It’s the modern Hollywood fairy tale: a small-town boy heads west, gets discovered at a hair salon, snags his own show, and hangs with George R.R. Martin.
At least that’s the way Jonathan Van Ness, host of Funny or Die’s Gay of Thrones tells it.
The energetic hairstylist from Quincy, Illinois, landed in Los Angeles nearly a decade ago. A self-described “ham,” Van Ness found himself–like many of us–talking a lot about the soap-opera saga of the Seven Kingdoms. One salon client, a Funny or Die director named Erin Gibson, couldn’t help but notice his distinctive talent for humorously detailing the gruesome struggles of the hit HBO series.
“I kept referring to [GOT character] Jaime Lannister as a ‘she,’ as I would normally describe someone,” Van Ness, 28, says of the moment he won over Gibson.
Soon enough, in early 2013, Gibson pitched a simple idea to her production company: a gay hairstylist recaps Game of Thrones.
“I witnessed [Van Ness] trying to convince clients why they should watch Game of Thrones,” recalls Gibson, now the series’s cocreator, and a Second City improv alum. “I’m attracted to opposites in comedy, and I love how you wouldn’t think a gay hairdresser would be so obsessed with this show.”
Now Gay of Thrones is wrapping up its third season of summarizing the madness that afflicts Westeros’s many characters. Van Ness does it with seemingly effortless dramatic tendencies, comical to the point of nearly offensive nicknames–Queen Cersei is referred to as “blonde Cher,” while Tyrion Lannister is “the munchkin”–and random pop culture references (“[Tywin] Lannister, Elvis–all the kings die the same way”).
The formula is working: with close to 8 million total page views, and roughly 270,000 per episode, Gay of Thrones is one of Funny or Die’s most popular series and a social media juggernaut, despite the lack of a celebrity host.
“It was a total organic fluke,” Van Ness says of his ascent to web-series stardom. “I just took something busy and made it easier to digest. There’s just so much to sink your teeth into.” Keeping track of the medieval fantasy’s tangled plots and onslaught of deaths comes easily to the multitasker, who spent years juggling hairspray while entertaining his clientele.
“I also know how to change a tire,” he claims.
While it began as a three-person project, mostly improvised, it now features a 12-person crew and even a few celebrity cameos–comedian Margaret Cho, Game of Thrones star Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy), and yes, even George R.R. Martin himself have all appeared on Gay of Thrones. Martin hung around long enough to implore a youngster to “get off his back” about the next book installment.
Beyond such Thrones royalty, it’s accessed the most unreachable of audience members: the die-hard book readers. On Reddit, fans have adopted Van Ness’s monikers and use them as shorthand for describing key plot points. “It has permeated the GoT culture of the Internet,” beams Van Ness. “It’s really flattering.”
Even HBO is down with Van Ness, with the network’s Twitter team helping to promote his episodes. “They’ve been really supportive,” says Van Ness, noting his inclusion in the show’s social media campaigns. “There’s a lot of love there.”
So what exactly makes this specific recap so popular? After all, nearly every major pop culture publication recaps the most pirated TV show in history, but according to Funny or Die, their version adds one special element.
“It comes down to Jonathan,” says Matt Mazany, 29, the series’s producer at Funny or Die. “He’s offering a genuine reaction and a different, fresh perspective.”
Although Game of Thrones is a hit TV show with a wide fan base, many recaps come with a hardcore, book-centric angle, alienating the average viewer or reader. Some just want it simplified. And, sure, the LGBT references give Gay of Thrones a bit of a competitive advantage.
“Everyone gets their hair done and everyone has a hairdresser, so there’s that underlying unifier,” explains Van Ness. “But there’s also another layer–this random layer of acquainting yourself with this new character, which is basically a heightened version of myself.”
All of which is not to say that such recaps are easy for Funny or Die to produce. The biggest hurdle is time, as fans don’t want to wait for their reminiscing. To race against the clock, the Gay of Thrones crew watches the East Coast feed on Sunday evenings (“HBO doesn’t give us screeners; we’re just like you,” says Mazany), preps a rough sketch of discussions, then shoots for two hours (with no rehearsal) before an editor works overnight on finishing touches. The show debuts each Tuesday morning.
“There’s no time for second guessing,” explains Mazany.
Another, less expected, hurdle has been the blending of two voices, especially as time constraints don’t permit Van Ness and his featured guest “clients” to acquaint their humor. Generally, he just goes on a stream of consciousness, with editors stitching episodes together in a way that the audience can easily get.
In perhaps the show’s biggest nod to its talent, wasn’t a recap, but an announcement of the second season. “It showed us that not only do we have regular fans, but we got all of the fans to show up at the same time,” says Mazany.
Van Ness’s future plans don’t stop with the White Walkers. Although he doesn’t see himself completely retiring from the beauty industry, he admits he “has the bug” and would consider branching out into recapping similarly “super-fierce” shows such as Empire, The Walking Dead, and True Detective.
“More and more, I see myself wanting to be in front of the camera,” Van Ness says. “I want to be the J.Lo of recaps. She has it all.”