February 13, 2016

STRANGER: Victor Pope Jr.
LOCATION: Gloria’s Restaurant, 3901 Arlington Highlands Boulevard, Arlington, Texas
THEME: Dining with an aspiring standup comedian

“I want to go down as one of the best standup comedians of all time,” said Victor Pope Jr.

We were nearing the end of an almost three-hour dinner together in his hometown of Arlington, Texas. Victor, a friendly and engaging 22-year-old, had spent much of it explaining how he’s developing his career in comedy. It started with jokes on Twitter, before moving on to the app Vine where he posts six-second video skits for his more-than one million viewers. But his end goal is to move to New York City and make it as a professional standup comedian.

“I definitely know I’m not there yet, but I’ve got a lot patience,” he said.

In the meantime he’s working on his videos, and his offbeat sense of humor covers everything from Red Riding Hood trash-talking her grandma to the Hamburglar going on a first date, and from a sketch about tornadoes only knocking stuff down because they’re so dizzy from spinning, to a longer video about getting pulled over by the cops that ends with a great punchline about white privilege.

I’ve long been curious about how people “make it” on Vine and fascinated by the fact that one app can turn someone into an online celebrity, followed by more people than the population of many cities. I was in Texas for a weekend, and Victor was happy to shed some light on it all.

Victor suggested meeting at Gloria’s Restaurant in Arlington, a large and welcoming place serving up Latin cuisine like fajitas and quesadillas. I was a few minutes early so took a look around and saw most of the tables filled with apparently happy diners.

When Victor arrived for the interview, he gave a firm handshake and then we sat down, making small talk. Although he was effortlessly likable throughout the meal, he seemed a little guarded at first, maybe bemused by the idea of being stuck at a dinner table with a stranger for a while. But as the meal went on, and our margaritas were refilled, he opened up more about his life and love of comedy. And occasionally his answers would inspire him to riff on a particular topic. When Victor’s improvising, his broad grin and contagious laugh make it obvious he’s getting a kick out of it.

His passion for comedy, evidenced by the almost-daily output of hilarious content on Vine and Twitter, has helped him top one million Vine followers and almost 100,000 followers on Twitter. I wondered whether he ever gets unnerved or feels pressure having so many eyes on him.

“I try not to think about it,” he said with a grin. “But a lot of times, I’ll be about to tweet something, like, pancakes aren’t as good as waffles, then I think, ‘Do 100,000 people really need to know this?”

I had to respond, “Of course, you’re wrong, because waffles dry out quicker.”

Victor smirked and started thinking on his feet. “So they do need to know this!” he said.

I suggested pancakes are better because they’re like sponges for the syrup.

In mock seriousness, Victor leaned forward and protested. “But waffles have pockets! They have syrup pockets. Pancakes are all like, ‘Oh no, where am I going to put all this delicious syrup? I wish I had pocket.’ Waffle’s like, ‘I don’t have to worry about that.’”

Several times during our meal, Victor would pick up the thread of a topic and turn it into a mini-improvisation sketch. He explained that going with the flow is one of the ways that he devises his Vines, picking up objects around his house and finding the funny in them.

Victor was born in Arlington, and has three older siblings. Victor said he was never the class clown cracking jokes for his friends or acting out for laughs in high school. He used to tell himself offbeat things to make himself laugh, but was never telling jokes to get laughs.

After graduation from high school he went to a college in northern Louisiana to major in social work. “It’s gonna sound cliché but I just wanted to help people.”

I reassured him it’s OK to want to help people, then he quipped that he was just trying to get into social work for the money. “Oh, that gold mine!” he said with a laugh.

Our waitress arrived to set down some chips with two dips — salsa and refried beans, both delicious and served in plentiful amounts — and margaritas for both of us.

While I picked at the chips, Victor told me that his time in Louisiana was short-lived. The out-of-state fee at college ended up being too much for him to afford, so he came back to Arlington and started studying social work at a community college. But soon enough he started to realize that comedy was his true calling, and he dropped out of school.

He started to realize he was funny when he got on Twitter. He would use the 140-character tweets to tell the world his musings. “I wasn’t trying to be funny, I was just putting my thoughts out there, but I realized I could write a joke and a punchline and be witty. I would have a thought and then take so long to write and rewrite it that I realized I was writing jokes without knowing it.”

Just don’t excpect the other Popes — Victor lives with his family — to laugh along. “My family don’t think I’m funny at all, not a single person,” he said with a laugh.

Followers and friends encouraged him to do standup based on tweets, and he gave it a whirl. His first set was a collection of stories about his life and his young son. “I did all right, I was maybe a little below average, but since it was my first time it was OK. I had some friends in the audience, and I got some genuine laughs,” he said.

Victor pursued standup in the Arlington area for a while, but the city has a limited number of comedy clubs. Then in January 2013 he noticed the release of the Vine app. He downloaded it and make a few videos, but didn’t really take it seriously until about a year later. What changed? He made a skit — he doesn’t recall exactly which one, he just knows it had to do with the police — and it went viral online, even earning a tweet of praise from comedian Mike Epps. “That’s when I knew I needed to be doing this, so I devoted my energy to Vine.”

When his Vines started getting hundreds of thousands of shares, Victor realized how easy it was to go viral online — and that he could make a career out of it.

“I saw the top people on Vine making $100,000 a year with ‘relatable’ comedy,” he said, referencing the kind of unfunny, derivative sketches that can be cringe-inducing (think sound effects and pratfalls to pad out a lazy, laugh-free skit about everyday occurrences) or offensive (way too many skits using minorities and stereotypes as a punchline). “But I knew I was way funnier than those people,” Victor said. So he quit his job and focused on making money from the app.

There are two ways “Viners” make money. The first is that an agency reaches out to the artists and licenses everything they put on the Internet. So if it their content ends up on YouTube, the agency puts an advertisement on it and the artists get a fee.

The second way is through brand deals, with corporate sponsorship from the likes of Coca-Cola or DiGiorno pizza. I mentioned to Victor that I’ve never seen him do a blatant ad or piece of product placement. “Well, that’s good, because I’m really sneaky with them,” he said with a smile. “I’ve done two or three ads on Vine, a lot of times I do them for other platforms like Twitter or Instagram.”

Does he have any qualms about taking money to do a sponsored Vine? Not at all. “At the end of the day everything I put out is free content. I upload some type of content to a social network at least once or twice a day, for free, all for your entertainment. So for me to get paid for that is a no-brainer,” he said. “If you go to work every day, you want to get paid.”

An alarming amount of Victor’s time is taken up monitoring and posting to his social media apps. He’s on at least seven: Vine, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and Periscope. His username is victorpopejr on all of them. That’s too many apps to describe each one, but they offer some variety on either posting hilarious videos or pictures or, with Periscope, offering live performances for his fans. “I was never really a fan of Tumblr or Snapcat, I was just on Twitter or Vine, but I have to be on them all and keep up because every other creator on social media has them all,” said Victor.

Victor’s Vines are mostly observational humor or clever puns played out in six seconds. I asked him to talk me through how he came up with a couple — including one where Clifford the Big Red Dog gets revenge on the veterinarian who neutered the pooch.

Victor laughed as he remembered the Vine. “That started out I was just in my garage and found a saw, and was thinking of some bad joke about why people always say ‘Timber!’ when cutting down a tree. But it developed into the Clifford thing, which was weird, but a lot of my skits end up in a different place from where they start out,” he said.

Although most of his Vines are shot without special effects, he did do some editing and black-and-white footage for another skit. A guy is wearing a Texas Longhorns cap, so another guy (both played by Victor) asks if he’s a fan of the team. “Nah, man, I just like the hat,” is the response — and that makes the other guy break down singing “Deception! Disgrace!” from an obscure song in The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride. “I just really wanted to do something with that song,” laughed Victor. “The scene where that happens has these ostriches and hippos singing at the lion, telling him to get out of there. I’m like, he’s a lion, he could kill of you, stop singing at him!”

He’s proud of much of his work online, although Victor said he’ll take Vines down if he’s getting a sense from the comments section that the joke isn’t going over how he wanted. He said he’ll never scrap a Vine based on the number of likes, but will based on comments.

“I’m my biggest critic for the most part,” Victor said. “I’m really tough on myself, and a lot of times when people tell me that a particular Vine wasn’t funny, or I could have been funny if I’d done it this way, my response is, ‘I know,’” he added. “I hate getting comedic advice from people because everything they tell me I already know. It’s not like they say that and I’m like, ‘Now I see!’”

Victor doesn’t do his Vines carelessly. He spends weeks, sometimes more, writing sketches, and he has a vault of ideas — some more than a year old. “A joke is still art to me,” he said. “If a painter created something and someone said, ‘You should have used this color,’ well, you don’t hear that. But a lot of people critique jokes. I don’t want that.”

While Victor is not a fan of the Viners doing relatable humor, he had plenty of praise for several of his fellow creators. He listed Gabriel Gundacker and Cole Hersch as two that came instantly to mind. “They’re so dry and witty. I’m a fan of the characters they created, not a lot of people have fresh and original characters like that,” he said.

Other Viners whose work he loves include Matt Post, Evan Breen and Nick Colleti. In fact, Victor’s talking with Evan and Nick about planning a standup tour across the United States for later this year, although it’s still in the early stages with no dates or venues.

We paused for a moment while our waitress returned with our meals.

Victor went for the pollo asado combinado, which is marinated chicken breast grilled served with yuca, gallo pinto and fried plantain. I didn’t try his food, but he had praise for it.

I ordered the chimichanga, and it was amazing.

It’s a burrito stuffed with shredded cheese, chile con queso and shredded chicken, then fried. It was cooked to perfection, the outer layer of the burrito was suitably crisp but the contents still flavorful. Served with Spanish rice, pinto beans, lettuce, guacamole and chile con queso on the side, this was a huge amount of food. And I’m not really ashmed to say I ate the whole thing.

As we dined, I asked Victor more about the standup tour, and it’s clear performing on a stage for audiences across the country would help him in his goal of building and honing his act.

He’s living at home and building up savings from Vine in order to plan an eventual move to New York, where he plans to focus more on standup comedy. There aren’t enough open mike nights at comedy clubs in Arlington to really let him grow, he said, and he’s heard that Los Angeles is too spread out to make success possible. But in New York he could perform at four or five comedy clubs in one night without having to travel far, so that’s where he wants to end up.

There’s no self-imposed deadline for his move. “I’m a spontaneous person but I’m really not impulsive with it. I’ll know when I have enough money to move out there, but I’m not going to move before I make sure that every situation out here is resolved first,” he said.

One thing he’s working on improving is socializing. Victor said that last year, as he ramped up his focus on being a professional comedian, he shut himself off from the world and withdrew from his friends. He thought that he had to “100 percent focus” on writing comedy. “I alienated myself and it was really unhealthy for a while. But I definitely did my best material then, because I was so focused,” he said, citing the aforementioned white privilege sketch about being pulled over by the police. “I also did some of my best standup during that time, and some of my best tweets, it was better writing.”

It seems like Twitter might be a curse and a blessing for Victor. It gets him plenty of exposure, but he said it can be exhausting keeping up with all the social media. He engages with fans, though says it’s hard to think of new ways to say thanks to fans who compliment his humor or physical appearance. “A lot of artists and celebrities on Twitter will respond to the hate before they respond to the praise — not that it’s new, but it’s something different. I don’t want to be saying, ‘Thank you, thank you’ the whole time because I don’t think it’s genuine, I don’t want to give 100 people the same response.”

Sometimes he doesn’t want to be online at all. “I get exhausted by it so a lot of the time I delete the apps and go MIA for two or three days, because it’s so easy to get lost in the internet,” Victor said.

To keep himself sane, Victor tries to set a schedule each day. He wakes up, goes for a run, meditates to improve his thought process, and writes or does improv. “Some days I fail at doing all of those things, including waking up,” he said with a laugh. “But I need a schedule because without one I feel too free,” he added, saying most of his day is spent working on his comedy. “I don’t really have a personal life at this point,” he said. “I try to go out, watch movies, but I’m really focused.”

Victor’s writing pays off not only for his own career, but also for others. He’s sold jokes to other comedians when he thinks of something that doesn’t fit his style of humor.

“When I go to certain open mike nights, you’ll hear some black comedians, their entire bits is about, ‘Black people do this, white people do this,’ and I said I’d never do those types of jokes, or bad taste jokes. But you can’t help what you think of sometimes. So while I’d never say some of the jokes I think of, if they’re really clever, I shop it around,” Victor said.

Victor’s own style is offbeat observational humor, and he’s not playing a character on stage unlike some of his favorite Viners including Gundacker and Hersch. “They have these unique characters, and I’m so inspired by them that I’ve been thinking of creating something like, an oblivious character,” he said. But while Victor’s personality on screen is what you see off-screen (after spending several hours with him, I can confirm this), there’s some obfuscation.

He jokes around with his fans by telling ridiculous lies about his age, or how many kids he has, or whether he’s married or not. “I do that to leave a little space between my fans on my personal life,” he said.

Something I noticed throughout dinner and from watching Victor’s videos is that he doesn’t make any cutting, hateful or spiteful remarks. His humor comes from an offbeat, upbeat place. It’s a marked contrast from some videos online when he engaged in rap battles a few years ago. They’re contests where people try to cut each other down with words, fighting for a cash prize.

“I grew up watching rap battles and loved it, it was about who’s better linguistically,” he said. “I found out there was a league out here and I got into it and was pretty good at it. But I wanted to do more than just tear another person down with words,” Victor added. “Instead of picking someone apart with a rap battle, I can change the world with standup. I can give my generation a voice.”

That voice has a “pretty liberal worldview,” Victor acknowledged, saying that negativity from rap battles doesn’t fit in with his outlook on life. He credits his upbringing and his time spent of social work, and reading a lot about sociology, for the way he sees the world.

And it’s a world he’s determined to conquer through standup.

As we wrapped up dinner, he reiterated his plan to hone his craft at standup clubs in New York. “The more I get up on stage, the more I grow. Standup comedy is my viewpoint, and obviously as my viewpoint grows, my jokes grow, and how I look at the world grows.”

But he’s also open to other jobs, such as being part of a team writing for a scripted series. “That’s essentially how I write,” he said. He’ll come up with an idea for a sketch then leave it for a week or so. Then he looks at it anew, “so it’s almost like having another writer when I go back to it. Once something is new, I’m too close to judge it myself, that’s why I sit on it.”

Victor’s in no hurry to sign up for a series or audition for a show like Saturday Night Live. “Right now the goal is just to get to New York, and in the meantime keep building my online presence,” he said. And as he said when we first met, he’s patient about his career.

“I know a lot of comedians don’t hit their peak till they’re in their 30s or 40s,” Victor said. “I see myself as being one of the greatest standup comedians of all time, and I know I’ll get there.”

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