Let us set the scene: a dimly lit library in the vein of Hogwarts or Beauty and the Beast. Rows upon rows of musty old books fill the shelves. Light classical music plays gaily in the background. And in the middle of it all, a man in a leather armchair, reclining and intently reading a book. But the personage who owns this library is not some, as one might assume, a monocle-wearing, tweed-loving, tea-drinking old white dude. But you would be mistaken. The proprietor of this library is none other than a fellow named Sparky Sweets, Ph.D. He is young. He is black. He wears a do-rag and talks in slang. And he wants nothing more than to share and discuss the greatest world’s greatest works of literature with “well-read ballers” like you.
Image courtesy of Wisecrack
Sparky, played by comedian/educator Greg Edwards, is the host and narrator of Thug Notes, a wildly popular YouTube series from the millennial media brand Wisecrack. Since 2013, the congenial Dr. Sweets has been putting his own personal spin on almost every literary classic imaginable, delighting legions of students, teachers, and internet wayfarers in the process. The way Sparky tells it, Jay Gatsby is “a rich playboy with dat mad Mitt Romney money”, Ebenezer Scrooge “the coldest honkey you ever seen, and the the fundamentalist Christian America of Margaret Atwood’s the Handmaid’s Tale a “wack-ass future for women.” Accompanying it all humor are a series of crude animations of the book’s characters acting out the action with stock photo heads and manic googly eyes against paper cut-out backgrounds—a style that initially came about from lack of money, but has quickly become one of Thug Notes many hilarious trademarks.
Image courtesy of Wisecrack
Though the decision to rely on the persona of a “thug” may strike some as offensive, Wisecrack asserts that Thug Notes goes beyond crass novelty and cheap racial stereotype. “We get some pretty reactionary people who are offended by the portrayal of a racial stereotype. But truth be told, these people are few and far between,” they told Bookstr. Most viewers, they say, respect “that we’re doing justice to the literature” by refusing to take the usual academic elitist bent characteristic of most intensive literary discussions.
The very genesis of Thug Notes, in fact, arose out of co-creator Jared Bauer’s desire to prove a cultural snob wrong. Waiting on line to see the highbrow historical drama Barry Lyndon, Bauer found himself chewed out by a fellow moviegoer when he compared Barry, the film’s hustling anti-hero, to Al Pacino’s Scarface—a popular character and film in hip hop culture. “A woman overheard his comparison and suggested that he clearly didn’t understand the film,” Wisecrack said. “But, upon further reflection, he realized that just because the language didn’t match the rather “stuffy” demeanor of a classic film didn’t mean he was wrong.”
Seeing the possibility of reaching like-minded kids like himself who “wanted to watch Chapelle’s Show” rather than do their assigned reading, Bauer decided to “mix the two” into the project now known as Thug Notes. Enlisted into the effort were co-writer Joseph Salvaggio and Edwards, a comedy writer personally recommended to Wisecrack COO Todd Mendeloff. “Greg has always been working in both education and comedy so it was kind of a match made in heaven,” Wisecrack said.
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Though Thug Notes has evolved significantly over the course of five years and 106 episodes, the production process has more or less stayed the same. “The first thing that happens is the book is read cover to cover,” said Wisecrack, and “a research document is crafted that includes key passages from the text, various academic discourse, and a breakdown of themes, symbols, etc.” After this, the writing team and Edwards turn the research into a script, eventually filming 4 episodes in one day. All told, “it takes about 2 months to get all the research/script writing in the can to prepare for one intense day of shooting,” they reported—and that’s before annotated scripts are sent off to animators to work their harebrained magic.
The ultimate dream, they stated, is to turn Thug Notes’ internet success into a well-funded TV show like Comedy Central’s Drunk History. In the meantime, however, Thug Notes has been expanding beyond classic literature, covering works like Gone Girl, V for Vendetta, and an upcoming video on Stephen King’s IT. But there are still some books that the creators admit they just won’t touch, particularly behemoth tomes like Infinte Jest, War and Peace, and Ulysses. “The episodes would have to be about 45 minutes in order to do justice to the texts,” he said.
From its humble beginnings, Thug Notes has become “the epitome of the Wisecrack brand”. “We get emails every week of teachers, students and parents praising the show for allowing them to FINALLY understand a book they had been struggling with for a long time,” they stated.
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“We’re fortunate enough to have fans who say that we’ve rekindled or even created their passion for reading, and in certain cases, changed the way they view the world.”
Featured image courtesy of Wisecrack.