By Elizabeth de Luna
The Try Guys have had one hell of a year. In the past 12 months, the quartet — Keith Habersberger, Ned Fulmer, Zach Kornfeld, and Eugene Lee Yang — have gained six million YouTube subscribers, gone on a national tour, started a podcast, and written a no. 1 New York Times best-selling book. This success is especially remarkable given that, at this time last year, they had just made one of the riskiest personal and financial gambles of their careers: leaving BuzzFeed, where they first met and crafted the Try Guys brand, to form their own independent production company. Over their four years with BuzzFeed, they’d earned an online fanbase of millions with videos devoted to a simple mission — to try anything, from fast food to fatherhood to facials, regardless of how often they failed or how dumb they looked. Without BuzzFeed behind them, would they lose it all?
Spoiler alert: They didn’t. In fact, their biggest struggle after starting 2nd Try Productions turned out to be pretty boring. “We definitely didn't know anything about creating a company health insurance policy,” jokes Fulmer. He’s full of energy, sitting with Habersberger and Yang in an empty green room at New York’s Beacon Theatre. It’s Kornfeld’s 29th birthday, so he is elsewhere celebrating what Yang lovingly calls his “Big Boy Birthday Brunch.” In a few hours, they’ll take the stage to perform a show perfectly aligned with their ethos of championing the act of trying. They’ll throw chicken tenders into an audience of their fans (called Tryceratops), lip sync to Hannah Montana, and generally relish poking fun at themselves with wild enthusiasm. It’s an exciting next step in a journey they say began five years ago with a few pairs of Victoria’s Secret lingerie.
When the guys joined BuzzFeed’s fledgling video department around January 2014, they were part of what they estimate were the first 20 video producers at the company. That September, Kornfeld and Habersberger were tasked with creating content for Facebook’s new video product. After discovering that women were the greatest sharers on the platform they thought, "Let's make a video about an argument women have and see what happens when men test it," says Habersberger. They landed on a concept — "Guys Try On Ladies’ Underwear" — and began trawling the office floor for co-workers willing to strip down.
At that time, the expected output frequency of two videos per week necessitated the internal casting of BuzzFeed employees. “You’d just grab somebody and say ‘Hey, can you come eat this food for 20 minutes with me?’” says Habersberger. But convincing male coworkers to bare it all, physically and emotionally, for a growing online audience proved more difficult than asking them to taste test snacks. "We were the only four people that were willing to do it,” says Fulmer, before quickly correcting himself, "Actually, I didn't even want to do it!" To persuade him, Habersberger recalls appealing to Fulmer’s improv and sketch comedy background. Yang rounded out their skeleton crew “not because he's so sexy, which he is,” says Habersberger coyly, raising his eyebrows to emphasize the point, "but because he was really good at finding a poignant argument to conclude videos."
The resulting two-minute clip of the guys marveling at their figures in thongs and boyshorts while simultaneously commiserating out loud with the women in their lives was a viral success. At 22 million views, “Guys Try On Ladies' Underwear For The First Time” is still one of the 50 most-viewed videos of the more than 6,200 that BuzzFeed has uploaded to their main channel since 2012. Following this initial success, the guys squeezed into pleather and lace ensembles to become sexy firefighters, ladybugs, and nuns for a Halloween video that highlighted the hypersexualization of women’s costumes. And then, in November, the Internet delivered a gift: Kim Kardashian’s iconic photoshoot for Paper Magazine, in which she gleefully exposes her oiled-up rear end. The guys filmed all night, rubbing baby oil on each other and posing with their butts out in earnest attempts to recreate the shot and capitalize on a viral moment that felt custom-made for their messaging.
When the video blew up the next day, it was clear that their game-for-anything attitudes and budding friendship forged over late nights and near-nudity were consistently resonating with millions. “I think the audience could feel that we went into every video with zero judgment of each other and of ourselves. We were the only ones willing to stand in front of our colleagues in very thin underwear and talk about our bodies. And I think that’s where The Try Guys philosophy came from,” Yang says.
“We want to change what it means to be masculine, and to be a guy that’s OK with being vulnerable,” Habersberger says. “We have hundreds of videos where we lose, all of us. We edit more of our failures in. We want to show that failure is necessary. You don't learn anything from winning.” Fulmer adds, “We hope that when we try something outside of our comfort zone, it inspires other people to try it. Doing that makes the world a smaller place.”
Back in 2014, BuzzFeed had not yet developed a show around a recurring cast. A series called “The Creepy Guy” starred a single producer and ran from 2013-2015, but The Try Guys was the first series to consistently feature the same group of talent. It was also the first to turn BuzzFeed producers into on-camera personalities, a motif that now anchors BuzzFeed’s original programming. Fulmer became “known for his ass, famously,” says Yang, in addition to his deep love for his wife, Ariel, whom he’d mention in just about every video. “Butt, wife, child, house!” says Yang, listing the most important things in Fulmer’s life. “Don't say ‘butt wife,’” pleads Habersberger in feigned disgust. Yang, the only member of color and a self-proclaimed Slytherin, acted as a foil for Fulmer and the bubbly, bespectacled Kornfeld and Habersberger.
From left to right: Ned Fulmer, Keith Habersberger, Eugene Lee Yang, and Zach Kornfeld
When their contracts with BuzzFeed ended in April 2018, they saw the potential to do more than what the constraints of the company would allow. “By that point, we were four years into our digital media careers. We knew a lot about the business of YouTube,” says Fulmer. Plus, they had joined BuzzFeed as technical producers and had managed the process of creating a video, from start to finish, themselves. “It wasn't like we were losing this big corporate infrastructure where people were doing everything for you and you just showed up on camera.” They fell back on those skills less than two months later, when the quartet released the first video under their 2nd Try banner. Now, 11 full-time employees and a network of 10 freelancers help them manage the release of two TV-quality videos a week on The Try Guys channel.
Their new independence gave them the freedom to share personal stories alongside the goofy challenge videos that they were known for. Fulmer documented the birth of his son and the remodeling of his house (“Butt, wife, child, house!”); Kornfeld introduced viewers to his longtime girlfriend and shared his struggle with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful inflammatory disease. And in June, exactly one year after opening their independent channel, Yang released a moving coming out video. Less than two months later, it has raised more than $110,000 for The Trevor Project and has become the third most-watched coming out video in YouTube’s history.
“The amount of influence that we've been able to gather over the past five years of being online is so bizarre,” Yang marvels. “We've always talked about traditional versus digital, but now we're on the same island, baby! The audience that grew up with YouTube is now directing where the industry is headed and a lot of that is following what has been first presented online. Even before BuzzFeed, Asian-American faces and voices were so prevalent online as huge YouTubers. YouTube opened up the types of voices and alternative ways of viewing ourselves that would never have been greenlit by a Hollywood studio. We're in a very fortunate position, especially with our independent company, to further that messaging.”
Statements like this keep the name of their live show, “The Try Guys: Legends of the Internet,” from feeling like hyperbole. The Try Guys have etched themselves into internet histories, both literal and metaphorical, by creating new opportunities for expression and belonging, online and off. That night, Yang closes the show with a statement of conviction that feels undeniably legendary. On an empty stage in front of 2,300 people he declares, “I am a proud, gay person of color and I will not be intimidated into mediocrity or legislated into conformity!” before being drowned out by the cheers of the crowd. He launches into powerful choreography set to a supercut of music and sound clips from the most influential gay icons of the last century, from Judy Garland to modern trailblazers like Queer Eye’s Fab Five and Troye Sivan. The performance, which earns them a raucous standing ovation, ends with an unapologetic image: Yang twirls with abandon in a sequined rainbow catsuit as Carly Rae Jepsen's "Cut to the Feeling" blasts. Fulmer prances across the stage waving an enormous rainbow flag. Behind them, Habersberger and Kornfeld dance freely in rainbow wigs.