Welcome to Local Viral, an occasional series on Philadelphians who’ve gained a following on social media or YouTube.
Sitting in La Colombe for our interview, Kevin Simmons, host of The Skorpion Show, wants to know if I’ve seen Underground. I haven’t. The scripted miniseries follows a group a slaves from Macon, Georgia as they attempt to reach freedom on the Underground Railroad, hence the name.
“Well let me tell you something,” he reacts. “After I seen 12 Years a Slave, I was like ‘I’m done with these kinds of movies,’” Kevin, explains. You know, the darker, slavery features: “12 Years a Slave had me crying in the theater. I’m like damn. It was a mess.” But with Underground, a miniseries, there’s no tears. He’s loving the storylines; he’s loving where the show is headed. (The response across critics has been mostly favorable too.) “I watched one episode of Underground, and I was hooked,” he snaps, “just like that.”
He tells me the day (Wednesdays), time (9 p.m.) and station (WGN) to watch it. Kevin, the Skorpion, is a pro, and he’s ready to discuss the show on camera with co-host Makael McLendon when they’ll film later at Kevin’s. For eight years, Kevin and Makael have talked gossip, news, TV, movies and music in longform episodes that don’t have a set time limit, but regularly tip past the hour mark. (When they drop a review, those clips are often shorter.) Both Philly natives, they began filming when they met in 2008, getting the party started with a series of Beyonce/Janet debates. They recap, share their takes, remember funny stories and spin their own funny stories out of the moment. They’ve interviewed Gaga, Iyanla and Brandy, among others. They have 150,550 YouTube subscribers as of this morning. Because their commentary centers on current events, they’ve built an audience looking for their views on the news of the day. “Every time there’s something big, people always want to hear what we have say… They’re getting their news from us, rather than TV or blogs,” Makael says.
“We can take a week off, and they’ll still be waiting like, ‘So what did you think about such and such? We still want to know,” Kevin agrees.
“I went on a cruise last October, and I was so glad that I wasn’t talking about anything,” Makael admits. “It has not hit me yet that I’m a voice for all these different people. And maybe that’s a good thing because I don’t want to get that big head.”
How did you get started?
Kevin: I used to work for a window treatment company. I was let go because I was very opinionated and I didn’t like how they were changing a lot of stuff without me.
[I started] a smaller YouTube channel and I was just talking about stuff, about music. It really started to take off. I was talking about it on MySpace, trying to get everybody to watch and eventually it turned into a job on YouTube. Eventually I brought [Makael] along. We met through MySpace. The first day we recorded for like 45 minutes and we’ve been doing it ever since.
How did you settle on the format?
Makael: I don’t know if ever talked about how it was going to go. When we first started, we were just rambling on and on and on. But then as we started to get a little bit of notoriety, especially from celebrities, it was like I guess we got something going on here. We didn’t really have a plan. We just started…
Kevin: Kitchen table talk. Stuff that people talk about all the time. We just did it on camera.
Makael: And see, for me, because I love The View, we were going to model after it, where we’re going to have different topics. But I don’t think we ever really sat down and said this is how we’re going to do it. We kind of just went along with the flow.
When did things start to grow for the channel?
Kevin: I think we’re the pioneers of duos on YouTube, of kitchen table talk, because we’ve been doing it for so long that many other channels molded themselves after us.
Sometimes celebrities would help push us out there. Michelle Williams, she was one of the first celebrities to back our channel by saying you guys speak the truth on a lot of things that people don’t want to talk about. She would tweet us out, we gained a lot of traction from that. Different websites would post our videos… us actually doing celebrity interviews as well.
Makael: We’ve had some celebrities that I would have never thought we’d would able to sit down and even talk to, let alone have them on our actual show. We have been blessed to do that. And I agree with him, we are the pioneers, even though we don’t say it. We know that they know. We don’t really have to say it.
We’ve individually had people hitting us up to say ‘How do we do this?’ or ‘How did you get this person?’ But you know, that’s what happens when you have a good team working together.
Kevin: And celebrities actually contacting us. Not going through a manger. Just Twitter.
How do you stay in the know?
Kevin: You can’t stay out of the know with social media. Because people will find you everywhere and let you know what’s going on and want to know what you think about it. For instance, with the whole Janet Jackson thing [her announcement that she was going to “delay” her tour to start a family], I had text messages, Facebook messages, Instagram DM, Twitter messages, it was just crazy.
Makael: Same for me, and I’m not even a fan of Janet Jackson.
People just want me to know, ‘Oh we remember when you said x, y, z, and it actually came to light.’
Kevin: They remember a lot.
So you don’t even have to have a particular media diet anymore? People just let you know?
Makael: Right. A lot of times that’s how we do our show. Because people will just leave [Kevin] different topics and we’ll just piggyback of what it is and we’ll look it up and then we’ll start talking about it.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
Kevin: Be original. You can’t be anyone else that you see. Be real, meaning don’t flip flop. And if you do flip flop, be honest about why you changed your opinion. Because I look back at stuff I recorded years ago and I be like, ‘Goodness, I don’t even think like that anymore.’
Makael: It’s true. It’s called growth. Like he said, he said, you have to be true to yourself. Because the people who watching you are going to see that you’re being fake, they’re going to see that you’re not being honest, and they’re just not going to be tuned into you. You can’t sit in front of a camera and then act like B. Scott or the Skorpion show, people are going to recognize that.
For us, when we started out, we didn’t have anyone to copy off of. So we had to be original.
Kevin: Get yourself out there, don’t be afraid to share your videos and tweet people, just don’t be annoying with the shit.
And be consistent with your content. Because that’s how people found us. We have probably over 1,000 videos on YouTube, so when you watch one video, you get into the next.
Why YouTube over another medium, like podcasting?
Makael: Podcasts was something that was brought to us a few times before, but I think for us we kind of like the visual where people can I see us.
They’ve kind of gotten used to seeing me making faces at him, or him making faces or him laughing. On a podcast you can’t really see all of that.
Yes, there are a lot of people who listen to us on their way to work, or while they’re at work. But there’s also a lot of people who can’t wait until they get home so they can actually watch us.