We’ve all had that awkward experience. You file into a suburban middle school’s auditorium for your 11-year-old cousin’s production of Grease, squirming uncomfortably as little Timmy sings about Greased Lightning being a “real pussy wagon” and the prepubescent tween girl playing Rizzo belts a ballad about teenage pregnancy and sexual regret.
Now imagine if those kids were singing about cooking meth. Or, excuse me, “rock candy.”
That precise idea—the cringe-comedy of children earnestly performing age-inappropriate theater material—is behind the hit viral video Breaking Bad: The Middle School Musical. Created by viral video gurus Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal (better known as “Rhett & Link”), this is the latest in their original Middle School Musical series, which also includes Star Trek and Superman entries.
Already approaching one million YouTube views, the film stars actual middle-school aged children as Breaking Bad’s Walt and Jesse singing a sanitized recap of the show’s first five seasons, swapping blue meth for blue rock candy and Jesse’s “Yeah, bitch!” catch phrase to just “Yeah!” The video is so popular that Jesse himself, Emmy-winner Aaron Paul, tweeted it out.
We called up Rhett and Link, life-long best friends who met back in 1984 at Buies Creek Elementary School in North Carolina and have together created over 500 web videos, to talk about their hit video, their love of Breaking Bad, and the key to viral success.
I feel like more than the Superman and Star Trek versions, the Breaking Bad Middle School Musical is about something incredibly inappropriate for kids to be singing about.Link: We have kids ranging in age from 11- to 3-years-old, and actually they’re really big fans of Breaking Bad. I remember it was a throat-slitting scene in season four, and that’s when they turned to me and said, “Dad, I’d love to perform this in a stage format.” And I said, “You know what, I don’t see any irony in that, so let’s go for it.” I mean Breaking Bad was one of the first ideas we conceptualized when we came up with the Middle School Musical idea, but then when we were waiting for the right time to release it, we had time to do Star Trek and Superman before hand. When we work with the kids, we encourage them not to watch Breaking Bad for research purposes. We tell them that we’ll fill them on what they need to know for their parts, but not watch the show.
Are you guys Breaking Bad fans?
Rhett: Oh yeah. I think one of the things we discovered in this is that, sure, worldwide there are probably more fans of Superman and Star Trek than there are Breaking Bad, but I think it goes beyond the irony of kids doing something that’s obviously an adult program. There’s just a mad interest in Breaking Bad. People want to talk about it. People are excited about it. They’re caught up in it. To see that Aaron Paul is tweeting out the video and that AMC is retweeting his tweet, it’s like this is reaching the creators of the show, and that’s really cool.
Link: It’s very validating. We got an email from Vince Gilligan’s writer’s assistant the next day, and they were like, “We’ve all seen it. The whole team’s seen it. We really love it, and we want you guys to make an appearance in the season finale.”
Link: Here’s a spoiler: Rhett and I and all the middle school kids, we’re actually going to assassinate Walt.
Rhett: The middle schoolers kill Walt in the end.
Link: I think in reality we’re getting a bunch of t-shirts, but the email was worth it.
So they didn’t actually ask you to be on the show?
Link: No. They offered a few t-shirts and a heartfelt thanks. But it’s pretty cool to create a YouTube video and then hours later the creators of the television show send you an email. That’s pretty awesome.
You’ve created hundreds of videos over the years and seen some take off and others … not so much. What have you learned about what it is that makes a video go viral?
Rhett: There’s definitely a formula. It just doesn’t always work. With most every video we produce, we have it in mind that we want to start a conversation. We want to create content that someone will want to share with someone else. If you can make that line up with something people are already talking about, like Breaking Bad, you have something that’s a good conversation starter. There’s kids doing some adult material at a middle school musical, which seems like a good idea, especially if executed well. And you do it at a time when people are talking about and want to write about Breaking Bad. That’s a really good formula to follow. I think we would have had to really screw it up in order for it not to get some traction. And in most of the article written about this, people don’t just mention the idea, they mention specific jokes we wrote, and that’s validating. That’s the other part of the formula: trying to do it well.
So you guys talk about what you do as part of this called “internetainment.” What does that mean, exactly?
Link: We tried to coin the term internetainment just because it sounded cool. We weren’t sure what it meant, and now we’re trying to apply a definition to it. Basically, for us in the years that we’ve created content exclusively for YouTube, there’s a level of creative control. You can do what you want to do, and if it’s successful you can make more of it. You can do it your own way without going through the entertainment gatekeepers. We throw a bunch of stuff against the wall, but our audience lets us know if it works or not. So now, it’s like let’s do more Middle School Musicals. What should we do next? Is there a Walking Dead Middle School Musical on the horizon? I think based on the response, the ball’s in our court rather than having to jump through entertainment hoops to get that done.
Is there a Walking Dead Middle School Musical on the horizon?
Link: At this point I’d say it’s probable.
Are there other shows or movies that you think would make good Middle School Musicals?
Rhett: We’ve discussed it a little bit. I think that obviously we’ve sanitized, or middle school-ized, Breaking Bad somewhat, like changing meth to rock candy. You kind of have to look at the individual show or movie series and make a decision and ask, can there be an ironic way to sanitize? For example, in Mad Men, there’s a lot of infidelity that you can make about middle-school cheating. Game of Thrones, for instance, there’s a lot of questionable, inappropriate content in Game of Thrones. So you think about whether trying to sanitize Game of Thrones will take it to a place that’s unrecognizable. We’re just looking at properties and figuring out which would work. It makes the most sense to do ones that have built-in irony, but that doesn’t mean that The Hobbit Middle School Musical wouldn’t work. But it wouldn’t work as well as Breaking Bad.
And you guys are actually life-long best friends in addition to professional partners, right?
Rhett: Yes, it is true. We’ve known each other since we were six and have worked together unofficially and now officially ever since. It’s a life-long creative partnership.
What’s working with your childhood best friend like? How do you separate that friendship from work?
Link: We’re married each to our own wife and we each have created our own kid, so we each have our own personal world that we retreat to on a nightly basis. We do spend a lot of time together trying to come up with what we’re going to create next. It involves a lot of batting ideas back and forth from our desks, which are facing each other, where we can constantly maintain awkward eye contact with each other. Lots of fights break out. I think that our office is very much like a dried, brushy forest where the fire could be started at any moment, and that fire could be a viral video or it could be a wrestling match.
Rhett: We haven’t wrestled in quite some time.
Link: We try not to get physical anymore, since we’re of an age where things can break or bend out of form. It’s now more verbal wrestling. Verbal sparring.