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Student Blog: Uncovering Spooky Secrets

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An Interview with BuzzFeed Unsolved’s Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej

Student Blog: Uncovering Spooky Secrets

Well friends, the time has finally come. BuzzFeed Unsolved, the beloved series starring Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej, is coming to an end. Ever since 2016, this show has been a source of great memes, fascinating stories, and of course, dozens of unsolved mysteries both mundane and supernatural. For this article, I had the special opportunity to speak with the two "ghoulboys" about the series and how YouTube as a whole can be used as a platform for performance. We talked about the growth of the series, fan interactions, and even the legendary series known as the Hot Daga. Let's jump right into it!

Kat: Ryan - You've watched your ideas develop for over half a decade. What has it been like to see Unsolved grow from carpool videos to what they are today?

Ryan: It's definitely surreal, seeing where it is today. Honestly, it's something that I never anticipated or planned for. I was just trying to make a show that I would want to watch and that I enjoyed. Just to see that everything that this show has spawned in my life is pretty incredible. And I think that definitely crystallized for me here in our last season. It definitely made me look back and think back to the days when, like you said, we were just literally turning on an audio recorder in a car with me and the original host, Brent. We would actually lose episodes sometimes! And now we actually have a full team around the show, which I never could have imagined. So it is really cool and I'm grateful for it.

Kat: With the evolution of the show, have you ever been inspired by the fan interactions? Have any had a strong influence? And this is for either of you. I know that the Post Mortem Q&A is definitely the part that's influenced the most but I was curious as to whether the actual show and how it's created has been influenced by fan interaction.

Ryan: In terms of the cases that we've covered in and some of the places we visited, I do think that fan interaction has played into that. We do want to cover the cases and go to the places that fans want to see. So naturally, we tried to factor that in. In terms of the actual content of the show, I'm not so sure that it really kind of played into it in terms of how the show is formatted, or things like that. If anything, that was influenced by key crew members that came along the way. Our post coordinator, Tom Hass, really helped fine tune the show and make it very polished. And then later on along the line came Katie LeBlanc, who basically served as a showrunner. And she also really helped take the show to the next level in terms of polish and making sure that we hit certain "beats" per episode. But I think all those things together definitely made the show the best version it could be because we were going to the places and covering the cases that fans wanted to see, but we also had a strong internal team that helped take the show beyond what my very limited means were. So I've been very lucky to have that. And of course, the big guy, you know, being there cracking his little jokes and doing his typical Shane nonsense that also helped guide the show into what it is today too, but I don't want to give him credit.

Shane: Once we started doing the Post Mortems, being able to hear from people and get so much quick feedback about what people enjoyed about it, has certainly informed some of our dumb bits that we do. But for the most part when people are like, "Oh, you have to go to this place!" That doesn't always work out for the show because there's a lot of places who don't want a couple of chuckleheads showing up.

Ryan: Hearing the audience feedback based on certain elements that we did incorporate into the show or as Shane was saying, the "stupid little bits" that we did, that definitely did inform the show in terms of spirit. But I also think we started to lean a little bit more into Shane and I's relationship as the show went on because we did see how much feedback we were getting from the fans. I always enjoyed Post Mortems for that reason, just because it felt like we were talking directly to the fan base.

Shane: I think it's also extremely clear that we have a good sense of what the audience enjoys. Because if we had, in the second season, stood in a haunted room and lifted up our shirts and tapped our belly buttons for five minutes, people would have thought we were insane. But when we did that in the Old City Jail, we were like, "Well, we know what kind of dumb bits our audience enjoys. They've been with us for seven seasons now." So we sort of have an idea of what works and what doesn't.

Ryan: They're okay with us being completely ourselves here, with nothing held back. Sometimes to the detriment of the show, we will fully lean into who we are, which can, you know, be very hit or miss.

Kat: Are there any interactions that have stood out over the years with fans?

Ryan: One of the biggest vocal leaders of the community was a person named Simone Malec. She's actually our social person for Watcher now! And I always thought that was really cool, because I would have never met Simone had it not been for Unsolved, because I saw all the great videos, content, and discussion she was having about the show, and I just thought she was really talented. So the fact that something that came out of my brain spawned the meeting of someone like Simone is cool to me. And the fact that she's still working with us makes me feel good, too, because she doesn't think we're washed yet. Also, at one point, we got to do an episode with a girl named Reed. And that was really special to me. She had a terminal illness, but one of the things that kept her happy was watching Unsolved. And to know that we had that kind of impact on her made an impact on me. We got to bring her on the Post Mortem, interact with her, and have her bust my balls on air. She was great. And I also just hear so many stories like that, that there are people who turn to the show for, so to speak, a comfort show, to help them get through tough times. And I think we lose sight of that sometimes when we're making the show. In my mind, I'm trying to solve a mystery or I'm trying to find ghosts. I'm also along the way having fun with my pal, Shane, but you sometimes kind of lose sight of the fact that the show can actually transcend that simple meaning and become something bigger for them [fans]. It's always cool to hear that. Really humbling and cool.

Shane: I've mentioned this before, but I always love it so much when we hear from younger people who watch the show, who seem to have it on, and their parents watch it begrudgingly, or roll their eyes at it at first, but then come around to it. We've had parents show up to the meet and greets, and they'll be like, "My daughter really likes your show, and now I'm watching it too." We had a dad at one meet and greet who was like, "Now I want you guys to take a photo with me where you look like you're excited to meet me." I love it when parents watch our show. I just love the idea that it's a bonding experience between some kids and their parents because I think we bridge the gap nicely between maturity and absolute nonsense.

Ryan: Actually, there is one interaction that does come to mind. We were shooting in the UK.

Shane: I knew you were going to talk about this!

Ryan: The Tube [London Underground] is a very cramped form of transportation, and we were standing next to this very tall businessman who's smartly dressed.

Shane: He had a rainy trench coat situation.

Ryan: Briefcase, that whole business look, like he walked off like a studio lot casting businessmen. And he was standing next to us for about 30 to 40 minutes, several stops, we were on there for a long time. So I would have had no idea that this guy knew who we were. And the door opens finally after like, 30-40 minutes of standing next to this guy. Before he leaves, he turns back to us and goes, "You, uh, you lads the boys from Unsolved? And we're like "Yeah, that's us!" He's like, "Keep up the good work." And then he just walked away. Very funny interaction with an adult man who clearly was a little embarrassed. If he reads this interview, shout out to that guy. A very fun dude.

Kat: Looking at YouTube as a form of performance, Unsolved uses different voices (like Ryan's narrator voice), images, text, and film to convey a particular story. Have your storytelling preferences influenced the show?

Ryan: I have always been, very honestly, demonic about being very specific with the show's tone and visual elements. Unsolved came around a time when YouTube wasn't really focused on series or serialized content. And for Unsolved, I knew for people to recognize it as a series, something they could come back and recognize, that there needed to be very specific elements. So where the text on screen came into play, I thought that was a fun visual thing that would differentiate it. I wanted all the music cues to be the exact same for certain spots in the show, so people would recognize like, "Okay, the theory song came on, now it's time for the theories," or "Here's the ending song, they're about to wrap it up." But that needed to be the same from episode to episode so people would realize that it was, in fact, an episode, not just some one-off video. As far as the narrator voice, I wanted it to be very clear when we were in storytelling mode and then when it was time to tell jokes. So I needed something very clear to differentiate those two moments as well. In general, I wanted the show to feel like it was made by a madman, which in fact it was, but it needed to feel that way. It needed to feel like you had hijacked some person's insane PowerPoint that they kept in their basement. That also informed a lot of the visual elements, music cues, and things like that. I never wanted it to feel cohesive or shiny by any means. That's why even today, the graphics are impressive, but we don't have ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) working on our graphics here. It's not studio-level graphics. And when we go to banter, that feels abrupt, like you're talking with your friends and someone has a thought all of a sudden that may be a non sequitur, but it does stop the conversation. So those were things I definitely did think about.

Shane: At some point, there was a person who came up to me, some sort of Critical Media Studies person, and they grabbed me by the shoulders and were like, "I want you to know that I am angry at how smart and good some of the mechanics you use on Unsolved are." And that made me realize that Ryan is an idiot, but he's also a genius. But the concept of having the conversations roll out on screen in text form, I think, is not focused on enough as this really, really incredibly clever way to present a conversation. There are plenty of times when we're on screen talking just as ourselves, but when you distill it into text, it forces people to pay attention to the words that are being said, and then pre-packages it for the Internet. We're not relying on other people. And granted, there are plenty of other choice gems in our regular conversations that people caption and put on the internet, but it was essentially, not to distill it into something very dismissive, but it was like a weird little meme factory.

Ryan: I definitely didn't think ahead like, "Oh, wow, this would be easy for people to screenshot and then repurpose, but I did think of it in the way that you were saying, like, "Oh, we are not experts." That's the whole point of the show is that we are not experts, we've never tried to pretend to be experts. And the audience is aware of that. And what better way to make the audience aware of that then to, like Shane said, force them to really soak in what we're saying, down to even the stutters or dumb noises we make? It really does crystallize how silly some of the shit we're saying is when you see it in text form, especially if it's happening concurrently with you hearing it. So that was a way for people to really get the idea that "We're listening to two idiots right now." And that's really all it comes down to. The case may be presented in a very professional way, sometimes. But at the end of it, you're relying on two very unreliable narrators. So yeah, that was something that I did think about. But everything else in the show? Pure luck.

Kat: And obviously, Shane, the storytelling with the Hot Daga Saga, can't forget that.

Ryan: I mean, you can! You certainly can.

Shane: I love to take a bit and run it into the ground.

Ryan: Past the ground, going to the core of the Earth!

Shane: Exactly right. I drove into the liquid hot magma at the very core of the planet with that one and reached something profound. Unfortunately.

Ryan: I think sometimes if you dig far enough down the ground, you might come out the other side of the earth and unearth something that is somewhat of a gem.

Shane: Honestly, I don't think Puppet History would exist without the Hot Daga, because that was me just entertaining the idea of a sort of vaudevillian show. Let's write a dumb little song because it's funny and entertaining! So I think that has continued to make me just follow whatever weird little creative impulses I have.

Kat: So in previous interviews, you've called Unsolved an episodic television show that lives on the web. Along with your storytelling preferences, have any particular crime or mystery shows/books been used as inspiration?

Ryan: I would say every crime show has informed Unsolved, as a foil. I was a big fan of Unsolved Mysteries and Ghost Hunters growing up. I loved the shows, I loved the subject matter, and I loved the idea of trying to dig into these mysteries. The attempt to find the truth and justice and things like that. But one of the things that the shows did do was present them [cases] in a way that was so deathly serious that sometimes it just was a bit much. They never presented the cases in a way that people actually would talk about them. And I found that maybe that's where I could come in, if I could have a specific point of view, which is that of a normal person who's just interested in these things. That was a space that wasn't occupied at the time. So I don't know if it's something that I took from them, it's more like I saw the space they were occupying and found a space that they weren't and went into that space because no one's there yet and just see what happens. And then we lucked out. We were really fortunate that we were there at the right place at the right time. Maybe. I don't know if it has anything to do with us. It was just the right place and the right time.

Kat: So you were saying that you bring more humor to cases. How do you draw the line between humor and seriousness? I know there's some points during the show where you apologize for being disrespectful, especially the guy playing the piano, trying to find that line.

Ryan: Well, first things first, there's certain facts of life. And one of the facts of life is if you literally shit yourself to death on a piano in front of people, that's objectively pretty funny. Unfortunate, obviously, but funny. But for the most part, I will say that the way we find the balance in it is a very difficult balancing act. There is a reason why sometimes True Crime hasn't been covered with any levity, because it's hard. But what we found with it when it comes to these cases is that what's funny about some of the cases, which is hard to believe, is the circumstances of some of the cases are ridiculous. And every case has gross negligence by the investigating authorities, whether it be the police or a private investigator, or just crazy twists and turns that you could have never imagined that are, most of the time, so absurdly stupid, that there's a reason why this case is unsolved. And a lot of it rests on stupidity. And those are the things that we could poke fun at, like the characters that surround the case, whether they be the suspects or the people that are investigating the case itself. We definitely made a concerted effort to never make fun of the victims of the case, because that's never funny. There's nothing funny about someone getting murdered. But there is something funny about someone getting murdered and then the investigator takes the bones of that body and throws them into the ocean for no apparent reason, because he thought it would be a good idea. Why would you do that? That doesn't make any sense. Those are the things that you could kind of pick apart. It's more just like checking someone's math, I suppose. But it is a balancing act. And sometimes we may have missed the mark. And as we said in the show, we've apologized for being disrespectful. We've definitely tried our best to not be.

Shane: I think we've learned where the line is in terms of "ghoulishness." We don't want to actively mock anyone who has suffered misfortunes. We've certainly gotten close to that in the past, and I think we've had regrets. But I think like Ryan said, now it's more about the peripheral stuff, or just the absurdity of various details of the cases. You crunch the numbers too, because, you know, D.B. Cooper chose to jump out of a plane like a lunatic. So if he got impaled on a pine tree, then we're allowed to laugh at that, I think.

Kat: It was his own choice.

Shane: Yeah.

Ryan: I mean it's funny, because some of the things that we've covered still stick in my mind, like I remember in the Sodder Children disappearance, the fire station was called, and it took them one hour to get to the location and they were like a mile away. How does that make sense? Or in the case of C.C Tinsley, who himself disappeared while "detectiving."

Kat: Pretty impressive!

Ryan: Objectively strange. And funny! So it definitely is a focus on the peripheral elements like Shane was saying, but it's balance.

Kat: When you're doing research for the case, Shane, you've said sometimes you don't know much about the case and it's Ryan explaining it to you. How has the research developed?

And Shane, are there some cases that you have knowledge about going into it like the JonBenét case and things that are general public knowledge? How does that work?

Ryan: Well, I can speak to the first part, and I'll let Shane take the second part. But for the first part, we have a great research team. And what happens is usually at the beginning of the season, I'll say these are the cases I want to cover. Sometimes I'll offer my own research (especially in the early days) and then they'll do actual professional research and then sometimes have to fact check my own research. Nowadays, they just go to town on the research. And I will look through their exhaustively researched documents, and then sometimes I'll add things. We just have a really great research staff that tackles these cases, and uses valid sources, such as books or articles, and not, you know, Reddit forums, which definitely informed the first season of Unsolved. Those were cases that I researched myself. And there's a reason why we have a research staff now, because I can't be trusted with that stuff, and that's fair. But in terms of presenting the cases to Shane, I always found that if Shane didn't know the case, he could be taken down the rabbit hole with me, serving as a proxy for the audience. Sometimes saying things that are really smart and brilliant, and oftentimes saying things that are completely stupid, but Shane could jump in here about his experience.

Shane: I think Ryan and I had such a natural chemistry early on because I think we were both people who had a habit of falling down Wikipedia wormholes. So yeah, like DB Cooper, I knew the broad strokes, and there were probably a handful of other cases. But honestly, in my personal life now, there's so much true crime saturation in the media at large. The world's dark enough that I'm not actively pursuing details of all these grim cases. So now a lot of times when we come to it, it's either something I've never heard of, or something that I read about a while ago and, like, it's still pretty fresh to me when I hear it. Certainly if I was aware of what we were talking about beforehand, like Ryan said, I could probably toss out some more intelligent thoughts on the matter, some composed responses to the facts at hand, but for the most part, I think the spontaneous nature of my reaction feeds into a little more of an exciting way to chew on the cases.

Ryan: I think you've definitely contributed a fair amount of real and relevant details to the case. Like if you put them back to back that would probably be at least like a minute-long series.

Shane: Thanks.

Ryan: Like one season at least, would be a minute's worth.

Shane: Hey, man, I know stuff! I'm full of trivia up here, so I toss out some handy little facts.

Ryan: Yeah, dude, you're like a Snapple!

Shane: That's right. Human Snapple Shane Madej.

Kat: What is some advice you have for people interested in creating videos particularly in the crime/thriller/mystery genre?

Ryan: I would say first off, get very specific. Any kind of content that is actually your specific point of view. So if you can figure out what that is, and your unique way to tell the story, that will oftentimes be more interesting and accessible to an audience as opposed to thinking about a piece of content from the perspective of what the audiences want to see. And that's definitely what I did with Unsolved. I just figured out my point of view which was, "I'm interested in this stuff, I'm not an expert, but I'm going to try my best." The second thing, and this might be the most important thing, is just actually making it, even if it's not good the first time. A lot of times, people get so paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake or failing that they've already made the mistake before it even happened. And you don't learn anything from that, other than how to be afraid. So I think that's definitely half, if not most, of the battle - Actually taking steps forward to make the thing you're thinking of. Because then you could fine tune it and work on that, but you can't work from nothing.

Kat: Exactly. Alright, so some "quickfire" questions. Favorite location you've been to for an episode?

Ryan: Oh, man, probably the Winchester House.

Shane: I was gonna say that too!

Ryan: It's a whimsical little place. Most of the places we go to are straight up disgusting and dirty. But this place was a nice mansion that I felt okay in. other than the fact of, you know, ghouls. It's basically storytelling personified.

Shane: It's also just so steeped in lore. I remember we've shot two episodes there. We did a shorter one in our early "three cases" episode, the "Landmark Internet" episode. And then we returned to it for a long form episode later on. I just remember that second time we went, Ryan and I slept in different parts of the house, and I slept in some sort of a turret that they call the Witch Hat. And I just remember kicking back and rolling my sleeping bag out being like, "I can't believe that I am getting this opportunity to sleep alone in the Winchester House." It was just unreal to me.

Ryan: It's funny because I had that exact same thought except without the opportunity. It was "I can't believe I'm sleeping alone in the Winchester House."

Kat: Most fascinating unsolved mystery? It can be one that you've done on the show one or not.

Ryan: Probably DB Cooper? But honestly, there's a case that we covered this season that is equally fascinating. It's the finale, which I'm not even saying just because you gotta stay tuned until the finale.

Kat: And Shane, your favorite?

Shane: It's a tough call. I love the original DB Cooper tale, just because it's so bombastic and kind of ludicrous. It feels like a script, like a Hollywood movie.

Ryan: Throwing Forrest Fenn in there as well. Very fun. Just the idea of going on a real life treasure hunt.

Shane: Yeah, a dream come true for Ryan.

Kat: And final question - Favorite cryptid?

Ryan: My favorite cryptid has gotta be Bigfoot. Big fan of the foot guy. But in terms of searches, I really enjoyed hunting for Mothman, just because Point Pleasant is such a, well, pleasant place. I was more than sufficiently charmed by the town that seems to be very enamored with our guy Mothman. Great statue, and great muscular build on him too.

Shane: Much as I love our boys 'Foot and Mothman, I have to send some love to Champ, the wet beast of the Northeast.

The final season of BuzzFeed Unsolved: True Crime, will be premiering on Friday, June 18th, at 3 PM Pacific time on the BuzzFeed Unsolved Network. Thank you to Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej for the wonderful interview as well as Ronnie Brumant for coordinating it!


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