As do all good stories about a faux gangsta imbibing Hennessey while deconstructing the English literary canon whilst emerging as a popular online sage and source for high school students, university professors, and the numerous in between, the story of Wisecrack—the company behind Thug Notes’ Sparky Sweets, PhD—begins with a cute meet of two Jewish undergrads, Jacob Salamon and Jared Bauer, during a University of Texas/Austin astronomy course. And then, quickly, it moves on.
Salamon graduated into work for companies like BazaarVoice, while Bauer trekked to Hollywood to snatch cred working with Chris Rock, Max Landis and others. They formed Napkin Note Productions for the 2012 production of Salamon-Bauer joint Bubala Please featuring LA friends and bangers, Jaquann and Luis, celebrating Jewish heritage.
Around that time, so the original story goes, Bauer was waiting in line to see Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” A fellow attendee overheard Bauer suggest to a friend that Barry’s protagonist starred in the first gangster story—killing a policeman and making money gambling. The nosy neighbor criticized Bauer, missing the humor entirely.
Add to Salamon and Bauer, COO Todd Mendeloff, writer Joseph Salvaggio’s experience studying the classics, actor/stand-up Greg Edwards — the OG Alistair Cooke spitting lit tropes and laying down autodidact beats like your professor never did—as well as a behind-the-scenes team Bauer has described as “a collective of comedians, academics, and filmmakers [whose] ideas come from everywhere,” and you have the world of Wisecrack, a company with a brow both highly falutin’ and mightily low.
Since its 2013 debut, Thug Notes (and Wisecrack’s subsequent offerings like Pop Psych, 8-Bit Philosophy and Earthling Cinema) has attracted millions of clicks by engaging audiences with sophisticated analysis in a unique format. Short videos feature an unlikely host providing a work’s structural overview, highlighting two or three key passages, and then sugarcoating academic analysis with a mash-up of silliness and accessibility. A viewing, or even two or three to pick up the finer points of the analysis, doesn’t provide the collection of answers one needs for a two-page essay, but—if feedback is to be believed—sparks student comprehension and interest.
For at least the foreseeable future, however, Wisecrack will continue to be best known as the Sparky Sweet’s PhD posse. With that in mind, it is with appreciation that Easy Street shares a few thoughts on an edutainment phenomenon from Jared Bauer and Greg Edwards, who were kind enough to take time away from their much more pressing matters.
Easy Street: Is there anything more to share about how Thug Notes came to be than that inspiration struck while waiting in line for “Barry Lyndon?”
Jared Bauer: Sure. One of my biggest inspirations during the time I came up with the idea for Thug Notes was Harmony Korine’s film “Spring Breakers.” I was really captivated by the way the film juxtaposed the world of trap rap (Gucci Mane, Dangeruss) with the world of Disney channel teeny-bopperdom (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez). One of the brilliant things about the film is that even though these cultures at first couldn’t seem more different, the film presents them as actually quite similar. They’re both fixated on immediate gratification, hedonism and narcissism. Similarly, the worlds of trap rap and classic literature aren’t so different. A lot of classic literature is an expression of pain, dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a general sense of rebelliousness—just like rap. So I owe a lot to “Spring Breakers” for giving me the idea of juxtaposing the world of classic lit and trap rap.
ES: What influences you to choose a particular book, and then how do you go about breaking it down and then building up the script and visuals?
Greg Edwards: It’s a collaborative process. I work closely with the Wisecrack team to choose books that are highly assigned in schools and highly requested by our fans. We’re now up to over 100 episodes, so while we started with assigned reading, we’re now able to expand into fun projects like kids books, short stories, and more. And it’s always fun to cover some of my favorite books on the show.
JB: Thug Notes started initially as an educational tool, so we worked to pick books that would help kids in school. And now that we’ve created more than 100 episodes, we’ve pretty much covered the essentials. So we’ve started to branch out to more popular novels like Fight Club, American Psycho, and Watchmen. Now fans not only get help with school assignments, but also gain a heightened understanding of all types of literature in their lives.
Writing Thug Notes is a three-person operation. First, our academic advisor reads each book cover-to-cover and provides a research document that breaks down the key passages and themes of the novel. Then I take that document and turn it into a script. There are many drafts, a lot of back-and-forth between the academic and me. And when we finally have something robust and near completion, Greg and I go over it together to put the finishing touches and make it as funny and entertaining as possible.
The worlds of trap rap and classic literature aren’t so different. A lot of classic literature is an expression of pain, dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a general sense of rebelliousness—just like rap.
ES: From that, what you have you learned about what does and doesn’t work for you?
JB: Honestly the feedback has been pretty positive across the board. We constantly get emails of people telling us that Thug Notes was the only thing that helped them understand a book that was otherwise giving them trouble. We’ve been very fortunate to be working with really dependable and smart academics, so we haven’t really hit any bumps in the road in terms of accuracy or intellectual integrity.
ES: Which of the books are you most proud of having presented?
GE: The Count of Monte Christo was a favorite because it’s one of my favorite books. Jane Eyre was also a treat because even though I’d never read the book, I’d done a bunch of research on it and was able to learn quite a bit from our analysis. Things Fall Apart was also very special episode for me because I read that book in high school and through our work with Thug Notes, I got the opportunity to meet Chinua Achebe’s family.
JB: I’m really proud of our episodes on The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground, as Dostoevsky is my favorite author. I’m also happy to have done an episode on John Gardner’s Grendel, which I think is a criminally underrated novel. I’m happiest when we can highlight themes of a text by invoking other thinkers. For example, we cite Heraclitus in our Count of Monte Cristo episode and Nietzsche in our Siddhartha episode. Any time I can introduce a philosophical idea in the context of a narrative that people are invested in, I feel like I can really rope people into broadening their horizons.
JB: Well there are some books that are just impossible to execute on—like War and Peace and Ulysses. We get a ton of requests for those books, but they’re just too long and complex to summarize in the current Thug Notes format. There really hasn’t been something that we had to take out, but I will say that the episode for Heart of Darkness had to be simplified because the prevailing interpretations of that book are almost impossible to explain in a simple manner.
ES: What in your comedy or previous work influences your approach to your character?
GE: I’ve been doing theatre and stand-up comedy for a long time. Even in my stand-up career, the thing that always stuck out for people was my voice. Fans and fellow comics would constantly mimic and impersonate my voice, so I used that caricature of my voice for the character of Sparky. I’ve made Sparky’s voice an exaggeration of my own. My theatre experience has taught me to keep Sparky’s character pure and true to my nature while simultaneously giving it room to grow and develop over the years.
ES: What is overlap between reaction to you when you are “you” and those who idolize the celebrity Sparky Sweets?
GE: It’s pretty funny—people know me from my stand-up, and they also know me from Thug Notes. I’ve done comedy shows over the years where people from the audience would come up to me afterward to tell me they realized I was the “The Thug Notes Dude” after I started talking. It’s fun to be recognized for portraying Sparky Sweets, but the recognition often comes when I least expect it. And very often people start to freak out when they realize who I am … that’s always a little weird for me to handle.
ES: How will “Dr. Sweets” evolve as a character?
GE: Sparky has already evolved so much since we started the show. He began as a sort of hard-ass militant book-lover to the chill, relaxed book-lover you see now. I’m excited to see the character continue to evolve, especially as we get to see other facets of the Sparky—especially on one our dream projects: Thug Notes the TV show.
JB: There are so many successful science and math YouTube channels already, so I figured that if people already love using the platform to learn, maybe there’d be an opportunity to explore other disciplines in interesting and unexpected ways—just like we did with Thug Notes. This led us down the path of developing a whole slate of shows—each with a unique perspective and a strong message. Lately, one of the most exciting incarnations of our work has been our ability to dive into fascinating and important concepts all while looking more closely at pop culture and media—things like video games, movies, TV shows, and more. We have some very ambitious projects in the works, and you’ll be seeing more of Wisecrack across platforms, topics, and formats in the very near future. We think we have the opportunity to become THE brand for smart and funny content.