“The idea behind Thug Notes was always that ‘the joke is that there is no joke…’ because the analysis is just so accurate and so smart. – Jared Bauer”
On the YouTube series, Thug Notes, Greg Edwards, plays Dr. Sparky Sweets, PhD, a gangster professor who delivers thoughtful analyses of classical literature in the idiom of hip-hop. Each of the 61 episodes, written by Jared Bauer and Joseph Salvaggio, features a 5-minute plot summary and analysis of a classic novel. Episodes from the series have been viewed over 16,000,000 times on YouTube, and written up in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and The Independent. On video after video, viewers have commented, “Why can’t Sparky be MY teacher?”
The particular brilliance of Thug Notes is in the way the creators meld academic style with urban language to make literary themes and character both memorable and relevant. In his introduction to an episode on Oedipus, Dr. Sweets sums up the plot of Greek tragedy with cutting clarity: “Today, we searching for some motherf***ing truth.” It’s as though Sparky is able to verbalize exactly how literary characters would experience emotions if they were, well, rapping about them. Referring to Raskolnikov’s guilt in Crime and Punishment, Sparky explains, “…homeboy think he can ghost a b**** and not trip.” Hamlet is only “all crunk” because his “momma’s actin’ like a ho.” This vernacular, it seems, helps students to not only remember literary plots, but also to enjoy and identify with them. One viewer, commenting on Sparky’s review of Heart of Darkness, exclaimed, “You interpreted the text better than Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now.”
The show’s creative team has repeatedly voiced their dedication to “showing that even highbrow academic concepts can be communicated in a clear and open fashion.” Acclaim connected with Jared and Greg about writing the series, the creative process, and what the books mean to them.
Greg: Jared and Jacob were working on a pilot called Totally Biased. Jared already had the idea for Thug Notes, and he asked the head writer, Kevin Avery, if he knew any actors who would be perfect for the role. Kevin gave Jared and Jacob my info, and Jared hit me up with a round of auditions, and yeah! That’s how it started.
VIDEO: To Kill a Mockingbird
“Scout’s Papa is some righteous lawyer with the bad-ass name of Atticus”
Acclaim: And Jared, how did you come up with the idea for the program?
Jared: Thug Notes came from the genesis of a couple things. But the one story I tell about the first time it came to my mind was when I was at the Egyptian theater in LA, going to see the film Barry Lyndon. I was standing on line with my friend, and just joking. I was saying that with Barry Lyndon — although it’s a costume piece, it’s very slow-moving — the narrative and the main character, he’s pretty gangster!!! The main character, he’s kind of a Scarface story, upward mobility, basically “gettin’ high on your own supply,” all that stuff… And this woman behind me, she was kind of offended, well not offended but she thought it was ridiculous that I would make a comparison to something so refined and respected. And I just thought that everything that I was saying was accurate, and I’m just explaining it in a new way! It kind of made me realize that things don’t have to be portrayed in a single way. And that was the genesis of the idea.
Acclaim: What goes into the production process. What kind of research do you do?
Jared: Well our academic advisor, Joseph Salvaggio, who’s a guy that I’ve known since I was four years old, reads the books cover-to-cover. Getting him on board was crucial to making this project work. The idea behind Thug Notes was always that “the joke is that there is no joke…” because the analysis is just so accurate and so smart. And Joe is the smartest guy I know. Joe will read the book and he’ll send me all the research analysis that he does, and then I’ll take that and do a draft script. Then Joe and I meet via Skype, and go over it line-by-line. It used to be that after that, a day or two before shooting, I would get together with Greg and go through the script, and we’d make suggestions to each other. But now that we’ve been doing it for so long, Greg and I can basically just get that step over with, since we’re familiar with each others’ rhythms.
But in terms of production we shoot four episodes in a day. The week coming up to production is really hairy because there is a lot of research and reading involved, and we rush to get Greg the script, so he’s not learning it just in the morning we film.
Greg: We shoot at a YouTube station, which is super cool and fun and exciting and there’s lots of other projects going on, so that adds to the artistic environment of it.
Acclaim: Jared, how long did it take you and Joseph to feel comfortable writing in “thug vernacular”? Where/when do you seek guidance?
Jared: The funny thing about that is that I was never really into rap music, but now I am obsessed! As far as guidance, Joe and I grew up in Houston together. I was always aware of Houston rap, but I never really listened to it when I was in high school. But when we started the show, I thought I should start ingraining myself with it. My high school was about seventy percent African American, so even if I wasn’t into it, I was hearing it with my friends. When we started writing the show, I started listening to Houston rap, and now I am representin’ H-town every day!
Another one of the ideas behind Thug Notes is that when I was in high school, I didn’t want to read To Kill a Mockingbird, I wanted to watch the Chapelle Show. I figured, why don’t I just mix the two.
“And since them punk-ass humans ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of violent haters, Grendel feels like he’s all alone.”
Acclaim: Were you guys readers as kids? What are your backgrounds, education-wise?
Greg: I was a reader as a kid. Definitely in high school and middle school. I used to love fiction, and I still love fiction, science fiction. Now I also read a lot of non-fiction. I went to Virginia State University for liberal arts, but I ended up going back to my hometown and getting my Associate’s degree. I actually have a teaching background — I worked as an assistant teacher, then as an associate teacher, in Northern California for many years. So I definitely embrace the arts and comedy as a way to connect with kids.
Acclaim: What’s harder—acting or teaching?
Greg: Definitely teaching. Those kids – they need you but they’re rough!
Jared: My biggest reading days were when I was a really young kid. I used to voraciously read all of the Goosebumps books. When I got into high school, cinema became my passion and it still is these days. But film is, in many ways, a gateway to the humanities. Because of watching Woody Allen movies, I became interested in Russian literature. Dostoevsky is my favorite author. I read all of his books in late high school. I then went to film school at the University of Texas, Austin. But the most intellectually nurturing experiences were in my electives. I took classes on music, on Russian literature, and on Wagner. Literature is not my expertise. Joe’s the teacher, I’m the student when it comes to literature. But it’s still very important to me. I try and read all of the books that we cover as much as possible, and we try and use books I’ve already read. But when we’re doing a book a week, it’s just inevitable that I am unable to read the whole text. But Joe’s a machine—he’s read each book, cover-to-cover.
Acclaim: That brings up another question I had. I think both of you have mentioned in other interviews that you haven’t always read the books (even though you’ve been very adamant that you make the videos because you encourage people to read them!). Many educators say that that students should read the classics because they are timeless, and they have universal values. But when we’re kids, we don’t really understand what this means. How do these books impact you when you read them for the first time as adults?
Jared: That’s a difficult question, and for each book it’s different. But let me just address the importance of literature education in general. One thing we see on YouTube, which is the platform that we operate on, is that science is extremely popular. I don’t want to say that we’re a reaction to that. But the thing that literature and the humanities can provide which science cannot is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, the ability to relate to other people, to expand your mind. Science can teach you how the world works, but it can’t really inform the choices you make, and especially the choices you make with other people. That’s the most important thing… that we can put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes, and that we can make informed and empathetic decisions.
Even though I haven’t always read the books, me and Greg have to become veritable experts on them in some form or fashion. I can’t speak for Greg, but because of the show every day I’m learning something new about life, and thinking of things in a different way. It’s been such a nurturing experience.
Greg: I’ve started writing jokes about some of the books I’ve read. With Jane Eyre, and feminism, it’s just heightened my views on certain things.
VIDEO: Oedipus the King
“Yo Oedipus. Stop frontin. You don’t even know who your parents are. And when you do find the truth, it’s going to be lights out, playboy.”
Acclaim: I think one of the most interesting things about the writing for the series is that it adapts hip-hop idiom to academic analysis. But it seems as though there’s a bit of a disconnect from the language of the series, and the expression of hip-hop lyrics. Is this how rappers really speak?
Jared: I think they do! Houston rappers definitely do.
Greg: I think you’re thinking of rappers like Talib Kweli, or Common. When you see them on Bill Maher, they’re speaking very eloquently, and they don’t rap like that. I think we’re going for a subculture of rap; a played-down culture of gangster rap. We’re making fun of it but also embracing it at the same time.
Jared: Joe [Salvaggio, the co-writer] is an academic. Part of his frustration with academia is that when you read something, it’s not very accessible, and there’s all of this intellectual one-upmanship. In a sense, the show is also a critique of that. You can use really fanciful language, and inhibit the clarity of something just to inflate your mediocre ideas, or you can do just the opposite of that. We use really “unrefined language” to express the same ideas in a much more universal and palatable way.
Greg: It’s a comedy! We’re dealing with real books and real thoughts from passionate writers. At the end of the day, it’s education through comedy. We’re playing with the vernacular, we’re playing with the language that young people use. And we bring in topical humor that goes with the books that we cover.
Acclaim: Why do you think some schools have banned your program?
Greg: I’m sure some people ban it because of the racial undertones. But as a comedian, I feel that we’re living in an overly PC time right now. Everyone [in education] is up in arms over anything that has any kind of racial joke in it. But if you go to the mainstream media, they have shows like Blackish and Off the Boat. Our show would not sell if it was called “Greg, in his funny voice, talks about books.” We call it “Thug Notes,” and “thug” has this racial undertone to it, but it’s funny. People do what they have to do in life. People try to protect their children from outside things that are going on. But I think that race can be funny, and that it is something that’s humorous to talk about, living within a diverse country.
Jared: There’s definitely something deliberately challenging about the show. I think that people ban it because it’s the safe thing to do, and especially when you’re in a public school you’re walking on a tight-rope, and dealing with parents’ outrage. And I understand the need to be overly sensitive and overly careful. And we talk about it all the time, but just because the show uses race doesn’t make it implicitly racist. I think that by subverting negative stereotypes the show actually does a service to black males.
Greg: I think it turns it totally around, and it’s pretty funny! I mean, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Jared: The emails that we get say, “You’ve changed my life! I would have never read Hemingway before this.” That’s what makes it all worth it.
Acclaim: What have your favorite episodes been?
Greg: To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorites because it’s us uncut, it’s us before we put in all the graphics and the highlights and the “boom boom!” It’s very fresh Thug Notes before anything! Before we started getting any kind of love on the internet. I also liked Jane Eyre, 1984, and Animal Farm. I also like the new ones though. I love all of them, I have a special place in my heart for all of them.
Jared: For me, sometimes it’s interchangeable with the books we’ve covered. My favorite is Grendel, by John Gardner. The analysis on that, I thought, was particularly on point. I also think Moby Dick has one of the best scripts that we’ve written. I think in terms of Greg’s performance, Slaughterhouse 5 and Oedipus are some of the best ones.
Acclaim: I saw you (Greg) sent a tweet out saying “How do you use Thug Notes in the classroom?” Can you tell us a little bit more about the feedback you’ve gotten from teachers and educators?
Greg: I get emails all the time personally from teachers that use them in the classroom. Different schools, too. Last chance schools, alternative schools, military schools. If they’re emailing me, it’s usually appreciative. I just hear that they’re really grateful that they have a different way of conveying this knowledge to street kids, and that the kids have a different way that they can relate to the teachers. They can put Thug Notes on, and the kids are entertained, and the teachers know they are taking something in. Thug Notes reminds me of a modern day Reading Rainbow, with a really 2000 twist!
Acclaim: Have you guys heard anything from college professors? Anyone who looks at it as a cultural critique?
Jared: Not really—most of the college professors are just using it to teach literature.
Greg: We did get contacted by Chinua Achebe’s daughter, Nwando Achebe-Ogundimu, who is a professor at Brown University. She flew me out to Brown to talk about the book [Things Fall Apart]. I did a whole colloquium with people from XXL magazine on the state of hip-hop and hip-hop and literature together. It was Thug Notes fans at a colloquium on Chinua Achebe! I think this is reaching people on small scales, young people and old people. Even academics. Just people that like knowledge to spread.
Acclaim: How did you first get the word out? When did the program start to go viral?
Jared: It was just pure luck! Some saint on Reddit, I don’t know who he is, but he spread the word about the “To Kill a Mockingbird” episode. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here right now!
Greg: It was also the Huffington Post, too.
Jared: Jacob and I had developed a relationship with this woman from the Huffington Post, who covered our first few episodes. But it was really Reddit. I don’t know how that guy found us, but we were on the front page of Reddit for about two days, and that’s what really started it all.
Acclaim: Do you see a different audience for 8-Bit Philosophy as opposed to Thug Notes?
Jared: Yeah. With 8-Bit Philosophy, we’re trying to target gamers. Gaming is huge on YouTube. The difference between literature and philosophy is that literature is something which gets forced on people, and we’re basically just taking it and making it palatable. But with philosophy, nobody has to learn that. We wanted to use an aesthetic that people really enjoy and connect with, and convince them that hey, really, philosophy isn’t so bad.
Acclaim: In the long term, do you guys think that you’ll stick with academic/ intellectual subject matter?
Jared: For Wisecrack, yes. We’re going to start experimenting with more one-off programs. For example, Greg did a banned books video. So we’ll try more stuff like that. We actually have a feminist history show coming out in March. It’s written and hosted by two porn stars. One has a Master’s degree in creative writing, and the other has a Master’s degree in library science. Each episode is going to be a bad-ass woman in history. So an episode on Cleopatra, Queen Isabella, etc.
Acclaim: Thanks so much for speaking with us!