“You didn’t even…savor the…peelies!”
Eleanor and Dania both looked up, confused. Gwen was staring at the computer screen, wearing headphones, as a wheezy laugh rose from the speakers. She quickly grabbed the jack for the headphones and plugged them into the side of the laptop.
The laughter snapped away, but Dania had already dropped her book into her lap.
“You watch Game Grumps?” she asked, her voice stuffed with amazement.
Gwen, with a focus reserved for brain surgeons, kept her eyes glued to the screen, as Dania walked over to observe.
“You’re hiding that you’re watching it, that obviously means you wish we didn’t know,” Dania said. “Which one are you even watching?”
“Get away from my computer!” Gwen shouted, shirking back into the chair. Dania, ducking around the back, managed to catch a glimpse of the YouTube video: “Magical Manic Makeup Monday.”
“Unbelievable,” Dania said, with mock distress. “I thought I knew who you were.”
“I’m watching it for a reason, all right?” Gwen defended. “Let me explain.”
“What is happening?” Eleanor asked, standing up. “Why are we upset?”
“Do you know Game Grumps?” Dania asked. “It’s one of those Let’s Play series on YouTube, with––”
“I know what a Let’s Play is, Dania,” Eleanor chided. “I was into them in high school, I know the Game Grumps. What’s the terror over Gwen?”
Dania shrugged, eyes wide. “It’s just not the kind of show you’d expect Gwen to be watching. It’s all dick jokes and nonsense. It’s not, like, nuanced commentary or something.”
“Can you give me a minute to explain myself?” Gwen asked, lowering the laptop screen.
“You don’t need to shame her for liking something,” Eleanor said to Dania. “If she wants to watch whatever, she can watch whatever.”
“It’s just unexpected.”
“Then allow me,” Gwen added, “to help you understand.”
The trio sat down again. Dania slouched slightly, and stared inquisitively at Gwen.
“Okay,” she finally said. “Sell me on Game Grumps, Gwen-style.”
“It’s not Game Grumps I’m watching,” Gwen said. “I don’t really understand the draw of watching other people play video games––”
“It’s not just watching people play,” Eleanor cut in. “It’s about reactions. We’re not just staring blankly at some guy being boring in Fortnite. The interest is the commentary from the players.”
“Although I will say,” Dania added. “People playing and being boring is certainly a market, too.”
“Only on Twitch.”
“The point is,” Eleanor continued, realigning the conversation. “It’s no different than, like, Mystery Science Theatre 3000. No one derides commentary tracks with, ‘ugh, are you just listening to someone else watch a movie?’ There’s an art to keeping people engaged.”
“Okay,” Gwen said, before shooting a look to Dania, in case she interrupted. But she remained seated, silent.
“Okay,” Gwen repeated. “I understand that. Still, I don’t watch Game Grumps that much. But they have this other show, called Ten Minute Power Hour. And…”
Gwen struggled in vain to find her words. The juvenile, slapdash webseries had roped her in with a certain grotesque charm that she couldn’t easily place.
“I don’t know!” she said, tossing her hands to the sky. “Certain aspects of it are really fascinating to me. It’s so perfectly balanced on the line between a scripted sketch show and improv. I can’t tell if it’s intentionally unpolished, or just lazy.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s unscripted,” Dania said. “Game Grumps proper is improv, it would make sense.”
“True,” Gwen said. “And they’ve responded to complaints about it being too scripted by implying that there’s no script at all. Though there are definitely segments of it…”
“Can I just watch it?” Eleanor asked. “So I can participate in this conversation?”
“Okay, okay, okay,” Gwen muttered.
She scrolled through the episodes: Dan and Arin use an Easy Bake Oven, Dan and Arin break Guinness World Records, Dan and Arin make sock puppets.
“What is the theme of this show?” Eleanor asked.
“As far as I can figure, it’s: two older men doing things that kids do for fun.”
“Oh, this is the one,” Gwen concluded, clicking on the link to “Piloting The Perfect Paper Airplane.”
The video told the story of Dan and Arin, the co-hosts of Game Grumps, and their quest to create the perfect paper airplane. However, as the episode wore on through its 15-minute run time, the mechanics began to break down. Editor Matt Wilson was caught vaping on screen; a crashed airplane was accompanied by a slow zoom and the text of a poem from 1869; Arin’s laptop opened and immediately elicited nervous reactions from both hosts.
“There was…” Dan expressed to the unseen crew, “…nothing but gay pornography.”
“See, I don’t think that’s a planned reaction,” Gwen began, before Eleanor shushed her.
Just before the second test flight, Matt appeared onscreen again, talking with Arin about the channel’s lack of subscribers, as the camera zoomed in voyeuristically. But less than five seconds later, the camera cut to Arin, making plane noises as he lifted his paper airplane through the air.
By the end of the video, the video cut to distorted footage from earlier in the episode, accompanied by a distant vaporwave score and the words “likke, conent, suscibe” printed in Comic Sans at the bottom of the screen. Gwen paused the video and glanced up at her friends.
“So,” she baited. “Thoughts.”
Neither Eleanor or Gwen said anything for a moment, but eventually Dania broke the silence.
“What on earth do you see in it?” she finally asked.
“My reading,” Gwen concluded, “is that Ten Minute Power Hour is a microcosm of everything that happens in Let’s Play videos. An artistic, abstract expression of the structure of the genre.”
“The genre you know so little about,” Dania reminded her.
“I know enough to support the point,” Gwen said. “It’s a show about grown men playing with children’s toys, and the comedy comes not from the toys, but their reaction to it. The juvenalia and random humor is along the same lines as those jokes children tell, where the punchline is a complete non sequitur.”
“I think that’s just what they do on the regular show, anyway,” Dania said. “Like, you can read into it as a ‘statement’ all you want, but that’s clearly not what they’re trying to do. It’s just stupid fun.”
“Even dumb fun has a message,” Gwen countered. “Even if that message is reinforcing a worldview.”
“The worldview of white men acting immature and being rewarded,” Eleanor added, coldly.
“Exactly,” Gwen blazed on. “It’s an insidious premise, but it’s at the center of many, many Let’s Play channels. You only recognize it when it’s deconstructed like this.”
“If you can call ‘doing it poorly’ deconstruction.”
“Is it a poor approximation, though?”
“Yes,” Dania said. “Whether or not Let’s Play is your thing, what makes Dan and Arin memorable is their conversations. When the video is cut up and filled with rehearsed bits like this, it’s not as funny because it feels fake.”
“Did you not enjoy it?”
Dania’s head tilted. “Maybe a bit. I like Game Grumps better. It’s less forced.”
“Improv is subjective,” Gwen said. “They can’t be funny every time.”
“But I don’t––” Eleanor began. She stared, transfixed at the screen, before clicking on another video: “Making Balloon Animals (ft. Leighton).” The trio watched again, as the two men (assisted by Leighton, another YouTuber and game developer) made paltry and inelegant attempts at balloon animals.
Dania covered her ears less than three minutes in. “Oh, God, make the squeaking stop.”
“It’s balloon animals, they do what they have to do,” Eleanor said.
“There are some episodes where they add nonsensical sound effects to the video,” Gwen added. “There’s one where Arin eats jello, and they add this horrible ASMR crunch noise, like he’s eating kale chips.”
The video rolled along – but Eleanor paused it just seconds before the twelve-minute mark.
Matt Wilson was reclined, completely nude, watching the camera’s feedback on a screen located between his legs. He was, thankfully, censored, but no explanation was given.
“Okay, so here’s my thing,” Eleanor said, over Dania’s nervous chuckling. “There’s not, like, a joke here. It’s just stuff happening. The moments that are funny frequently have nothing to do with the subject of the video, and it’s just disorienting to watch.”
“Well, if it’s improv,” Gwen muttered, “what else can you expect?”
“But it’s not,” Eleanor said, turning to face her friends.
“It might be.”
“No, but that’s the point,” she continued. “When it’s on Game Grumps, and the footage is one unedited take, that’s improv. But someone is editing this. Either they decided while filming to have Matt…do whatever he’s doing, or he did it by improv and there was a choice to include it in the final video. Either way, someone’s making a choice. I get what you’re talking about, Gwen. There’s something it’s saying. Whatever that is.”
“Thank you,” Gwen said, with a glare at Dania. “It’s that implication of authorship that makes it humorous. The mere fact that someone had to cobble this drivel together is really funny to me.”
A beat passed between the three of them.
“Yeah, maybe I won’t go that far,” Eleanor said.
“It’s not that funny.” Eleanor sat up, dismissing the explicit image of Matt from the screen.
“What do you mean?” Gwen said, turning on Eleanor. “You just explained how the comedy works!”
“No, I described the editing,” she replied. “Random is not funny to me. Like, if you don’t set up – you’re the one who explained the Rules of Comedy to me, Gwen! If you don’t set up expectations, you can’t subvert them!”
“There are expectations,” Gwen countered. “You expect they’ll actually do the task they establish at the start.”
“But you know by the second episode what the formula is,” Eleanor groaned. “Random humor, clumsiness in place of wit, lazy inclusion of improv content, and so on.”
“Lazy?” Dania asked. “You just went on some rant about how well-edited it is!”
“‘Well-edited’ is a stretch. I just mean that someone did edit it. Which is even more damning, if this is what they came up with.”
“I still hold there’s something to analyze here about the ingredients at the center of a Let’s Play,” Gwen returned. “It’s unpolished, but I sense that’s the point. To strip down the very idea of this genre, and run it into the ground.”
“Too bad that doesn’t make it funny,” Eleanor said, as she walked away.
“If it’s not funny, then why am I laughing?” Dania asked.
But Eleanor was unwilling to get into that question.
Image Credit: YouTube