To get over his fear of flying, he spent 30 days living on an AirTran plane.
To prove that New Yorkers really are nice people, he was physically carried by 155 city-dwellers over 9 miles through the island of Manhattan.
He’s lived for a week in an IKEA, visited every Starbuck’s in Manhattan in 24 hours, and convinced 95 mayors across the US to grant him the keys to their respective cities.
And incredibly, he’s built an audience of millions for his unique hybrid of guerrilla marketing and viral videos through media coverage and appearances on Jay Leno, ABC, Fox and CBS, The Today Show, Huffington Post and the LA Times, to name a few.
Brands clamor for stage time in his wildly popular one-man productions, yet he manages to stay down to earth, doing it all for the love of the creative process, and making time for fans, friends and family along the way. I caught up with Mark recently for a phone interview to learn what makes him tick and how you might go about achieving similar results.
Read on below for the interview and samples of his viral life-as-artwork projects.
Why do you do the things you do?
I’ve been doing comedy for years, and I’ve always been more into big concepts, huge, grandiose ideas. I love falling in love with an idea that excites me, and then, the challenge of pulling it off. People saying to me, “there’s no way you can do that,” and then launching into this process; sometimes it’s a week, sometimes a month, but it’s always a real whirlwind journey.
Once it became easy to post videos online, I realized video was the perfect platform for expressing kind of thinking, this kind of artform. It’s a bonus too that with video, I don’t really have to answer to anybody. I do like collaborating, but I like working on my own stuff. Standup I enjoy, but only somewhat, and with sketch comedy, I’ve seen a lot of people that don’t get along. My projects just suit my creative personality really well.
What are the most memorable moments from your various projects?
I love people’s response to what I do, especially kids. It’s funny, parents will email and say “my kid really loves your videos,” and I’m kind of proud to know my stuff’s clean, its universal.
After I lived on the AirTran plane a lot of parents told me their kids were trying to imitate me on plane trips. I did a Guns and Roses project, playing at CBGBs, a lot of kids came out with their parents – so unexpected, and just from one small magazine mention. Since then it’s just been growing: mentions by Jimmy Kimmel, Rolling Stone, Esquire – one of my projects was the #1 most remarkable thing in culture that week by Esquire.
What is your relationship like with the brands you choose to highlight in your projects?
I have a good relationships with the brands, the vast majority get what I do, and give me a lot of creative freedom. They understand the video has to be entertaining and feel like a natural fit. If not, it looks like a commercial, and people aren’t going to pay attention. Sometimes brands come and bring an idea, and if I need to be honest and say that’s not going to work, that’s what I’ll do. I’ve had plenty of projects come my way and the people behind them ask me “will this get TV coverage?”, and I’ve said no and had to turn them down.
Truth is, though, my ideas never start with a brand in mind – I just want to do something entertaining. Something that would make me and my friends laugh. My video ideas are not driven by money, and I’m not driven by doing this for money, it’s really about the artistic process.
Who/what are your creative inspirations?
There’s really not many that do anything similar to what I do – these types of videos. I love comedians and other creative people that take risks, really think out of the box. I love David Letterman, he was a real innovator of comedy in the 80s. If you look at the last 20-30 years, I think he influenced comedy more than anyone. Also a huge fan of Fred Rogers, from the kids’ show Mr. Rogers. Garry Shandling, Woody Allen, and the Saturday Night Live writer Robert Smigel. [Side note: Smigel is known for sketches like The Ambiguously Gay Duo and TV Funhouse, as well as the iconic Triumph the Insult Comic Dog of Conan O'Brien fame] – yet he’s amazingly humble. I’ve had the chance to meet him several times, and that’s an incredible feeling when you get to know your idol and they turn out to be a really great person.
What would you say to someone who wants to do what you do – what are the steps, what is the right approach?
It took me a long time to get here. I had day jobs in TV for ten years and was doing my comedy at night – probably a total of 20-30 jobs to support me before my passion could pay the bills. For a while I was a doorman at a comedy club and there were so many people trying to make it, really going on this emotional rollercoaster. One I specifically remember was Dane Cook – people don’t see what went into this success, how much time and energy he put into his comedy. Dave Chappelle used to be in the club until 3 am and never wanted to leave, doing multiple sets throughout the night. For most of the people you admire, you’ve gotta realize it didn’t happen overnight.
Look at Adam Sandler, and what he’s doing with his Happy Madison crew – his high school and college friends. Look how far he’s come with this tight knit group of people that believe in him. I recommend getting a trusted group of advisors, it can take you in amazing directions and save you when you’re blinded by an idea you think is good that really isn’t. I made a list of everyone I knew and approached people about helping me out, then weeded out the people that weren’t serious. In the end I found a group of people that really believed in me. At the same time, it’s really important to be nurturing those friendships and giving back. I love helping people out when I can, I think it really pays off in the long run.
Then, try to pick projects you really care about. Its so obvious when you watch something that’s not inspired, like you’re just trying to get noticed, or make a career move. I have no problem coming up with 50 – 100 ideas, but then you have to wait a day or two and see what 1 or 2 ideas really feel strong. My criteria is pretty simple. Does this really make me laugh? Is this really entertaining video content I would want to watch? If so, I write up the premise and get feedback from that group of comedy friends on what would work.
Also, if you want to be successful with this kind of entertainment, you have to build up your social media profile. I’m fortunate because my videos stand out, that’s the reason for a lot of media coverage, but in general you have to set yourself apart from what others are doing. And your reach is what helps get brands on board. I had to get a few videos picking up media coverage before any brands wanted to work with me. I’m much better with traditional media, getting TV or newspaper, but everyone’s a little different in terms of what kind of coverage they’re looking for.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, you have to put a pen to paper and write out goals. You have to have a clear vision of where you want to be and how you’re going to get there. If you don’t there’s just a lot of hoping and waiting. Most of the people I admire had strong visions and set huge goals. Its good to have a 3-5 year plan, and then be flexible with how it might turn out.
For more about Mark and his work visit his website markmalkoff.com