In addition to being a host of original content at IGN, the biggest gaming website in the world, Brian Altano is a comedian, musician, part time Jedi and full time Italian meatball. He’s made the entire Internet laugh with his awesome improv in videos and podcasts, both for IGN and The Comedy Button. When Brian is not doing those things, he’s probably still doing something awesome. Oh, and he likes long walks on the beach.
Interview conducted January 15, 2015
Did you ever have your own website?
I remember the thrills and terrors of running my own website. That was a fun. It’s great, because it’s all yours, but once something breaks it’s all yours to deal with. When I first started at IGN, they asked what kinds of problems I had to deal with while running my own website. I told them that when it crashed, which it did often, I would be on the phone with tech support until two in the morning. They told me I would never have to do that here!
How did you get into the video game industry?
That’s an interesting story. I’ve been playing video games my entire life, which is the way most of these stories start. I feel like if you ask somebody and their answer is, “I just started playing video games two years ago,” then it’s probably not an industry they’ll stay in long. Games were always there for me – they inspired the art I created and the music I wrote. When I was a kid, I drew maps of my favorite Mario levels; I created fake video game magazines and handed them out in school, stuff like that. It wasn’t until after college when I decided to start a website about video games and comedy. I noticed that everyone would get invited to the same events at the same time, and everything would go up at the same time. Joystiq and Kotaku and IGN would all go to the same events, get the same press release, play the same previews, and all of their articles would of course be sort of similar. I looked at the industry, and said, “What’s missing?” I saw that no one was really taking an ‘Onion’ or ‘Daily Show’ approach to games. We’re in this moment where games are being taken more seriously by mainstream press, and we needed this humorous criticism. I went and built my own website, called The Minus World with some friends. We put up comedy articles with real news stories with funny slants and headlines every single day. We really tried to shine a light on the part of games that was funny. Out of nowhere, the site started getting close to 500,000 uniques a month, and we were floored! On our first day, Kotaku and a site called Dig picked us up – a lot of our stuff would start to show up on different sites. I remember reaching out to IGN about a Smash Bros. article, and a few days later I got a phone call from an editor at GameSpy regarding a job position. I didn’t think they would need someone like me, but they wanted to try a new approach and I would help spearhead their features department with some comedy articles. I said “Hell yeah!,” flew to California, and here I am now.
What’s your position at IGN?
Recently, I’ve taken up a new position at IGN, Host and Producer of IGN Original Video. I’ll be leading the creative of our bold new initiative to create original video content on IGN, the world’s biggest video game and entertainment site. Our plan is to create bold, awesome, insane new original videos from the ground up and reach audiences we’ve never had before. I’ll be writing and hosting and producing comedy sketches. I’ll be scripting Lightsaber battles and hiring animators to decapitate my friends. I’ll be flying to weird countries and eating even weirder things on camera. I’ll be carrying the torch of this fantastic, one of a kind company to amazing new places. Even though this is my new position, I sort of do a little bit of everything, which I’ve learned is the IGN way; they may bring you on for something small but you end up wearing many hats because there’s so many opportunities to do cool things! Six years ago when I started, in order to get hired at IGN you sent in a writing sample. Now, you have to know how to be on camera, you have to know how to podcast, you have to know how to edit those things, AND you have to be a good writer. The fact that you do have to wear many hats paves the way for a multitude of growth opportunities. I feel as if every year since I started here has been different, and that I’ve found ways to evolve my craft. When I started, I wasn’t doing videos, and now that’s exclusively what I do.
It’s clear you have a real knack for comedy – from The Comedy Button to Up at Noon to your hilarious tweets. When did that come about?
My dad is a writer and a teacher, so he was used to getting in front of rooms of sarcastic teenagers and trying to keep their attention by telling funny stories, and I really picked up on that. My mom was an artist and an architect, and she was always putting stuff in front of me to write, draw, paint or build and from that I got very creative. Comedy is the one thing that I’ve always had. [Laughs] It’s been a weapon for me. I was very short when I was little and I would get bullied and I thought, ‘Well, I can’t fight this guy, but what if I said something kind of mean and just got to him?’ You can give someone a black eye, and that will heal, but certain jokes will stick with people for years. Which is actually worse than beating someone up sometimes! I wrote really crappy joke books when I was a kid; and I always wanted to be the funniest guy in the group. It gave me an opportunity to make people smile, and make people laugh. I get such joy from making people laugh, I’m addicted to it, it’s the best feeling in the world!
Do you have any hobbies outside of comedy, music and games? Please tell me you’re an undercover yodeler or something!
[Laughs] I don’t know if I could yodel, my landlords would get pretty pissed off. But, I’m so busy. I realized the other day that in the last few years I’ve surrounded myself with people who are very creatively active. In the last few years, the people who are just concerned about going to work, drinking beer and going to sleep have gravitated away from me, and the void has been filled with people who are creative and driven; people who make stuff. It’s almost therapeutic for me to create awesome shit. The secret about me is I love a quiet Sunday afternoon where nobody is bothering me. That’s why I don’t stream when I play games. I need time by myself or with my wife with my phone off and laptop closed with a glass of wine watching some dumb comedy movie. That’s as important to me as working two jobs, having a successful podcast and recording albums and writing comedy. On paper, it looks like I’m the busiest guy in the world, but I really value those fleeting moments when I’ve got no obligations.
Well, that answers my next question: how do you manage your time?
Um, poorly. [Laughs] Somebody once told me the saying, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead,’ and I thought, ‘Wow! I could try that.’ So, I actually only sleep about 4-5 hours per night. I wake up, make coffee, and immediately sit down in front of my laptop and start writing or producing music. On the train to IGN, I’m on my phone, coordinating projects, working on things. I don’t really know how I do it. I’m probably doing it totally wrong – it’s always by the skin of my teeth. I feel like I wake up every day with ten things to do, I do seven of them, but then I add twelve more. That’s me most days!
You were involved with a successful Patreon with The Comedy Button. What are your thoughts on Patreon as a platform?
I think it’s an incredible platform for people to cut out the bullshit and give direct access of great content to the people who want it most. I think it’s amazing in comparison to Kickstarter, which felt like a month-long game show. We launched The Comedy Button via Kickstarter, but it was super stressful because it’s a 30-day countdown. Patreon is more suited to the way we exist as humans in that we change and evolve, and our Patreon can evolve with us. I woke up a few days ago with an idea for a $75 Patreon tier, we made ten available, and six sold out already. That’s really cool, because if people didn’t like it I could just get rid of it and try something new. I’ve spoken to people who want to start a podcast and immediately want to go to Patreon. But that’s not right – you have to build an audience first. Kickstarter isn’t like that. It’s like ‘Hey, here’s a guy who made a hat with an airplane on it. It’s got giant wings and it’s called ‘PlaneHat’!’ You’d be like, ‘PlaneHat sounds cool and you’d back it.’ The guy who made it will get $10 million in 30 days, and be like ‘Oh shit, how do I make PlaneHat?’ On Patreon, you can say, ‘We’ve been doing The Comedy Button for three years, and we’re launching this thing for people who maybe want a little more out of it.’ I definitely think you need to build the audience first before you ask for money.
Another group using Patreon is Kinda Funny, comprised of Greg Miller, Colin Moriarty, Nick Scarpino and Tim Gettys. So, I reached out to the Podcast Beyond Facebook group, and in addition to wanting me to say “Brrraaaap Brrraaaap”, they wanted your thoughts on IGN without those folks.
First of all, tell the Podcast Beyond community I love them! I’ve always seen IGN as the WWE. It’s defined by its eras, but those eras keep changing. The underlying message from the company; at WWE it’s probably, ‘Let’s get oily men to beat each other up!’ is always the same. There was Hulk Hogan and The Rock and CM Punk and John Cena, they all came and went. As they did, people always claimed that nothing would be the same, but the show keeps going. So, I love Greg and Colin dearly, and they were two of the most important faces of IGN. But, there were people there before them, and there will be people there after them. Greg and Colin knew that, they wouldn’t have left if they thought it’d damage the company. It also leaves room for new people with fresh ideas, like Max Scoville. He’s young, he’s excited and optimistic, and in ten years, it’ll be his turn to get off the ride and let someone else on. IGN is an amazing company, and the personalities are a huge part of that, but that’s superficial to the fact that people want game news, reviews and the like. BEYOND!
Taking a completely different turn, you’re a very talented musician, what are your future musical plans? More albums, collaborations, scores for games?
I would love to do all of those things. It’s weird, because music production is a much different beast from Podcasting or video production. It’s more meticulous, more plotted out – I envy artists that can drop an album every year, because I’m never going to be one of those people. For my last album, I recorded 45 songs over three years and used only ten. That gives you a glimpse of my process. But, I’m working on a remix for Troy Baker, a remix for MegaRan, a bunch of little side projects. I can’t just sit down and start recording things and put them together into a record. There has to be an underlying theme, some sort of narrative. I would absolutely love to do more game soundtracks and stuff. It was such a joy to hear my song in a game; it was such a rush!
What are some of your favorite IGN moments?
There are a few. It’s weird, because a lot of people at IGN will tell you that their favorite moments are never the moments where we filmed something or wrote an article. It’s working with the people here. It’s like a fucked up New York Times. It’s incredible! It’s this bustling, energetic newsroom full of people who love what you love. You’re in a room full of your best friends. I think my favorite moment was about three years ago, a year and a half after I got the job. My parents finally flew out to San Francisco from New Jersey to visit me. Growing up, my parents always told me that I should go outside and go play sports instead of playing games, and I just wanted to beat Ganon again, cause, fuck that guy. They came out, and I brought them to the office. There were toys all over my desk, and a TV with a Wii and PS3 hooked up to it. My mom looked at me, and said, ‘So this is real?’ It’s like yeah; I turned video games into a real job. She started tearing up and gave me a big hug. I said, ‘Hey mom, remember all those times you made me play sports? Had you let me pay Zelda, I’d probably be running this company!’ [Laughs] That’s probably my favorite moment. It legitimized something I loved so much that it turned into more than just a hobby.