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New Media Meets TV: Turlock Resident Attains Cult Status With Odd Web Films

November 12, 2006

By Michael Shea, The Modesto Bee, Calif.

Nov. 12–TURLOCK — Cory Williams just might be the most famous person you’ve never heard of. Williams — also known as “smpfilms” or “Mr. Safety” — is a YouTube phenom. The 25-year-old Turlock resident has achieved cult status on the video-sharing Web site for his eclectic postings, in which he often is featured. And, as digital counterculture slowly merges with mainstream media, you just might see a whole lot more of Mr. Safety. With more than 100 million videos viewed and 65,000new videos added daily, mainstream acts such as Sean “Diddy” Combs and Paris Hilton, along with networks such as CBS and NBC, regularly release music videos, concert performances and clips fromlate-night TV to YouTube. With all the buzz, some YouTube celebrities such as Williams are moving in the other direction — direct to television. His show, “The Fizz,” debuted last week on DirecTV Channel 101; it highlights the best of the Internet-video world. Hollywood is catching on, too. United Talent Agency, one of the country’s top talent groups — home of actors Vince Vaughn and Jack Black and suspense movie director M. Night Shyamalan — last month announced the creation of a unit to scout the Web for up-and-comers. Williams has converted the back bedroom of his little apartment near downtown Turlock into a studio. Two computer screens are connected to his Sony PC. An old blue sheet is tacked to the wall behind a ratty love seat — a homemade blue screen. The bed is in the living room, in front of a large television, and piles of costumes, masks, props and decorations are stacked near the door. A 2-year-old Chihuahua-dachshund mix, Sasha, is fenced into the kitchen, bathroom and a tiny strip of hallway. From this unlikely production office, Williams records everything from fart jokes, explosions and MTV-Jackass-style-stunts to musings on Turlock, YouTube and the world in general. But by far his most popular works are the comedic music videos that have made him an Internet celebrity. He writes his own lyrics and makes his own beats. “Make Poop,” which Williams said is more about equality than defecation, has been viewed more than 135,000 times, has launched dozens of spinoff videos and has even been turned into a ring tone. ‘Where ADD is cool’ Williams was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder in grade school, but his mother decided against medication. More than a decade later, ADD has become his call sign. The logo of his production, SMP Films (for Simple Minded People), is often followed by the phrase, “Where ADD is cool.” After a stint in a high school choir in Hilmar, Williams won a singing scholarship to California State University, Stanislaus, but college life only lasted three months. Odd jobs came and went. As he got into video, he started sitting in on classes at Modesto Junior College. He worked as a pest control technician and was a volunteer firefighter in Merced County for about a year, spawning the name Mr. Safety. In September 2005, Williams was one of the first video bloggers to pick up corporate sponsorship. GoldenPalace.com paid him $2,500 a month, then bought him a new Sony camera after his prank at the 2006 Bay to Breakers race in May in San Francisco ended up on an evening newscast. He was interviewed with a rubber chicken masquerading as a jockstrap and goldenpalace.com painted on his chest. When President Bush signed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act last month, effectively banning real-money casino sites such as GoldenPalace.com, the sponsorship dried up, but Williams said another big deal is on the way. In the meantime, he’s collected an odd $500 here and there from T-shirt companies eager to get him in their product. Based on his first rule, Never Charge the Audience, he won’t accept donations. Sponsorship dollars and live-in girlfriend Stephanie Roby, 20, who works as a secretary, pay the bills. “I don’t know where I’d be without her,” he said, sitting in front of his computer. “She has stuck by me the whole way through.” The ‘haters’ Williams has many critics, who have long labeled him another “Jackass”-wannabe — stemming from many of his early videos, like “HANDS in the TOASTER!” He also has been accused of artificially inflating his post-count on YouTube — something he attributes to a friend who helped him manage the hundreds of messages and e-mails he gets every day. In mid-October, he posted a response to the critics, a mocking music video titled “Haters Inc.” It’s been viewed more than 100,000 times. But the hate, Williams said, has seeped onto his home soil. “We are sheltered in Modesto. The 209 area has sheltered itself. It’s so conservative, this area is like a neurotic parent worried about drugs,” he said. He mentioned the September cancellation of an E-40 and Papa Roach concert at Stanislaus State University over fears of riotous violence as an example of hypersensitivity. “How many local comedians do you know around here? None. They just aren’t liked,” he said. “The local scene is all hate music, rock, punk. It’s all hate.” Williams said his microphone was cut at a local club and radio stations avoid his work like the plague. Chris Ricci, general manager of the Fat Cat Music House in downtown Modesto, which hosts a comedy night every Friday and Saturday, said it’s a case of miscommunication. “I love Mr. Safety. He’s hilarious,” he said. “It’s a unique brand of comedy, for sure. We’d love to work with him.” Williams’ show, “The Fizz,” debuted on DirecTV Channel 101 — the home of all DirecTV original content. A variety show format, the program features bits created by Internet-based producers such as Williams. “Everyone has tried to find a way to bring Internet video to television. We think we’ve cracked the code with the format of this show,” said Eric Shanks, executive vice president of DirecTV Entertainment. For the first episode, Williams, who doesn’t have a car, rode his bike to Crane Park in Turlock and set up on the grass. He introduced the program and hosted the transitions between the dozen or so clips collected from as many video bloggers, or so-called vloggers. The result is a biweekly 30-minute show assembled with user-generated content. A 10-minute version also has been cut for filler to round out concerts and other offschedule programming. Williams is paid $200 an episode. “This is the first time when the world of video bloggers, the world of people who weren’t scouted by some high-profile talent scout, this is a place where people with real talent, real people, are doing something,” he said. “The fact that I’m a part of this is really cool. I love it.” ‘A revolution in the making’ On YouTube, there is very much a community feel akin to MySpace.com — a site on which Williams has more than 20,000friends. Paul Robinett, a 39-year-old inventor, entrepreneur and father of four from Columbus, Ohio, got his start on YouTube by making a response video to one of Williams’ videos. Just by association, he picked up 50,000 views. Today, Robinett — or Renetto, as he’s known on YouTube — is one of the top 10 directors, surpassing even Williams on sheer viewership. In a phone interview, Robinett explained what he does and the essence of YouTube: “I host videos whenever I want about whatever I want,” he said. “Sometimes it’s political, most of the times it’s just me goofing around. Why some people can talk and people listen, I don’t know why. But it’s like having your own cable station that’s broadcast around the planet and anyone can tune in.” Robinett credited Williams with inspiring his start in the new medium — Robinett has been posting videos for six months, Williams about a year — and on being one of the first to make videos full time, actively seeking sponsorship and being transparent about the process. “YouTube is the future,” Robinett said. “YouTube is a revolution in the making. You can say you were here and knew Cory. Cory is one of those pioneers.” Friday afternoon, Williams sat in his studio editing material shot that morning for the second “Fizz” episode. A ‘step closer to the big dream’ “This is all one step closer to the big dream,” he said, speaking of the time when all video content, from television and movies to Internet video, is available on demand. “Oh, and check this out,” he said, logging onto stickam.com, a video chat site. The chat room is instantly abuzz with the arrival of Mr. Safety. Via videophone, chatter FreakAnthony started singing the theme of Haters, Inc. “Mr. Safety, you’re such a tool!”"Look at all these YouTubers,” Williams laughed. Text messages started rolling down the screen: “Mr. Safety ⦔"Mr. Safety ⦔"Mr. Safety ⦔ Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at 667-1227 or mshea@modbee.com.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Modesto Bee, Calif.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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