All Aboard The Shane Train! An Interview With Shane Dawson
Shane Dawson is a comedic actor, author, singer, songwriter, podcaster and film director. He has written two New York Times best selling books and hosts a successful podcast, Shane and Friends. Dawson has produced, written and directed several movies and even has a successful recording career; releasing several popular singles. But his main focus is YouTube, where he’s known for his sketch comedy videos. He is a YouTube star. That term is thrown around loosely these days, but he’s the real deal. His YouTube channels, collectively, have more than 17 million subscribers and over 3 billion views. He was named the sixth most powerful influencers in entertainment, on Forbes 2017 Top Influencers List.
I had a chance to sit down with Shane this week, at a coffee shop, and we talked about his career, Howard Stern, and what food he’d like to be reincarnated as.
Tom Ward: I reached out to your fans on Twitter for some questions in preparation for this and the response was ridiculous. I got 500 responses! You’ve got a massive following on social. What do you call your legion of fans? All the YouTubers have a crew now. The Logan Paul fans are the Logang. His brother Jake’s got his Jake Paulers. What are the Shane Dawson fans called? Do they have a name? The Shane Squad?
Shane Dawson: Laughs. No. I kind of missed the train on that. The “Shane Train” maybe? Perfect, done! Laugh. When I watch a YouTube personality and they have a name for their fans like, “Hey, Taco Bellers” or whatever, it makes me feel weird. Like, “I’m not a Taco Beller. This is just my first video. I haven’t subscribed yet. Don’t call me that. We’re not there yet.” Like, if you were watching one of my videos and I was like, “Hey fucking Shane Train passengers!” you’d be like, “No. I’m with my wife. We’re in bed. We’re not on the train.” Laughs.
Ward: Take me back to your Jenny Craig days. What even possessed you to start your career? First of all, why’d you even start working at Jenny Craig?
Dawson: I started making videos when I was like seven or eight. I’ve been making videos forever and I was really fat. I lost a lot of weight when I was 18 on Jenny Craig. I needed a job, so I started working there and quickly got promoted and became a manager. I was auditioning for stuff, commercials, and wasn’t getting any work because my “type” was suicidal gay teenager. But then I’d open my mouth and they’d be like, “He’s funny. We don’t know what to do with this.” So I was like, “I’m just gonna do my own thing.” YouTube wasn’t even a thing yet. Around 2008 I was like, “What if I just started uploading sketches, because that’s what I want to do anyway.” So I started that and one of the sketches I did got me, and like 6 other people, including my mom and my brother, fired.
Ward: Why? Were you filming sketches at Jenny Craig?
Dawson: I did “Days Of My Life” videos and one of them was me working at Jenny Craig. The joke was that we got the biography of Valerie Bertinelli, because she was our spokesperson. So, we had to give this book to all of our clients. All of my clients were like 80-year-old women. She talked about sex and drugs a ton in the book, so then I was like, “I want to do a video of me forcing my 80 year old clients to read passages from this.” So I did that. I don’t think she liked it, I don’t think Jenny Craig liked it. Laughs.
Ward: Did you feel like a jerk? Not only did you get fired, but now your Mom and brother need to find a job. The Shane Train is derailing.
Dawson: Laughs. The Shane Train has crashed. It was dark. I don’t like to throw around the “suicide” word around lightly. But yeah. It was that.
Ward: So what did you start doing?
Dawson: I started working as a security guard at an aquarium in Long Beach. Wasn’t very threatening. No gun. Laughs. So, I was doing that while making videos every week. And I started getting more views. Like 10k, then 20k, then when it got to 50k YouTube contacted me to become part of their partnership program, which was new at the time. It slowly became my job. About a year later it was enough to move my brother and Mom out to Hollywood, which was actually Valley Village. Laughs. But I didn’t know any better.
Ward: When you started making money, was it AdSense revenue or was it brand deals?
Dawson: The program was so new, and my stuff was so raunchy, that I wasn’t getting many ads. I was making a couple grand a month. But it was enough to pay for an apartment. I started making more and eventually my Mom quit her job and started helping me with sketches.
Girl Outside Coffee Bean: Oh my GOOODDDDDDDDDDDD. (Screams hysterically) It’s Shane Dawson!
Note: She’s actually carrying Shane’s book. This is a real fan. Shane stops to take a picture with her and sign her book. This is the first of four times Shane will be mobbed by a fan in the course of an hour. Even if you’ve never heard of him, trust me he’s a big deal with the younger crowd.
Dawson: It looks like I paid all these people to do this. (Funny voice) So sorry, I’m pretty famous. It’s very hard for me to go out. Laughs.
Ward: I feel honored to even be sitting with you. You’re a pretty big deal. Laughs. So let’s go back to the early days. You’re starting to make money, you’re in the YouTube program, but you’re not getting big brand deals yet.
Dawson: I did one brand deal. This was before brand deals were a thing. I was getting a million views per video and I finally got a brand deal. They contacted me and said, “For a thousand dollars would you give a shout out to our fucking weird online talent show?” I was like, “A thousand dollars? Yes!” So I did this whole fucking video, promoting this scam, and then I’m like, “Where’s the check?” A month goes by. Nothing. Finally they’re like, “Hey come to our office.” It was some abandoned office in Studio City somewhere. They’re like, “Sorry we’re getting shut down but here’s some money.” And they gave me some crumpled up bills as they were vacating their office. I was like, I love brand deals! Laughs. So that was my first brand deal.
Ward: What was the next step? You’re getting a million views, you’re doing scammy brand deals, what was next?
Dawson: I started pitching shows and sold a show, Losin It, about my Jenny Craig days. It never was made. I think it didn’t work, partially because I didn’t write it. We hired a great showrunner to write it, but it just didn’t feel like me. It was funny and great, but it wasn’t me.
Ward: A lot of people wanted to know if you were going to revive the project or make a show about your book?
Dawson: I think I’m allowed to talk about it. Fuck it, I didn’t sign anything. So, I want to make a show, called It Gets Worse, about my childhood. I did a short film about one of the stories in my childhood and it went over well. I really loved it. Missi Pyle, who’s one of my favorite actresses ever, played my Mom. It was incredible. So I wrote a pilot for a TV show and then I was like, “Forget TV, why don’t we just do this on YouTube?” So YouTube Red is going to do it. So I get to write it, direct it, put it on my channel and it’ll be like a real TV show budget. I’m super excited to be spending someone else’s money for once!
Ward: You’re so into writing and sketch comedy, when you were a kid did you always want to be on Saturday Night Live. Or Mad TV? What inspired all of this?
Dawson: Mad TV is one of my most favorite shows of all time and is a huge part of my obsession with sketch comedy. I loved all of it. My whole thing is that I don’t like being on camera, so that’s a weird, fucked up situation because I only started to be on camera because none of my friends wanted to. But the older I get, the less and less I want to be on camera.
Ward: But isn’t your popularity for doing your own characters going up, while your interest in it is going down. Isn’t that a problem?
Dawson: Yeah, it’s hard. I don’t act, like I don’t audition for stuff. But for the show, It Gets Worse, I’m not in it. I narrate it but I’m not in it. It’s about my childhood so there’s a little kid playing me. So I’m slowly pulling back. In five years my goal is to not be on camera at all. I’d rather be the Judd Apatow than the Seth Rogan.
Ward: Your fans are obviously not going to like this news. You’re at the top of your game now. You’ve got tens of millions of followers, everyone loves you, people mob you at Coffee Bean, and you just want to unplug that?
Dawson: I don’t think I’ll ever leave YouTube; I’ll still be on camera for that. But the movies I want to direct, the shows I want to make, I want them to watch it and feel me and not have to see me. I did a short film called The Lottery. I wasn’t in it, and I think that’s one of the most well received things I’ve ever done. But I’m all over it but I’m not in it. So I’d love to keep doing that.
Ward: Who’s made that transition successfully, from YouTube to the career that you’re talking about? I’ve talked with LaurDIY and they’re kind of doing the YouTube Red thing. Jake Paul had his Disney show, until last week.
Dawson: The thing with them, and this isn’t a shady thing, is that I’ve been writing and directing since I was a kid. So for me, writing and directing is my thing. I wrote my book, word for word, with no ghostwriter. So, I love creating, directing, all of it. So I didn’t get into YouTube because I wanted to be a famous YouTuber. YouTuber wasn’t even a thing. I was like, “I want to be a director, so I’ve got to put shit out there to show people I can direct.”
Ward: Like a reel?
Dawson: Exactly. And then my reel became a thing. And now I’m known for the reel. Laughs. So I directed a movie called Not Cool. It was part of a docuseries, called The Chair, that was on Starz. They actually gave me a budget to make a movie. Like this is it! This is what I need to be doing. But then the movie came out, and it did really well, but making money with independent movies is hard, even for someone like me who already has a built in audience. So it’s this weird thing where I’ve got to figure it out. That’s why YouTube Red is such an interesting thing because I can still do the daily videos and do this and it’s in the same world so the audience will actually find it, instead of telling them to go to iTunes or Netflix.
Ward: It seems like it’s a good time to be a writer or director, with Netflix, YouTube Red and all these other channels throwing money at people for content. Do you feel like you’re in the driver’s seat now because of that?
Dawson: Things have changed drastically. When I was starting and trying to get money to make a movie, in 2011, they didn’t get it. They were like nobody is going to watch your shit. We’re not giving you money. You’ve never directed anything before. Nobody got it. No studio got it. Now that they’ve come around it’s easier to get money from them. My problem is to sit down and try to write a movie, while I’m doing five videos a week, that’s hard.
Ward: Speaking of time, how do you split up your week?
Dawson: I usually spend a day planning my videos, get all the props, plan everything, and write all the scripts. Then it takes me a day to shoot all the videos. Then two days of editing, working with my editor, etc. I upload everything a week early, and then schedule when it’s going to post. Then I have my podcast and we usually shoot 3-4 episodes in one day, so that’s fun. Laughs. And then when all that’s done, I have to plan the next week’s videos. It kind of never ends. But the weekend I take off, which I didn’t do for years. But now I’m like, “Fuck it.”
Ward: Speaking of your podcast, when I watched your video podcast I noticed that, I’m a big Howard Stern fan, and I noticed that your studio looked just like his.
Dawson: Yes! I’m a huge Howard fan! I’ve been watching Howard since I was a kid. Yeah, when they were designing the studio, I told them to just do it like Howard’s.
Ward: So was he an inspiration for your podcast?
Dawson: He’s one of my biggest inspirations because I’ve tried, without even knowing it, to follow his path with writing the book, taking ownership of my content, making a show about my book, etc. But everything that he’s done is so genius and so himself and uncensored and I love it. I started my podcast years ago because I would listen to his show every day, with my producer, and we said, “Why don’t we make a podcast?” Even when we were designing the studio, I was like, “I want it to look like Howard’s studio. I want it to feel like it. I want to have weirdos in here, like he does.” Ha-ha. But he’s got the career that I want. I don’t want the career of someone who’s going to blow up big real quick and then fall.
Ward: Finally, one question from your fans. I reached out to your fans on Twitter and this was the most popular question, “If you could be reincarnated as one food, what would it be?”
Dawson: Laughs. Hmmmm. Let me think. It would have to be something gross because I wouldn’t want someone to eat me, so probably brussel sprouts. But not cooked: Raw brussel sprouts. And not seasoned either because butter coated, cooked, brussel sprouts are delicious.
We get up to leave and the barista rushes towards him to pitch his latest YouTube channel and Shane listens and gives advice. If you don’t know who Shane Dawson is, trust me your kids do.
This article originally appeared in Forbes on July 27, 2017. Full full article, click here.