Twenty-four hours with Tay Zonday
At 10 p.m., a lot later than most people eat dinner here in Burbank, Tay Zonday glides down the aisle of Bob’s Big Boy. He’s got perfect posture and a practiced, photogenic smile. Following the hostess to his table, he passes a booth where a trio of guys in their mid-20s are sharing an order of fries. They recognize him immediately. One cups his hand over his mouth and points excitedly. “Oh, shit! ‘Chocolate Rain!’” he yelps, a reference to the bizarre song and video that turned Tay into a meme back in 2007. The guy’s friends laugh. Tay doesn’t seem to notice.
The waitress also recognizes Tay. Not from his YouTube celebrity but because he’s a regular. He asks for the breakfast menu. “I gotta watch the carbs,” says Tay, who’s trim, dresses preppy, and looks easily a decade younger than his 33 years. “When I gain weight, it goes right to my face and neck. Which is really bad when you make videos for a living.” Nevertheless, he orders pancakes and a dish of warm butter. With a bagel on the side.
Nearly a decade ago, when Tay — then Adam Bahner, his given name — started posting clips that he shot during study breaks as a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, there wasn’t any infrastructure to enable a career on YouTube. “It was mostly just where you’d go to share your creativity,” he says. When “Chocolate Rain” — an odd, earnest critique of social and racial injustice that was delivered in Tay’s jarringly deep baritone — became a viral hit, he saw an opportunity. Unfazed that the attention he received was almost exclusively mockery, he quit school and moved to Los Angeles. “I was a bad student anyway,” he says.
These days, Tay is one of a small group from YouTube’s first wave of viral stars who’ve managed to eke out long-term entertainment careers. He doesn’t have the profile or rabid fan base of newer, younger internet sensations like PewDiePie, Jenna Marbles, or Smosh, but his relentless hustle has kept him in business with a wide variety of work. Earlier this year, he was cast in a recurring role on the Adult Swim comedy series The Jack and Triumph Show. Recently, he’s become a popular personality on Twitch, the streaming broadcast platform for gamers. He records covers of pop songs for YouTube in his signature booming voice (his version of the Carly Rae Jepsen hit “Call Me Maybe” has been viewed more than six million times). He works almost entirely from home and, while he’s not rich, he gets by just fine. Plus he’s got what so many who have made the trek out West can only dream of: steady employment and an audience in the hundreds of thousands.
The afternoon following our late dinner, I visit Tay in his studio, a video and audio production facility built in to the backroom of his tidy, modest home a short drive from Bob’s Big Boy. The setup includes a DIY green screen, a webcam, a few condenser mics, and a mounted lighting kit. He sits in front of two monitors and an elaborate keyboard-and-mouse rig that looks as if it could be used to control a spaceship.
He’s putting the final touches on a compilation of Twitch footage from the past few weeks — clips of himself playing the popular first-person shooter Team Fortress 2. Though he’s not a huge gamer, Tay began making gameplay videos recently as a way of expanding his repertoire. “It’s an easy way to create new content more frequently,” he says. Also, there are fewer copyright issues. “Music companies are clamping down on videos with cover songs in them, and TV and film companies are doing the same thing with videos that incorporate their intellectual property,” he says. “Luckily, game publishers welcome the use of their footage. It helps them sell games.”
After he finishes the Twitch video, he turns to the many comments that have been left on the most recent episode of Ask Tay Zonday, a vlog series in which he answers questions from his Facebook fans. He deletes a few spammy messages, responds to a couple of the more encouraging ones. This turns out to be how you spend a lot of your time when you’re a YouTube personality. “You have to make sure that the top comment on your video isn’t particularly negative,” he says. “Because that’s the one that sets the tone for what everyone else writes.”
He adjusts his ergonomic chair, then reviews an ad he was recently commissioned to make for the Blu-ray release of Fifty Shades of Grey. In it, he smiles wryly at the camera and, in a cartoonishly sultry voice, compels viewers to treat themselves to a hot and heavy night with the film. It’s silly, playing off of his oddball and unsexy public persona. The gig was set up by Fullscreen, a YouTube network Tay works with on distribution and advertising. He also has an agent who helps him land voiceover and commercial work, including a semiregular gig recording radio and TV promos for clients like Toyota and the MLB Network. “I get sent scripts in the morning, and I produce them right here,” he says, pointing to his mic and laptop.
Tay lives alone, and he says that while a lot of people think he’s got the perfect job — working from home, keeping whatever hours he wants — his lifestyle can also be isolating. “I’m thankful for the work, but sometimes I wish I just went into an office and saw actual people every day,” he says. “A strange thing about my routine is that I can get online at any time and perform for lots of people. But I’m sitting here all by myself when I do it.”
Around 10:45 that night, Tay signs on to Twitch to livestream another session, this time for the strategy game Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. A handful of fans jump in and out of his channel throughout the evening to watch him play and to text-chat with him. He’s a pretty good player, but people are mostly there for the interaction. Tay loves the attention and hams it up for his small audience, talking smack to opponents and making up funny voices — one he frequently uses sounds like Don LaFontaine, the voiceover king whose sonorous narration accompanied almost every blockbuster movie trailer in the ’80s and ’90s. Tay plays until he’s recorded enough in-game footage to make a highlight reel that he can post to YouTube. By the time he’s ready to bid farewell to his fans, it’s almost 3 in the morning.