Thursday, May 1, 2008

Citizentube Interview: Davis... er, Dennis Trainor

For the last year, one of the most prominent voices in YouTube politics belonged to Davis Fleetwood - a hermit who shot videos from his limestone-walled basement and posted them to YouTube. Vlogging under the tagline, "I stay in so that you can go out," Davis' quirky style (his dance moves even caught the attention of Hillary Clinton) and provocative tone (he consistently called for the impeachment of the president) gained him a large audience on the site. When one of his questions was asked at the CNN/YouTube Democratic Debate, Davis' national fame increased - so much so that the Dennis Kucinich campaign hired him to their video team

One hundred and sixty-nine videos later, Davis has left YouTube to pursue other interests. His fans (Citizentube included) will miss him, but what they might not know is that Davis doesn't exist... at least in real life. What follows is a Citizentube interview with Dennis Trainor, the mastermind behind YouTube's favorite hermit.

CT: How was Davis Fleetwood born?

Dennis: First off I should say that while some people know, many do not: I’m not really a video blogger, but I did play one on YouTube for a year.

My name is Dennis Trainor. Davis Fleetwood, the character, was “born” in 1996. He was the lead character of a play that I wrote while a graduate student at American Conservatory Theatre called PLUG. The play was produced in San Francisco and later in New York. Fast-forward a decade to last spring, when I was transitioning out of a seven-year stint as a high school teacher to focus full time on a freelance writing career (known in some circles as the early onset of my mid life crisis). I thought it would be fun to bring the character of Davis back for another run. The idea was to work on Davis Fleetwood in the morning, eat lunch, and work on long- term projects in the afternoon. That worked fairly well for a while; I have written a TV pilot and a 1st draft of a novel in the past year to go along with the 160-odd videos.

CT: What kind of person is Davis? Who does he speak to?

Dennis: He sees the world in terms of black and white. You are either his friend or his enemy. Also, he is a bit of a martyr, what with the “I stay in so you can go out” ethos. His audience is highly educated, a little desperate with the current political climate, and has a sense of humor. He talks to anyone who will listen.

CT: It seems odd to get at politics through theatre... yet so much of politics is theatrical anyway I suppose. Did your approach yield any interesting results?

Dennis: It was odd creating a “character” that did not exist in a narrative structure with other characters (like a character in a play or a film would do) but rather commented on, and later interacted with, real people. In a way that was my intention, to blur the lines of what was real and what was “story.” I was trying to inspire like Bobby Kennedy, using the approach of Andy Kaufman with the updated video technique of Ze Frank. Have you ever seen Ze Frank? He used editing like another element of grammar. I don’t think I ever got there, but that was what I was going for.

CT: Does Davis Fleetwood bear any resemblance to Dennis Trainor? In what ways are you similar/different?

Dennis: Davis Fleetwood and Dennis Trainor are alike in many ways. They share a wardrobe, and even though doctors do not recommend it, they share a toothbrush. In some ways, I liked playing Davis because he could see the world in such black and white terms. So simple. Davis would think that Dennis is a sell out. I mean, I am a married man, I help out with my son’s T-Ball team, take my daughter to the movies, etc. Until very recently, I was a teacher at a boarding school. Davis might think that Dennis is part of the mass of American indifference that allowed Bush to lead us into war, and now- with our inaction- will do nothing to stop us from expanding the into Iran.

On the other hand, I was arrested protesting at the 2004 Republican National Convention, and I did drop everything to go on the road and work for Dennis Kucinich, so I have plenty of Davis in me.

CT: You ended up doing a 2-month stint on the Kucinich campaign - what was that like? Was it Davis on the campaign trail, or was it Dennis???

Dennis: Well, I only got one paycheck, but it was the both of us. Working for the campaign was an experience that I would never trade for anything. Dennis Kucinich was approachable, passionate, exciting to be around, and very scrappy. I miss him. Working for a campaign that was not as well financed as say, Obama’s, reminded me of my days running a small start up Theatre company in New York in the sense that everyone wore many hats. When I was recognized by fans on the streets of Manchester, New Hampshire just days before the January primary, I allowed myself to suffer under the illusion that I belonged there, doing what I was doing: advising a presidential candidate. And in those final days in New Hampshire, that was certainly one of my unofficial functions. I take full credit for the 1.6% of the vote we earned in NH.

CT: Your video, 'STUDENTS: A CHALLENGE TO YOU' has over 2 million views and was one of the finalists for "Best Political Video" of the year on YouTube. Why do you think that video struck such a chord with people, and did you see it coming?

Dennis: Vanity is going to force me to correct you on one point, Steve. The video has over 4.4 million views. I mean, come on!

I did not see it coming at all. Beside the half naked people in the thumbnail image increasing views, I think it struck a chord with so many people for several reasons- Davis is so arrogant and self-righteous, but the argument he makes is hard to dismiss. Specifically, war is here, war is coming, we live in a nuclear age (so the consequences of perpetual war, combined with our love affair with linear storytelling, means that we just might blow it all up to see how it all ends) and you all care more about Girls Gone Wild videos taking a stand. Also, as an Adult, Davis is not saying “follow me” He is saying, “this is how it is!” and the answer is not going to come from someone my age, the answer is going to come from the next generation. Davis is saying: one of you figure out a solution, and I will follow.

But truthfully, I think it is as popular as it is because people just forwarded it their friends with a note that said something like, “Will you get a load of this wacko!”

CT: In what ways do you think YouTube is influencing the political dialogue in America?

Dennis: More people, young people are registering to vote. Davis would say that they are naive enough to think that Diebold will let their voice be heard. I would say that more young people are invested in what is happening in the world around them. We don’t have to rely on three channels and tin foil stuck on a broken antenna for our news anymore. YouTube is leading the way in opening things up, allowing people to become more informed than ever before. The downside is that the candidates who survive this process are polished to the point of not being human. Everything is on the record now, and the candidates know it. It makes them less human.

CT: What is your favorite video you've uploaded to YouTube?

Dennis: I really like this one (notice the Super Bowl Prediction- Giants by 3!)

But the “Davis Fleetwood thesis” is best summed up here.

If I could have combined the humor of the Super Bowl video with the urgency and of the WWIII video, I would have been on to something...

CT: Who are some of your favorite users/channels on YouTube?

Dennis: The Onion is the best thing on any size screen right now. Really. Jon Stewart, Colbert- forget it. Imagine if SNL had the balls of The Onion? News without mercy and each video is like an abdominal workout from laughing so hard. I would love to write for them. Really, good folks at The Onion, read this, and call me. I want to work for you. Other channels I love:

CT: What would you say are some of the keys to having a successful YouTube channel on YouTube?

Define what you want from your channel. If you want to network, have fun, connect with people from all around the world, you can do that. If you want to be the next Lisa Nova, you are going to have to work much harder at YouTube than you do at your day job. That, and you will have to be much better than Lisa Nova.

Why has Davis Fleetwood "left the building"? What is next for you?

Dennis: Right now I am hustling, trying to recruit investors for the TV pilot that I wrote so that I can submit it to the NY Television Festival. If all of the pieces come together, we will shoot in early June. The project is called “Consenting Adults” and centers on a soccer Mom struggling to keep her swinger lifestyle private. Think “Sex in the City” meets “Weeds.” While that is the project that is ready to launch, I have several other projects I have been developing that require my attention. So, it just felt like it was time to let Davis go, and focus on the next project(s)… It has been a year since I left my day job. I feel like a farmer who has been working the land, now I need to see if there is a harvest, and I can make a living as a writer. So, really, I hope The Onion comes calling.

I’ll also be blogging over at Eventually, there will be a YouTube component to this project as well, but for now, this is a place where I write in different characters- “Davis” will be there, as is a new regular feature called “Spin Room” but I think the next star I am working on is a woman named Heidi Horoscope. I can see her syndicated in weekly magazines across the country.


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