10 Things Brian Likes – #4: Rhett & Link

Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal promotional shots

(Rhett is the tall, goat-bearded one. Link has the glasses and the warbly, Roy Orbison voice.)

Chances are good you’ve at least SEEN these dudes before. Even if you haven’t, you’ve almost certainly witnessed some of their handiwork. Rhett McLauglin and Charles “Link” Neal were two of the first “YouTubers” to rise to prominence and successfully make careers out of what they call “Internetainment.” Best known as a musically-inclined comedy duo, Rhett & Link also dabble in almost every conceivable branch of media production, and make it all look easy. The two best friends are constantly switching hats, from documentarian to animator to instrumentalist to spokesman to talk-show host…and even “wearer of goofy hats.” Seemingly everything they touch turns to gold: Quirky, effervescent, hummable, video gold.

For what it’s worth, they also manage to create “family-friendly” humor suitable for all ages, and yet lacking any of the lameness often associated with “clean comedy.” While I can’t exactly call them “this generation’s Abbott and Costello” (that honor, I believe, goes to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), they may very well be my favorite comedy duo performing today. And music duo. And…maybe human duo. In everything they do they exude a sense of energy, creativity, and wholesome happiness. In the past few years they’ve become two of the internet’s most famous faces, and as far as I’m concerned no one deserves it more.

1. The Early Years

Rhett and Link met in their first grade classroom in Buies Creek, North Carolina, in 1984, and first bonded when they were both held in from recess for writing “profanity” on their desks (ironic, considering their now squeaky-clean image). As punishment, the teacher sentenced them to coloring in a unicorn coloring book…and the rest is history. The two have been creative partners ever since. In high school, they collaborated on stories, songs, and scripts, and as college roommates at NCSU, they decorated their dorm with Lionel Richie album covers…as well as “pictures of us posing like Lionel, next to Lionel posing like Lionel.”

LionelPose

A copy of the album signed by the man himself, and a few more “Mythical Beasts.”

The duo started circulating albums of their humorous songs in the early 2000s, but they would find their true calling on July 24, 2006, when they uploaded their first video to YouTube. They were incredibly prolific even then: They had already uploaded 49 videos before their 50th, uploaded in March of 2007 and simply titled “The Facebook Song,” became their first to go truly viral. On my side of the computer screen, I steered clear of the video at first (the title seemed vague and “meme-y”; the same thought process led me to ignore Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog for the better part of a year). I was finally sucked in in early 2008, when I watched the dubious-sounding “The Cornhole Song” and became an instant Rhett & Link convert. The song, a soulful anthem to beanbag toss and tailgating, featured a catchy tune, clever lyrics, and infectious enthusiasm. I was hooked.

Most sports require all sorts of skills,
But I prefer the ones I can do while consuming meals.
Gotta try it before you knock it,
Try to name another sport to top it,
When you can win with an open cold one in your back pocket.”

So finally, I checked out “The Facebook Song,” which at that time had amassed perhaps a million views (it now has upwards of 13). I wasn’t disappointed. The tune, in addition to being a mildly satirical jab at our culture’s dependency on Facebook even as early as 2007, also showcases Link’s impressive instrumental talent. And the patently funny lyrics abound here too: “Link’s status has changed: He’s playing the recorder!” may be the best segue into a solo in all of modern music.

2. Sponsored, But Not “Selling Out”

With “The Facebook Song” gone viral and “The Cornhole Song” mildly so, Rhett & Link began to attract offers from potential sponsors. In fact, “Cornhole” itself was their first “commercial” video, with a plug at the end for a small company which had sent the duo a custom set of beanbag boards. But now bigger brand names were interested in hitching their wagons to Rhett & Link’s star. I was already an avid follower (both on YouTube and RhettandLink.com) when the pair announced they would be undertaking “The Great American Road-Trip” courtesy of Alka-Seltzer. Throughout the Summer of 2008, Rhett & Link trekked across the country, creating songs and other humorous videos at every stop. Where does the Alka-Seltzer come in? Well, every post was somehow food-themed. To this day, the Great American Road-Trip remains my favorite single “period” in Rhett & Link’s career – a concentrated outpouring of consistently excellent music and hilarious vignettes, including some of the best songs ever written about food (sorry, Weird Al).

I know I’m not normally one of the “music” guys here at Earn This…but “The BBQ Song” (I swear their titles get more interesting eventually) exhibits some remarkable musicianship. Not only can they make us chuckle – these guys can SING! Backed by a bluegrass ensemble, Rhett & Link demonstrate some impressive harmonies, all while delivering a surprisingly informative lesson on barbecue and the many forms it takes throughout the American South. Sure, they got the state outlines a little mixed up (perhaps a joke that no one has gotten yet), and they leave out Virginia yet mention Kentucky (those guys didn’t even secede), but this BBQ ballad still stands as one of the duo’s finest.

I have to include at least one more “Great American Road-Trip” entry here, and mention a couple more. As you may or may not know, I accrued a small amount of local renown last year when the flavor I submitted to Lay’s “Do Us a Flavor” potato chip contest was selected as one of the three finalists. Each winner would be awarded $50,000, while the ultimate flavor’s nominator would be taking home a cool million dollars. Ultimately, someone else was credited with my suggestion (perhaps they got it in earlier), but I take some solace in knowing I had at least one $50,000 idea in my lifetime.

The flavor I nominated was Chicken n’ Waffles. And Rhett & Link were the reason why. Here’s the post that started off the Road-Trip, Rhett & Link’s paean to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, an L.A. restaurant which just might help you “circumvent any unrest.”

Okay, just one more. Check out the best non-song Road-Trip video, a faux-trailer for Past Meets President, Rhett & Link’s D.C. entry. The “movie” sees Abraham Lincoln and Martin Van Buren hurtled through time when they chance to eat some unusual “foodstuffs.” It’s bizarre, but endlessly quotable.

Sponsored or not, Rhett & Link were doing great work. But it was only the beginning.

3. Movin’ On Up

As the months passed, Rhett & Link proved time and again that they were no one-hit wonders. They kept up a near-constant stream of videos, songs, and online broadcasts, and produced content in partnership with companies like Starburst, again without ever seeming to “sell out.” In all they created, that same inimitable brand of humor and charm shone through. Their fame was growing…they were on the rise…they had “finally got a piece of the pie.” In April 2009 they released this very fitting cover of the Jeffersons theme (highlighting another instrument in their repertoire: the nifty “leaf trombone” for iPhone).

4. On The Air

Yet another memorable entry from the Alka-Seltzer Road Trip allowed Rhett & Link to explore one of their more unusual passions: In “Worst Commercial Ever,” the Boston post, they paid tribute to so-bad-they’re-good local commercials. The result can only be described as Lob-awesome!

But Rhett & Link weren’t finished with the “local commercial” art-form. In the following years, they created a string of intentionally offbeat commercials for local businesses, and extended their services to any companies interested. This series, dubbed “I Love Local Commercials,” consistently pulled in high viewcounts. One ad, promoting the Red House furniture store, even stirred up minor controversy for its tagline, “Where black people and white people buy furniture” (watch the ad; any hostility is misplaced).

The series proved so popular that Rhett & Link turned their “local commercial” schtick into a full-blown television series, the Independent Film Channel’s Commercial Kings. You may not have heard of the show, but you’ve probably seen part of it.

You might’ve thought Chuck Testa’s taxidermy ad was an authentic bit of homegrown weirdness.

NOPE! Rhett & Link!

5. Good Mythical Morning

Apparently not busy enough with their usual slate of songs and videos, as well as their burgeoning advertising business, in January 2011 Rhett & Link started a DAILY talk-show-style webseries. The show, entitled “Good Morning, Chia Lincoln,” had Rhett & Link sitting behind a table (the centerpiece of which was, as you might have guessed, an Abraham Lincoln Chia-Head). Each episode ran about ten minutes, and featured the duo discussing a random topic. It ran for 40 episodes, until the Chia on Lincoln’s head died. The title changed accordingly, and the next year our hosts returned with the rechristened “Good Mythical Morning” (around summer of 2010, Rhett & Link officially dubbed their fanbase “the Mythical Beasts”).

The series has continued until the present day, with some minor format shifts separating the “seasons.” Still going strong after FOUR HUNDRED installments, the most miraculous thing about the show is that it manages to stay fresh: Rhett & Link still find things to talk about, and it always comes across as funny, engaging, and good-natured. Even when the topic itself is somewhat stomach-churning:

In the past year, Rhett & Link started yet ANOTHER series, the half-hour “Mythical Show.” More of a variety show than “GMM,” the weekly installments serve to debut Rhett & Link’s newest music videos, and often include appearances by other YouTubers, comedians, and musicians (Taylor Swift even plugged them in one episode).0By this point, it should be apparent that Rhett & Link are prodigiously prolific. In fact, an over-abundance of material may be the pair’s one fault. I couldn’t keep up with everything they put out if I tried…there’s just too much sheer volume. They’ve created well over a thousand videos alone, not to mention their TV programs, podcasts, convention panels, commencement speeches, and cameos in the videos of other prominent YouTubers.

So if reading this post inspires you to dive headlong into Rhett & Link’s library, here’s a word of advice: Don’t try to watch everything. I’m sure there are “Mythical Beasts” out there who have done it, but the prospect is daunting, and the guys are churning out more material all the time, so it’s only going to get harder. Instead, if you really want to show your dedication and cred as a Rhett & Link devotee, I suggest shelling out the money for a pair of “Mythical Shoes,” the custom footwear the duo designed in 2010. Sporting a pair is the most visible hallmark of a TRUE Mythical Beast…even I haven’t ponied up the cash yet. So yes, for all my fawning here, there are people out there even more involved in the Rhett & Link fandom. I leave it to you to decide whether you go that deep.

Black-Flap2

The shoe comes complete with a concealed white-board panel, to enable doodle-based customization.

6. Family Men

One of Rhett & Link’s most endearing qualities is the way they treat viewers like close friends. If you follow the duo any deeper than their main-channel music videos (by watching GMM, say, or the behind-the-scenes “RhettandLink2” channel which preceded it), you begin to get a glimpse into their personal lives. And if anything, the guys are even more charming off-camera than on. True to their prolific nature, both Rhett and Link are fathers to their own respective broods of offspring (their relatively large families befitting their southern origin). Though the kids appear only sporadically in videos, it’s always touching and often intimate when they do.

I first felt this connection in Summer of 2008. I remember sitting in a Williamsburg hotel room, ready to move into my freshman-year college dorm the next day. I booted up my new school laptop to watch the “Rhett&Linkast,” a weekly live broadcast on UStream which foreshadowed GMM‘s later talk-show format. I had been tuning in for maybe a few months at this point, but this time my family watched with me, all huddled around the laptop screen. And it was quite an episode.

It opened with only Link sitting at the table. He announced that Rhett couldn’t make it this particular evening, because he was with his wife at the hospital, where his third child was being born (this was the first mention I had heard of the duo’s wives or children). Link proceeded to crack a few jokes, including showing a Photoshop slideshow which suggested the “new addition” to Rhett’s family was actually an iPhone. He also mused, “Sometimes I don’t think Rhett even ought to HAVE children…but then I guess it’s a little late for that…he’s already got two.”

But then Link actually called Rhett at the hospital. Rhett said his wife and new baby were doing well, and asked for a recap of the episode thus far. “I showed them the pictures of the iPhone dressed up as the baby,” Link reported. “I think they thought it was pretty funny.” Link congratulated Rhett again, and they said their goodbyes.

It was a sweet, unforgettable moment. A moment of genuine connection between two best friends…and we were in on it. Up to this point I had laughed at Rhett & Link’s jokes, whistled their tunes, and appreciated their production values. Now, I realized that I really, honestly, liked these guys. We may never meet, but from the glimpses I’ve seen, Rhett & Link seem like genuinely kind, approachable, good guys whom one would be lucky to have as friends. And they’re not afraid to open up to fans. Here’s a similar moment of connection from roughly a year and a half later. Now, the tables are turned, and Rhett holds the camera as Link introduces his brand-new baby, son Lando Neal:

7. Breathing Music into Anything

Like the remix artists in this series’ first post, Rhett & Link can take just about anything and render it infectiously musical. In “The Buffet Song” (again, I promise the titles get better), another entry from 2008’s Great American Road-Trip, the duo interviewed a number of buffet patrons about their experience. Rhett & Link then took their responses and “songified” them in a style similar to Schmoyoho. Only, you know, without the autotune. This song is so catchy, it will make you want to eat at a buffet, even in spite of everyone “handling everything underneath the glass with their hands.” And remember, “you can go up for seconds, and thirds, and fourths, and no one will bother you…provided the restaurant is still open.”

In 2011, they applied the same process to a particularly excited Harry Potter fan.

Rhett & Link have also proven themselves capable of writing a song on just about any subject. From 2008, here’s “The Water Dispensing Tab Song.”

And in 2012, they crowd-sourced inspiration, asking the Mythical Beasts to suggest “5 Word Song Titles.” From these often random prompts,  Rhett & Link crafted the mega-hits “Rub Some Bacon On It” and “I Am a Thoughtful Guy” (perhaps the most profound and thought-provoking song in their catalogue). It all started with the surreal “Nilla Wafer Top Hat Time”:

Which in turn inspired this surprisingly intense “orchestral” arrangement.

Rhett & Link can even sing nonsense and still provide powerhouse performances. One of the pair’s many innovations is the “Caption Fail” series, in which they perform humorous sketches with tongue-twisting dialogue, upload it, and then do it all again while reading the initial video’s YouTube caption readout as a script. As an extension of this series, they used the same procedure to make Taylor Swift hilarious and One Direction listenable.

Skilled harmonies, passionate belting, and a liberal dose of absurdism. What more could you ask for?

8. Talent, Talent Everywhere!

But Rhett & Link’s talents extend beyond the realm of musical performance and commercial production. In fact, they both worked as engineers before quitting to pursue their YouTube career (a path not advised for all engineers). But these talents extend to other aspects of videography as well: In early 2010, they collaborated with YouTuber MysteryGuitarMan to create “T-Shirt War,” a stop-motion short with a very Looney Tunes vibe. The video racked up millions of views in short order, inspiring McDonald’s and Coca-Cola (the biggest corporations with which Rhett & Link have worked) to fund a sequel.

Rhett & Link have incorporated some unusual effects work into some of their other videos as well. In “Photoshop Your Memories,” they made creative use of jump cuts to prove “your real life may be sub-par / but you can be who you want people to think you are.” For “My Favorite Pillow,” perhaps their most impressive “effects video,” they had to walk backwards and lip-sync to reversed audio to create the proper look when the video footage itself was reversed. If you’re confused, just watch it and see what I mean. If you’re still confused after that (or just curious), check out Rhett & Link’s “making-of” video.

You gotta admit, that is pretty neat. Although in fairness I have to point out that Weird Al did it first.

9. Storming the Big Screen

You may ask, “If Rhett & Link are so great, why haven’t they gone Hollywood yet?” Well, they have lived in L.A. at least part time for a while now (though I believe they are still based in North Carolina). That’s one of the oddities of our internet age: Though “Web 2.0” sites like YouTube theoretically enable people to become famous from anywhere on Earth, the big stars of YouTube still tend to gravitate to Tinseltown to work and collaborate. It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue in the decades to come.

But back to the matter at hand. It’s true we don’t have The Rhett & Link Movie debuting on 2,000 theater screens nationwide. However, the dabbling duo have made their own foray into the realm of feature filmmaking. In 2008 (the same auspicious year as the Road-Trip), they released Looking for Ms. Locklear, a documentary about their search for the first-grade teacher who sat them down at recess all those years ago. Though maybe not one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, Ms. Locklear is full of Rhett & Link’s trademark good-natured humor and charm. It’s engaging, too. Rhett & Link approach their search with a unique proviso: They will gain information on Ms. Locklear’s whereabout solely through interpersonal communication. To put it more simply, I’ll just quote the trailer –

“We’re gonna be exclusively directed by people.”

Over the course of the journey, Rhett & Link teach us a bit about the history of their friendship. But they learn plenty, too. Their search introduces them to the Lumbee, a North Carolina-based Native American tribe of which Ms. Locklear is a descendent (the search takes on a comical complexity when Rhett & Link learn that virtually all Lumbee have the surname “Locklear”). Though the Lumbee have been awarded official tribal recognition by the state, they lack recognition at the federal level.

So of course Rhett and Link accompany the Lumbee ambassadors on their journey to D.C. to argue before congress for federal recognition of the tribe. They’re being directed by the people they meet, remember? The documentary offers an entertaining look at the adventures that can arise if we simply seek connection with others.

And yes, even with that side-trip to Washington, they do eventually find Ms. Locklear.

10. Infectious Happiness

I find it hard to picture Rhett & Link grouchy, or having a bad day. I’m sure it must happen; they’re only human. And yet they seem to approach every project with enthusiasm and a can-do spirit. Through all their various projects, these men  bring humor and music to the world, making it a marginally happier place. That’s a goal I can get behind.

More than that, though, I admire Rhett & Link because they seem to embody a perfect friendship. Whenever we form a close personal friendship with another (especially in our youth), we hope, and often expect, that that friendship will endure and grow, becoming the kind of bond that Rhett & Link share. You know: high school buddies, college roommates, mutual Best Man duties…in short, eternal colleagues and compadres. But few friendships ever do. People tend to drift apart, or fight, or just “lose touch.”

Rhett & Link represent a shining example of that rare, lasting friendship we all wish we could have. They’re lucky to have each other, and I feel lucky that they share their creative spark with the world. I too have a close friend I’ve known and collaborated with since first grade. We haven’t always been “Rhett & Link” close, but we’ve recently started working together on another project. Maybe it won’t turn into the next “T-Shirt War” or “Facebook Song.” But either way, such an enduring friendship is its own reward.

Like any great comedy duo, it’s nearly impossible to imagine Just Rhett, or Just Link. One completes the other. Now let us take a moment and appreciate the fruits of their synergy, as they continue to do their part to spread good feeling “All Night Long.” In the immortal words of Lionel Richie,

“Life is good, wild and sweet,
Let the music play on.”
(play on, play on)

Brian T.

Brian T.

Brian is the host of the TV show Count Gauntly's Horrors from the Public Domain and the creator of Brian Terrill Movie Night. He joined Earn This in 2013.

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