Len Cella: the first content creator before social media existed
The very first YouTube video uploaded to the platform is a video titled “Me at the zoo” from 2005 which now has 163 million views. But can we see the creator of this clip as the first-ever YouTuber or content creator? This depends on the definition of a YouTuber which is defined as someone who uploads videos on the YouTube platform. It seems a little incomplete as it only defines the function of a YouTuber but ignores the typical characteristics. Being a YouTuber, more broadly a content creator, also means that you entertain people in a specific format. When looking at it like this, we can say that 'original content creator' Len Cella was way ahead of his time when he was creating short sketches in 1983 in Philadelphia. This was in the time where only one out of 10 households in the US has a computer and the Internet did not exist yet.
Len Cella created short, 15 second sketches which can be compared with TikToks today. He gained popularity with his "Moron Movies" which were collections of these short videos. We can compare this to compilations of TikToks or Vines that can be found on YouTube. This paper will dive into Len Cella's career, what type of impact his videos had on social media today and what it means to be a content creator.
Len Cella as the original content creator
Before he started recording his sketches, Len Cella was what we could consider a failed artist. He lived in a small village called Broomall, close to Philadelphia where he worked as a fence painter. His previous careers of being a sports commentator, author, and scriptwriter all failed. But Len had a secret hobby that nobody knew about. After work, he had been recording short sketches about everything including “How to protect yourself” or “Man with the thumb stuck in a bowling ball” which essentially followed the format of TikToks.
He directed, produced, recorded, and played the main (and only) role in each of these movies. They had in common that each of them started with a title on a purple or blue screen and lasted around 15 seconds. His creating process was simple; he found an object (such as a piece of meat or shoe) and created a short story with it. Today, it sounds basic and easy, but in 1983 this was a completely new attempt at a category of video recording. Back then, the only public he had was his family and friends, but that was not enough for him. He screened his "Moron Movies" for the first time in his hometown in October of 1983. Unfortunately, this was not a success with only seven people coming to view the film during four showings.
After this, Cella decided to place some ads in local newspapers where the short film compilation took the interest of a reporter called Jill Porter who wrote an article about Moron Movies in January of 1984. After this, other newspapers also became interested in Cella. Articles about him appeared in The Wall Street Journal and Variety and he was invited to be a guest on Johnny Carson program. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was the most popular Tonight Show during that time. This exposure meant that Moron Movies quickly became one of the biggest sensations in cinematography. In 1985, “Moron Movies” was in the top 50 best-selling movies of the year and Cella’s movie theatre was fully booked for another 4 years. Why was this compilation so popular and why did it stand out so much?
The balance between verbal and visual communication
Cella used a certain technique in his sketches that contributes to his success which was to combine verbal and visual communication in a certain way. He always used both verbal and visual layers of the joke but never at the same time. As in the video mentioned below, Cella started his shorts with a verbal form of the joke and then he moved to a visual form of the same joke. According to Paivio’s notion of dual coding, visual and verbal information are decoded and encoded by two different cognitive and perceptual systems (Paivio, 1986).
The strategy that Cella used, worked so well because it engages different systems but not at the same time. As he once said, the type of humor where a comedian uses only verbal jokes (stand-up comedy) or where he uses only visual jokes (mime) is overused and does not touch the full potential of the gag. As Sandra Moriarty stated, despite the fact that verbal and visual subsystems are independent, they are also interdependent so that verbal concepts can be transformed into visual concepts and vice versa (Moriarty, 1994). This was key in Cella’s movies. He found a new balance in the transition between verbal and visual jokes.
“Moron Movies” as an ontological intermediality
Another aspect that contributed to the success of Moron Movies is his use of a new form of medium. He created what Jens Schröter would call a new form of intermedium. Schröter claims that the concept of creating a new medium is no longer sustained and “it is intermediality that is primal and that the separated “mono-media” is the result of purposeful and institutionally caused blockades, incisions, and mechanisms of exclusion”. (Schröter, 2012) It is not what a new “medium” is but what parts of media were used to create a new intermedium. In this example, Cella did not bring new media to life such as photography or painting. He created a new intermedium with an obsolete camera, objects he found around him, and a need to express his artistic self. “Moron Movies’ looks extremely simple to make and it was, but to make it happen Len had to create a completely new concept within already existing types of media. Therefore, he connected the short-format video with a comedy sketch which is an often-used concept by today's content creators.
Key characteristics of content creators
Cella had certain characteristics which can still be seen in today's content creators. He created the videos all by himself which meant that he had to have a static camera which is a limitation that he turned into an advantage. He said that a static camera gives a possibility to full focus on what it is recording. He continued that if you think too much about how you want to record and less about what you want to record, then your project is wrong. His engagement, charisma, and determination is another characteristic that is also important for current content creators.
He connected the short-format video with a comedy sketch which is an often-used concept by today's content creators
A comparison of TikToks compilations and “Moron movies”
To demonstrate that “Moron Movies” has a lot in common with today's social media videos, I will make a comparison of the excerpt of this movie with a clip of one of the most popular types of videos nowadays – TikTok compilations. This analysis will include the form of the video, context, and performance. First of all, TikTok videos are a type of convergence culture. According to Henry Jenkins, convergence culture is a collision of old and new media in a unique way. (Jenkins, 2006) That is exactly what these popular shorts are. They use a similar structure as Len Cella used but in a different environment. TikToks are available for everyone with a mobile phone and the internet. But they are not different in form from Cella’s videos. Len’s sketches and TikToks start with a text explaining the context and giving a viewer a first part of the joke (i.e., verbal communication). And later they move to a visualisation of it. They both have a visual answer to a verbal intro in a form of action. The duration of both of them is also similar. It is usually around 15 seconds which is enough to give a full joke. TikToks are most often one-person videos without movie crew and camera movement just like “Moron Movies”.
Where is he now?
What happened with Len Cella? After five years of screening, “Moron Movies” became too boring for the public. An attempt to do a second part was a great fail and did reach the success of part one. Hollywood offers faded away and Jonny Carson needed a new attraction in his Tonight Show. Len disappeared from the public and sometimes he appeared as a guest and specialist at b-class movie festivals. But thanks to his movie, he earned enough money to never paint fences again.
Today Len Cella is 84 years old and it is not surprising that he has his own YouTube channel. At this moment, he has 1180 subscribers which does not compare to the viewers he had in the past. On his channel, we can find him, for example, running around landfills with drumsticks beating on everything he finds on his way. He also posted covers of famous songs next to creating his very own songs about the meaning of life and other topics.
Len Cella as the template for today's content creators
Len Cella's creations of the original Vines and TikToks brought him temporary popularity. Cella proves that a content creator needs to have certain characteristics and skills. With intermedial theories, it can be explained why this idea worked and why it is still working after almost 30 years. He was an innovator back in the '80s but his current YouTube channel shows that that might not be fully the case anymore.
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Schröter, J. (2012). Four Models of Intermediality. Dartmouth College Press.
Vorel, J. (2014). The 100 Best “B Movies” of All Time. Retrieved from Paste magazine.