An Interview with YouTube Celebrity Liam Kyle Sullivan, Star and Creator of the Viral Video ‘Shoes’

[This post originally appeared on February 17, 2010, on my short-lived blog Savvy Saplings, which explored the world of plant signaling and communication. I am transferring certain posts to The Mind’s Flight so they are not lost behind closed doors in cyberspace]

“These shoes rule. These shoes suck. These shoes suck. THESE SHOES SUCK!”-Liam Kyle Sullivan as Kelly, in the YouTube sensation “Shoes”

Here at Savvy Saplings, plants and science aren’t the only subjects of interest.

I’m also interested in how best to communicate science, in how communication is changing, and in experimenting with different media. I’m interested in talking to people who have already found success experimenting with new forms of communication and entertainment themselves.

The other week I posted my interview with Eric Gower, author of the first Vook cookbook – a combination of book and video. He said he would never publish an ordinary print cookbook again.

This week I bring you an interview with comedian, YouTube sensation, and media entrepreneur Liam Kyle Sullivan. He is one of the most viewed and best beloved of YouTube celebrities, drawing millions of fans with whacky, bold and original humor. You can watch his YouTube videos here, of which I especially recommend “Muffins,” “What Kelly Wants to Be,” “Love Letters,” and “Dr. Ulee, Sex Therapist.”

Collectively, Sullivan’s YouTube videos have received 108,969,412 views (2/17/10; 10PM). But Sullivan is most famous for one piece in particular – the “Shoes” video. Perhaps you’ll remember when Sullivan played the shoe-obsessed Kelly in this 2006 video? It went viral. Like, super viral. Over 32 million views and counting.

It’s also the first thing that comes up when you search ‘shoes’ on YouTube.

Through YouTube’s Partner Program, Sullivan gets a decent share of the advertisement revenue Google earns from the ads they place around and on his videos. (Google now owns YouTube). He doesn’t earn enough from YouTube alone to support himself – mainly because he actually pays those who help him create his videos – but Sullivan has other sources of income, like acting in television and commercials, live performances and comedy routines, touring with comedian Margaret Cho, selling his music on iTunes, and selling merchandise. “My kind of business model is more about actual stuff you can buy, not so much clicking on ads,” Sullivan said. He wants to create things that people can keep and take with them, whether it’s a song, downloadable video, a t-shirt, or the memory of a great live performance.

Here’s our interview:

Q: Where did you grow up and go to school?

A: I grew up in Norfolk, MA—a small town outside of Boston. And I bounced around a few different colleges. I went to Clark University and Emerson College. And then I just started acting, I never graduated. I just started acting in Boston at the theaters. And then I moved to Los Angeles.

Q: What were you studying in college?

A: Parties. No, I was studying—you know I never declared a major. I took some history classes. I took some theater classes, but I was kind of all over the place. I didn’t know what I was doing.

Q: Were you participating in theater and improvisational groups in college?

A: Mostly I did straight theater. I did some improv, but it wasn’t later until I moved to LA that I started taking improv classes and sketch-writing classes out here.

Q: Why did you move to Los Angeles as opposed to New York City?

A: I just say it’s because I can’t sing and dance. NYC has more musical theater going on; LA has more TV and film and that’s what I imagined myself going into at the time. But then the Internet got invented!

Q: When did you first join YouTube?

A: I joined YouTube in Spring of 2006 so YouTube was barely a year old at the time, I think.

[YouTube was created in February 2005]

Q: What did you think you were going to do with YouTube at the time?

A: I didn’t really know. I just knew that it was free and I could get my videos out to more people than if I just had a web site. My whole goal of 2005 was just to get myself out there and that included doing live shows on my own that I wrote and shooting videos that I wrote and directed and starred in. I developed this thing called Liam Show, which was all this stuff mashed up together. And just trying to do all this stuff on my own. And when YouTube came around, it was just kind of a perfect fit because I was already doing things all indie and this is sort of a good platform for what I was doing already—you know, short form video.

Q: When you first moved to Los Angeles, how did you support yourself?

A: I was doing temp work in offices and catering jobs. Between 2000 and 2005 I started doing commercials and I got an agent. So I was working the temp jobs and I would go audition and get a commercial and that took a while—it took a long time to get my first union job. But once I did, things started rolling. I got some small roles on television shows like Alias and 8 Simple Rules and once I was a working actor, that’s when I started doing things on my own and writing my own stuff. I didn’t actually know about YouTube when I was shooting my videos. I actually shot “Shoes” before I knew about YouTube. I had it up on my web site and someone took “Shoes” off of my web site and put it on YouTube.

Q: Really?

A: Yeah, yeah. And that was totally fine because I made them downloadable, I made them free. But a couple of million people must have seen it before I was like, “Oh!” and then I was clued in and I joined YouTube and started putting my stuff up there.

Q: Do you remember how many hits “Shoes” was getting on your web site before it was moved to YouTube?

A: I don’t actually. Back then I didn’t even know how to check—like Google Analytics or something, I didn’t even know about that stuff. All I knew was I need to have a web site, you know, I need to have a place where people can go to learn about me and see my stuff. I didn’t even know, Oh you can check how many people come to your web site! I’m not very technically savvy.

Q: How did you react when “Shoes” went viral on YouTube?

A: It was a huge high—a massive high. I performed for a couple hundred people and got them all to laugh and that was enough for me until that happened and then I started thinking about how I am making millions of people laugh and it was so exhilarating—it was just a giant high. And then I started to stress about it too. Because a lot of people were approaching me and I was getting all these messages—people wanted to know more about me. My e-mail was loaded with messages from people I didn’t know. It was a little tricky to sift through and say, Okay what do I want to respond to and how often can I respond? I think MySpace was the worst because—I had a MySpace account for the character Kelly and that one exploded because people were trying to get me to respond and I just couldn’t respond to everybody. In the beginning I tried to and I was just like, look, I can’t. So on the one hand it was a big high and on the other hand it was, you know, stress.

Q: Are you currently with the YouTube Partner Program?

A: I am and I was totally thrilled when they did that. I still don’t really know why they did it. They’re just giving money to people! It’s nice; it’s great. You kind of give up a little because you agree to have people running advertisements right on your videos. But the option to click off is nice. It helps to keep us going. You know, people like us, we don’t make millions of dollars. We don’t have the resources that a studio does to put out hundreds of hours of programming. And eventually—I mean I work with guys who I want to pay because they do great work and I don’t want to keep asking them to do it for free. My manager at the time let me know about the Partner Program and we just signed up immediately.

Q: What do you know about the logistics of the Partner Program?

A: I don’t know too much about it. I’m not sure if you need a minimum amount of views. I don’t understand the math too well, but there are CPMs and there is some kind of split of revenues that they do with the Partners.

Q: Could you support yourself entirely from the Partners program?

A: I couldn’t support myself; it’s more of a nice bonus. I think there’s a handful of Partners who do stuff with me and could totally support themselves off it. And those are the people who are generating several videos a week, whereas I like to do stuff once a month. I’ll put a lot of thought into it and write it and do a skit rather than a vlog where you just talk to the camera, which takes a lot of thought too, but in terms of production you don’t have to buy lights and deal with casting and things like that. I do okay on it but I couldn’t really support myself with it.

Q: Do you have other sources of online income?

A: I also sell my music on iTunes. I work with a company that helps you get your music to iTunes if you don’t have a record label. And you basically just upload your music onto their site and they deliver it to iTunes. I promote that stuff on my web site and I have t-shirts for sale on my web site. My kind of business model is more about actual stuff you can buy, not so much clicking on ads.

Q: Is that because you think it’s more stable?

A: No, it just worked out that way. I love making songs and writing songs and making t-shirts—so as soon as some of my stuff started blowing up I thought, Oh okay let’s start making people stuff they can actually have, not just watch. Something they can download, something they can wear, a show they can see, an event. My history is all in performance and performing live. So it just worked out that way, I guess. I wanted to do all those things.

Q: Do you enjoy performing live more than video work for YouTube?

A: I like them both. They’re different in that when you do something for video, your performance is locked in and it’s forever and when you do something live it’s more of a one time event that you can never do exactly the same way again. And there’s a lot of fun when you do something live because you are interacting with the audience and the actor is center stage and taking everyone for a ride. When I direct stuff, it’s sort of the same thing, but you just put it out there and hope people like it. It’s released.

Q: It’s interesting that you mention the interactivity of live performance because a lot of people think that’s where online media needs to improve, compared with live events.

A: Yeah, yeah I think that’s true. I think live streaming online is becoming more popular now. But I guess nothing beats showing up and seeing something live.

Q: Do you see television and the Internet merging even more than they have?

A: Yes, yes I guess I do. I mean every time I watch television someone is telling me to go online, you know go online. I’m watching TV and they say go to the web!

Q: People also seem to appreciate not being tied to a specific schedule and having greater choice to watch what they want, when they want – like what Hulu offers.

A: Yeah, I like it. I love Hulu. But then again I love sitting on the couch and watching TV.

Q: Tell me a little about the comedy group The Kids in the Hall that you list as in influence.

A: Kids in the Hall are awesome. I was watching them, I don’t know, I guess in the early ‘90s and being like, Who are these guys? These guys are amazing! I just love their style. Their humor is so weird, it’s so weird. And they do all kinds of characters. And when they play women they don’t even really change their voices all the time; they’ll just have a regular man’s voice. It’s really fun.

Q: Have you been able to distill what specific qualities of their comedy style you’re attracted to?

A: I think it’s because they do all kinds of characters. They do women, they do men. They do all kinds of different people. But then they also play themselves sometimes too. They’ll do little monologues. And they do sketch; they’re not really stand-ups. And their videos—they also did these videos that were just crazy. It was like a short film festival, but it was part of their sketch show. Everything they did was just really weird. Like Saturday Night Live has a lot of sketches that are just like here’s the setup, here’s the context and let’s just roll with it. But The Kids in the Hall would take you on these weird, weird offshoots, off the beaten path and I like that, I like that a lot.

Q: Do you edit your own videos?

A: I edit all my own videos. I use Final Cut Pro.

Q: Did you adapt “Shoes” for live performance?

A: Actually, “Shoes” started out as live performance. I was doing some stand-up at the time. I got the idea to incorporate the character of Kelly in my stand-up, because I had the character in mind but I didn’t have the actual song “Shoes” in mind or anything. But it didn’t work. It was just me doing a voice and it didn’t really fly. It was only when I figured out, Oh I need to go all the way; I have to completely commit to this character; I need to find her look; and I need to actually, like, be this person. And then it worked and I had the song and the song worked really well live. And I think I performed it live three or four times before someone said, “Hey, you should shoot a video for that!” And I was like, Yeah I should!

Q: Do you have any musical background that helps with creating your songs?

A: Not really. I played saxophone in junior high. And I took piano lessons, but I don’t have any real formal training in music or anything. Luckily Garage Band was invented so I could just plug in loops and stuff.

Q: Have you ever adapted a video piece for live performance?

A: It’s pretty much been the other way around.

Q: What are you working on now? In what direction would you like your career to head?

A: Well I’m getting more into directing now. I recently did a video where I played a small role in the video, but for the majority of it I was directing and going through that whole process was really awesome. I really enjoy directing videos. I think I am going to move more in that direction. I am not sure what my future is for YouTube, but I love writing and directing my own stuff so I know I am going to keep doing that. And looking around for opportunities to direct other people’s stuff as well, whether it’s TV or YouTube or film or whatever.

Q: What is it about YouTube that makes it such an effective tool for communication and entertainment?

A: I think it’s because it’s free, honestly, I think it’s because it’s free. Where else can you go and upload videos and see other people’s videos for free? I think that’s a big turn on for people. And I think YouTube was maybe the first to do videos the way they did. You just click it on and there it goes, high quality and everybody can comment and rate it. You feel like you are part of something bigger. It’s just so easy.

Q: Is there something you would really like to do on the Internet that just hasn’t been invented yet?

A: Hmm I haven’t really thought about it. I think it would be kind of cool if you could combine YouTube, Facebook, Twitter—you know, all these social networks. If you could integrate all these into one kind of layout; if you could just open up one site without having to click into all these different windows, that would be awesome. Maybe it’s already been done, I’m not sure.

Q: After living in Los Angeles for ten years, have you seen many of your friends struggling to make it in the entertainment business of have a lot of your friends found success as well?

A: A lot of my friends have found success in different ways, not necessarily through YouTube, but through TV, commercials and film. But I do consider myself really lucky. The way that YouTube has allowed me to—outside of any studio or any corporation—to reach all the people I’ve been able to reach, on the limited budget I had—well, that was amazing! And still is amazing. I feel really lucky. And the timing was great. I shot the “Shoes” video and I think YouTube was just becoming popular, it was just getting on people’s radar. And then “Shoes” got on YouTube and it was like, Bam! But a year ahead of that, who knows? Or two or three or four years? I don’t know what I would have done with that video. I probably would have just shown it in a live show or something and moved onto something else.

Q: Why do you think so many of the most successful and most viewed videos on YouTube are comedy acts?

A: I think that comedy is quicker. Drama takes a lot longer to unfold. A video that is three or four minutes long that gives you a laugh or several laughs—you’re satisfied. But if you watch something for three and a half minutes that is a drama, you probably need more time or you need to be invested it and when you are watching something on the net, most people aren’t looking for that. And music does really well too—music videos on the net are amazing. I think short form, you know, anything that’s kind of short works pretty well.

Q: Do you think there’s a downside to people being so accustomed to consuming short form media instead of sitting through something longer?

A: I don’t think so, because people are still willing to invest two hours, sometimes three hours for a film, where it’s a long storyline. And books are—people are still reading books that take days, sometimes weeks to get through. I just think it’s another form of entertainment that’s available and people are psyched about. Yes, when you’re working you just want to check this or that out for a few minutes; it’s not as intrusive of your time, it’s just a fun little pleasure –like a treat. With a book, you know, like, Oh I am going to tackle War and Peace this summer: it’s more of a project. I think people are able to do both.

Q: Considering everything you have experienced up to now, if there was someone who wanted to move to Los Angeles or New York City to try and make it in the entertainment business, would you have any particular advice for them?

A: I would say—I guess this would work for any point in their life, but always realize how much your friends and your family mean to you and how important they are. When all you focus on is a career goal, sometimes you can let your friends and family fall by the wayside. Often times they can help you in your career. The friends I have made out here are just incredible and I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am without them. So, very simple Ma/Pa kettle advice. Friends and family, man. At the end of the day, you want to hang out with them.


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