On Election Day 2016, Super Deluxe burned a map of America live on Facebook. There was no narration, no countdown. Just the sound of unceasing flames licking at America. It became one of the most-watched Facebook Live videos ever and has clocked more than 24 million views.
The 100,000-plus comments on the video are a blunt reminder of where we were at that moment. In the year since, entertainment company Super Deluxe has shaped a unique, chaotic take on political and lifestyle humor into a brand, elevating disparate social media personalities like Vic Berger and Joanne the Scammer into figureheads of the channel.
But it’s also experimented with viewers’ attention spans and curiosity. One of the first livestreams, in May 2016, was an illegally parked car in Los Angeles getting a ticket, which got 13,000 viewers. A literal tortoise-and-hare race drew more than 3 million views in February. That same month its Punch-A-Nazi stream saw more than 600,000 views.
“That election map was the best example of how we just take an idea and quickly execute on it,” says Cyrus Ghahremani, Super Deluxe’s head of live programming. They built tools to heighten interactivity on livestreams, and he’s gone from “distraction-in-your-day” videos to thinking of live programming as their “unscripted series department.”
“We treat each stream like it’s an unscripted pilot,” Ghahremani says. “Not necessarily thinking, ‘How will we adapt this eventually for TV,’ but… we want to make what can replace TV.”
Super Deluxe was already an existing entity that produced comedy videos in the mid-aughts, but in 2015 owner Turner handed over the keys to Wolfgang Hammer, Super Deluxe’s president, who went about rebranding and expanding. By mid-2016, it started promoting videos from Vic Berger, a music therapist from Pennsylvania who made art out of political bluster and vanity. He was championed by Hammer, who found Berger’s work to be “a bit unfocused” but “artistically valuable.” Berger’s sharply edited, airhorn-punctuated remixes of Donald Trump speeches and election-year gaffes quickly gained an audience at a time when political satire was becoming unwieldy.
Hammer stresses that Super Deluxe is not necessarily a comedy channel; they’re not making fun of politics or pushing an agenda, nor are they “chasing views.” It’s more about shaping voices and format. Ghahremani echoes that: They’re always screen-testing new personalities and letting the audience dictate who it likes. One of the most popular voices is Joanne the Scammer, the alter ego of former adult performer Branden Miller, who also became popular in 2016 for pushing her scammer lifestyle and reputation as a “Messy bitch who lives for drama.”
Berger and Joanne are both set for half-hour shows, though Hammer can’t elaborate on where they are in production. A TBS late-night block is also planned. Hammer says they’re “stockpiling” and taking a “gamified approach” to converting personalities to TV, a process that didn’t really translate for other YouTubers looking to transition to television and film.
There are more oblique entities that don’t necessarily translate to TV. That Poppy has gone from internet curiosity to something more ominous and complex; earlier this year, Super Deluxe asked fans to help her build a mysterious computer. Lil Miquela is another pop project that blurs the line between human and internet creation, and fans have produced theories about what exactly she is.
And then there’s format. Earlier this year, Super Deluxe debuted Live Telenovela, an interactive hourlong series that hinges on audience participation. Viewers chose the direction of certain plot points within the soap opera El Hogar es Donde Esta La Casa, as well as more dramatic options like weapons and cause of death. Live Telenovela will be evolving, though Ghahremani doesn’t specify whether it might end up on another platform.
Who lives? Who dies? YOU decide in our live Telenovela!
Posted by Super Deluxe on Friday, March 31, 2017
Right now Ghahremani says he’s divided between making the “fun distraction” videos and the live pilots and is looking to produce a slate of the latter. That will include reality TV, dating shows, and a news program. The livestreams often run over an hour, the opposite of bite-sized webseries and mobile-first content that digital entertainment companies like go90 and Fullscreen have been trying to get in front of eyeballs, with mixed results.
“I don’t think we’ve ever rejected an idea for being too crazy,” he says. “It’s only ever if it doesn’t seem fun to me, or exciting for the viewer. I think the trademark of our stuff is that it’s so different. Keeping yourself different means you have to stay open to doing something that might be out of your comfort zone or skill set.”
Hammer says they’re “in the business of building fanbases,” and by shaping those first and original content catered to them second, Super Deluxe has a built-in metric for what people want to watch. The live experiments pointed to something else, though.
“People formed ad hoc communities,” says Hammer. “They recognize each other by their user handles, and they hang out together. It’s a little party.”
That’s very clear from the communities formed around Super Deluxe’s tutorial series. Michaela McEttrick is creator and director of the DIY fashion series Cheap Thrills and oversees production on another series, Turnt Beauty.
At the time Turnt Beauty started, Vic Berger’s videos were the most popular commodity on Super Deluxe, and the comments largely consisted of people asking where he was. So McEttrick tried to give the series the same “airhorn sensibility” that permeates his videos with host David Stiefel, whom fans now call “Daddy David.” McEttrick wanted to get away from the “beauty porn” of YouTube makeup tutorials while also trying to engage a different audience: “If Tim & Eric made a beauty show,” she says.
Cheap Thrills shaped a dedicated fanbase out of another internet community: hypebeasts. McEttrick explains that a hypebeast is, in its purest form, “someone who lives to flex on the internet,” but more broadly the community incorporates sneakerheads, skate culture, hip-hop, and high fashion.
When McEttrick was putting the show together, she wanted a “non-threatening, positive male face” to represent it. She already knew host Nate Contreras, aka Tabasko Sweet, and he brings a new kind of language to the YouTube tutorial: He addresses viewers as “My guy,” blows “doomsdays” from his massive vape, and encourages his “Cheap Thrills fam” to respect clout levels—and, more importantly, women.
McEttrick’s influence on the show is subtle but tangible, and that’s important because the Cheap Thrills audience is heavy on the 13-24-year-old male demo. McEttrick has seen fans make new friends in the community, but they also do a good job of policing bullying or negative comments. She says she keeps in mind that younger kids are watching, likely with their parents or older siblings, so she throws in a joke or two for them, too. She recently got a Facebook message from a mom whose kid got a tattoo of Tabasko Sweet on his leg. McEttrick assumed she was mad, but the email thanked them for giving her son something to laugh about.
Cheap Thrills is accessible to non-hypebeasts as well. Contreras is a calming, non-judgemental presence so even if you’re not engaging in the tutorial, it can be watched passively, like something more motivational. McEttrick wanted it to be “immersive,” and so you often hear Tabasko’s mom calling him from upstairs, and hypebeasts in the extended Super Deluxe universe often guest star.
It could certainly come off as a Tim & Eric-esque parody, but McEttrick assures it’s a “loving satire” of hypebeast culture, and the aim was to make people rethink fashion and commerce: “What gives clothing value?”
Cheap Thrills’ tagline—“You already know what it is”—could even be seen as an umbrella statement for the Super Deluxe brand. It’s now trying to siphon that feeling into original programming. In early November it was announced that in 2018 Sundance Now would be airing This Close, a dramedy featuring Marlee Matlin and created by and starring Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern, who are deaf.
Winnie Kemp, Super Deluxe’s SVP of television, discovered Stern and Feldman’s project, previously titled The Chances, on Kickstarter when they were funding a webseries. The two had never written for TV, but Kemp liked their vision and voice.
“They don’t really see themselves represented in media,” says Kemp. “When they do, it’s very focused on the character being deaf. So they wanted to realize these three-dimensional characters where being deaf is part of who they are but it’s not everything.”
Hammer and Kemp confirm they’re working with Netflix on upcoming productions, but didn’t specify which ones. “A lot of our television originates within the company,” Hammer says. “So we’re not a traditional media company, per se. We give all the creators the platform to expand into TV.”
But they’re also looking to “replace” TV, or at least redefine it. The question of whether the fanbases they built follow them to another platform remains, like a giant burning map of America.