Top to Bottom: Danny Gonzalez, ItzKeisha, Smokey Glow, Cherita Explains It All, Drew Gooden, Tiffany Ferguson.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by Youtube
YouTube fame often doesn’t occur until, very suddenly, it does. A creator can spend years drifting around the abyssal undercurrent of the platform, raking in 50 views at a time, until suddenly the fickle algorithm grabs hold of their channel and decides it’s time for a video to go viral. Commentary YouTubers — both respected and feared across the platform, depending on whom you ask — put the genre on the map with college-essay-style monologues offering opinions on the controversies of their peers. Their videos would delineate distinct before-and-after moments, gather evidence of bad behavior, and make judgment calls, with the creators often serving as the closest thing to that world’s moral compass. One week they were totally anonymous and broke, the next they were ranting about Logan Paul to a few million people.
We spoke to nine YouTubers about the breakout moments that put them on the drama economy map — the videos that got them on the Trending page, and when they realized there was no going back.
Current View Count: 9,506,572
My first viral video was actually back in 2007, when I did a dance from High School Musical, but I started YouTube in earnest in 2017. In the quest for clout, I had a lot of things to say about the tech industry. I went to school for computer science, and I worked in Silicon Valley, so I could share those experiences while making jokes. But that felt restrictive and like I couldn’t branch out of that audience. But I had a eureka moment when I watched Drew Gooden’s videos. I was like, Oh, this is just stand-up. I can do this. I started packaging my tech videos as commentary videos, with the goal of eventually swapping out the tech for whatever I wanted to talk about.
At the time, I was making like 20,000 to 30,000 views. The way I blew up is kind of funny. There’s a YouTube channel called 5-Minute Crafts, which had 15 million subscribers and is full of these weird life hacks. I made a video about it called “The Worst Life Hacks I’ve Ever Seen,” and it completely bombed. I only had like 9,000 views on it three weeks after uploading it. I was like, Okay, I’m never making a commentary video again. But then, six months later, Cody Ko put up a video about 5-Minute Crafts. That was cool; it was nice to be validated like that. But how could I communicate to people that I’ve also made a video on that topic? I changed the title of my old video to “5-Minute Crafts Is the Worst Channel on YouTube.” All of a sudden, I started to see the views pick up — and then it just kept going. The spikes in my analytics were a vertical line upward. I went from 40,000 subscribers to 200,000 subscribers.
I talk to creators about this: If a video underperforms, you might think that you did something wrong. That can be true in a sense, but the whole time I was down on myself after the 5-Minute Crafts video initially bombed, I had already made the content that was going to go super-viral. If you build it, they will come.
Current View Count: 8,830,091
I knew I wasn’t going to be a professional Viner, so I always wanted to transition into more longform content on YouTube. So when Vine shut down, it was probably a good thing for me. Everything I worked for was now gone, and I had to start again. It forced me to get out of my complacency. My first idea after jumping onto YouTube was to make longer sketches where I play all the characters — basically just an extended Vine. But then I found myself thinking, What do I like watching? And I liked watching people doing commentary videos and reacting to all the strange stuff on YouTube. So I started doing that, and after a while, I got better at it.
Without a doubt, the video that blew up my channel was when I went to a Jake Paul concert. My other videos were doing like 100,000 views, and that one did 4 million in a month. Jake Paul is a fixture on commentary channels, but I think I was one of the only people to go see him live rather than just complain about him online. It was like walking into a different world. Someone like Jake Paul has all these young fans around the world, obviously. But seeing them all in the same place, where they’re all screaming their heads off, was so bizarre. The show was at the House of Blues, where I’ve been at to see actual bands play. And now this dork from YouTube is rapping onstage.
What I liked most about the show was that it wasn’t only Jake Paul. He had his whole posse there performing songs or doing these weird sketches. One of them, Sunny Malouf, has a dad who’s this famous dentist. And halfway through the video, I did a deep dive into their $40 million house. Like what kind of teeth is he fixing? That’s my favorite part of any of my videos: doing the research and finding these weird details to throw in.
Jake Paul has now become the literal embodiment of someone who wants to entertain at all costs, even if it means getting your ass beat by a professional boxer. I’d rather him do that than him making a name for himself by harassing his neighbors. As long as he’s on the receiving end of punishment, go for it.
It’s funny — when you start out on YouTube, it’s easy to make fun of anyone. But I’ve become more cognizant as I’ve grown. With a big platform, I can’t go after some small YouTuber; it’ll just look like I’m bullying them. But as long as I’m confident in the criticism that I have, I don’t really care if I make someone mad.
Current View Count: 12,088,138
I started out making videos on Vine, and when that platform died out, I went through a phase of wondering what I should do with my life. I went to college for my degree in computational media, and there was part of me that thought I should just try to find some job in that field. But I started experimenting on YouTube, working with a number of different genres to see what stuck. And eventually I settled on commentary. I was sort of naïve about it. I was like, Yeah, I can probably record 15-minute videos after only being successful making six-second videos. But when I look back on my early YouTube career now, I’m like, Oh my God, I hate how I talk in these. I’m always looking at the monitor, not the camera. There were so many things wrong with what I was doing.
I had a number of decently successful commentary videos, but it wasn’t until 2018, when I put up one called “Trying Troom Troom’s Awful Pranks.” Troom Troom is basically a life-hacking crafting channel. They would post these step-by-step tutorials on how to pull these ridiculous pranks on your friends, and each of them get millions of views. I decided I was actually going to try them on my family and my wife.
The funny thing about those pranks is that they seem to intentionally want to get the people around you to question your sanity. One of the pranks was to grind up graham crackers in order to make fake sand and then you just start eating sand in front of someone so that they think you’re crazy. Another one was making a fake phone case out of hard sugar and then eating it in front of someone. Like, the person you’re pranking doesn’t end up getting embarrassed by these.
That video didn’t even take off for a few weeks after I uploaded it. But then the algorithm got a hold of it. All of a sudden, I was getting like 17,000 new subs a day. By the end, I had 1.2 million subscribers. I had just doubled my metrics over the course of a month.
Now that I’ve got a lot more subscribers, I know it’s more likely that whoever I’m making a video about might see it. But also I think I empathize more with larger creators now. When I was smaller, I’d look at them like they were untouchable. But now I’m like, I’ve grown a lot in subscribers, but I’m still a person with feelings. I think my older videos had a little less of a playful tone. When I make a video now, I hope that the person I’m talking about can laugh at them too.
Current View Count: 83,387
I started on YouTube because I was interested in makeup. So I started watching a bunch of makeup tutorials, and that led me to finding some drama channels that talk about problematic beauty gurus. As I got deeper into it, I found that I also had opinions about those things. Why not turn on the camera and make some friends?
One of the videos that blew up my channel was about a guy named John Kuckian. He had a drama channel with 350,000 subscribers, and he tried to launch a cosmetics line. It was a joke. He was trying to promote these lipsticks that he said were sourced in Italy, when they were really from China. I was a fan of him, and I watched him change into this liar. But none of my friends care about YouTube drama, and my fiancé doesn’t care about YouTube drama, so why not talk to the internet about it?
The first day, the video got 100 views. I was at my friend’s house and was like, “This is crazy!” Because 100 views was a lot for me. It kept growing and growing from there. I went from 12 subscribers to 50,000 subscribers overnight.
I never started YouTube to be a YouTuber. I never thought that this would be my job or that I’d be famous. All of a sudden, I was getting followed by other, bigger drama channels, and I heard from people who wanted to hear more from me on certain topics. Nobody cared about my opinion before, and now 50,000 people wanted to hear more from me. It was exciting but also very surreal.
Current View Count: 4,557,909
I started on YouTube when I was 11, making LEGO stop-motion animation. I did that through high school and middle school, and once I got to college, I knew I probably wasn’t going to have time to animate. But I still wanted to make videos, and I looked at content I liked at the time, which was a lot of commentary channels. I decided to start doing that.
In November 2018, I made a video about this guy called TheBudday on TikTok who was under a lot of scrutiny for suspicious, pedophiliac behavior. I went through all the allegations. There were screenshots of what he apparently sent these underage girls, videos on his TikTok where he was duetting with people who were clearly underage. It was pretty questionable. I DM’d some of his alleged victims for more evidence. There was no hard proof, but I wanted to let people know to be wary of this guy.
That video took off overnight. It racked up 4 million views in the span of three weeks. It’s a balance when you talk about more serious topics like this. You don’t want to be flippant or callous, but you also want to make sure the video is entertaining for the viewer. When you move into allegations like that — that involve real victims and when there are reputations on the line — I try to just present everything as it currently stands, and to not mess around with jokes.
Current View Count: 3,213,588
I’ve been watching YouTube for so long. I felt like I was always going to try and make videos at some point. Not many of my friends follow YouTube, so I would always just see things on the site and be like, Oh my gosh, that’s so crazy, and I have no one to talk about it with. When you turn on any TV entertainment news, they’re not going to be talking about YouTube personalities; most of them don’t even know who they are. So when I discovered commentary channels, it seemed like an opportunity to discuss whatever was on my mind. That’s why I started my own.
At first, I got around 1,000 views a video, which made me think I could potentially do this as a job. But I think when I really started to see the subscribers roll in was when I was talking about Olivia Jade, Lori Loughlin’s daughter, and the college-admissions scandal. I loved Olivia Jade’s content, and I really wanted to go to USC, so I was completely shocked that she cheated her way in. I made a compilation video, after the fact, of all the times where Jade was acting superrich. And, of course, that became my most-liked video of all time. That whole situation really blew up my channel.
I think everyone was just frustrated by her. It would’ve been my dream to go to that school. I didn’t get in, and to see her say things like she’s only on campus for the parties was just a slap in the face for a lot of people. I felt really passionate about it — which, again, is a bummer, because I thought her content was really great.
Personally, though, that video was really exciting. All of a sudden, I had this audience, and I started making videos constantly. Before, I wasn’t on a strict schedule, but afterward I was like, I need to have a new video out every week.
Current View Count: 446,956
I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. Even now, I don’t hang out with a lot of people, so, for me, making a YouTube channel was about connecting outside of my small group. I started in 2016, mostly talking about fashion and beauty. But in 2017, I switched over to doing more commentary stuff, which tended to get more views than the other things I was uploading. I make music as well, so building an audience helps me with that career, too. I’ve always had high hopes for myself.
The video that blew up my channel came out in 2019. It was called “Where Is the DIVERSITY on YouTube?” I was really hesitant to put it up. I had spoken about race before but wasn’t super-vocal. I was asking my brother, “Should I put this up? Should I not?” Of course, when it went up, it got more views than anything I had done within the first hour. I focused on this company that had set up a trip with 30 teenage YouTubers — and only one or two Black girls. Those girls were talking about how they felt uncomfortable on those trips and how they didn’t have decent enough sleeping arrangements compared to the other people on the trip. As a Black viewer, that made me uncomfortable. That’s why I wanted to speak on it.
It was interesting. When I first recorded the video, I was so confident with everything I was saying. I was like, I can’t wait to edit this. But when I started editing it, I got nervous. I thought that people didn’t know me for talking about racial injustice. It was just tea videos and Shane Dawson–Jeffree Star commentary. I didn’t know who my audience was at the time. After the video blew up, it felt weird to go back to my usual content. But also I know I’m not the most educated on every topic. My audience didn’t pester me too much, though. They wanted me to make whatever was going to make me happy. That’s what I like about my audience: They seem to be mature.
Current View Count: 3,504,038
I’ve been making YouTube videos since I was 11 years old. Back then, I was making vlogs, sketches, and personal videos. When I entered college, in a media-studies program, I was having a bit of a YouTube identity crisis. By 2017, I hadn’t even hit 100,000 subscribers yet, and I had a lot of friends who hit a million in a year. I didn’t know what direction I wanted my channel to go in, and I didn’t want to talk about myself anymore. That’s when I discovered that my audience liked my commentary, and I learned I could make videos where I just talk about YouTube and social media and whatever other topics I was interested in.
My top-viewed video is called “You’re Not Relatable Anymore.” I was basically saying that as YouTubers become rich and famous, they become increasingly disconnected from the audience. I compared YouTubers that try to stay more down-to-earth in terms of their image with the ones that do a complete one-eighty and start buying cars and a big mansion. How does Jenna Marbles still seem so relatable when others are so different after they hit it big?
Obviously, I always wished that my channel would blow up, but even on a small scale, when a video gets more views than usual, it can be scary. You don’t know what the response is going to be or how long it will last. I try to not make my videos drama-focused, but I use internet drama as a way to talk about a larger topic. There was a transition for me being seen as a small YouTuber and then, within a month or two, I hit 500,000 subscribers. I’m the same person, but I know people would suddenly see me as a big YouTuber. I started to realize that the people I talk about, or the people I put in my thumbnails, might see what I’m saying about them. And that makes you second-guess yourself. It’s a fine line to walk.
I’ve been thinking about my own relatability lately. I’m hoping my channel hits a million subscribers. That milestone is a symbol. Psychologically, the pressure grows so much when you get there. A lot of popular YouTubers stop posting once they hit that threshold, and I have my theories about that. I just want my content to be good. I think I’m still a pretty normal person. I’m not about to go join the Hype House.
Current View Count: 63,172
I was a gymnast growing up, so my channel was initially focused on cheerleading. But then I found YouTube drama, and I got interested in that. I ended up starting my own channel dedicated to commentary, and I got really sucked into that world.
One of the videos that put me on the map was when I talked about Angelika Oles and Smokey Glow. Smokey Glow did a collaboration with Angelika, who has said some racist things in the past. When Smokey did the collab with Angelika, a lot of people were confused, because Smokey is very big about social justice and being an ally. She ended up deleting the video. I felt like both of them were wrong, and I talked about each of them equally. For some reason, people really liked what I had to say, and I gained 5,000 subscribers within a month, which was really weird for me.
I think I gave the conversation a little more nuance. A lot of people were praising Smokey, and I know she does a lot for marginalized groups, but she rarely collabs with people from those groups. I critiqued her on that. The problem with commentary channels is they go off of their first gut reaction. I used to be that person. I would get outraged before seeing all sides of the story. Some people are easier to talk about than others. And commentary channels go after what’s easy: “Someone said something racist. Let’s talk about that.”