"Shakespeare In Celebrity Voices" Goes Awesomely Viral, Reveals Important Branding Lessons

Many a brand, whether personal or business, would die a happy death to have a video go viral with over 500,000 views. Even better would be to speak with the creator of a video sensation that did just that in only 12 days since it was uploaded to YouTube.

Jim Meskimen is an actor, comedian and impersonator with a tight and loyal fan base. Yet, the mainstream public would likely look you in the eye with the look of a deer about to be run over if you asked, "Who is Jim Meskimen?"

I've had the pleasure of knowing Jim as a friend for almost three decades, so Jim agreed to share with Fast Company how he became one of those creators of a killer viral video—and how you can do the same. Jim also happens to be the guy behind all the voices of the viral Jibjab hit, This Land, and can do one of the most amazing Captain Kirk impersonations, as shown in this video from the U.K. edition of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"

DB: Jim, this has been an amazing ride.
JM: The response generated to my little short, Shakespeare in Celebrity Voices (view below) has been overwhelming. After 140 little films generating about 6,000 views total, to have something that goes truly "viral" was a thrill and a half, and may have launched me into a new career strata.

DB: Fast Company readers are interested in "what makes something stick." Please tell me a little bit how it came about.

JM: I was trying to make this video about two months earlier, but found that I couldn’t pull it off—not enough time, running out of light, a bit too exhausted to really hold it all together. Incorrect estimation of the effort needed to actually do it well.

In the past, I’d always had a volunteer in the audience throw out celebrity names at random, while I was doing the recitation, then I would quickly make the change of viewpoint based on their choice. I never had to choose; they did it for me. Suddenly having to work it out myself turned out to be kinda tricky. So, I bailed. Pulled the ‘chute. Moved on.

DB: Like any good brand, you obviously didn’t quit there.

JM: No, I didn’t (as made evident by the YouTube video...). On July 18th, I came home from a full day of auditions, all dressed up, handsome and feeling chipper, well rested and, thanks to [my wife] Tamra, well fed, I went in and successfully recorded the performance.

It took a little extra time to edit it, so that the celebrity names came up at the right time. Then, as YouTubers around the world do by the millions every day, I clicked on "Upload." Then linked the video to my Facebook and a few other sites.

DB: What happened next?

JM: The next day on my video, I noticed the usual smattering of views, a bit more than usual. A few hundred. That night, Wednesday July 20, my wife and I went out with friends to see Eddie Izzard in concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

We love Eddie and he did not disappoint. I guess I am like a lot of people, misfits and others, who get a lot of inspiration and encouragement from watching Eddie do his marvelous material.

One thing that impressed me a lot and made me kind of love the guy forever is when he comes out, he acknowledges the crowd, says hi to the front row, does the walk around the little elevated platform around the best seats, slapping hands and giving the rich folks some love….

Then, he acknowledges the rest of us in that huge crowd of 17,000 plus people… including the VERY back row, which is probably about a quarter mile away from the stage, up a million stairs….

And then he says, "Of course, one COULD run up to the back…"

And then he RUNS to the BACK. Over the posh seats barricade, up the million stairs, all the way to the top/back/far reaches of the Hollywood Bowl. And then back down again. Took him 10 minutes (I timed it!).
And THEN, he does his two hour set.

As Craig Ferguson (who was also there in the audience I discovered later) would say, "I KNOW!!!"
Okay, so, that was the beginning of the concert and I don’t really need to go over what he does in his show. Go see for yourself. Rent "Dressed to Kill."

DB: So you found a benchmark of excellence you established for yourself, something to strive for. I find every good brand has that quality. Without that, a brand just flounders.

JM: Totally agree. But the thing I want to share: I was looking at that huge crowd, marveling at how a stand-up comic had FILLED the Hollywood Bowl, how he had an audience of 17,000 people, and I thought to myself, "Hell. I WANT to play to an audience of 17,000 people!" What fun THAT would be! Kind of made a little, quiet decision about it….

Great show, lots of laughs, getting chilly in the night air, we drive home. Come in to the house, go to the computer. I check out the views on my impressions video, see what we are up to… before the concert I think I had about 801. It went up to 17,582 views. WHOA. 17,000 plus viewers. Helluva coincidence, don’t you think? Me and Izzard each entertained 17,000 people that night. Pretty cool.

DB: Whoa is right.

JM: From there, of course, the video really took off, when the NYTimesMag.com, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, AOL.com, and loads of other sites began to feature it. And viewers all started passing it around. Craig Ferguson and Stephen Fry Tweeted it, Juliette Lewis…it was a love fest.

It’s currently at over half a million views now and a LOT of very complimentary comments. I’m talking to people about touring the world. And, surreally, I’m featured on E! Entertainment and set to do an interview on NPR…. I tell you, it’s a whole new deal around here. Plus Time.com featured it as one of its viral videos of the month of August!

DB: What branding lesson did you learn that businesses and professionals could apply?

JM: Eddie Izzard says it. You have to believe in your dream. Then, others will believe too. And it will happen.

David, as a last point, the big lesson in branding that I learned from this is that when you have some product that the public continually notices and desires, you are wise to provide THAT, and not a lot of other stuff that YOU want them to want, but that never really takes off.

I’ve got the problem that many creative people have: I can do a LOT of things, cartoons, singing, audiobook narration and directing, improv… these are my "products." Impressions has historically been the way I break through. It got me into a successful improv group in New York, got me my first good agent, got me on Fresh Prince of Bel Air, got me over half a million views on YouTube. So now I’m more dedicated to pushing that as the "Flagship" product than ever before.

I very much thank each of my fans for being part of MY dream. I am delighted to count them among my friends and fellow strugglers in this batty world.

DB: In the branding world, we know of that as "the killer app"—that application or "thing" that makes you and I clamor for that brand, kind of like the tipping point for that brand becoming a must-have or, in this case, a must-see. An excellent lesson every brand can apply.

Recipient of over 320 national and international design and branding recognitions and awards, David Brier is an award-winning brand identity designer and branding expert. His firm's work can be regularly found in blogs, publications and award annuals. David is also the author of Defying Gravity and Rising Above the Noise. David's series of videos shed new light on real branding in these short TV interviews. David's latest video entitled "Branding and the Power of the Consumer" has received rave reviews. 

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2 Comments

  • Lgco2012

    Great man... now I know why he goes viral... and thanks for the branding lessons... gotta work on my own ways too! 

  • Kelly Lester

    Jim and his wife Tamra are old friends of mine (Tamra and I did plays together in Jr. High!) and I cannot say enough how thrilled for him and deserving of all this attention he is. His enormous talents have allowed him to work steadily for many years, and it is just so affirming to see all the press, accolades and wonderful new opportunities and exposure coming his way. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Kelly Lester, CEO, EasyLunchboxes.com