The week of July 19, 2015

After Ever After: Jon Cozart braces for graduation day

By Carly Lanning

Of all the things I expected to learn in this interview, discovering Jon Cozart is a self-identified introvert was not one of them. In his videos, the 23-year-old appears larger than life, splicing together four versions of himself singing to make an entire Jon Cozart band. He helped pioneer YouTube a capella, paving the way for creators such as Peter Hollens and Pentatonix.

Cozart is best known for his pop culture- and fandom-inspired music videos, such as “Lord of the Rings in 99 Seconds” and “Movie Villain Medley.” But it was his Disney parody “After Ever After” (currently at 51 million views) that propelled him into the spotlight. Few creators can release videos months apart, with no hype, and still garner at least 2 million views. He’s been releasing videos since YouTube launched in 2005, and though he’s only made 21 of them during those 10 years, they’ve collected over 213 million views.

Could he be a wizard? I proceeded to investigate.

As Cozart shared, the secret to his YouTube success isn’t witchcraft—although he does wish he had been accepted into Hogwarts—but rather living by this motto: Create something people can’t click away from. For him, it doesn’t matter whether a video takes a week or four months, so long as it’s flawless. He’ll graduate with a film degree from the University of Texas at Austin soon, and he’s promised to begin making YouTube videos on a consistent basis—a promise his 2.9 million subscribers will be holding him to. In August, he’ll debut his one-man comedy show, “Laughter Ever After,” at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.

But before he leaves to go conquer the world, Cozart talked to the Kernel about his life outside YouTube, dealing with the pressure of living up to “After Ever After,” and why he’ll never be one of the “cool kids.”

What is one thing you cannot live without?

Oh boy, I can’t live without my family. They’re my No. 1 supports, but also my No. 1 critics and the people I trust. I have love there.

Who would you say you’re most like in your family?

I’m probably most like my dad: We’re kind of on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of ideology and beliefs, but the way we go about those beliefs are very similar. He’s a very hardcore Christian pastor, a college professor, and I’m very interested in pop culture and fandoms and fantastical worlds and parody comedy, [but we] both share the same ideals about humanity.

What are the three top fandoms you’re a part of?

It’s always movies, now it’s television, but I’m huge into Lord of the Rings. I grew up on those movies, and then I developed a love for Harry Potter—just getting swept up in growing with the characters through the years—and then let’s see, a third one, oh gosh, I mean Disney, of course. Now Disney World and Disneyland are my favorite two places. I want to one day visit every single Disney park in the world. I just need to learn to speak French and I’m good.

“I’d want to live in the Harry Potter universe just because of the idea that there is this underground society of people who are magical and have issues that are so fun.”

You have time; you can pick that up quickly! If you could live inside any area of Disneyland which would you pick?

I’m very drawn to Frontierland. It’s just the idea that everything is made out of wood and people are making it with their hands, and there are also no rules in the Wild West and everyone is happy. I mean, I know this isn’t how the Wild West was [laughs]. There are singing bears and pin traders and fried food—it’s great!

What’s something that makes you laugh incredibly hard every single time?

I’m answering with a YouTube answer, but I love the Star Kids who made the “Harry Potter Musical” series on YouTube like 10 years ago.They’re incredible, but I can laugh at that nonstop because I think it’s an example of such collaboration and such beautiful talent and people who are just the funniest people you could put on stage. I really love it.

If you could live inside of any piece of literature, what book would you pick? And what character would you be?

I’d want to live in the Harry Potter universe just because of the idea that there is this underground society of people who are magical and have issues that are so fun. I love that idea. I know Harry Potter got a bad rap because he had so many people’s souls in his soul, but everyone else is having a pretty good time despite the evil witches and wizards.

I feel like everyone else who was in Gryffindor, all they had to do was worry about their exams.

OWLs [Ordinary Wizarding Levels]! I would preferably be a character where his parents weren’t tortured or killed. I would just want to be middle of the pack, not getting a lot of attention but still possessing magical powers. One of the characters they mention once and they never mention again, that’s me!

Favorite book and favorite movie of all time.

I’m not a big reader, I’m kind of dyslexic, but I read plays. My favorite book would be To Kill a Mockingbird; my favorite play is Othello. Oh, my favorite movie! I have to go with Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. It just had the most impact on me as a creative person because I watched all the behind-the-scenes and that’s basically taught me how to make movies—more than film school. It was so epic and influencing.

“I want to use YouTube to cultivate an audience of thinkers and a stronger community.”

Is film what you’d eventually like to get into? Is that what you’re studying now?

I’m going to get my degree in [film]. I can’t say if I’ve been educated to be a filmmaker; it’s still very far off. Ideally I’d like to maybe write a PG-13 comedy, kind of like Pitch Perfect. That would be my sweet spot if I wanted to make a film. I’ve thought about it for four years. When you have to go to screenwriting classes you’re like, what am I good at saying? What am I good at writing and talking about? And I’ve pretty much labeled myself as probably tweens, teens, girls, musicals—that stuff I’m good at.

Do you see YouTube continuing to be a big part of your future?

I don’t know if I will be marketable in a few years, so I’m going to try and bank on it right now after I get out of school. I want to use YouTube to cultivate an audience of thinkers and a stronger community. The way I’ve done it now is release a video every few months and then hope it does well, and that’s it. Ideally, I could get more out of it and hopefully give more to people through it than I’ve been doing.

People are going to be so excited that you’re doing this!

Hopefully I can figure out a way to be more productive and make more videos. I imagine just being out of college is just going to help tremendously.

What essentially amazes me about your channel is you create hit after hit. Even though fans don’t know when your next video will be, each hits at least 2 million views. Your content just always resonates with people so well.

I don’t know what it is! I think it’s because it takes me so long, and so other YouTubers who upload regularly can’t compete with the production quality. But at the same time, they’ve cultivated very loyal audiences and I sort of have an audience that might come, might not. Ideally, I could give both things, quality and quantity, but sometimes you make sacrifices.

“With all the stuff you create, you just want to create more to prove you’re an artist, but I feel like more of a hack than ever.”

Since you’ve opened a vlogging channel, what is the balance you strike between sharing your personal life and when to turn the camera off?

Here it is: If making the video will make it harder to be in the moment and live a fulfilling life, then I won’t make the video. If I’m out on vacation with my friends in Colorado and it randomly snows and we have a fun snow day, I’ll bring out my GoPro and make a video just so I can keep those memories alive and keep them on my channel and share them. But if they’re more personal moments or things I would rather just live, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not going to see the world through a lens, I’d rather experience it.

What is one habit people probably wouldn’t guess that you have?

I think everything is pretty evident about my personality, but maybe that’s me and I’m putting myself in my videos [chuckles]. I’m a bit of a loner and I’m very introverted as well. I avoid social interaction; I stay on the walls in parties unless I’m drinking, pretty much introverted through and through. I guess it’s not a habit—it’s a personality trait—but I’ve developed this personality almost as a necessity because otherwise I’d just never speak to people.

But I relate most to people when I’m having heart-to-hearts or when we’re really trying to understand each other. I developed this close-knit community of friends, like two or three, and they’re people I trust a lot, and I trust their opinions and I trust their thoughts. I go to them for everything and that makes them my base reality. Everybody else is people that you talk to, but I don’t get a lot of energy out of it. It kind of takes the energy out of me, so I recharge with people I can trust, and I frequently go out into the world weary and cynical [laughs].

The more videos you put out—do you feel a pressure for them to live up to the ones you’ve already put out that have been successful?

Yeah, there is always this need to get views so I can go buy Chipotle every day. At 23 years old, that’s the No. 1 food source. With videos, you’re always looking to prove that you can get better and that you can hone your craft and that you can get funnier and reach more people. I think that’s where some YouTubers lose it, when they only focus on expanding their brand or their audience, rather than cultivating one that is genuine and is the force for good rather than the force for big.

What is your personal YouTube philosophy?

Don’t give people a reason to click away. I did a TEDx Talk and was like, “What am I all about?” And I figured it out. If I don’t give people a reason to leave then they won’t leave a video, so that means every level of production needs to be immaculate. That’s what I live by, trying to make everything as good as it possibly can because if you’re going to do the job, you might as well do it full force.

“It works very well to keep me grounded and make me funnier and more genuine and a better person in my life when I hang out with people who don’t care about my YouTube videos.”

How long does a video take you from start to finish?

The recent videos take anywhere from one month to four months, just because writing and rewriting takes a long time. I’m not naturally clever, I have to really iron it out, and I usually arrange everything by ear because arranging music is difficult. The video itself doesn’t take too long; it’s just the two days of shooting and editing because it is more of a science process. Then the creative part, that takes a long time.

Do you need to take a break in between videos or do you hammer out a list?

Usually I just set my sights on a video that I want to create, and I’ll take as long as it takes to make it. Then after I’m done with it, I’ll just focus on my actual real life and try and stay away from the computer—which isn’t the best philosophy for a YouTuber because you’re alienating your audience right when it’s starting to build. But I found that it works very well to keep me grounded and make me funnier and more genuine and a better person in my life when I hang out with people who don’t care about my YouTube videos. But there is really no reason that I take a long time between projects other than I want to live my life.

What is your life outside of YouTube?

Up until now, I was in college, so I go to school and I work on projects. I was in an improv troupe for three years that I really dedicated myself to and [had] a lot of fun. I did some plays, play a lot of board games, I go out on the weekends and have fun with my friends. That’s about it. It’s just living a normal college life.

Illustration by Max Fleishman