Johnsonbecame obsessed with viral videos, and in 2009 started filming himself riffing on the most outrageous ones he found. Almost three years later, Johnson's homegrown, hilarious, and highly caffeinated video commentary show Equals Three is the most subscribed channel on YouTube, having surpassed 5 million subscribers in November. The 30-year-old internet celeb opened up to Details about the art of going viral, the fine line between funny and f@#&ed-up, and launching two of the biggest memes in recent memory: Antoine Dodson and the "Double Rainbow."
DETAILS: What makes a video go viral? What does it have to have?
Ray William Johnson: Human beings don't want to just enjoy something by themselves. They want to share that emotion—they want everyone around them to enjoy it like they enjoy it or hate it like they hate it. That's what makes a video spread. And also, things that are sort of universally funny: people falling down, cute cats. The Internet is global, and those things translate into other languages.
DETAILS: How do you determine what's funny?
Ray William Johnson: There's two people whose job it is to bring in the videos that are going to be popular or are blowing up. They bring in options and our team watches them as a group. We have a girl who writes down whatever we laugh at. We just chase the laughter. Whatever we laugh at the hardest, that goes up. Also, my grandmother says I'm hilarious.
DETAILS: The show started out with just you in your Columbia University dorm. How did it grow into such a complex a production?
Ray William Johnson: After a while, I was like, "Man, my writing's getting a little stale. I've done 200 episodes, and how many clever ways can you talk about someone getting hit in the crotch?" There's really only a few, and I'd exhausted them all. So I brought in a friend to bounce some ideas off, and it grew from there. I brought in more writers, then a writing team, and then I had to get a producer to manage them. Then that producer brought in a PA, and then we got a sound guy and a camera guy, and then we filmed in a studio. Now we have craft service—like, really good craft service. That's how you know it's a full-on thing.
DETAILS: Who influenced your brand of humor?
Ray William Johnson: I was influenced by a lot of stand-up comedians . . . Eddie Murphy back when he was doing Raw. I watched that so many times as a kid, I can probably still quote the entire thing to this day. Chris Rock. Dave Chappelle. George Carlin. A lot of the guys who were sort of edgy for their time.
DETAILS: There is something that feels very "late-night" about the show.
Ray William Johnson: It's probably just because of my raccoon eyes. We actually shoot early in the morning.
DETAILS: So then where does all that high-octane energy come from?
Ray William Johnson: I drink coffee. But also, enthusiasm translates really well. This is worldwide. We license all those images so we can throw in graphics and all this other stuff because the jokes go really fast, so even if you don't get every single one of them, it's still visually pleasing. And part of that is me and how enthusiastic I am.
DETAILS: Broadcast television has censors, but you don't. Is it hard policing yourself?
Ray William Johnson: Yeah, you should see what gets cut out. A lot of times we're like, "Do we cut that joke out completely, or do we clean it up by saying, 'I kid!' to the cancer patients?" But I do have a lot of rules. There are things I won't show. People setting themselves on fire. Adults fistfighting. Not that my show is so high-class—it gets a little trashy, but I'm not trying to be Jerry Springer. With stuff like people getting in car wrecks or falling off skateboards, if you don't know if they made a recovery or not, I won't review it. I don't want to seem like I'm encouraging people to laugh at someone who just got their hand ripped off.
DETAILS: You must have seen a lot of twisted stuff. Is it impossible to faze you?
Ray William Johnson: No, there's always something else out there with a total lack of human soul. There's always something that I can't believe just happened. But what really shocks me, what I can honestly sit back and ponder for hours in a lot of cases is just, why would you film yourself doing that? Who put you up to that? What are you getting out of that? What the hell?
DETAILS: Do you ever hear from the people featured in the videos you show?
Ray William Johnson: I purposefully make it difficult to contact me. But they're generally appreciative. I mean, they want people to see the video. I grant them that wish. Like, "Here you go, people are looking at it now." Some people were really able to capitalize on it, like Antoine Dodson and the "Double Rainbow" guy, to some extent.
DETAILS: Do you get invested in seeing them succeed?
Ray William Johnson: I can take credit—I blew those guys up. But it's hard to take full credit because, you know, it's not just me—it's everyone at the same time. I just have a bigger platform than most people.
DETAILS: You originally developed the show in New York but produce it out of L.A. now. Where is its true home?
Ray William Johnson: New York, because I've lived there for so long. There's that manic energy and a healthy amount of cynicism. But really, the show sort of lives in my head.