He’s one of the world’s funniest and smartest YouTubers – and in 2017, he’s returning to the UK! Here’s what happened when we met Nathan Zed at last year’s Summer in the City…
It’s the final day of Summer in the City 2016, and Nathan Zed’s first trip to the UK is coming to an end. “There are a lot of people that never thought they were going to meet me, because they live on a completely different continent,” he says. “That’s what I’ve gotten a lot – a lot of people have said those exact words – so it’s been great to be able to chill and talk to a lot of people that appreciate what I do. And in turn, I can be more motivated to remember why I do it.”
Nathan is already “friends with a lot of the British community, but I just want to see them more often. Savannah Brown, Bertie Gilbert – they’re all living out here. Dodie, Evan…” He laughs. “See, I don’t want to leave people out, that’s the thing! Tim H. Jack and Dean. Just everybody’s been really, really nice to me.”
He’s impressed by the different types of content the UK community produces. “Everyone here is extremely funny and talented in more ways than… like, everyone does music, short film, acting, directing, something like that,” he observes. “Or they’re just really great at vlogging.”
Nathan’s interested in those other areas himself, but “the problem is, right now, I have no people around me. I do everything alone, because there are no other YouTubers in my area, so I have to film and edit and write everything alone. If I was in Los Angeles or something, or if I was around here, I would definitely [do that]. I love working with people. Writing something with somebody, and making it funnier, bouncing ideas off each other – that’s definitely something I’m into.”
Nathan’s been uploading to YouTube as TheThirdPew since 2011. His videos are highly-concentrated cascades of razor-sharp jokes, from his shaggy-dog case for Ted Cruz being the Zodiac Killer to his brilliantly incoherent review of Batman v Superman. But often, the comedy has something serious to say.
For example, one recent upload began and ended with an ironic deconstruction of a Jacob Sartorius music video (“This is almost exactly like that one Drake lyric, but since I know Jacob’s all about the artistry, I’m going to assume that Drake travelled forward in time…”), but in between, Nathan made passionate points about childhood fame, and the difference between popularity and talent. Similarly, What Happened To Pranks?? was a comic treatise on pranking videos (“The origin of ‘the prank’ can be traced back to about 2000 years ago, when Judas ‘pranked’ Jesus by betraying him, which led to his crucifixion…”) which also made smart arguments about the genre having crossed the line, and its frequent racism (“You’re making money by specifically framing the video to make it look like black people are savages… when they were just retaliating after you harassed them”).
“If I want to be labelled as anything, it’s a comedian,” Nathan tells us. “It’s hard for me not to get boxed into other things that have to do with social issues, and stuff like that.”
If they aren’t his priority, how and why did those issues become part of his work? “First of all, there weren’t many – there are more now, thankfully – but there weren’t many YouTubers period taking about social issues that had a lot of subscribers,” he says. “So I was just doing it because I needed to get it out of my head – like, I had no outlet. And also, I felt like I had a… I wouldn’t say ‘responsibility’, but I felt like I needed to talk about these things because there’s nobody else doing it.
“It’s the whole ‘great power, great responsibility’ thing,” he continues. “If I know what’s going on, and I have the opportunity to educate other people, I definitely want to do that. But that’s not my passion. I don’t want to be an activist as opposed to a comedian, because I’ve always wanted to entertain people, as opposed to educate people. And what I’m doing right now, just being able to merge the two, is a really cool thing. So that’s definitely what my thing is, I guess.”
The comedy will always comes first, he explains, “because that’s what people come and stay for. But when they come for funny and they get a message anyways, they get something to think about after the video’s over. Sometimes, you can watch a video, and it’s kind of funny, but that’s like the end of it. But if you get a message that you didn’t think about something before, that really sticks with you.
“It’s not easy,” he emphasises. “I’m still trying to figure out how I can balance the two. And that’s why I’m working on my craft right now.”
But occasionally, jokes have taken a back seat. For example, in 2014 – when he was aged 17 (“I was just a child!” he says now) – he posted YouTubers and Sexual Abuse, a video in which he responded with powerful, inspiring anger to the alleged sexual abuse perpetrated by other YouTubers.
One of its aims was to “prepare [viewers] for how to react when more of this stuff comes out”, and with over 900,000 views to date, it further cemented him as an insightful role model to a huge young audience. We wonder if there’s anyone on YouTube that Nathan looks to for the same kind of wisdom he offers his viewers.
“I think I’m just, like, a logical person,” he replies. “When it comes to things like that, things aren’t really that difficult to understand if you lay it out and look at the layers. I saw – and it pissed me off – there were a lot of people that were defending those YouTubers [that had been accused of abuse]. They would say a certain thing that I could have replied to with the argument for why it’s wrong to defend those YouTubers even after what they did, and I gathered all those things, and I put it in a video form so I wouldn’t have to reply to every comment and every tweet.
“But I just didn’t even come close to answering that question!” he laughs. “You asked me who I look to? There’s very smart YouTubers like the Vlogbrothers [John and Hank Green] – those are two very logical, very articulate, very smart people. Ann [McGavin], who you mentioned [for her own video on abuse]. Franchesca Ramsey – chescaleigh – she’s great. So there’s just a bunch of YouTubers like that. And I’m a young one, so it’s good for me to speak to other kids my age, as opposed to… If they’re watching an adult speak [the Greens and Ramsey are in their thirties], it’s not on the same level of a connection. So I’m glad I’m here, doing my thing, I guess.
“I would have taken a different approach now,” he says, looking back at that video, “just because I try to not speak over anybody unless I’m in that position – and that video was about rape and sexual abuse victims. I think I handled it well in that case, but I really didn’t want to mess up, so I did script a lot of it. For the more comedic ones, the less serious topics, I have a flowchart, because I try to make the vlog flow well and not get boring at any time. That’s what I’m most afraid of. But the ones that are serious are just, like, straight script.”
Earlier in the day, Nathan has appeared on Summer in the City’s panel on Ethnicity and Diversity. In the past, that would have demanded preparation, too. “When I talk about racial issues for a panel or something… Now, I’m more comfortable with it, but before, I woke up at like 4am, and I was writing things down – my answers to the questions – because I was like, ‘If you say something that’s a little bit off, that’s the one thing people latch onto’.”
What does Nathan think are his biggest strengths? “I think I’m very good at talking,” he offers. “And I think people like listening to me, for some reason?”
That was demonstrated by the phenomenal Watch This Video If I Die (Or Till That Happens), in which he “just sat down and started talking about death and police brutality and shootings, and stuff like that.
“I didn’t script it at all,” he reveals. “I was just talking. I spent like an hour on the video, total, as opposed to a video where I have a whole sketch that literally took me a week to do. And then it got more views in like a day than the other one in like two weeks.
“So people really, I think, connect with me. And I want to take advantage of that. Not ‘take advantage [of them]’, but take advantage of the opportunity I have, with the platform that I have. Because I don’t think I’m here for no reason.”
He wears that responsibility lightly. “There is a pressure,” he admits, “but I know that this is what I’m meant to do, either being entertainment or helping people. I just really like people. Sometimes to a fault, cos a lot of people are assholes! But I know that making an impact is more important than making money. If I was in a car accident or something tomorrow, a brand deal I made wouldn’t matter as much as something I said in a video that would help somebody in a certain way, something that lives on longer than I do.
“I’m not going to be here forever. But any type of impact I make could be passed on to people, and just change the way people think. I’m trying to do charity stuff that could help people in general with their lives, so…”
He sighs, then laughs. “Yeah, man. That got deep real quick!”
Photos by Jon D Barker.
Find out what award Nathan won in the TenEighty Yearbook 2016, featuring over 80 creators from across the YouTube community.
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