Somewhere in Burbank, California there is an unassuming two story building that sits on a busy main street. The building carries a certain weight, a sense of history that can be seen and felt in its chipped paint and sagging foundation. Inside the building, everything is quiet. The main studio is lined with plastic action figures stacked against a faux fireplace. It feels like a kid’s birthday party that ended a few hours ago. Upstairs, photos of Rhett James McLaughlin and Charles Lincoln “Link” Neal line the walls. Most are taken with the pair in costumes — each photo is a snapshot from a video that you’ve probably seen.
This juxtaposition — the beaten exterior versus the bubblegum-superhero interior — is jarring. It’s like walking into Dr. Who’s Tardis, or a pseudo toy store wrapped in the most boring building you and I can imagine. In a miniature office upstairs, McLaughlin and Neal sit in jeans and sandals. We talk about Maker Studio’s recent purchase of online video platform Blip. “What do you think?” McLaughlin, who makes up the “Rhett” portion of “Rhett & Link,” asks me.
I ramble, they listen attentively then McLaughlin weighs on a probable Maker strategy: “If you want it to work, you move E.R.B. [“Epic Rap Battles of History”] over to another platform and all of a sudden…” he finishes this thought by opening his hands in a shoulder shrugging, “see what happens” sort of way.
Neal, who goes by “Link” on YouTube, picks up the thread: “Or it will die, there’s a risk.” This moment, this fifteen-second interaction taking place in a room where a painting of Lionel Richie’s “You Are” album cover adorns an otherwise bare wall is Rhett & Link synthesized.
McLaughlin and Neal and Rhett & Link are very different people. They are two different entities sharing the same bodies. In one corner, we have Rhett & Link, the musical comedy duo who mined YouTube gold starting with a series of innovative music videos for local companies. Then there’s McLaughlin and Neal, the businessmen who cold-called those very same local companies offering, what was at the time, an insane premise. “It seemed obvious to us that if we were getting any type of views on the internet, then we could work out some sort of brand integration,” says Neal discussing the thought process to pitch their service to companies in 2007.
To put this in context, in 2007 YouTube had just celebrated its second birthday; the Partner Program was only one year old; very few people considered the platform good for anything beyond cat videos; and here were McLaughlin and Neal calling companies and asking for their business. “We would call and say ‘hey, we’re Rhett and Link, we have a YouTube channel. We can make a video with your brand in it if you pay us,” explains McLaughlin.
Most people thought they were nuts, but some didn’t. Those that took a chance on the duo have content on Rhett & Link’s 1.3 million subscriber-strong YouTube channel that is still generating views.
“Dead iPod Song,” an advertisement for a website that fixes broken Apple products is one such example. Since its upload in 2008, the ad has been viewed over one million times. “We found that there was a company that repaired iPods.” says McLaughlin. “We had a really low rate at the time. It was based on performance mostly. It was like, ‘Hey, give us a little bit of money to produce this video and then pay us based on how well it performs.’”Five years later Rhett & Link is now a brand helmed by two creators who can more or less guarantee a viral hit. Those few who did bet on McLaughlin and Neal in 2007 have to be feeling pretty good about themselves right now.
The Burbank studio is quiet now, but hours earlier McLaughlin and Neal were filming for season four of their daily weekday morning show, “Good Mythical Morning.” At the 30-minute mark of our interview, Neal and McLaughlin are fidgeting in their seats, and at this point, their Rhett & Link personalities are shining through. They are practically bursting with a nervous energy I’ve previously seen from the likes of CEOs, artists, and writers. This force that drives creative, successful people to tear a room apart when trapped there for too long.
We have to wrap it up, but first I have to ask the question I’ve been struggling to broach for the past half-hour: What is the end goal for two guys in their 30s who make YouTube videos full-time?
It’s not like McLaughlin and Neal haven’t had success on YouTube; in fact, the pair have millions of fans spread out across several highly-trafficked channels. But if we are being realistic, YouTube audiences — in terms of demographics — are staying young, and the average age of successful creators seems to be decreasing. What’s the next step for two creators who are reaching a point where they could be fathers to much of their audience?
“We are still going to make ‘Rhett & Link’ content,” McLaughlin tells me. “We’re going to keep making our content hoping that our audience is going to grow with us, but we’re also producers.” McLaughlin explains that as producers they admire the work Philip DeFranco has done on his smash hit YouTube channel SourceFed. DeFranco, taking himself off camera, brought in a new crop of talent who have since become web stars in their own right.
“Do you remember when the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ brought in two new guys?” McLaughlin asks the room. “I remember being very disappointed in that season. We’re not going to just replace ourselves with another duo.” Laughlin and Neal express their aspirations to one day find talented young creators who share a similar voice and style to the Rhett & Link brand, much like DeFranco and his team at SourceFed.
“Hopefully, when we’re 65 we can still sit down and film ‘Good Mythical Morning.’ But hopefully we are able to bring in these 18-year-old dudes and have them film ‘Good Mythical Morning’ while we help them do it.”
And with that, Neal looks at his watch and we’re done. The pair returns to the business of building “Rhett & Link.” They don’t miss a beat, we shake hands and they’re off. Sometimes buildings stay the same, it’s just the inside that changes.