• ReaderGrev
  • Posts
  • The Skibidi Toilet podcast guys are for real

The Skibidi Toilet podcast guys are for real

"If people think it's bad ironically, maybe we meant that."

Illustrated elements by Sonny Ross; Todd Searle (L), Peter Armendariz (R)

Hi, I’m Mikhail Klimentov. You may know me for my past video game coverage, such as my investigation into the “culture of fear” at TSM. In previous editions of ReaderGrev, I’ve written about layoffs at Evil Geniuses and “Starfield.”

If you value reporting and criticism, consider subscribing on Patreon.

In the December 2023 issue of Harper’s Magazine, the American poet and novelist Ben Lerner published an essay titled “The Hofmann Wobble,” though calling it an “essay” undersells it a little.

In “Wobble,” the protagonist, a 26-year-old working at a think tank in 2006, discovers that he can manipulate Wikipedia by creating fake accounts that talk to each other on the site. These conversations give editors on the platform the impression that changes made by the protagonist are legitimate, sanctioned by some kind of virtual quorum.

He does this for banal reasons. (“I wrote that Dolly Parton was said, maybe as a result of a botched surgery, to perceive ultraviolet light,” Lerner writes.) He does this for political reasons. (“I wanted to move the ‘Criticism of Invasion’ section from deep within the main ‘Iraq War’ entry to the very beginning.”) But he also realizes that Wikipedia is about to become a lode-bearing feature of online life. The power he foresees Wikipedia having is enticing.

But the work — if it can be called that — starts taking a toll on the protagonist.

“[The] fact that I spent fourteen hours a day being numerous, writing in so many voices, had an effect,” Lerner writes. “My I began to fray.”

“As I stood at the end of a day, at the end of days, I wobbled between a sense of power and pointlessness, grandeur and insignificance,” he continues later. “The insignificance had to do with how boring so much of the work was and the fact that, for all my reach, it was always hard to point to concrete effects. On the one hand, I’d discovered … a glitch in the ideological matrix and now I was going toe-to-toe with Rupert Murdoch. On the other hand, I was a parody of armchair activism (who did I think I was — cutting and pasting in my new Aeron chair—Pancho Villa?). And then there was my often lyrical disinformation, my low-level addition to watching it spread.

To read the piece is to wobble a bit too. Lerner’s essay is billed as autofiction, meaning a work of fiction infused with elements of the author’s life. And in the story, the protagonist draws attention to this directly: “This is a fictional account of how the facts began to wobble for me, or a true account in which the truth has been transposed, or an essay in fiction about such wobbling,” Lerner writes.

On what level do you engage with a work like this?1 I don’t know enough about the real Ben Lerner to sound smart about this — honestly! But trying to engage with the work as a naive reader shakes out like this: The real Ben Lerner has written a story about a fictionalized Ben Lerner, who, as the protagonist, embodies fictional personalities in order to crudely alter public opinion, and also, sometimes, to troll. Where does the contrivance begin? When the Ben Lerner reflected in the text says, Hey, trust me, this is the author speaking, do you believe him?

As a reader, I viewed the Ben-in-the-text with a mixture of envy and pity. The former because what Lerner gets away with in the story is virality without exposure. But also the latter, because I am a good citizen who gets the point: There is no positive end — for society and for the soul — in manipulating the commons. The essay’s implied resolution is satisfying: It, whatever It was, didn’t work. Nothing changed. Right?

This newsletter is not about Ben Lerner, or autofiction, or [scare quotes] the internet. It’s actually about two guys I found on YouTube who talk excitedly about Skibidi Toilet (and other things). The first 600 words are just to get you in the right headspace.

Let me start over.2

A few months ago, I stumbled upon an Instagram Reel3 of two men discussing something called Skibidi Toilet. I had already been vaguely aware of Skibidi Toilet, a web series that appears to have started as a gag (A head pops out of a cartoon toilet and menacingly sings a mashup of Timbaland’s "Give It to Me" and the viral song "Dom Dom Yes Yes" by Bulgarian singer Biser Kin; I realize that’s a lot all at once, but also, that’s it) and evolved into a sci-fi epic about a war between toilets with human heads and humans with electronic devices for heads. It is hard to overstate Skibidi Toilet’s popularity. The channel that hosts the series has accrued approximately 14 billion views. “skibidi toilet 17” alone has 277 million views. There are 68 entries in the series.

In the Reel I watched, two men sit opposite each other in front of mics, as though they’re recording a podcast, discussing Skibidi Toilet in the eager, conspiratorial tone of children at the lunch table.

“The camera heads always find a way to win, but the toilets keep coming back stronger and harder,” says one.

“Bro, what? So it’s like an endless war?” responds the other.

“Well, they have introduced new characters,” says the first, ignoring the question.

The comments on Instagram were unkind. Two adult men — in equal measure clumsy and sincere — discussing a cartoon for children activated a kind of moral heartburn. Is this really what things have come to?

The two men, I would later learn, are Todd Searle and Peter Armendariz, who create content under the Built By Gamers brand, which Searle co-founded. The videos they make are undeniably strange. Some are demented in a banal, Cocomelon way; they are blandly weird, as a lot of content [pejorative] is. But others are dizzyingly uncanny, as though they were written by a heretofore undiscovered type of guy. They are also very popular in their own right: the Built By Gamers channel boasts nearly 3.8 million subscribers, and its videos have been watched more than 2 billion times.

Tone is a tough thing to nail down in writing, so let me be clear: I say this with just-barely-reserved admiration! Here’s a snippet of the script from one of my favorite clips, in which Searle and Armendariz discuss a video game level that as far as I can tell does not exist.

Searle: [The level is] called aqua land. It’s an aquarium filled with smiling fish.

Armendariz: Oh, it’s a peaceful level!

Searle: It’s actually one of the creepiest levels. Fish don’t have muscles to smile the way humans do. But even if they did, they wouldn’t.

This is complete nonsense — delivered in Searle’s trademark lopsided intonation, which he told me is rehearsed. I don’t mind that. I watch that video with the satisfied smile of a guy who feels he is in on the joke. But watch it for yourself. It’s just one minute long. I would challenge anyone to speak in non-illusory terms about what the joke is, what the video is about, and whether the two guys are in on the joke — or even joking at all.

So, in early November, I spoke with Searle and Armendariz, and raised some of those thoughts to them. They were thoughtful, generous with their time, and patient with my bad questions — which were bad because I didn’t know who I was talking to: avant garde comedians, LinkedIn marketing gurus, digital frontiersmen who had chanced upon a rich algorithmic vein or something else entirely.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.4

ReaderGrev: I’ve found it very difficult to describe what you guys actually do to people who are not chronically online. How would you two describe it?

Searle: A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you guys make a fake podcast.’ We've never claimed to make a podcast. How we describe it is, we're making small skits that are meant to just be fun and hold your attention. And we do it with the back and forth because we know that just holds your attention better.

Armendariz: I think we kind of follow the direction of Pixar. I think it's very important to tell stories that people can really connect to, that have a lot of heart and have a lot of soul and culture. And I think that's what we try to do with our content — besides the Skibidi Toilet stuff and other cheese content — I think there's a lot of content that we really put a lot of heart into and a lot of thought into.

It's evident to me that you guys take this very seriously. You feel as though there's a lot of craft behind these videos. Tell me about the stuff that a viewer won't see: the behind-the-scenes stuff that you're thinking about as you're working on these videos.

Armendariz: A lot of people think it's ChatGPT. That's a big thing that people think that we do. But a lot of it is actually well crafted, through hours — like we'll spend hours on one script and really thinking about how we can get someone to react. It doesn't matter if it's them laughing, if it's them feeling sad, or them hating on one of us, our main goal in our videos is to get someone to feel something. The hard truth is that people don't realize how many hours we spend on one video to get that one line. I think that's what people don't really understand. We’ll spend like two hours on one line.

Searle: Our tone, like how we talk — it’s on purpose. I have to get into character for it.

Armendariz: Todd has a voice, bro! He didn't think he'd be good at telling stories, and I have him tell every single story because he has this campfire story voice. And sometimes he'll hit a line and I'm like, “No, no, you’ve got to hit it harder.” And we'll spend like 30 minutes trying to hit the line, or hitting the hook just the right way.

People really don't know what to make of you guys. They don't have a sense of whether you're serious, whether you're in on the joke, whether there's a joke at all. I'm curious if you can clear that up.

Searle: We want it to be everything you just said. We want people to think we're serious. We want camps of people who don't think we're serious. People who think that we're A.I. We kind of want to keep it, I guess, vague in that regard. Like we want you to believe… what we are — and that's OK.

Armendariz: I think sometimes we'll play into different communities. So, like, some people will say, ‘You guys sound like you got brain surgery.’ So then we’ll make the most cringey video that's like super brain-rot, you know? We just kind of mess around and have fun.

Tell me how you two started working together.

Searle: We've known each other for about 10 years, but we hadn't worked together until just recently, two years ago. Before, [Built By Gamers] was in the esports scene. We had Valorant teams, Call of Duty teams, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Armendariz: And then esports fell through, and we really focused on content.

Searle: Instead of raising more money, we were like, how can we still stay in the game space and not shut the doors completely? It was Let’s just focus on content. And Peter had already been working on our content team doing TikTok, and he had these writing principles that he was incorporating into his content. And then basically we adopted his writing principles and added two people to it.

Can you tell me what those writing principles are?

Armendariz: I think a big writing principle that everyone should follow is, it's really important to show, don't tell. In the content, we do a couple of different things, like instead of using “was,” we’ll replace it, and we'll really try to show the scene to the viewer. Another big writing principle that we try to use is, instead of “and,” we'll say, “but,” because “and” feels like you're going in a similar direction, but when you say, “but,” it seems like it's going in a new direction, so we'll use “but” a lot.

We really focus on emotion. We put emotion first over everything.

I’m curious about the kind of the emotional aspect you mentioned. I was going through your back catalog and there was one video I found that really overindexed on emotion. It was about the shoebill stork; the title of that video is “Real Entity Found in Africa.” I was curious about where you find that balance between telling a story that may be real and then wanting to juice it up. Is there a line that you won't cross where you might say, OK, we're over-embellishing? Or is everything that you make just in service of entertainment and emotion?

Searle: We definitely have a line. I don't know if you've seen our Marvel content, but we did that at the beginning — we would embellish and add drama to the Marvel videos, and the Marvel community just didn't like that. They said: No, that's wrong, you can't do that, that’s fake. So Marvel is one where we'll try and stick to the story as much as possible and keep it basically canon. But something like a shoebill stork — which is actually a friendly bird — is boring! We want to make it interesting and scary and make that emotion come out.

Armendariz: We try to make good content, and I think good content comes with, sometimes, drama. The [stork] story by itself would be boring. So sometimes you kind of have to attach something to it, even if it's fake. We’ll sometimes attach a person to [a story] to really personalize it, and then [viewers] can visualize it better. And people don't really care, they're not going to go and find like, OK, who's this [made up character in the story]? Let me search this person.

It’s just us two, right? We're trying to post 25 times a week, a hundred times a month. So sometimes we have to cheese it, and maybe it doesn't have as much truth and facts and value to it. It can come off as a bad video. But we know that we’re trying to hit all these different categories. We have to stay relevant and we have to still hit status quo, and sometimes it's hard. Sometimes I'm tired or Todd’s tired.

I realize a lot of these questions are kind of meandering, and part of the reason is because, before this call, I did not understand how you guys thought about yourselves, so a lot of my questions have been trying to kind of excavate what level you guys are operating at. There was one Reddit comment I saw along those lines, where a person said they couldn’t tell if you guys were making bad content earnestly or bad content ironically.

Searle: I would say it’s both. If people think it’s bad — fine, whatever. If people think it's bad ironically, maybe we meant that. Maybe we wanted to bait you to think that it's bad, to comment, to share it, to laugh about it, to laugh about us. But at the same time, people watched it. The numbers don't lie. We look at the numbers religiously. If it doesn't get views, we know it was bad. If it gets views, we know it was good. And sometimes, some of our “bad” content is what gets the most views.

Tell me a bit about the work that you put the effort into, the work that you really like.

Armendariz: There is one video, the Disney Up video. I think when we can tell the real-life story of someone that has a lot of heart and soul and character and really bring it to the audience for them to see, and make someone really feel something, like, I think that's the best thing anyone can do.

Do you feel like you achieved what you wanted to with that video?

Armendariz: Yeah, I think it worked out perfectly. There is a line in the Up video — so that video is very emotional, right? So to contradict that, we needed some type of funny. And one of the things that we did is we made it seem like Edith Macefield [Ed note: Macefield is the subject of Searle and Armendariz’s Up video; her life story bears a striking resemblance to the story told in Pixar’s Up] fell down the stairs and got cancer. It sounds really weird, but basically, the way we worded it was like, when Todd does his voice — [Ed note: He’s impersonating Todd here] she fell down the stairs… and she got cancer — obviously there's a bigger picture that's going on, because, you know, she got cancer normally. But like the comment of that is everyone's joking that she fell down the stairs and got cancer.

Even if it's emotional, we have to have some kind of bait in it, no matter what. Whether that's misspelling a word or saying something funny or anything. It doesn't matter if it's emotional or not. We’ve got to have some type of something to comment on, right? That's the most important thing.

Searle: As you can tell on the phone with us, a lot of times we’re seen as, like, childish, dumb, bad, right? Really, we’re super-dedicated to what we do, and we put a lot of work into it. And we're not dumb. [Laughs.] Everything's on purpose, I'll say that.

Thanks for reading ReaderGrev! If you have a tip, I can be reached on Twitter at @LeaderGrev, or via email at mikhail (at) readergrev (dot) com.

If you’d like to become a paid subscriber and receive exclusive access to more newsletters like this, subscribe on Patreon.

1 My big fear is that someone will go, “Actually it’s obvious how you’re supposed to engage with the text because [reason].” It wasn’t obvious to me! Sue me!

2 I recently read a newsletter issue by the author Elif Batuman titled, “What if you imagine the reader as someone who loves you?” In it, she cites another author, Jenny Odell, describing an approach to writing that feels relevant to what’s happening here: “What if we spent more time talking to people who had the context to understand us and less time trying to create things for people who have no context for what we’re saying?” Basically, I hope I didn’t lose anyone in the Ben Lerner to Skibidi Toilet pivot. And if I did, that’s OK too!

3 I have a problem.

4 For transparency’s sake, this means I’ve cleaned up the “ums,” “likes” and “ahs,” whittled down my questions to let you get to the answers faster, and cut snippets here and there that are redundant or irrelevant.