How does the son of a traveling Christian folk-rock duo wind up making edgy music videos about topics like getting high in church?
I sent a cold message to comedian Trevor Moore to find out exactly that and learn more about how his comedic group, The Whitest Kids U'Know (WKUK), managed to become a cult favorite with millions of fans.
Unsurprisingly, Moore learned at a young age to use humor as a way to quickly make new friends, as he was on the road a lot with his parents while they toured. Like many other comics, comedy had been therapeutic for him, helping him reflect and work through previous childhood issues and ultimately grow from them and move on.
My conversation with Moore followed the evolution of his entertainment career through and beyond the WKUK, including insights into how the show became an internet success that quickly transferred to mainstream media, with multiple TV and movie deals. But these five lessons gleaned from our conversation don't just apply to comedians; Moore's insights are applicable for startup founders and anyone with entrepreneurial hustles.
1. Treat your side-hustle like it's your job, long before it ever is
Moore acknowledges the role the internet played in the WKUK's success, and believes they were really lucky with timing, since they had online video content even before YouTube existed. However, it's clear that their approach to hard work was a cornerstone of their success.
He has the following advice for anyone who is thinking about becoming an entertainer or trying to make a living using online video content:
"No matter what platform it is--Facebook, YouTube, or whatever the next thing is--it's doing it all the time and treating it like it's your job before it's your job. We would do a live show every week and try to write a completely new show every week...for every single performance. And we did that for years, until people started to notice us. And the result of that is when we got a deal to do a TV show, we already had the first season written. Every skit in that first season was pretty much stuff that we had done live. We just had a catalog of hundreds and hundreds of sketches."
2. Let passion and practice uncover your voice and style
Moore adamantly believes that you shouldn't stress too much about finding your voice and style.
"Just do what you're thinking about at the time, a lot, and your own voice will show itself as time goes on. I don't think we were ever sitting down like, 'What is the Whitest Kids sketch?' We were just throwing everything on the wall.... A couple years into it, then all of the sudden, you start to realize, 'This feels like us, and this doesn't.' And we've kind of established a voice or a tone."
However, he and the WKUK made some smart decisions that shaped their style early on. If you've seen WKUK sketches, you'll notice that many of them are full of historical references, as Moore is a history buff. But it's really because the WKUK decided to avoid mentioning pop culture whenever possible. "We wanted to make something timeless people could watch five years from now and still make sense. If you were going to reference something, you always returned to history because that would always be there. ...So just us doing less pop culture references, that made us lean on history references, which our sketches have a lot of," says Moore.
3. Let your fans help you
I remember watching WKUK videos in YouTube's early days, but when doing online research, I couldn't find WKUK's official account. This was because they never had one. Instead, they had hosted videos on their own website, and loyal fans took the videos and put them on YouTube for the world to see.
"The cool thing about that was it was completely fan-generated content. The whole reason we got a TV show was because fans were just putting the stuff up.... We were one of the first shows that got picked up off of the internet. But because of that, we didn't really participate in the whole 'YouTube thing.' And we had videos with millions and millions of views, and the network would flag it and get it pulled offline. And we were like, 'Why did you do that? That was just a great promotion for us," explains Moore.
And now, WKUK is going to be re-uploading their content library to their own YouTube channel.
4. Names stick, so choose wisely!
I asked Moore how the group got its name, "The Whitest Kids U'Know," and he said it was somewhat of an accidental process. They had been trying to think of a name for a while, and then WKUK member Sam Brown was rapping for a skit and one of their other friends heard it and said, "You guys are the whitest kids I know." The group found this amusing and decided to use it as their name.
"All of us hate the name now," says Moore, "it's something we just threw on...we were like 20 years old when we named ourselves that. But we hated it early. Even when we were going to start the TV show, we were like, 'Can we name ourselves something else?' But we had a couple big things that had gone viral on YouTube, and so we couldn't change our name."
I asked Moore what he'd prefer to be called. He chuckled and said, "Well, I always liked 'The God-Fearing Americans.' ...But I don't think anyone ever loved it as much."
5. Learn how to predict the future
Moore and I discussed his creative process, with a particular emphasis on producing his recent Comedy Central special, The Story of Our Times. Before going into the studio to record an album, Moore writes many songs, which he then tries to "whittle down" to fit a specific tone or theme. The content keeps evolving when he gets to the studio to record. "I'll still end up recording a bunch of songs, and then I'll get rid of some, or I'll add some on at the last minute. It's constantly changing pretty much until I walk out. So I have tons of songs I haven't put out," says Moore.
The group recently finished writing the WKUK movie, but Moore says that "even that took a long time because we wrote like three movies" in terms of sheer content.
I was curious about how Moore decides which material to use or not. He explains, "It's a little bit of 'reading the tea leaves'--like what do I think might happen in the world eight months from now? A lot of it is reading the news and looking at what is coming out around when the album is coming out, and trying to predict the future."
However he did it, he was clearly spot on with The Story of Our Times, which tackles everything from cyberbullying and men's rights groups to cryptocurrency and the Kardashians.