I hear that if you call Mark Wahlberg “Marky Mark” on the set of a movie he’ll fire you.
At an award show, I once asked Vanilla Ice to “stop, collaborate, and listen.” He looked at me like I was the worst human he’s ever seen, which in that moment I probably was.
Celebrities hate having their often public, often embarrassing pasts brought up. When you’re acting in Martin Scorsese films, of course the last thing you want people bringing up is your semi-cover of “Good Vibrations” (that song is amazing).
“I think it’s a blessing to have a calling card that is widely known,” YouTube creator Tay Zonday tells me, when I ask if his past is something he’s had to overcome. For those unaware, Zonday is a YouTube pioneer. One of his early contributions to the platform set the bar for what constituted a “viral video.” Yes, that ugly phrase: viral video. But before the word “viral” was co-opted by marketing execs trying to lock down millions of views for a McDonald’s commercial, these infectiously popular videos were the bread and butter of YouTube. In this golden age of one-off YouTube uploads, Zonday was right there in the mix.
“Chocolate Rain” has been viewed over 94 million times since its upload in 2007. If you ask anyone on the street about viral YouTube videos, chances are they will talk to you about either “David After the Dentist” or “Chocolate Rain.” The video defined Zonday’s career as a digital performer, it’s his “Ice Ice Baby.”
Zonday embraces “Chocolate Rain,” though. He tells me actors are lucky if they can have a bit or song that people associate them with. “If you have a particular calling card — I don’t think that is the type of thing where you are trying to overcome it. I think you just take that as a blessing, you continue to work and do exciting things.”
For Zonday, moving past “Chocolate Rain” is not about burying the viral video or performing some sleight of hand to distract people from it. In reality, like The Funky Bunch, Zonday’s viral hit is too big to forget, and the more we are told to ignore it, the more we want to talk about it. It’s what makes talking to celebrities about their embarrassing past projects so fun. It’s impossible to look cool when you’re trying to pretend like your ill high-top fade never existed.
“The real question that asks, and it is a question that I ask myself is, what is the distinction between being a brand and being an actor?,” Zonday says when I ask him if he’s made a conscious effort to move past his monster YouTube hit.
Zonday defines the distinction, saying, “Typecasting happens when you’re associated with a particular brand and sometimes that goes opposite the direction of trying to have range and trying to expand what you do.” He adds, “I don’t think that is a conflict. I think that is solely the province of someone who has had a viral video hit.”
If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is something Zonday has thought about frequently. When I ask about “Chocolate Rain,” the creator is focused and clear. When the majority of your career has been defined by one (perhaps goofy) song, your days are probably spent trying to figure out where to go from there. “I have definitely been in that tension of trying to figure what does it mean to do acting? What does it mean to have range beyond just a particular brand with which I’m associated,” Zonday explains. Then he pauses, his bass-rattling voice going quiet on the other line. “I don’t know if there’s an answer to that. I think the only answer is to try and do each project that you do and be the best that you can for that project.”
Since “Chocolate Rain,” Zonday has carved out a career for himself as a YouTube performer and voice actor. His baritone recently landed on Discovery Digital Network’s animal-centered vertical Animalist, where he narrates the show “Animal Takedowns with Tay Zonday.” In the series, Zonday provides commentary over grizzly animal battles, which typically end in gorging of some kind. “‘Animal Takedowns’ is narrating in kind of a funny, comic, quirky way, that moment of an animal being taken down,” Zonday explains.
“Much like my ‘Sesame Street’-inspired adaptation of ‘Jaws,’ the bird dies in the end,” Zonday says in a video titled “The Delicious Death of a Chukar Partridge.” The short, brutal animal brawls and Zonday’s bass-laden voice-over, it all translates perfectly on to the web. “The question and the challenge is that there isn’t a lot of long-form content of any type that is finding success on YouTube or finding success as viral videos,” Zondays says. “How do you take that long-form animal documentary content and package it into a format that is responsive to what the medium is today, which is short-form — something that allows people to nibble as opposed to sit down for a half-hour or hour.” The new series only has a handful of videos out right now, but already the show is gaining traction across Discovery’s new animal-inspired network.
As our interview winds down, I ask Zonday what he has coming down the line. He pauses, laughs, and tells me his publicist told him to have things ready for interviews. “I’ll continue to upload music to my YouTube music channel, and I’ll be continuing to explore things in that great wide soup of entertainment,” he says.
Widespread celebrity is out there waiting for Zonday to grab it. Maybe it’ll take a month, maybe it’ll take a year. That’s okay though, his fans aren’t going anywhere. We’ll be sitting here waiting, listening to “Chocolate Rain” again, and again, and again.