In the interests of full coverage of the story, this column contains description of content that some readers may find disturbing. Fair warning.
Well…that just happened.
This past week has been something of a rolling disaster for PewDiePie (real name Felix Kjellberg). For almost half a decade now, the 27 year-old Swedish vlogger has been undisputedly the biggest name on the internet’s supreme video-sharing platform. His channel is subscribed to by over 53 million people, and he was famously the first ‘YouTuber’ to publicise making over $1million in a single year as a result of his content. It’s is not unfair to say he is one of the most influential entertainers of our time, even if most people over the age of 40 have probably never heard of him.
And yet, in a single week, PewDiePie has been dropped by Maker Studios (Disney’s online content publishing subsidiary), had his upcoming YouTube Red series cancelled by the platform, and been taken off the ‘preferred tier’ for family-friendly advertising by Google. Those are some giant names in the tech and entertainment business, now treating this high-pitched, zany guy who largely just screeches at video-games like the most toxic thing around. So, what on Earth is going on?
This scandal has actually been rumbling on for a while, but only recently did it catch the attention of the Wall Street Journal, who ran the story that has provoked such a widespread severing of ties with Mr. Kjellberg. It all traces back to a video PewDiePie published involving the website Fiverr (not a typo). The theme of the website basically involves people on webcam responding to requests made by their audiences in real time for the promise of small amounts of money (which, of course, is an idea that can only lead to good things, on the internet of all places). In the video, PewDiePie persuades a man dressed as Jesus to tell the camera that “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong,” before persuading another two men to write ‘DEATH TO ALL JEWS’ on a sign, and hold it up while laughing and dancing.
This has gone down about as well as anyone with a brain should have damn well expected it to, right before pushing that idea back into whatever diseased part of their mind it came from, and proceeding to do literally anything else.
For what it’s worth, I see absolutely no reason not to take Felix at his word when he says his intention was to “show how crazy the modern world is” (namely that he could get people to do literally anything for $5 on the internet). I don’t believe he is a Nazi, or an anti-Semite. However, where I take issue with the statement he has released in response to the backlash against him is where he states that he is “in no way supporting any kind of hateful attitudes”.
Because you see Felix… you did. Objectively, that is what you have done. You may not have intended to, and speaking out now against the Neo-Nazi scumbags who are now attempting to use your content to claim legitimacy for their beliefs is somewhat commendable. However, I promise you that those same people do not give a damn what point you were really attempting to make. As far as they are concerned, you have given them ammunition that they will not hesitate to use, and no condemnation from you now is going to stop them. You have been a prominent internet personality for several years. You (should) know these people and how they operate as well as anyone. When are we going to stop giving these people cause to celebrate? We should all know better by now.
You screwed up. You should have known better.
I am saying all of this as someone who believes that, where comedy is concerned, there should be nothing ‘off-limits’. Indeed, some of my favourite comedians have mastered the art of pushing the boundaries of propriety. George Carlin, for example, could pull off telling a theatre full of people they were being stupid for washing their hands after going to the bathroom, and that was one of his cleaner (pun intended) jokes. PewDiePie, however, is not George Carlin. He’s not in the same league as Carlin or any of the other genuine masters of the craft. A comedian understands that jokes can be used as a skewer, to prod mercilessly at our hypocrisies and force us to confront taboos we’d rather not pay attention to. What comedy is not is a shield you can cower behind that renders all criticism of what you said invalid. Yes, Steve Hughes’ skit on the empty nature of being offended is both funny and apt, but Hughes’ never used that idea to try and shut down anyone who ever criticised his point, unlike the legions of internet edge-lords who have misconstrued it.
Let’s take a moment to examine what the ‘point’ of PewDiePie’s joke was supposed to be. That people will debase themselves for money and fame, even tiny portions of it? Well gosh, Felix! I’m sure that’ll throw the masses for a loop, assuming of course we’ve all just woken up from a coma we’ve been in since 1995. Who is the target of the joke supposed to be, if not Jews or any of the other groups who suffered at the hands of Nazi’s? The people who you paid to follow your instructions to say and do offensive things? Here’s a tip for you: The ‘I’m with stupid’ joke doesn’t work when you’re the person engineering the stupid. You aren’t ‘holding a mirror’ up to anybody in that situation, not when you’re paying in to the same ridiculous construct that encourages their behaviour.
You know you’re no good at this. You’ve said it yourself, that you consider yourself to be a “rookie comedian”. Here’s the thing: You’ve had a lot of practice by now, so if you’re not getting any better at it, it’s time for you to stop.
I have no doubt that PewDiePie will come back from this incident. Anyone can come back in this industry, and while losing such lucrative contracts is undeniably a big hit, he’s got a big cushion to fall back on. What’s more, the rate of increase in his subscribers has actually rallied in conjunction with the increased publicity surrounding him. If I were him, however, I would be concerned about exactly where those new subscribers are coming from. His career is far from over, I just hope he learns from the mistakes he’s made. If PewDiePie really doesn’t want to be seen as lending legitimacy to any kind of hate movement, the last thing he should want is to wind up with only hateful people rating his act.
But hey, that’s just my opinion, what’s yours?
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Written by: David Sayers
Edited by: Ivy Miller