s good question. What’s funny is I think my goal might be to start planning a year out for me. I’ve been thinking next-day. Like I’m on my way to a shoot right now, and that’s where my mind’s at. I’ve kept my nose donw a little bit or to the grindstone or whatever cliche you want to say there, and I think maybe I’m just going to keep doing that until it stops working. I think it’s always content first, funny joke first. Take it one joke at a time. That’s what got me here and if I’m gonna go forward, I assume that’s what’s gonna keep me going forward.