(Top photo: Hila and Ethan Klein. Photos courtesy of H3H3 Productions)
It's quite appropriate that my chat with Ethan and Hila Klein, the duo behind the YouTube channel H3H3 Productions, should take place on Skype. It's on Skype that Ethan Klein has conducted his own interviews with some of the most controversial figures of internet culture.
Take Joey Salads, for example – the master of the contentious "social experiment" – who Ethan exposed as a faker who uses actors to stir up racial tension. During their interview he got Salads to admit what he and everyone else already knew: that his video featuring guys from the "hood" (read: black men) destroying a car with Trump paraphernalia on it was a hoax. He also conducted similar interviews with presidential debate phenom Ken Bone, and "Hugh Mungus", the man who was berated in a town hall by activist Zarna Joshi – though these were more sympathetic.
It's a middle ground the husband and wife partnership like to straddle. "I don't want to be on the alt-right and I don't want to be on the left, where it's never OK to say anything offensive," says Ethan. "I make what I want, and sometimes my videos appeal to the alt-right, and sometimes they appeal to the social justice warrior left, or whatever you want to call it. I don't identify with either of them."
Ethan and Hila Klein (neé Hakmon) met in Israel, Hila's home country, when Ethan went there on his Birthright trip. As they detailed in a schmaltzy recent upload, Hila moved to Ethan's university town of Santa Cruz after her obligatory stint in the IDF. Prior to that, their relationship grew on Skype. They're children of the internet, but not always willing participants. They're able to step back and observe the ridiculousness, and pass comment on it in their own incredulous way.
"It's so stupid, but there was this video called 'First Kiss' by Tatia Pilieva," says Ethan of the video that inspired them to post the first of many reaction vids the pair are now known for. "This video has 120,000,000 views, right? I remember watching it and thinking, 'This is the dumbest shit I've ever seen – why does everybody like this?' That's what pushed us to make our first reaction video… I think it's kind of that critical angle of grounded, reactive thought."
Hila concurs: "I agree with that. I guess 'grounded'? Which sounds kind of weird. It's hard to consider the Vape Nation guys grounded."
For the uninitiated, Vape Nation is the video that made stars of Ethan and Hila. It features Ethan in his trademark tucked-in T-shirt and pyjama bottoms combo, which accentuates his gut (or "FUPA", which means "fat upper pubic area"), obnoxiously extolling the virtues of inhaling searing hot churros-flavoured vapour into your lungs. It's by some distance their most popular piece of work to date. Though, in some ways, it's anomalous. This style of video, walking around New York ribbing vape shop clerks in a weed bandana, doesn't really fit into their oeuvre.
"Our fans really liked [it], but this whole concept of going out in public and humiliating myself – which is kind of at the heart of the series – was really fucking taxing on me," says Ethan. "I would walk out in this goofy-ass costume, like: 'Here I go again to humiliate myself!' It was soul-crushing. I think the 'Ethan Joins a 90s Boy Band' video was ten times more humiliating than anything I did in Vape Nation. I feel like it just broke something in me. I was like, 'I need, like, a year-long break before I can do this shit again. We want to do more sketches like that, but I just need a year to recharge after all that self-inflicted cringe."
Really, it's the critiquing of other people's YouTube videos that they're best known for – and that they appear to enjoy making more than the prank stuff. After all, who wants to debase themselves in public? That's what only the weirdest and worst YouTubers do.
Has his own trepidation in this field given Ethan more respect for the kind of content creators he lampoons? "Absolutely. It's fucking brutal. To go out and endure that on a regular basis, you need to be… something's got to be broken in your brain," he says.
More recently, H3H3 have added a new string to their bow, in the form of Hila's participation. Whereas before she functioned purely as a director/ producer/ shooter, she now appears in some of the videos, playing the straight man role.
"It started around the time we were more frustrated with our main channel," Hila says, "when we were doing only one kind of video. We got really frustrated with that format and we wanted to open up to more kinds of videos that we could make. So on our second channel we tried to do it with me in the video, which was really different for us, especially for me."
"I was super bombastic and yelling and screaming all the time," says Ethan. "It came to a point where we were like, 'I'm just doing the same schtick and I fucking hate it,' and so when you introduce someone else to the equation – especially Hila – it calmed me down a lot. It felt more like a conversation where I was just being myself and not yelling at the screen. It really added a fresh perspective and it helped me and my creative process a lot. I think we inadvertently created a straight man / psycho man dichotomy, which we never even considered, but yeah, it works."
Some fans of the channel have jumped on this – a husband and wife YouTuber team who aren't trying to prank each other into a divorce or saccharinely detailing every moment of their ideal lives, but two equals who share thoughts and feelings and crack jokes. "We definitely seem to be getting a lot more people kind of idolising our relationship or talking about Hila like the perfect woman or some shit like that," says Ethan. "I do think there's definitely some of that appeal. I think other YouTubers play it up a lot, like how it's a very relationship-oriented channel – it certainly is a relationship-oriented channel, but not always."
However, things aren't ideal for the couple right now. Ethan and Hila are currently embroiled in a copyright infringement lawsuit, filed by fellow YouTuber Matt Hoss, who alleges the Kleins, in one of their reaction videos, used "over 70 percent of his work while contributing nothing substantive to it", didn't link out to Hoss' original video and profited off their own video. The Kleins have removed the video from their page, but say they did in fact promote the original video in their version.
In a recent video, the two outline the financial strain the suit is causing them, and thank their fans for donations towards helping with the costs. "It's just the most important case that's ever come before a court in terms of how it affects YouTube, I think," says Ethan, referring to reaction video makers using content made by other YouTubers. "It absolutely sets a precedent, which is why we decided to fight it and not just pay him $4,000 to fuck off."
The suit is ongoing, so little more can be said on it.
WATCH: 'My Life Online – Shoenice22 Will Eat Anything for Fame'
While the H3H3 channel itself has avoided too much other controversy, the pair's friends and collaborators have courted it fairly loudly in the past few weeks. Frequent collaborator Ian Carter, or "iDubbbz", recently attended a meet and greet with Tana Mongeau, a "story time" YouTuber. There, he posed for a photo with her and said "Say nigger!" in the place of "Say cheese." Mongeau posted multiple videos stating how upset she was by this, and how disgusting she thought the language was, but was revealed to have used the word in her younger years.
Carter's excuse is that he doesn't think one epithet should be seen as worse than any other. His fans also seem to use the term "nigger faggot" to refer to him and each other, based on an insult that was levelled at him once. It jars with my perception of Ethan and Hila as people who call out racism when they see it, and appear to understand the context of these words and how they can affect people.
"It's all about intent. If you look at Joey Salads' videos – if you look at 'pranks in the hood' – the intent is to incite racism, and they depict actual black people in their videos as violent thugs," says Ethan. "When iDubbbz comes on, he says 'nigger faggot', but he's using it contextually. There's not someone in his video that he's setting up to look bad. It's completely different. We're just talking about the usage of a word in a contextual discussion versus actual implied, real racism, where they're depicting black people in this fucking horrible manner."
But doesn't the laissez faire use of these words encourage a very real slew of racists and homophobes? Is it really the place of Ethan Klein or Ian Carter to decide when and in what context it's cool to use these words, particularly on a platform like YouTube, where it's often used in the infamously and almost unbelievably racist comments sections?
"What you see in the comments is – what can you do, it's YouTube. You can't control who's there," says Ethan. "It bothers me when I make a video making fun of feminists, then all the time I see all these alt-right comments, and it's like – I don't want to identify with them. I don't want to necessarily court these people, and I'm sure Ian feels exactly the same way. It's just, what can you do? It's almost like you're suggesting that you have to choose a side, and that's something that I found really frustrating."
H3H3 recently started a video podcast, on which Carter was a recent guest. They seem a little more at home in that setting, able to wax lyrical and make jokes and react. I told them it reminded me a little of Howard Stern.
"That was our goal, for sure. I'm thinking, 'How could I make it more like Howard Stern?' Which is a show that I found really interesting and entertaining. His show is just a madhouse when you see it on television. I want to have more shit going on in there so it's more like a talk show, I'd say, than a podcast. That's my dream for it; we're far off from that now. We have a couple of different ideas for a show, but I'm not sure if we're ready to leave YouTube just yet."
It would be a format that would work, but you hope that they don't follow too closely in Stern's footsteps of extremity, belittling the disabled and being controversial for controversy's sake. To ignore the fact that, in a western society increasingly beleaguered by right wing extremist views, casually using racist and homophobic epithets – even within context – is plainly wrong and, frankly, beneath them.
They don't want to pick sides, but you feel with the way things are going, with their penchant for righteousness and exposing toxic ills, they might just have to.
More from VICE: