Interview: Ryan Higa on his YouTube celebrity status
One of YouTube’s most subscribed personalities, the Japanese-American comic has spun silly skits into social media gold
48 HOURS: You've been described as a "YouTube sensation" with more than 13 million subscribers for your channel. Does that mean you're very rich?
RYAN HIGA: Well, I wouldn't say very rich, especially when I found out about the prices here in Hong Kong, but I can say that, fortunately, you can make money on YouTube now. It's been getting better and better as advertisers take us more seriously. It's moving in the right direction.
You started posting comedy videos in 2006 when you were 16. Was your mother worried that you were on the internet all the time?
Um, no. I mean, my mum was really supportive of it because it kept me out of trouble. If I was making videos and staying home, at least I wasn't gallivanting and trespassing and stuff, which probably is what I would have done.
On your Wikipedia page, your occupation is listed as "YouTube personality". It doesn't really tell people what you do, does it?
Yeah, I think people are still trying to figure out what it is that we do. I don't even have an official title. Technically, I direct, I'm a writer, and I do all these things, but I never went to school for them. It's just something you pick up; it's like its own art, basically. So yeah, being a personality isn't really a job. It's a little strange that it would be on Wikipedia; then again, Wikipedia is user-generated, right?
Do you aspire to change your title into something more traditional?
Not necessarily. I enjoy doing a little bit of everything. People ask me all the time whether I'd like to be an actor or a director. In making YouTube videos, you can't just be an actor, you have to also know the shots and how to write. I can't say that we're good at everything, but we know how to do a little bit of everything.
A major characteristic of your videos is that they're just really random.
They're very random, but at the same time, I try to target things that I'm personally interested in, and things that I think my viewers are interested in. So when there's the whole epidemic of Ebola, for example, I made a video about that because it was being talked about. Even though Ebola has been around for a long time, it was in the news and everybody was talking about this big scare — it became a topical thing.
In December 2008 and January 2009, all the videos in which you lip-synched to pop songs were removed due to copyright violations. What's the lesson for you there?
Those were some of my first videos. That was before monetisation was around, so nobody cared. But once YouTube started making money, then all these music companies became money hungry and they came after people like us, who had no intention of making money off those videos. It was simpler back then, but like anything, once you start making money, people will want a piece of it.
Do you have a manager or agent?
No. The closest thing I have to a manager is probably my mum.
Have you thought about going into music and becoming the Asian Bieber?
I'd love to if I could sing, or had any musical talent. I can't dance, either.
So you're more an actor-comedian?
I wouldn't even say that. I do a little bit of acting, but I wouldn't call myself an actor. I have comedic things in my stuff, but I don't consider myself a comedian. I'm just a YouTuber, I guess.
Or just a personality.
Just a personality. There you go, yeah.
What's been the most interesting part of your career?
There's a lot. For one, travel. I've been all around the world and met so many different people. It's such a generic answer, but my whole life has changed because of YouTube. I was supposed to go into nuclear medicine and become a doctor. [ Laughs] So it's the complete opposite of what I thought my life was going to be.