Happy Ninja Day to You

If anyone’s going to be a self-made online video star, it’s Kent Nichols. The co-writer of breakout success online show Ask a Ninja (with Doug Sarine), Nichols is a self-promoter with a vision.

Ask a Ninja, a question-and-answer show hosted by an anonymous ninja, is pretty abrasive at first, but once you start tuning into the jokes you can’t help but crack up.

Nichols and Sarine are effectively putting up a warning label that says “DO TRY THIS AT HOME.” Fuzzy filming, no action whatsoever, silly camera angles, what looks like a black t-shirt with a hole in it as a mask. Only they’re funnier than you, so you probably shouldn’t actually try it.

Ask a Ninja came out of its two creators’ failed efforts to get an animated show made about a group of ninjas that live in Orange County. Problem was, they weren’t animators, and they couldn’t get scripts produced, so the project stalled. Nichols recalled the success online cartoon HomestarRunner has had with Strong Bad emails, and modified the concept for Q&A show a “mid-level” ninja, so he and Sarine didn’t have to kill the project.

It wasn’t a bad Plan B. The site has seen more than 20 million downloads in the last year. Today, which they have declared Ninja Day – the day when all the “non-jas” get to pretend they’re ninja’s too – Nichols and Sarine are releasing a DVD compilation of episodes with a big party in L.A. As for the animated TV show? It got picked up by Atom Films, and is due out before the end of 2006.

We had a chance to ask Nichols some questions last weekend. Edited excerpts follow.

NewTeeVee: I met some of the various online video stars last night, and it seemed like a pretty disparate group. Do you feel affinity within viral video crowd—are you all a happy traveling circus sideshow?

Kent Nichols: Yeah, there’s kind of a small club. But there’s a difference between us and people like Numa Numa. That was a true viral thing — he was probably just trying to amuse a very small circle, and then it snowballed into literally a worldwide phenomenon. Whereas I want people to watch my show.

We’ve been in Hollywood and we’re trying to make it in the entertainment world. The technology allowed us to do an end run around the gatekeepers. In Hollywood it’s a fear-based economy and everyone says no to everybody because it’s an easy decision path and their career is going to be safe. When me as a show creator can just put this out there, and it just catches on, there is no gatekeeper.

NTV: In a recent New York Times Magazine profile [the picture of Nichols, above, is excerpted from a photo montage in the article] you came off as pretty obsessed with the business side of things. Is that an accurate portrayal?

KN: When the Rocketboom schism happened in July, my attitude changed. I had thought [of Amanda Congdon and Andrew Baron, the now-split Rocketboom founders] as the shining beacons, leading the way. Then when the schism happened, I was like, oh God, I’m in a partnership too, and we seem to be going along the same path. We have a lot of notoriety and fame but we don’t have a solid business model. And the people I thought had a business model, that disintegrated in a very public way. So I thought, I’ve got to figure this out right now. I’ve got to make this a viable business so we can continue to make this content.

NTV: So what do you think the business is? What defines success? Once you ‘make it’ are you just going to jump to the ranks of the pros?

KN: The business is reaching deliberately to an audience and having the audience support you. That’s something I can lie with a straight face to my family about. Hollywood doesn’t understand this, but you can run a successful web site. You can make a DVD, TV show, movie, and a book, but you don’t have to take the web site down.