By Dick Anderson | Photos by Katie Moos
Chris Ballinger '06 may not be a household name, but he gets recognized fairly often. Sometimes people will walk up to him with a cellphone without saying a word, take a selfie, and walk away. Not long ago in Target, a young woman approached him and his family and just started crying. "We offered to take a picture with her, but she couldn't keep it together enough to do it," he recalls.
Such are the peculiarities of celebrity in the age of social media. The Ballingers are part of a growing YouTube subculture of video bloggers who share the minutiae of family life in daily doses. (The first family of vlogging? The Shaytards, with more than 4.7 million subscribers and nearly 2.5 billion views since starting their channel in 2008.) Chris and his brood are comparative newcomers, with over 650,000 subscribers and more than 128 million views in just 3 1/2 years.
"My bread and butter right now is YouTube," Ballinger says over dinner after a day at the office in Encino. "I post at least five videos a week, and that's a full-time job." But if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, he's an executive producer and writer on a new series for Netflix starring his sister, Colleen (page 25), which is a second full-time job. After work each day and an hourlong commute home, he spends about an hour with his kids and puts them to bed ("storytime is the best time of day"), then gets back on the computer, where he edits whatever footage he or his wife has shot that day. After calling it quits around midnight, he gets about five hours' sleep, then starts all over again the next morning.
"It's not easy," he admits, "but it's kind of a fun adventure. I'm young enough where I feel I can handle it. It'll catch up with me eventually, or I'll be on to something else."
Growing up in Santa Barbara, Chris and Colleen (and their siblings, Rachel and Trent) were encouraged by their parents to pursue their interests. "Dad was a painter and cartoonist," Chris recalls. "He did a lot of Christmas windows during the holiday season, and I got trained how to do that."
Colleen took voice and piano lessons, while Chris trained to be a magician. He also studied comedy with John Cleese with his high school improv club ("We tore apart the Dead Parrot sketch and all this Monty Python stuff; we spent an entire week studying the double take—it was fantastic").
After two years at Cal State Northridge, Ballinger transferred to Oxy as a junior after marrying his high school sweetheart, Jessica Smith '05, who majored in theater and minored in anthropology and education. He also majored in theater, joined the improv troupe Fantastiprovs, and picked up spending cash by performing magic tricks on the streets of Pasadena. (A member of the Academy of Magical Arts, he used to do restaurant gigs and birthday parties as well.)
Before graduating from Oxy, Ballinger landed a job at Fox Studios on the TV series "Bones" as a writers' production assistant. Two years later, as an assistant to showrunner Stephen Nathan, the writers strike was called on the day his daughter was born ("I was in the hospital when I got the call").
With a family to feed, Ballinger took a job inventing tricks for an online magic retailer, making more than 1,000 YouTube videos in his studio apartment in Santa Barbara. Magic Geek and JugglingStore.com grew into the No. 4 website for magic in the world, "and I was the face of it," he says. "Going to magic conventions was a lot of fun."
Not long after Ballinger launched his personal YouTube channel in 2013, the magic business went under, and he was laid off. A father of three now, he staked his livelihood on the Ballinger brand. "I sold my house, I didn't take another job, and just focused on building my YouTube channel," he says. "It was always just to support my family."
Starting with Magic Mondays ("the first YouTubey thing that I did"), Ballinger grew an audience in part by making his videos personal, asking his viewers for suggestions for future tricks, and by posting consistently. "It's a lot of work," he says. Now, when he posts a video, "I'll get 50,000 views in a day."
Impressive as his numbers are, Colleen could do a master's class in video virality. "There was no way to make money on YouTube when she started," he says. "I was watching old videos of her for the show that we're writing and remembering how she hustled to book shows, to sell tickets, to sell merchandise—all these roundabout ways of making money off what she was doing. She put in the time to be where she is today."
When a publisher approached Colleen about doing a Miranda Sings book, she huddled with Chris, and the two sketched out the idea of a terrible self-help book. "Everything played to the character: How would she write a book? What would it look like? Would she type it up? Would she scrapbook it? And it ended up looking like this mess of taped-together pieces of paper lying around the house." When they presented 50 finished pages to the publisher, they assumed they were done. "We thought it was going to be a little coffee-table book, something that you would buy at Urban Outfitters," Chris says. Instead, the editors asked for 200 more pages. "On the flight back home, we were scrambling to come up with new ideas."
Replete with misspellings, a "strategically ugly" design, and a title that defied searchability, Selp-Helf became a New York Times bestseller in both the humor and advice categories. "A few of the online sellers put it in the actual self-help category, which we thought was probably doing some people a disservice," Ballinger says.
Concurrent to the book's success, the Ballingers were developing a sitcom around the Miranda Sings character. After meeting with a lot of writers, Colleen and Chris hired showrunners Perry Rein and Gigi McCreery, and together the four of them developed the concept and began pitching it to different producers and media outlets. Netflix bought the idea, with a straight-to-series order of eight episodes. "Our first choice was Netflix," Chris says. "That's where we wanted it to live. We thought it was a good marriage of traditional media plus Internet."
"Haters Back Off" is being produced by a company in Canada called Brightlight Pictures, and the series was shot in Vancouver, B.C., last spring, with the city standing in for Miranda's hometown of Tacoma, Wash. Netflix "has been amazing to work with," Chris says. "They really support creativity, and it's been a joy. It's not been like any other TV writing experience I've had."
Ballinger hopes that "Haters Back Off" will gain a foothold on Netflix and run for years to come. But regardless of its future, he remains knee-deep in the YouTube channel, which has evolved from its magic-trick roots to become a daily video blog of the Ballinger family life. "That's not what I intended our channel to be, but that's what people seem to respond to the most," he says. "So we adapted, and that's the format that we follow. And there are a lot of families who do it, like the Shaytards and the Daily Bumps [1.9 million subscribers, 1.1 billion-plus views]. We've tapped into this group."
The revenue comes in from a couple of different streams, he explains. Google AdSense—those are the automatic text, image, video, or interactive media ads that pop up when you click on a website—gives a cut of the money to its Google Network publishers. And a second source of income comes from product placement, essentially—"when companies will ask you to do a shoutout."
For a family accustomed to sharing its life online—Colleen's non-Miranda channel has 4.4 million subscribers, and her July 2015 wedding to fellow YouTuber Joshua David Evans has nearly 11 million views—is there anything that's off limits? "Sure, yeah," Chris says. "There's more for me to hold back on than my sister because I have little kids. I would like to give them some level of privacy. I'll post stuff about me all day long, but I try to give my kids as much one-on-one time without a camera as I can."
That said, his children aren't afraid of getting on stage at Miranda's live shows in front of 2,000 screaming fans. And there's a bit of ham in each of them as well. "If I give them the camera they'll hold it up, look at themselves in the viewfinder, and go and give a tour of the house," Ballinger says. "My 6-year-old son will set up shots, and he'll walk away and pretend to walk into the room. My 3-year-old son likes to talk to the camera as if it's a friend. And my 8-year-old daughter knows all the YouTube jargon. So she'll tell people to subscribe or give a thumbs-up or leave a comment in the comments section just because she's heard every person in her family say that."