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Here’s a surprise: Steven He isn’t much into comedy.
Why’s that a surprise? Because if you’ve been basically anywhere on the internet in the past few months, you’ve probably seen one of his YouTube or TikTok videos–nearly all of which are comedic and more than 80 of which boast six-figure views counts–or the dozens of memes and reaction GIFs that have spawned from said videos. Even folks who’ve never watched one of his clips and are just now finding out his name have a good chance of knowing him as “the Emotional Damage Guy.”
Being remembered for one super-viral meme can pay off big time…if someone manages to parlay their internet recognizability into professional opportunities.
Luckily, He was not only hoping, but intending to embrace virality.
He is an actor by trade, and despite graduting from Neighborhood Playhouse and securing an impressive roster of roles in over 60 stage productions, in 2020, he was racking up thousands of rejections. This is normal for the industry, he says. But also, he was tired of it.
So, in March of that year, he sat down and strategized. He’d seen the kind of boost having a big presence on YouTube or TikTok could give someone. What if he could do more than be one of thousands submitting his headshot, and one of dozens walking into auditions where (as he puts it) there was always someone better and prettier waiting to snatch the role? What if he could bypass the whole slush pile, bypass casting altogether, and cut straight to getting the attention of producers and studios?
He could pull it off, he figured, with sheer numbers. If studios consider 2 million viewers a hit TV show, surely he could catch their eye by regularly driving 2 million, or 5 million, or 10 million views on social media.
That’s why he got into making comedy videos: They drive views.
In the two years since He first got on TikTok, he’s zeroed in on what people like. Every time a video of his hit (like When “Asian” Is a Difficulty Mode with 33 million views, or Why Ghosts Don’t Haunt Asians with 15 million, or Asian Parent Punishments with 9 million), he picked it apart for what worked. Every time one failed to take off, he dissected what didn’t. He’s spent hundreds of hours studying how TikTok’s and YouTube’s algorithms serve content to viewers, and countless more figuring out how he can consistently serve content those algorithms are likely to like.
His approach has gotten him 4.6 million followers on TikTok and 4.5 million subscribers on YouTube. In January 2022 alone, his YouTube channel brought in 111 million views and 1.2 million new subscribers.
And all that engagement, He says, is generating exactly the sort of attention from studios he was hoping for.
We’ll let him tell you about it below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tubefilter: So just a general start for like someone who’s never seen your videos and has no idea who you are, where are you from and how did you get started in comedy?
Steven He: So I am Chinese Irish. I was born in China and raised in Shanghai. When I was eight years old, I immigrated to Ireland and grew up between Ireland and China. So a total of 11 years in China and seven years in Ireland.
At 11, I decided to become an actor, and I didn’t think about social media at all. I was a traditional actor. I would do stage shows. And I was applying for background rules on TV shows—13 is when I started. At 17, I graduated high school, and I wanted to get a bachelor’s degree in acting, which of course my parents were against.
Yeah, I take the piss out of that. Like all my comedy is about, you know, my childhood emotional drama. Everything I write about is very, very real.
It took me like five years to convince my parents I wanted to be an actor. And then at 17 years old, I went to London to obtain a bachelor’s degree in acting from Regent’s University, and afterwards I worked a good bit in theater. I performed at notable theaters like London’s West End. Marylebone Theatre would be the most prestigious that I performed in, but other theaters, like Park Theatre in London, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, just name a few. In total I’ve done 61 stage performances across plays and musicals from age 13 to now.
Tubefilter: How did you end up coming to the U.S.?
SH: After I finished my bachelor’s degree in London, I worked in the theater scene in London that same year. So I worked there for two seasons. Then I came over to New York, which is where I am now, and I studied in the Neighborhood Playhouse. It’s a conservatory for actors and it is one of the most prestigious on the planet. If you look at like it’s history, especially its alumni, we’ve got Oscar-winning alumni, like Gregory Peck, Diane Keaton, Michael Douglas, Steve McQueen, Robert Duvall…
So in terms of prestigious stuff, it’s right up there with Julliard as one of the big three. Getting accepted was tough, but then graduating was even more tough, because the Playhouse does not graduate about 70% of the students.
When I went, our year began with 72 students, and I think about 32 graduated. Others were actually kicked out. I don’t wanna say that like they were bad, but that’s what it was.
Tubefilter: That’s intense. What makes people drop? What makes them get kicked out?
SH: Well, for the most basic, obvious things: professionalism, you know, show up on time, do your work, do your lines, very basic professionalism. But on top of that is the skillset that we’re learning. Not everyone can execute that. So the level of ability and skill is what determines who gets the badge that says you are a Playhouse alumni, because that such a massive prestige and history to keep up. So they can’t just let anyone graduate if they don’t approve. If they don’t think an actor can go into the industry and carry the name of the Playhouse, then they will not let that actor graduate.
Tubefilter: So obviously you graduated. And what happened after?
SH: Yes! I graduated in 2019, and that is where I entered the industry in New York. I started on my visa stuff—my god, it’s like impossible for an actor with no credits to get an extraordinary ability visa. But I met a very, very good entertainment attorney and she very much performed a miracle there, so that was successful.
I went into the industry auditioned for, well, for the next three years, from 2019 to 2022. And I’ve landed a few traditional things, like one episode in Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, from Comedy Central. I also landed a lead role in the feature film called Dinosaur World in mainland China, which actually did quite well. It was number one on iQiyi’s trend board; iQiyi is China’s biggest online streaming platform, so it’s like Netflix, basically.
What I just landed, my most recent role, is Groundbreaking. It’s a TV series. The first trailer has just dropped.
So that’s my traditional, but it’s relatively quiet, and like every other actor out there…I dunno what the numbers are, but I know I’ve been rejected over 3,000 times, just in the last three years.
Tubefilter: Sorry, 3,000?
SH: Yeah. True. A hundred percent true. Every morning I wake up and submit for 20 things. One will get back to me asking for an audition. And I’ve had agents too, so my agents also did that and they did a lot of work for me. But that’s what it was like, 3,000+ rejections, and not much progression. I did land these things and they’re cool, but they don’t progress you. You’d have to land a bigger role and stuff like that to progress.
So in 2019, mid-2019, I got on social media.
Tubefilter: What pushed you to do that? What were your goals with it?
SH: I come at it from a very different perspective. I don’t believe anyone else shares the same goal or plan that I do for social media.
The reason I began was I was studying my industry. I was studying, basically, how I can put myself ahead of other people? Because every audition you go into, there’s a hundred people prettier than you, more suitable for the role than you, and play the piano better than you. So I wanted to find something that would incentivize people to cast me and that kind of skipped right past the casting director and went to the producer and the studio.
I made a prediction that if I can bring viewers, then that would give the producers in a studio an incentive to cast me. If I can walk into a casting room and say, “Cast me, and I will bring you 3 million viewers,” that’s valuable to NBC, to CBS. Because, for example, on CW, a 2-million-view show is a hit. I can do 2 million views in an hour.
And I thought, Okay, right, here’s what I’m gonna do. If I can build a following, that may or may not help me. If it does, that’s fantastic. If it doesn’t, that’s cool, I’ll end it; I was wrong, but that’s not a bother at all.
So I went off and I started building my first video around March 2020. In March 2020, I posted my very first video on TikTok. I had to spend a couple hundred hours studying the algorithm, which, yeah, anyone successful on YouTube, you must be a master in the algorithm.
At the time, I kind of saw a massive advantage in the organic reach of TikTok. It was early 2020, so we’re still talking about that time when it was so fire and Charli D’Amelio was at like 50 mil. So everyone was coming up, and that’s why I started creating TikTok first. I made sketch videos, comedy—which is strange, because I’m not at all a comedian. I’ve been a dramatic actor since I was 13. I never studied comedy.
Tubefilter: Wait, really? We would never have guessed that at all. Why take the comedy angle if that’s not what you’re interested in for traditional acting?
SH: It was because I came from a different direction. I didn’t come from the artist direction like oh, here’s what I want to express. I like drama and cool assassin shows. I didn’t come from that at all. I came from the opposite angle of what can I offer you?
So rather than going, here’s what I like, here’s what I wanna show, here’s my story, I went, what would you like to see? How can I deliver to you the value that you want? So after studying TikTok for a couple hundred hours, it was pretty clear that the videos that do well and the videos that people enjoy are comedy. They would much rather have a laugh than sit there for an hour for a dramatic show.
And I understood that! I went, that’s fine. So I decided to go to comedy and started making smaller sketch videos and maybe even single-joke videos that were like 10 seconds long on TikTok. And that gradually progressed to about a whole minute.
When I hit one million followers on TikTok, which was way easier than one million subscribers on YouTube, that’s when I made the switch.
Tubefilter: What was your strategy there?
SH: This was pretty dumb. I just created a YouTube channel. I should have created it at the very beginning, but at one million on TikTok, I created a YouTube channel, then spent like a week trying to convert everybody and wasn’t so successful. I managed to convert like 50,000 subscribers of a million. That’s a terrible conversion.
But I kind of let TikTok be the second priority and YouTube be the first. So I started creating videos for YouTube, specifically long-form, horizontal, and aimed to maximize on YouTube’s algorithm rather than TikTok’s algorithm.
From then on TikTok became like, I’ll make everything for YouTube, and then I’ll cut snippets of it off or I’ll change it into vertical and post it on TikTok. I wasn’t really spending time on TikTok.
Tubefilter: How did that switch change things for you creatively? How did you end up going from one-joke TikToks to longer comedy YouTube videos?
SH: This is the exciting part on YouTube. By the time I was 80 or 90 videos in, my sketches have gone from like 10 seconds to slightly longer—one minute, one and a half minutes, or even two minutes sometimes. Those were my first comedy sketches on YouTube. I tried other things as well, like reactionary videos, gaming videos, um, and it didn’t work. They didn’t really work.
So I remember making this huge decision. I think this actually might bring value to other creators, because this decision…I would give credit to it being one of the key reasons I grew to 3 million just two years. The decision was, when I sat down, I looked at all the algorithm metrics with the most emphasis on retention rate and clickthrough rate in particular.
I realized that when you are on YouTube and when you are on the suggestion page, if you’re on PC, that’s like 20 videos. If you’re on phone, that’s a couple videos every frame. I realized if a video is less commitment to watch, it gets clicked on more. So if it’s like a 20-minute science video, you’re like, “Ah, I don’t have 20 minutes to sit down.” But if it’s a 15-second single joke or if it’s a 15-second, what Tom Holland told someone on set of whatever, it’s a lot easier to click on and gets much more clicks.
Taking that, I made a gamble of consistently and exclusively posting short sketches at the time. They must have been around two minutes. I knew that will hit my watch time, obviously, because even if it’s a hundred percent retention, that’s still only two minutes’ watch time. It was a big decision for me, and I decided to take that gamble and sacrifice watch time.
So I did that. And I kept improving every single time with every aspect I could. So filmmaking, jokes, writing, acting, costume, set, camera, lighting, even design. And on the algorithm part, from the engagement to incentivization and all that, and retention tactics like editing tactics.
I kept improving every single time, and by video number 220, all of a sudden the entire channel just picked up. That was roughly like 10 videos into the Asian Dad character. I created that character and I didn’t think much of it because, I mean, I had done 220 videos. I don’t even remember how many characters I’d done—they’re all just attempts to see what hits, and the one out of hundreds that hit was Asian Dad. And since I’m not there to tell my story, I’m there to deliver to you what you want, I gave the audience what they wanted, and now I’ve made bloody 56 sketches of Asian Dad.
Tubefilter: How did things progress from there?
SH: At video 220 things started to pick up. I think that was four or five Asian Dad videos in, and I went, Wow. I think I have a successful character finally, after a hundred failed characters.
Then I started writing comedy about this Asian immigrant culture. There’s a lot in it that’s relatable, which actually came as a shock. Now I plan for it, but in the beginning, when I would write about my mom whooping my ass with a slipper, I didn’t expect many other cultures to relate, but then everyone from like Hispanic grandmothers to Greek teenagers, everyone started saying in the comments, “Bro, that’s what mom does!” It became clear to me that this thing that kind of seems like it’s exclusive to our culture is actually relatable to just about everybody.
So that was awesome. And I still take advantage of that illusion of it being about Asian culture, but at the same time being about everybody. I’ll write videos that are called “Why Asians pack so much.” It’s not “Why Mexicans pack so much,” because I’m not Mexican, so I can’t speak for them, but every time now when I write jokes, I make sure that if I can, the jokes are not just limited to an Asian culture, but relatable to as many cultures as possible.
The video that popped off, number 220, it was called “When your parents are going through your room,” something like that.
Tubefilter: Well that’s relatable.
SH: Yeah, totally. And from then on, I remember the first week when things got viral, and funnily enough, it’s not just one video. I think this is unique to my channel—when it popped, like 20 videos popped. I went from maybe 5K views a day to a couple hundred thousand views a day because 20 videos happened to be fire at the same time.
That was the week when everyone was approaching. I had so many studios, including ViralNation, the studio I work with now. And I’ll say they’re the best in the field. They’re the absolute best, second to none.
At the time, though, I didn’t understand much of this. I had never earned any money before on YouTube. To me, YouTube was a tactic to advance my acting career, but all of this stuff came of it, and I was kind of scared because all of these big companies were coming to me saying, “Oh, we’ll do this for you, but we’ll take 20% of your revenue.” So many of them seemed like snake oil salesmen.
Eventually, after quite a while, Viral Nation came along, and they were the people that I trusted, and I trusted the right people. Absolutely fantastic.
So that was how creation became different, because instead of making my content, now I had to answer like seven meetings a week. And I had to read this contract and read that contract. I signed this and went here, talked to people there, and all of a sudden content creation went from making videos to like 20% making videos, 80% dealing with business stuff.
Tubefilter: How much money were you making in those early days? Did you get a big check out of nowhere or did it trickle up?
SH: When the channel went hype, at the end of that month, I received a check for the previous one, which was not quite a thousand dollars. It was under a thousand dollars. And I used that thousand dollars to fund my first camera.
Yes, you heard me correctly, I didn’t have a camera and I made 220 videos.
I bought that first camera, and I’ll give a shout-out: the Sony A6400. This guy shot so many things for me. It’s one of the most popular YouTube cameras. That’s my first paycheck.
Then sponsorships came in. I had earlier sponsors on TikTok, but that was like, that was nothing. It was like a hundred bucks. My first thing on YouTube, an integration, was I think about $5,000. And to me at the time, it was mindblowing. I couldn’t believe I made $5,000 on YouTube. I didn’t have an idea of the scale of modernization on YouTube.
So it went from $5,000 a sponsorship to eventually $20,000 a sponsorship. And now that I’m doing 150 million views a month, it’s gotten a lot more than that.
Tubefilter: So on our database, we’re showing your channel distinctly started picking up in December of 2021. You had spikes in February 2021, and since September you just kept going up every single month.
SH: Yeah, I noticed these massive ups and downs, you probably see them on your graph, but you see at least twice or three times where I went up. I’d have a hype video, a really good-performing day would be like 1.5 million views. And that was amazing to me. Twice that happened, and I held for about a week, and then it dropped right down. A 90% drop from one and a half million to about 100K a
I couldn’t tell you how that happened. I can only say I put out content that I hope will hit what the audience wants. So this kind of up and down kinda makes sense to me. I’ll keep improving. I’ll keep doing my best. And of course I’ll make some videos, and they’ll do terrible. Then one video will be a hit, which is awesome, but I’ll keep working.
Tubefilter: What video hit and prompted the spike from September to now?
SH: I made the first Difficulty Mode video back in August. At the same time, I was shooting a series in Ireland, and I was at home. So my mom shot that for me.
That’s a nice piece of trivia to add: My mom shot the famous Emotional Damage. She was operating the camera for that shot.
But yeah, nine out of ten times it doesn’t work, but this one did work. The video was hype. It was good. It was very funny. And it a lot of views for like September, October, November, for about three months, it got a lot of views. That was all good.
Then Emotional Damage became a thing and things went nuts. When everyone started posting the meme, the views, it just made my views look like peanuts, you know? No one can go up against the influence of millions of people on the internet. Two billion views in 2 months—and that’s on TikTok alone, so we’re not including YouTube, Reddit, everything else, Snapchat. So that’s when that massive spike happened, and we went from 30 or 40 million views per month to 130 million in January.
Tubefilter: So what’s next for you? How are things going with studios?
SH: After Emotional Damage, the same thing happened that happened with video 220. Everyone started reaching out, and this time traditional took interest. So I took advantage of that and I stepped into the position of a producer and I’ve crafted a TV production, which i a sketch show. It’s actually very similar to what I already do, but I’m going the traditional route. So I’ve teamed up with a massive producer named Ken Mok, he’s the producer behind America’s Next Top Model and also produced Invincible with Disney and Joy with Jennifer Lawrence, a $60 million film. He’s been doing this for 30 years and he knows what he’s doing, and I’m very glad he and I teamed up to craft this show.
We’re currently going shopping, shopping around networks. So that’s very exciting, to take advantage of the Emotional Damage meme hype, and a lot of good cane into the scene, which was interesting. As an actor, I’m used to getting rejected 3,000 times, so when they reached out to me, I was like, “Oh my god.” Tye flipped the table and I didn’t expect this at all. They were like, “How can we help you? We’ll connect you with three of our agents and we’ll see what works for you! You know, just feel it out, no pressure!”
I could not believe it. That’s not at all what I’m used to. I’m used to “Thank you, next. Thank you, next.” So that was great. That was great.
In the traditional, things are picking up, and I’m stepping into the producer role in my own schedule, but also other productions as well. Things will get pretty hype. The traditional finally, after two and a half years, I’ll finally be able to leverage what I’ve earned on social media and leverage it back into traditional, and finally do what I initially wanted, which was to go to Disney and say, “Cast me and I will bring you three million viewers.”
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