SungWon Cho has over a million followers on YouTube, a polished professional web series, scores of international Twitter followers, his own subreddit and an entry on FamousBirthdays.com. His celebrity is the epitome of 21st-century fame, with success achieved in an era of niche fandoms and the democratization of media; it is entirely earned, but would likely have been impossible during any other time in history. There have been plenty of unique celebrity origin stories, but it's unlikely that anyone else got their start by singing songs in the voice of the Disney character Goofy and posting them to Tumblr and YouTube.
"Back in 2012, I had just graduated from college and I was like, 'F***, what am I gonna do with my life?'" Cho recalls in the new episode of SYFY WIRE's The Fandom Files podcast. "I wanted to do voice acting, but I was in a creative rut. I was feeling aimless. I was like, Tumblr's a thing, so I said, 'I'll just post an audio clip every single day,' and I did. I could do a Goofy impression, and first one I ever did [on video] was 'Let It Go' from Frozen, because that was big at the time. Not that I didn't have an audience before then, but that was the first, like bam! It started to grow."
Cho, who was working as an ESL teacher for Korean immigrant students at the time, did other characters, too. It was a mix of established favorites — Super Mario, his first love as a fan, was one of them — and original characters. The videos, which he still makes, are filled with different characters making inside jokes, meta-humor, and nods to video games and anime series. Even with over a million subscribers, the quick episodes feel like personal messages to fellow fans, in part because so many of them consist of him sitting alone in his apartment and goofing off.
Authenticity is the key to success on the internet, and Cho is not pretending to be a geek; he got his start in fandom by writing Super Mario fan fiction, a hobby that introduced him to his future wife. Now the couple make videos together in which they talk about anime, an aspirational endeavor for many of his followers.
Despite his huge following, making a steady living can be difficult. He's got YouTube ads and does endorsements, while also selling some of his own merchandise. That all comes in addition to voice-acting for other projects, which was his original goal, after all. Cho was cast in his first video game in 2014, and the work has been steady since then — his IMDb page is filled with voice credits in TV shows and web series. And his plan to move from Michigan to L.A. this year should make acting work easier to attain.
The most notable of his acting jobs thus far has been Anime Crimes Division, Cho's first real live-action series. A smart spoof of anime fan culture set inside a police procedural, the Rocket Jump-produced project is both incredibly specific to the fan community and accessible to broader audiences, in that goofy Funny or Die sort of way.
That duality is present in a lot of Cho's work. His YouTube videos, which have been running for years, all have a single story continuity, which is a bit of a feat given that he never scripts things out ahead of time. The collection is a study in focused absurdism; new viewers can indulge in their off-kilter silliness, while longtime viewers are hooked to an improvised storyline that has no interest in satisfying their demands.
"I'm not saying it's going anywhere, but basically there's King Dragon, who's the main villain, and he has Prince Horace, who he has captured. Prince Horace has never been seen," Cho explains, laughing. "He probably will never be seen, because people ask all the time, 'When will Prince Horace show?' I'm just like, 'Never, bitch,' or, just 'You watch and find out.' They're constantly talking about, 'We gotta save Prince Horace.' He'll never be seen. He will never make an appearance."
"There's other things going on, too," he adds. "I'm making this sound way more complex than it is. It's really not. The fact that there is any continuity in these videos shows how much of a waste of time it is."
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