In collaboration with Junior High, a not-for-profit in L.A. dedicated to creating space for marginalized voices in the arts, MEL has produced a special print issue focused on contemporary masculinity. For the Men’s Issues Issue, six men from the L.A. area picked someone close to them to conduct an original interview about what it means to be a man today. In these conversations, which will run on MEL throughout the week, they talk about how societal expectations impact them and their work and what they think the best path forward is for men. Next up — the crown princes of viral video The Try Guys, interviewed by Junior High’s founder Faye Orlove.
To purchase a copy of the print issue — as well as a tote and pin — please click here.
Zach Kornfeld and I have been friends for a decade, since the moment we both discovered a mutual love of the Fast & Furious franchise. One night, our first month living in L.A., we got drunk watching Fast 4, and Zach politely pointed out that one of my boobs had accidentally emerged from my thrift-store dress. Needless to say, Zach is a GOOD GUY — not to be confused with a Nice Guy™.
When Zach became world famous as one quarter of the (then BuzzFeed, now unaffiliated) comedy group the Try Guys, I wasn’t totally surprised. The reason I always loved him was because he seemed to reject typical notions of what masculinity could look like. And so, the Try Guys went on to publish hundreds of videos of them exploring marginalized identities from cis-male bodies while MILLIONS of people watched.
Zach, along with Ned Fulmer, Eugene Lee Yang and Keith Habersberger, are four men who have made a living off the notion that male vulnerability is cool. They’ve displayed a radical concept of male friendship — in which trying new things, cheering each other on and confronting privilege is the norm. Of course, there’s still money to be made, merch to be sold and the blurry line of performative femininity to never cross, but at the core of the Try Guys brand is acceptance. And that makes them worth letting a boob out for.
How did the group form?
Zach: The four of us met as employees at BuzzFeed in early 2014. We were founding members of their video department when it was about 20 people or so and just starting out. It was the early days of viral video, before Facebook video had launched.
Keith: We saw that “guys understanding a woman’s identity” was doing really well on Facebook, so we did a very simple concept video, “Guys Try Ladies’ Underwear,” and we wore Victoria’s Secret underwear. The reason the four of us were in it was we were the only dudes in the office willing to do it.
When the video came out, it surpassed all our expectations, it was really, really funny. We had a lot of fun making it, it did great on Facebook, great on YouTube and we thought, “Oh, we should do another one.” BuzzFeed at the time was all about iterating and experimenting and seeing what works. We did “Guys Try Sexy Halloween Costumes for Ladies” and it was an even bigger hit.
Zach: In the beginning, we were all hired as producers. We were behind the camera, shooting, editing, coming up with ideas and making six videos a month each. And really, we joked that we came up with the world’s largest and fastest focus group. We made a video, it hit and the audience demanded more. We followed their signal and let them inform and refine the show that we were making. So almost two years ago, we left BuzzFeed and launched this independent production company.
Keith: And we just passed one billion views.
Really? That sounds like a joke number. Are most of your fans Gen Z girls?
Zach: Our demographic is about 70 to 80 percent female, and our biggest group is ages 18 to 25. Certainly the 13 to 18 range, they’re more vocal with their fandom, and they’re our second biggest age group.
Do you consider that a responsibility?
Keith: It feels like an opportunity more than anything. What we were already doing was what attracted them as viewers: us trying to shed light on female struggles. But then it also just became “people who are different” struggles, or “people who have different passions.” But we don’t really think of ourselves as role models.
Ned: I actually do. I see that as a responsibility, and since people think being married or having a kid is interesting or unique, I’ve come to see myself and my relationship as a positive model for people.
I assumed that the formation of the four of you was a little bit more intentional.
Keith: Three average white dudes and a really sexy, cool, perfect Asian?
Zach: I mean, it’s changed, but I wish we were thinking more about diversity when we started. We were thinking about diversity of perspective with the limited resources we had at BuzzFeed. We tried to get other people in. No one else would.
I’m curious about the coming out video, Eugene. From the comments and my perspective, I’m like, “This is all wonderful.” Was there any negative feedback?
Eugene: It’s interesting. I had two clear fears: That I’d further attract ostracization from not only audience members, but from my own personal family. And that, two, wider audiences wouldn’t accept a more traditionally artistic piece on YouTube. And I think both were assuaged when it came out. Namely, because people prioritize authenticity when they come to a digital space.
Regardless of my fears, it felt like I was directly communicating, maybe for the first time, with the audience. Most people couldn’t deny that I was being 100 percent myself in that video. It was definitely one of the greatest feelings to know that in some form or way, it helped other queer people be able to express, or even internalize their own journeys or issues with their identity. The reactions were as diverse as the queer community, which is good.
Do you feel responsibility? It seems like a lot of weight to be the only person of color and the only queer person in the group.
Eugene: Being queer or a person of color in your friend group is an invisible weight you carry. I can’t always be on the soapbox I might want to be on because then I would have no friends. But it’s ever-present. I’m in a rare position, and we as a group are in a rare position, where we’ve tapped into some form of mainstream appeal. And that’s horrifically daunting. But we’re experienced enough to understand how to wield it in a way that feels like it’s helping people who need it the most. Ever since putting on women’s underwear, we’ve been about being open-minded and making fun of ourselves before anyone else. That’s maybe why women were attracted to our content at first. It’s so clearly the antithesis of what we learned in grade school, which is that boys can push each other around and girls have to internalize and reflect on their feelings.
Were there any mistakes that you made? Things that you got backlash for?
Zach: It’s been few and far between because we operate from such a place of respect, and we always play the idiot. We make fun of ourselves, but never the subject we’re exploring. And it’s really important to us to bring in an expert and allow that person to be the authority on themselves. We’re just really there to be open to experiences, and to have fun, but never make fun.
Why do you think very few men wanted to be a part of the first video, trying on women’s underwear? And what do you think is different about you four that made you say “yes”?
Zach: Classic masculinity is terrified of any semblance of effeminization and especially the idea of “a string up my butt.” I think the thing that’s always set us apart is our willingness and ability to be vulnerable, whatever that means. Physically and emotionally.
Eugene: In the beginning, I wasn’t out and clearly the idea was that we’re traditional men trying traditional women’s things. But certainly we were faced with many challenges to our confidence, our sense of self, through trying things that women are very used to. We’ve almost reversed the stereotypical bro-code. Instead of, “Hey, what are you doing? Go punch that guy,” it’s more like, “Hey, what are you doing? Be vulnerable.”
Ned: Yeah, “Go apologize. Just think about it, are you wrong? If you are wrong, it’s okay to apologize. You’ll move past it.”
Is there other messaging you want to encourage?
Keith: I think the most important thing is to enter other people’s hobbies and interests with an open mind and ask questions. Instead of making assumptions and not doing it just because you’re afraid of something. Just because you fail at something, that doesn’t mean it sucks, or that you suck. Failure is how you get better. It’s part of becoming a better person, and failure is essential.
Is that an ethos you yourself have grown into? Or did you go into this project with that mindset — “I’m down to fail, I’m down to kind of embarrass myself”?
Eugene: For me at least, I didn’t have the current philosophy I have. Before, I was rather self-controlled and vulnerability was kind of a bad word in my house. There’s a lot to be said about how much each of us has individually grown. You’re touching on some interesting questions about this idea of messaging, and who we’re speaking to. Overall, our brand is quite — and I’ve used the word mainstream before — but quite palatable for a lot of people. But that’s kind of the power in it. You reach more people with honey than vinegar, right?
We’re coming to a point, culturally, where there are going to be more moments where you have to make a pretty defiant stand. And my coming-out video, for me personally, was one of those things. All of us as a group know that as much as popularity is important, we’re all clearly supportive of what I think is going to be a very incendiary battle in the next decade, in terms of the culture war. This might be going off the rails.
No, this is very much what I’m interested in.
Eugene: Our brand is about being open-minded, it’s about being vulnerable, which naturally reaches tons of young people. But in regards to how we personally feel as creatives and artists, I think that we aren’t just accidentally stumbling into being guys who are comfortable wearing girls’ nighties in your photo shoot. We’re explicitly seeking to do so because it’s the right way to be aggressive in a society that’s becoming increasingly aggressive against things like the effeminization of men. I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I guess I’m trying to say that our boldness is…
Eugene: …very intentional. I don’t think it’s easy to be vulnerable. For all of us, I’m sure to a lot of different degrees, it was incredibly difficult to get to this point where we’ve been able to understand the power of what we do.
Yeah, there are a lot of people watching you.
Zach: You knew me in college, maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I was this open and vulnerable before we started doing these videos. I think there was a good amount of using humor to deflect, and certainly a fair level of sarcasm that I used as a defense mechanism as a straight guy. But through making these videos, I’ve become a more well-rounded person, because I’ve been able to experience more parts of the world, more perspectives and cultures, and I’ve been able to enrich my life in that way. It’s made me a better person and a more open person.
Keith: I grew up in rural Tennessee in a 2,000 person town. We had one Chinese restaurant. There was one Chinese family, and they ran the Chinese restaurant. I had to drive an hour to go see a movie. What’s great about the internet is that everybody can reach it and watch everything. I hope that we’re inspiring people to get out of their comfort zones, even in those towns that otherwise wouldn’t have that philosophy.
Zach: That’s one of the accidental powers of the internet. Online, the niche can become the mainstream, niche can mean millions of views, and that allows all of these diverse voices to rise and flourish.
We’re hoping that with this issue, there will be a lot of men reading it, which is not Junior High’s typical audience. I guess it’s not yours either. What’s a message that you wish more men could hear or learn, to make the world a better place?
Keith: My advice to any male reader is to be more comfortable talking with your male friends about things you’re insecure about, and talking to the women in your life about things they’re insecure about. Better communication, all around.
Zach: I’d just encourage people to listen. Don’t just assume you don’t have the answers, know that you don’t.
Keith: Oh, and don’t make fun of your friends for failing. Often we will watch somebody suck on their first try at something and laugh at them. It’s okay to laugh, but it shouldn’t be at their expense; it should just be together, like, “You don’t know this. Let me help you out.” Or, laugh but then put yourself in that same situation. Give yourself that same opportunity to fail, so that you’re not just piling onto somebody, because nobody wants to try something a second time if they’re laughed at the first time.
Eugene: I’d almost recommend, just as there should be no set definition of a traditional man, we shouldn’t have a set definition of a contemporary woke man. A lot of young guys are very daunted by the idea that they will have to adhere to a popularized or more visible version of a “more effeminate” man, someone who’s more open-minded. Even within this group, there’s such diversity in how we express our modern maleness. Don’t ever feel like you have to fit in a new box by getting out of the old male box. There’s no new male box. The new male box is just a plethora of non-boxes.