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YouTube’s Biggest Watchdog Grapples With His Popularity

Ethan Klein built his audience as a one-man crusade to keep YouTube honest

The internet is fueled by two diametrically opposed emotions: blind rage and cloying optimism, with YouTube trading mostly in the latter. Sift through the 100 most popular channels on YouTube and you’re bombarded with an endless, cult-like positivity — channels dedicated to bubblegum pop stars (Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry); gamers trying to give out “Free hugs!” in the hyper-violent Grand Theft Auto V; Weird Al ripoffs posing as Epic Rap Battles; bubbly vloggers confessing the “Things I Wish I Could Lie About;” Bethany Mota recounting the things you and your BFF say for her 9 million “MOTA-VATORS!”; bros playing with Nerf guns; channels for saccharine talk shows Ellen and The Tonight Show; and a coterie of relentlessly upbeat “comedians” pandering to the internet’s desire to be uplifted.

But wander onto the YouTube channel h3h3Productions (or, “hehe”, as in tittering laughter) and you’ll encounter the other end of the internet’s emotional continuum. It’s the domain of Ethan Klein, a prematurely-grizzled, 30-year-old, New York-based comedian who’s achieved YouTube stardom by spewing invective at his contemporaries. In a subculture characterized by camaraderie, cross-over appearances and mutually-beneficial traffic partnerships, Klein is an iconoclast with little appetite for collaborations.

“I don’t really like a lot of the things on YouTube,” Klein says. “I’m not interested in meeting [other YouTubers].” In fact, he’d rather mock them.

One day, his wife Hila suggested they film Ethan ranting, and thus a YouTube star was born.

He’ll occasionally take aim at more mainstream celebrities such as Adam Sandler and Papa John, but Klein gets the most flak (and attention) for ridiculing fellow YouTubers. Some have been so brutalized by Klein that they’ve taken legal action: Fullscreen, one of YouTube’s largest partner networks, caused Klein’s channel to be momentarily suspended after he verbally eviscerated one of the firm’s clients in a video, and he was threatened with a defamation lawsuit for his numerous attacks on another famous YouTuber.

He’s an agitator, provocateur — the Howard Stern to YouTube’s many, many Jimmy Fallons. He’s also, as of recently, among YouTube’s top 0.002 percent, boasting more than 1.5 million subscribers across two channels.

“I think for the first time we can consider ourselves a big-time channel,” Klein says, referring to himself and his wife Hila, who handles production for h3h3. “It’s messed with our identity because we’ve always been the underdogs. It’s been weird to adapt.”

Ethan’s favorite comedian is, unsurprisingly, Bill Hicks, the chain-smoking satirist who achieved fame in the late ’80s and early ’90s for his unsparing attacks on consumer culture. Ethan’s aim is similar: To call out the way media manipulates us, and rouse a generation of docile, apathetic content consumers with his takedown “reaction videos.” It just so happens that with Ethan, the media he’s attacking are made by his peers — other men and women also out to make a name for themselves as web personalities.

“The reaction videos always started as Why do people like this

? Why is this so popular?” Ethan says of the videos he sneers at. “A lot [of the videos] were about viral, pseudo-emotional crap. It just seemed so stupid and disingenuous.” One day, Hila suggested they film Ethan ranting, and thus a YouTube star was born. His first reaction video came in June 2014, taking on a cocky bro who had filmed a “kissing tutorial.”

H3h3’s earliest videos from 2011 — which Ethan has since unlisted — were “embarrassing” attempts at absurdist physical comedy, he says. But this one immediately took off. “A lot of the comments were, ‘This was the funniest video you’ve made in a long time. More of this, please,’” Ethan remembers of his first reaction video. “We kind of had a eureka moment: We’ve finally found something that works for everyone.”

Over time, Ethan would earn a reputation as YouTube’s de facto watchdog, attacking anyone he perceived as misogynist, racist, hypocritical, dishonest or self-aggrandizing.

“He’s ripping off these young kids with ‘life lessons’ that are not worth the paper they’re written on,” Ethan says of You Tube start Tai Lopez.

In July 2015, Ethan filmed a takedown of self-help huckster Tai Lopez. You might remember Lopez as the man who plastered YouTube with pre-roll ads in September 2015, promoting himself as keeper of life’s secrets to success. Ethan pointed out that Lopez’s claim of reading one book a day was bullshit — Lopez only reads book summaries — and in a follow-up video, “THE TAI LOPEZ CONSPIRACY,” Ethan revealed that the Beverly Hills mansion Lopez claimed as his own was actually an event space that could be rented off Zillow.

“He’s ripping off these young kids with ‘life lessons’ that are not worth the paper they’re written on,” Ethan says of Lopez.

Ethan’s been particularly disdainful of YouTubers who traffic in prank videos, nearly all of which, he insists, are staged. A popular subset of prank videos involves white people going into poor black communities and performing on-camera “pranks” such as pulling up the waistbands of people sagging their pants or reaching into strangers’ pockets. Many of these videos end with the prankster screaming “It was a prank!” while getting his ass kicked by the guy who understandably assumed he was being pick-pocketed. They’re not so much pranks as they are baiting strangers into violence, thus pandering to viewers’ racist sentiments.

“Of course they got their ass beat,” Ethan says. “It’s just racist harassment of minorities. But when you read the comments it’s like,Fuck black people. Black people are monkeys. It’s fucked up.”

By the summer of 2015, h3h3 had ballooned to 100,000 subscribers. It had been a year since Ethan quit his job to do h3h3 full-time, and the Kleins were doing so well that they decided to launch a second channel, the aptly titled Ethan and Hila.

But a legal battle threatened to derail their burgeoning operation. H3h3’s most popular video by August 2015 was “Kissing Pranks,” a diatribe against YouTube channel PrankInvasion. But YouTube removed it following a copyright complaint from Fullscreen, the company that manages PrankInvasion. The clips used in the h3h3 reaction video fell outside the parameters of fair use, they claimed. Ethan responded with a six-minute video accusing Fullscreen of censorship, prompting his fans to inundate Fullscreen with angry tweets. Fullscreen soon backed off the official complaint.

While the Fullscreen dispute sent a minor shockwave through the YouTube community, it paled in comparison to Ethan’s rivalry with archenemy Antonio Lievano, better known as SoFloAntonio (SoFlo, for short). SoFlo specializes in prank and social experiment videos, his oeuvre including such hits as “Drugging Girls in Public” (in which he pretends to insert a substance into a woman’s water bottle and gets his ass kicked because of it) and “15 Ways to Kiss Any Girl” (six and half minutes of SoFlo tricking women on the street into kissing him).

Ethan struck first, calling SoFlo “probably the worst channel on YouTube” in a reaction video posted last April. The more inflammatory portion accused the YouTuber of being a serial content thief: SoFlo, Ethan revealed, was running a small network of YouTube channels comprised almost entirely of other people’s original material. In a subsequent video, Ethan exposed the intellectual property scam SoFlo was running on Facebook — calling him “the most notorious and prolific freebooter” on Facebook, (“freebooting” being the industry term for content theft). SoFlo had created a network of shell Facebook accounts that he was using to increase distribution for his stolen videos, Ethan alleged.

“I didn’t necessarily want to be the underground, edgy comedian. I wanted to make videos that everyone wanted to watch, not just a couple 15-year-olds across the country.”

As YouTubers are wont to do, SoFlo posted two response videos later that day in his defense. In the first, he claimed he had permission to repost all the supposedly stolen videos, and that allegations of stealing were “hypocritical” coming from someone whose YouTube channel is predicated on satirizing others’ work. His second response video, “H3H3Productions EXPOSED,” was meant to illustrate how Ethan “stole videos” early in his YouTube career and was just a “butthurt” “shit talker.” But SoFlo accidentally incriminated himself in the exposé. Savvy viewers noticed that shots of SoFlo’s own computer screen revealed a web browser plugin used to download videos off YouTube. For many, this was proof of his guilt. SoFlo has since made the video private.

SoFlo threatened to sue h3h3 for defamation, but the damage to his credibility was irrevocable. The YouTube community quickly turned on SoFlo, and he found himself the subject of something perhaps worse than legal action: a mass public shaming. “SoFlo is trying his damndest [sic] to throw everyone else under the bus because people are finally taking a stand against his blatant content theft. H3H3Productions is the light in the darkness,” wrote Reddit user darbymowell.

Ethan left the feud unscathed and emboldened, however. SoFlo eventually dropped his threat to sue, and h3h3 added 300,000 YouTube subscribers amid the controversy.

With more than 1 million subscribers, h3h3 is now in elite company—fewer than 2,000 of the millions of accounts on YouTube have that many.

But success has ushered in a new set of problems. “As we’ve grown, there’s always been a wave of ‘Oh, Ethan and Hila aren’t cool anymore,’” Ethan says. “I didn’t necessarily want to be the underground, edgy comedian. I wanted to make videos that everyone wanted to watch, not just a couple 15-year-olds across the country. … So we had to shed our weirdness to achieve that.”

Ethan and Hila in ‘The Water Project

Ethan now wants to reinvent himself again and leave behind the bitter curmudgeon persona that’s made him internet famous. The reaction videos are “emotionally draining,” he says, and he wants out of the YouTube echo chamber (even though it pays the Kleins’ bills). Like many who reach the top of YouTube’s ranks, their ultimate dream is to have a TV show (the traditional kind).

Their more immediate focus is the Ethan and Hila channel. It’s a marked departure from h3h3, Hila’s shy, sweet personality tempering Ethan and the tone of the show in general. This past October, the Kleins posted a reaction to the first video they ever made — a video about chocolate addiction Hila presented to her art school class in 2011. They lament on their tiny, unkempt apartment back in Israel and how much thinner Ethan was then, with Ethan interrupting Hila’s measured tone with a light-hearted rant about the artistic merits of literal shit.

But abandoning the shtick that’s made him a success has been difficult. The Ethan and Hila channel remains riddled with videos of them mocking other YouTubers. Just last week, Ethan felt compelled to weigh in when YouTuber Leafy picked on TommyNC2010, a YouTuber with autism. Leafy retaliated by releasing a series of unflattering Twitter DMs Ethan had sent him, again ensnaring h3h3 in a cycle of YouTuber-on-YouTuber sniping. In criticizing the tropes on YouTube, Ethan seems to have become a trope of his own.

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL, where he last wrote about how the children’s movie Zootopia explains Trump’s political ascendence.

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