The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chuck E. Cheese’s oddly shaped pizza ignites a bizarre conspiracy theory viewed by millions on YouTube

Irregularly shaped pizzas from Chuck E. Cheese's are at the center of a viral conspiracy theory propagated by a prominent YouTuber. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Is the animatronic mouse who greets customers at Chuck E. Cheese’s harboring a dark secret?

Shane Dawson, a massively popular 30-year-old Internet personality, thinks he might be. The YouTuber added new fuel to a bizarre, decade-old conspiracy theory on Monday, when he posted a video promising an in-depth investigation into misshapen pizzas.

As photos uploaded to Instagram, Yelp and TripAdvisor demonstrate, the crusts on Chuck E. Cheese’s slices don’t always line up to form a perfect circle. To Dawson, who has more than 20 million subscribers on YouTube and whose videos have been viewed more than 4.7 billion times since 2005, this merited further research.

“So I noticed this when I was 8 years old or something,” he said. “I was like, wait a minute, how come all the pieces are different?”

A Google search turned up two Yahoo! Answers threads from 10 years ago, in which concerned customers postulated that staff at the family-friendly chain were recycling pizza slices that get left behind on the table after customers finish eating. In his video, Dawson strongly suggested that Chuck E. Cheese’s employees could be reheating those old, leftover slices and using them to form new pizzas, despite the fact that no evidence of this has emerged over the past decade.

“Just a theory,” he said, later asking out loud, “Am I going to get sued?”

CEC Entertainment, Inc., the parent company for Chuck E. Cheese’s, hasn’t indicated yet whether they plan to take legal action against the YouTube star. But they did feel compelled to respond on Tuesday to the video, which had more than 14 million views as of early Wednesday morning.

“The claims made in this video about Chuck E. Cheese’s and our pizza are unequivocally false,” the chain said in a statement sent to multiple media outlets. “No conspiracies here — our pizzas are made to order and we prepare our dough fresh in restaurant, which means that they’re not always perfectly uniform in shape, but always delicious.”

In his video, Dawson attempted to investigate for himself by going to a Chuck E. Cheese’s location somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area. While he didn’t make any attempt to talk to employees or peer into the kitchen — at least from what the footage shows — he did order two pizzas. Both appeared to have a few unevenly sized slices.

“I mean, that’s undeniable, that’s crazy,” the YouTuber said.

The theory had some obvious logical flaws — for instance, who abandons leftover pizza? But many of Dawson’s fans evidently embraced it, as the comments on his YouTube page attest. “I’m so lucky I’ve never been to a Chuck E. Cheese in my life,” one said. Others pledged to never return to the pizzeria-and-arcade franchise again.

As the unfounded theory spread around social media on Tuesday, setting off heated debates, past and present employees began offering their own rebuttals. In a video titled “Ex-Chuck E. Cheese Employee Responds To Shane Dawson’s Conspiracy,” a YouTuber going by the name Payden offered a perfectly logical explanation: The chain wants its pizzas to have the same number of slices each time, which can present a challenge for rushed kitchen workers. Sometimes, after pulling a pizza out of the oven, he would start cutting it up only to realize that he had 10 slices instead of the 12 that he needed.

“You’ll just find a really big piece of pizza and you’ll only cut that one in half,” he said. “Because of that, it’ll start to make a line that doesn’t end up anywhere and stuff like that. It’ll make all of these lines look all funky.”

He added, “It’s people in the kitchen just not giving a crap.”

Dawson joined YouTube in 2005 and became one of its biggest stars several years later, when he began posting his comedy sketches on the site. After rising to fame, he faced backlash for his use of blackface and racial stereotypes in skits. In 2014, the Daily Dot reported that he had apologized and deleted most of the offensive videos.

Though his earlier output mostly featured made-to-go-viral stunts and jokes about pop culture, Dawson has pivoted over the past year to posting gossipy documentaries about other prominent YouTubers, along with videos in which he discusses conspiracy theories with his friends. As The Verge noted, Dawson has posted disclaimers in the past explaining that his conspiracy-focused videos are intended for entertainment purposes only, not as statements of fact.

Monday’s video, titled “Investigating Conspiracies with Shane Dawson,” is categorized on the site as a comedy, even though it also features the decidedly unfunny story of a woman who claims to have narrowly escaped human trafficking in Serbia. So is a video posted last week in which Dawson suggests — but doesn’t outright state — that deadly wildfires in California could have been caused by arson or exploding microwaves.

The rampant dissemination of conspiracy theories — often with much darker implications than a debate over Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza — has plagued YouTube for years. Last month, the company announced that it was reworking the algorithm that suggests recommended videos, so that users will no longer be led down a rabbit hole of hoaxes and misinformation. But as The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin reported, the company has traditionally prioritized freedom of speech and refrained from placing an outright ban on false stories.

More from Morning Mix:

Trump thanks GOP for fighting ‘Radical Left’ on the wall as conservatives attack compromise

‘A fundamentally stupid decision’: Hollywood bashes Oscars’ move to give four awards during commercials

An artist famed for using his own urine just bought Trump’s wedding cake. His plans are a mystery.