The biggest YouTube star you’ve never heard of
By Tyler Jackson
Over the past two-and-a-half years, Munjoy Hill resident Jeremiah McDonald has produced over 100 videos for two YouTube channels he created. One of those videos was featured on YouTube’s front (or “home”) page. It’s been viewed over 1.6 million times. Other videos McDonald has made have attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers by word of mouth alone. Film and theater production companies around the world have asked him to work on or star in their productions; next month, he heads back to France to begin a yearlong stint with a theater company based in Caen.
So, why has almost no one in Portland heard of him?
“I’m not the most aggressive promoter,” McDonald, 29, said. “Apart from my friends and maybe one or two other people, I don’t know anyone who actually watches [my work] or is even aware of it in Portland.”
In fact, according to YouTube statistics, most of his viewers live in the U.K., not the U.S..
A self-described movie geek, McDonald’s YouTube “career” began a few years ago when he started posting on the message boards of the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com). A fellow poster, a British man known who goes by the moniker Organic Prankster, had created a character that wrote overly analytic reviews of other users’ postings. The reviews were “complete gibberish,” McDonald said, but he realized Organic Prankster was a well-read and very funny person. He took a liking to the Prankster’s comic sensibility and asked him to write something for him to produce for YouTube.
Their first collaboration was a video review of Ghostbusters that features McDonald as the Prankster’s IMDB character, Charles Kimbote. It’s a long, wordy, two-part [click here for part two] narrative in which McDonald — performing a voiceover in a dry, monotone, British accent — delves deep into the supposed philosophical underpinnings of the ’80s comedy: “Ghostbusters is science versus superstition, the Greek logos against mythos, Ivan Reitman’s own inner struggle writ large on the big screen, and no less than an encyclopedic retelling of the history of humanity since the Italian Renaissance.”
They were both quite pleased with the results, and the Prankster then asked McDonald if he’d be interested in producing videos for a new character he’d created: The Rev. Cornelius Blow. McDonald said he didn’t know what to expect from the project, but agreed to make “anything he wrote.” By that time, Organic Prankster already had nearly 20 scripts ready to go.
The Church of Blow, which stars McDonald as Rev. Blow, is the world’s first YouTube “church.” It has garnered nearly 13,000 subscribers —or “followers” — to date, from all over the world.
Blow is a peculiar character. He speaks with a Southern Baptist’s drawl and a perpetually stern glare. He always wears the same shiny purple robe with a collar of stitched green hearts. From the first episode (“Your Personal Salvation”) onward, Blow’s simple goal is clear: to gain subscribers. The church’s dogma, however, is never clear.
“Point of fact: you did not choose this video at all. This video chose you,” Rev. Blow preaches in the introductory episode. “You were chosen because you’re finally ready. Life’s about to take a turn for the better for you, my friend…. For I have had a vision. Just like you, I was chosen. And in my vision, I was instructed, ‘Cornelius, it’s time to start a church… on YouTube.’”
Each episode begins and ends with the schmaltzy Pat Boone song “Friendly Persuasion,” which McDonald found in his iTunes playlist. He said he isn’t sure how it got there — it may have chosen him — but when he heard it, he realized it was perfect for the Rev. Blow’s sermons. It ties the episodes together as effectively as any television show’s theme.
The Church of Blow videos became more sophisticated as the series progressed. The first episodes are little more than memorized monologues read in front of the camera. Subsequent episodes are more stylized, with flashbacks, scene changes and lighting effects.
The series has now reached 60 episodes, having followed a rather topsy-turvy storyline. In the second part of the series, it’s revealed that the Rev. Cornelius Blow is actually a character played by a struggling, pretentious actor named Bernard K Smith. Smith fires his writer — who, by no coincidence, is British — and goes on to maintain his own YouTube channel.
“That was a direction we both sort of came to independently,” McDonald said of the series’ left turn. “We liked the idea that it would sort of mirror our actual collaboration.”
Though the series is scripted entirely by Organic Prankster, McDonald puts considerable time and development into the characters. Bernard K Smith is actually a character he pitched to the Prankster. McDonald is currently working on a feature-length screenplay about Smith. The series has been on hiatus, but McDonald said it’s far from over. The Prankster has provided him with about 30 more scripts to work on whenever he wishes to continue.
McDonald has lived in Portland on and off since graduating from Rockport College in 2002 with an Associate’s degree in film writing and directing. He grew up in the Oxford Hills region, a remote and spacious area of western Maine known primarily for its speedway. He comes from a creative family. His mother was an art teacher, his sister a musician and writer, and his brother a filmmaker and cartoonist. His father is John McDonald, the WGAN talk-radio host, storyteller, humorist and author.
The style and content of McDonald’s videos vary greatly, but all fall under the blanket of absurdist humor. A survey of his work reveals such influences as Spike Jones, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld and, most evidently, Monty Python. “What initially got me interested in Monty Python is how similar it was to a lot of the Super 8 films my brother and sister and I used to make when we were kids,” he said.
Over the course of several summers in high school, McDonald received training from the renowned mime artist Tony Montanaro at his Celebration Barn Theater in South Paris. That was his only formal performance education, but McDonald considers it one of the most instructive and inspiring experiences of his life. “Undeniably, he is the greatest teacher I have ever had,” he said of Montanaro, who died in 2002. “I’m still learning from him.”
Montanaro instructed his students to trust their instincts, to let things happen, to observe everything and everyone, McDonald said. He taught them to examine the physicality of a person before assessing their psychology, observing the way people move and carry themselves.
McDonald’s most successful expression of that lesson is his video “Jazz Dispute,” in which he plays two people arguing back and forth, note by note, to a recording of “Leap Frog,” by Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker. McDonald practiced the piece exhaustively, and it shows: his timing is excellent; he doesn’t miss a beat. The video is especially popular among jazz musicians, he said. To date, it has over 460,000 views.
McDonald started making YouTube videos in 2006, while living in Tacoma, Washington and working a number of part-time jobs, including one at a coffee shop. His first video, made with the basic software and editing tools on his Apple laptop, is “Things I Hate About Work,” a vignette about the frustrations of being a barista set to images collected from the Internet.
“I love coffee. I love coffee houses. So what is it that I hate? Funny you should ask… where the fuck do I begin?” He then goes into a heated, caffeine-addled rant, spouting off about customers on cell phones, “people who expect free refills even though we’re not a fucking diner,” and the fact his shop has four cup sizes, so “when people order a medium, I don’t know what the fuck to give them, so I might give them a tall — and how the fuck is that not false advertising? So I give ’em a tall, and they say, ‘Oh, that’s a medium? I’ll have a grande’ So there, that’s a wasted cup!”
“I’m not built for customer service, as one might discern from that video,” said McDonald, who works as a parking garage attendant these days.
About a year after that first video, with The Church of Blow in full swing, McDonald, Organic Prankster and several other contributors completed “YouTube Is My Life,” a five-minute (“epic length,” as McDonald said) musical comedy in which Bernard K Smith comes to a profound conclusion: “There’s too much positivity on this site. Somebody has got balance this out. I know… I’ll write a negative comment.” He struggles to come up with a worthy insult, then settles on the succinct, “You suck,” and bursts into song.
“YouTube Is My Life” took six months to make. McDonald came up with the melody, Organic Prankster wrote most the lyrics, and Chloe Potter, a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, whom McDonald met through her admiration of “Jazz Dispute,” arranged the music. The video features cameos by a dozen other YouTube users reciting the lyrics.
More than just another video, “YouTube Is My Life” is a call to arms — or maybe a cry for attention. “[It] was kind of like holding out a flag, waving it at YouTube,” McDonald said. “And they went for it.” The video remained on the site’s front page for almost a week, and has been seen 1.6 million times, and counting.
McDonald said most of the views his other work has received are a result of “YouTube Is My Life.” Videos from The Church of Blow and Weeping Prophet Productions, McDonald’s own channel, have anywhere from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand views. McDonald has become a minor, but bona fide, Internet celebrity.
“It’s more of a fame simulator, because you don’t actually get fame, or any of the benefits of fame,” McDonald said. “But you feel famous, because anonymous people are treating you like you are, which is very strange.”
Another perk of his Internet celebrity has been receiving random work offers online. A company in Brazil asked him to appear in a commercial that would have been similar to a video he’s done. Organizers of a music festival in Mexico asked him to contribute work. Several independent filmmakers have offered him roles in their films. But ultimately, it was never financially possible for any of these people to fly McDonald to the site of their projects.
One day last November, a French theater director named Jean Lambert-Wild offered to fly McDonald and a friend to Caen, France to discuss work with his theater company. The details of the offer were scant, but when McDonald realized the director was serious and could actually pay for the tickets, he accepted. It would be his first trip abroad.
“I really didn’t care if it was for real or not,” he said. “It might be an incredible risk; they might steal my kidneys. But it seemed worth the adventure.”
McDonald and his friend from Toronto met up in France and stayed there for five days. The company’s proposition was to fly McDonald to France on semi-regular basis so he can produce content and videos for their theater, as well as act in some of their productions, which tour around Europe. In March, McDonald will fly back to France for a month to finalize his yearlong contract and begin working.
He called this opportunity the best thing that’s come from his YouTube work, simply because it’s a job in the arts. And once overseas, he hopes to finally meet his faithful collaborator, Organic Prankster, face to face.