With his earnest, lamenting voice, Dan Avidan, half of the comedy band Ninja Sex Party, sings about mythical creatures, wizards, friendship, outrageously confident sexual requests and combinations of the above. Ninja Sex Party’s most-watched video, with more than 5 million views on YouTube, is for a song called “Dinosaur Laser Fight.” The lyrics include:
It was an ordinary day at Dinosaur High
When Stegosaurus raised his hand and called for high-fives
Tyrannosaurus saw this and got pissed
Because his tiny wrists
Caused his high-five to miss
And he was like “Fuck this!”
Ninja Sex Party songs are often about dicks and boners, expected and not. They sing about dicks because it’s funny. They’ll sing about anything that will make people happy. “It’s a mental health break,” says Avidan, a tall and narrow 37-year-old with perpetual five o’clock shadow, a cleft chin and long curly hair. “I think that’s our quote-unquote mission statement, more than to write dick jokes: Whatever will make people laugh and forget about a fucking shooting.”
Ninja Sex Party has built an audience almost entirely on YouTube, where the band’s videos have been watched nearly 90 million times since the first low-budget ones were released in 2009. Dan plays Danny Sexbang, a flamboyant, gyrating sex maniac in bright spandex and a kimono. His other half, Brian Wecht, plays Ninja Brian — a ninja, of course — who never speaks and rarely blinks, but murders Danny and his friends constantly. “It’s the classic vaudeville straight guy, funny guy,” Brian says, “taken to new extremes.”
Between Ninja Sex Party and its video game-themed side project, Starbomb, four of the top 10 comedy albums of 2015 belong to Dan and Brian, charting next to bigger names like Jim Gaffigan, Aziz Ansari and Weird Al Yankovic. Their comedic songs are filled with curse words, fantasy references, scantily clad people and jokes that will either smack you over the head or get noticed on the fifth watch. The music ranges in style from medieval ballads to prog-rock to hair metal to death metal to bossanova. Dan spent a decade singing in more conventional rock and electronica bands, while Brian trained in classical piano and jazz saxophone.
“Being in a comedy band has given us more freedom musically than we ever had in our own bands,” Brian says. “Ninja Sex Party can be whatever we want it to be.”
“There’s a type of person that’s drawn to our stuff,” Dan says. “We are a band for nerds. We are nerds ourselves. We were outcasts growing up. There’s something about Ninja Sex Party that people respond to because it’s clearly dudes that got picked on and said, ‘Fuck it, we’re gonna get weirder in reaction.’”
If you can let yourself go for a few minutes and watch a Ninja Sex Party video, you’ll giggle like a kid, and probably wonder what the fuck you just saw. And once you’ve experienced the raw, goofy, shockingly lewd things they come up with to make people laugh, you’ll be ready to hear the real story of Ninja Sex Party, the one about the YouTube audience that lifted them from obscurity and got lifted right back.
The main room of Indy PopCon — a weekend-long convention held in June for 28,000 lovers of all things geek — is the size of three football fields. The convention center in downtown Indianapolis is filled with booths worked by animators, comic artists, tabletop- and video-game developers, a woman who handles reptiles, cosplayers and dealers in nerd merch, including Marvel T-shirts, bobbleheads, classic Nintendo games and medieval leather gear.
On the first day of the convention, hundreds of people line up early on a Friday morning to get a free bracelet that will allow them to meet and get an autograph from one celebrity of their choice, including Twitch stars Ray Narvaez, Jr. and Tina Dayton, voiceover artists Tara Strong and Xander Mobus, the creators of Princess Rap Battle, and Ninja Sex Party, which is making its first Midwest appearance. Within a few minutes, all the autograph bracelets for Ninja Sex Party are gone, and a lot of people leave the line.
I see one disappointed fan standing in the carpeted convention center hallway, a 29-year-old named Krystle, dressed in a homemade red-and-black Harley Quinn costume. She’s crocheted a hat for Dan that’s shaped like Kirby, the a main character of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, a video game that she knows Dan plays. “I want to meet him just to tell him how much he’s impacted my life,” she tells me. “I almost look at him like the older brother I never had. Like, I’m down, can I talk to you?” But she arrived a few minutes too late for a bracelet, so she won’t have the chance.
It’s bizarre for me to hear Krystle speak about Dan with such awe. I grew up with him in Springfield, New Jersey. We’re the same age and we went to each other’s birthday parties as kids. We shared friends and attended the same classes and sometimes the same parties in high school. I remember when Dan got hurt skiing and the time he explained to me what the band Rush was. I have always loved Dan, but at the convention I see firsthand that many people who he’s never met love him, too.
Thousands of children, teens and adults at the convention are dressed up as characters from sci-fi movies, video games, comic books and other geek genres. I’m prepared, and excited, to see a lot of people in costumes. But, because I was in the same limousine as Dan at our junior year prom, I am not prepared when I see a 17-year-old girl named Delaney — and a couple dozen other people throughout the convention — dressed in his character’s signature outfits: the blue leotard, the red Star of David, the fur-lined cape, the kimono. (Her friend Lilly is dressed as Ninja Brian, in full black, only her eyes exposed.)
Ninja Sex Party’s fans range in age from early teens to middle-aged. They see Dan and Brian as similar to themselves — outsiders who don’t fit into stereotypical cliques, but who made it big anyway while doing something they love. They bring them elaborate fan art — everything from crocheted blankets, to wooden sculptures, to paintings and drawings, figurines, clothing, and more.
Delaney has come all the way from Nebraska to meet Ninja Sex Party. She and Lilly love the latest album, Under the Covers, which isn’t even comedy. It’s purely covers of ’80s songs, and when it came out in March, it made the top 10 on Billboard’s albums chart, selling more than either Justin Bieber’s or Rihanna’s latest records that week. Dan and Brian vowed to sign all preordered copies of Under the Covers and ended up killing their wrists on almost 50,000 CDs. For some younger fans who grew up post-CD, it’s the first one they’ve ever owned.
“Oh… my… god, you’re Danny Sexbang!”
The ponytailed young man working an artisanal popcorn booth has just recognized Dan as he and Brian settle into the ornate lobby chairs of their hotel near the convention center. Aside from the insane hair, Dan is the same guy I remember from high school, the lovable goofball, but he’s gone through a lot in the two decades since we last saw each other in person. After high school, Dan studied advertising at Boston College, then moved to Philadelphia and later Brooklyn, where he pursued musical greatness in two bands. Both failed, and in 2008 he started taking improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Manhattan. “Because I didn’t care about comedy,” he says. “It was just fun and it didn’t matter.”
By that time, groups like Flight of the Concords and The Lonely Island had hit it big by blending music and humor. Dan was a huge fan and, during his time at UCB, began to think he might have a talent for the same style of performance. He had an idea to develop a persona on stage, a character who was a sex-crazy idiot. He studied how artists like Prince, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie changed their identities and style to draw as much attention to themselves as possible. He asked himself, What’s everybody’s three favorite things? “That’s literally where the band name came from,” he says.
He needed a partner, so Dan went in search of someone who could play one instrument really well, write music and wear a ninja mask while offering hateful stares to the camera. A friend recommended Brian Wecht, a keyboard-playing theoretical physicist from New Jersey who did comedy on the side.
“I was a weird, nerdy kid, just loved everything,” says Brian, 41, in his appropriately professorial speaking voice. “Not a subject I didn’t like in school,” After finishing with a math and music double major at Williams College, he taught at a boarding school for a year and then enrolled at the University of California, San Diego, to get a Ph.D. in physics. While there, he wrote a paper that led to an improvement in the way physicists calculate things (or so he assured me), which lead him, eventually, to a research position at the Princeton-based Institute for Advanced Study, famous for employing Albert Einstein.
All the while, Brian kept playing music — he was at one point in a jam band called Agave — and in Boston he met his future wife, Rachel, doing comedy. They moved together to New Jersey for his gig at the IAS. In his free time, Brian took classes at the Peoples Improv Theater and UCB, and eventually became a musical improv coach.
“Immediate chemistry,” Brian says of meeting Dan for the first time at the shitty loft apartment Dan shared with 14 people. “It’s shocking how fast we went from, ‘Let’s meet up’ to, ‘We’re doing this.’” They wrote two songs on the first day, one of which — “Accept My Shaft” — was on their first album, NSFW.
They performed live shows at small theaters, figured out their characters, and made ridiculous low-budget videos, financing everything themselves (as they still do). For the first four years, Ninja Sex Party was in the red. But they got along great and loved what they were doing. “I have an incredible amount of patience,” Dan tells me, “and Brian is a relentless tool, so it really balances out.”
“I don’t disagree,” Brian says.
Brian was a damn good theoretical physicist; in 2011, he was offered a tenured professorship at Queen Mary University of London. Ninja Sex Party was starting to gather a sizable audience, but tenure is not an opportunity that any academic passes up lightly. Despite his devotion to the band, Brian accepted the position; in 2012, he moved to England with Rachel. Dan moved to L.A.
“It was heartbreaking at the time,” Dan says. But it turned out that their time living 5,400 miles apart was their most productive period. They settled into clear roles: Brian wrote the music, Dan came up with most of the lyrics, then they ping-ponged changes back and forth until they had a finished product. They wrote almost their entire third album, as well as two albums for Starbomb, while living in different countries. During this time, Dan was asked to become a host of a YouTube show called Game Grumps and that’s when Ninja Sex Party’s fanbase exploded.
Game Grumps is a Let’s Play webseries, kind of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 for video games, which pushes out three 10- to 15-minute episodes daily to 3 million subscribers. The rotating hosts play a video game, while the audio captures their commentary. Fans like Krystle religiously tune into Dan’s two daily Game Grumps appearances (and Brian’s less frequent ones) — not because he’s the best gamer, but because they want to hear more about Dan’s and Brian’s lives.
Most of the show is jokes, but they’ve each shared their biggest fears: Dan’s is sharks, and Brian’s is Ninja Audrey, his daughter, getting hurt. They talk about failure and happiness, first dates, and the time Dan injured himself trying to autofellate. On one epic episode, Dan discusses questioning his sexuality, being a weirdo, the pressures of being manly and not showing weakness as a kid, and the enormity of having sex with someone you love, all in 15 minutes.
There is a seamless and looping connection between the band and the show. Game Grumps founder and third Starbomb member Arin Hanson discovered Dan by watching early Ninja Sex Party videos, and all the fans I meet at Indy PopCon tell me that they found the band through the show. It took four years for Ninja Sex Party to get its first 40,000 YouTube subscribers — a large number for most channels, but not massive. Game Grumps boosted those numbers almost immediately. Now they have nearly 800,000 subscribers on YouTube, and more than 300,000 followers on both Twitter and Instagram. As those numbers climbed, it became clear that Ninja Sex Party was too successful even for tenure. Last year, Brian left academia and moved to L.A. to join Game Grumps and make comedy his full-time career — perhaps the only tenured theoretical physicist ever to do so.
Their first autograph session at Indy PopCon draws the 200 people lucky enough to get a bracelet plus hundreds more fans, who weren’t so lucky, standing 20 feet back from the stage, watching Dan and Brian sign posters and pose for pictures. When Delaney and Lilly leave the stage with their autographs, they cry. Lots of fans cry. Dan and Brian are not just distant celebrities to them. They’re not actors playing a role. They’re intimate friends. The fans know about Dan’s grandmother, Ruth, aka Granny Sexbang, because he posted an hourlong interview with her that has more than 650,000 views. They know what sports teams and musicians and movies the two like. They know that Brian left his coveted professorship, and they know about the years that Dan had no money and no interest from labels and struggled to get by. That struggle may be what most closely bonds the fans to Dan and Brian.
Lots of fans bring up Wind Waker HD episode 19 of Game Grumps. That’s when Dan speaks about his battle with depression after a bout with mono that confined him to bed for eight months just as he was leaving high school and entering adulthood. As he gets deeper into his own sad story in the episode, Dan pauses and says, “I promise we’ll get back to talking about dicks soon.” But the more I speak with them, the more I suspect the fans don’t want him to. The serious moments distinguish him from other, more distant stars. The episode has more than a million views, and shows why the fans relate particularly well to Dan.
“When I just wanna give up, [it helps to know] there’s someone out there who believes in me,” says a 19-year-old fan. “I just got out of counseling because I had an abusive father in my life, and I was at the point where I was gonna give up. I was searching YouTube and I found Danny from Game Grumps originally and I discovered Ninja Sex Party through that.” The same fan’s fiancé tells me: “They just love everyone. You can feel it through the computer screen, through your phone, and it just feels amazing.”
Nat, 22, from Hannibal, Missouri, about 300 miles away, tells me that Brian has really helped him come out of his shell. One of Brian’s signature moves at events is to flip off the crowd. They love it. Nat says he never would have pictured himself throwing a middle finger in public, but there he was doing it, hoping Brian would return the favor (he did). “It’s really nice to have people like that,” Nat says. “They’re not really in your life, but it feels like they are.”
A fan named Matt gets a photo with Dan and Brian and then walks off the stage in what seems to me to be a state of near-devastation. Completely alone in a crowd of hundreds, he stares at the picture taken with his phone as if it were the love of his life returned from the dead. Matt is in his 30s and from Columbus, Ohio. He has a Let’s Play webseries of his own called Co-Opted, which has 226 subscribers built up over two years. Some of his videos have less than 10 views. He works full-time at a grocery store but dreams of one day finding a fanbase like Dan and Brian have — which he admits is a tall order. “I would just like to have an active audience that wants to talk to me as much as I want to talk to them,” Matt says.
“I know that Danny and Brian struggled for years to even get a minor audience, but they never really gave up, and I need that kind of thing sometimes,” he continues. “As a smaller YouTuber, there are days when it feels like the whole thing’s not worth it and you just want to pack it in, go sleep for a week, and reset your life. When you get like that, Danny and Brian are some of the best guys to look to because…” — he pauses to steady his voice — “…they didn’t stop.”
My old friend Dan Avidan is famous, and so is my new friend Brian Wecht. But it’s a niche fame: All YouTubers appeal to a specific audience. They’re famous in a way that didn’t exist when we were growing up. Their gaming feeds their music, which feeds their comedy. They’re an unabashedly modern combination of reality stars, musicians, comedians, gamers and social media personalities.
In Ninja Sex Party, Brian is always wearing a mask; only the superfans recognize his bushy eyebrows IRL. “I look like their grandfather,” he says of his fans. “At least that’s what they tell me constantly online.” For the most part, Brian can walk down any street unrecognized, and he doesn’t think that will change. He’ll never have a Mick Jagger level of universal awareness. “I don’t see the crippling type of fame, the superstar level of fame, ever happening,” he tells me.
But at Indy PopCon, their fame is a crippling kind of fame, at least for Dan. He wears a black leather jacket and ripped jeans. He’s impossible to miss. He’s also a heartthrob. A 13-year-old named Coki says, “I’m gonna marry Danny, but Brian is gonna be my dad.” Her friend Bella tells me, incongruously, “Dan is like a princess.” When Dan enters and exits the convention center, people stop in their tracks, shout “I love you, Dan!” and give him hugs.
He is exhausted after the Saturday signing, which is way bigger than the already-huge Friday event. In addition to signing autographs for at least 200 people, and speaking to and taking a picture with each one, he has to spend the day in front of a gathered crowd of occasionally shouting fans, who try to get Dan to look at them or Brian to flip them off. Two fans in the crowd carrying a keyboard and guitar bust into a-ha’s “Take On Me,” one of the songs Ninja Sex Party covers in the new album. The rest of the crowd joins in.
Brian has a family he doesn’t like to leave back in L.A., even just for a couple of days, but meeting and connecting with the fans is essential. “What it comes down to is, we have the most supportive fans you could possibly ever want,” Brian says. “Because of their loyalty and their willingness to say, ‘We love you guys. We’re gonna support you.’ That is the foundation of our careers.”
They know how lucky they are to be in this position, and they are also aware that it’s very difficult to give every fan the kind of attention they deserve, especially when a lot of them are crying or choked up. “There’s nothing you can do when you make music and you play video games and someone comes up to you and says, ‘I was gonna kill myself and I didn’t because of what you do.’ There’s no way you’ll ever feel worthy of that,” Dan says. “You need recovery time because you know how much those 10 seconds mean to that person.”
Dan says that cons like the one we’re at, with thousands of attendees, tend to make him feel isolated. “It’s been sinking in this weekend,” he tells me. “There’s some kind of strange loneliness that only comes from having a hundred interactions where people are just like, ‘I love you. I love and worship you,’ and then going to your hotel room and lying in bed alone for hours.”
His empathy is exactly why Dan’s fans root for him, but it’s also what makes being even a little bit famous difficult for him at times. He experiences strangers’ pain more than he should. “When other people are feeling things, I feel it really strongly,” Dan says. “We don’t mean to complain about these dream jobs that we have. This is the fucking best and it’s so much fun. It’s just, you have to have the stomach for it.”
I wonder what will happen if their profile is raised again. You don’t get to their level of fame without at least being tempted to get to the next one. They’re making good money — they each bought a house with the proceeds from their recent album sales — they are creatively independent, and they have an audience that will support them in whatever they decide to do (as the covers album proves).
Because their fans are so loyal, they want to make sure they never get lazy and mail it in. They plan to reinvest the success they’ve had into bigger and crazier music and comedy. They have a new video coming out soon, for a song called “6969,” that has been more than a year in the making. They played for 1,300 people at “Nerd HQ” during Comic-Con in San Diego, and for 4,500 people at MAGFest in Maryland — and they just sold out an October concert at the 5,000-seat Aragon Ballroom, where Nirvana played its final Chicago show. But they have even bigger ambitions. “We want to be the first band to perform naked on the top of Mount Everest,” Brian tells me.
When I point out that they would die, Dan says, “And the last band.”
Back when he was in high school, Dan dreamed of being a rock star. He stood in front of the mirror, considered his frail build and geeky glasses, and imagined what it would be like to be loved by the masses, to be unimaginably cool. To be the guy whose hand was slapped as he walked down the hall; who people noticed and were flattered to be noticed by. Now, and especially at Indy PopCon, he has found all that.
I used to dream of fame back in high school, too, and for a couple of days hanging out with Ninja Sex Party, I feel what it’s like. I go backstage, have dinner with internet stars, get nods from security guards and water from handlers, and am driven around in a black car. But I’m in a strange city at a convention filled with fans and talent, and I don’t really fit into either group. After a couple of days as an outsider in Indianapolis, I’m lonely and homesick.
Then, during a Q&A in front of 2,500 screaming and sobbing fans, Dan and Brian call me on stage and the crowd cheers. They aren’t cheering because I’m cool or famous; only because I know cool and famous people. But suddenly, I’m no longer lonely. Everyone knows I’m the guy with the band. And I understand that that’s what these guys do. That’s what attracts their fans, so many remarkable weirdos and outcasts. Ninja Sex Party make people feel less lonely, even at the risk of becoming lonelier themselves.