There are a disheartening number of Internet buffoons competing for the honor of most offensive YouTube “prank.” But Roman Atwood, the 32-year-old who has twice pretended to kill his own toddler, may definitively take the cake.
On Oct. 11, Atwood uploaded a video in which he tricks his girlfriend, Brittney Smith, into believing that their three-year-old son Kane was in a fatal ATV accident. (View count, as of this writing: 8.6 million)
One year earlier, he pulled a similarly hilarious “prank,” pretending to throw Kane off a second-story balcony. (View count: 34.7 million.)
Both videos follow the same script: Atwood lets Smith see him playing with Kane before asking her to do something for him in the other room, like write a check or get a glass of water. While she’s away, he swaps the real Kane for a dummy dressed like him. When Smith returns, and the preplanned “disaster” strikes, the cameras zoom in to catch her screams and tears and generalized panic.
In the latest video, Kane appears to be driving an ATV that runs off a ramp and explodes. It’s specifically designed to make Smith think her only child had been incinerated.
“It’s kiiiind of funny,” Atwood smirks after the big reveal, alternately snorting, laughing and rolling his eyes at Smith’s anger. We’ll assume he’s defining “funny,” in this case, as “appealing to a certain class of borderline-psychotic teenagers.”
That is, of course, Atwood’s exact audience: According to the YouTube analytics firm Tubular, Atwood’s videos have been viewed more than 1.8 billion times, mostly by young men between 18 and 24. Among YouTube’s 1.3 million practical jokesters, he’s the third most popular. That could be changing, too: On Oct. 12, the day after “Blowing up my kid PRANK!!” came out, Atwood racked up more new subscribers than any other channel.
“I think we set a record, I honestly do,” he tells fans in a follow-up video. “I think I saw the video’s at a million views in 2.5 hours.”
It’s difficult to determine exact earnings from these numbers, since the amount of ad money YouTubers receive is dependent on a range of factors, including the type of video and the ad click-through rate. But SocialBlade, a platform that tracks this kind of thing, estimates Atwood’s monthly YouTube earnings at as much as $100,000 on the high end. That doesn’t include his income from stuff like merchandise sales at his online store, Smile More; whatever royalties he’ll make for “Natural Born Pranksters,” his forthcoming full-length movie; his appearances on TV shows like TBS’s “Deal With It” or at conventions like Streamcon; or his marketing collaborations with major brands, including car maker Nissan.
All told, we’re talking about a guy who has made millions of dollars pretending to kill his own kid in front of an audience of millions of people. Atwood and co. are on a luxury vacation even as I write this; neither he nor Smith answered The Post’s requests for comment, and we didn’t hear back from his handlers at Collective Digital Studio.
It’s not too tricky to predict what their defense would be, though: It’s one that Atwood and his imitators have made, dozens of times, justifying other tasteless (and occasionally criminal) “prank” videos. There was Sam Pepper, the 25-year-old whose hilarious jokes involved groping unconsenting women on the street. There was the idiot who literally stole stranger’s cellphones. (He got punched in the face.) A similar fate befell the YouTube “comedian” Ken DuChamp, who staged a number of fake stabbings in Southern California. He’s since moved on to classier stunts, like pretending to have a heart attack in front of a girl he just started dating.
Every time, the same justification: “Relax, relax, it’s just a prank!”
“What the f— is wrong with you?” Demands the girl in the heart attack video. “That’s not funny. That’s not cool.”
Being funny or cool isn’t the point anymore, though; the only thing that matters is being the most extreme. According to Tubular, there are now more than 2.5 million prank videos on YouTube, created by a teeming group of 1.3 million producers. The market is crowded and hyper-competitive. The only objective is reaching more viewers.
Who cares if that means roping in a child too young to understand humor or death, or terrifying people you love in order to exploit their panicked reactions? That’s besides the point. In the perverse world of YouTube pranksters, those people are little more than punchlines.
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