I interviewed Samwell, the "What What (In The Butt)" guy, about his new video for "Just Be Free," being a flight attendant, and how annoying it is to be referred to as the "What What (In The Butt)" guy.
On Valentine's Day 2007, the clouds parted over South Carolina and a weird gay black guy named Samwell blessed the entire planet with "What What (In The Butt)," a song and video about butt stuff. You might remember thinking to yourself "this is stupid" when you first saw it, and then proceeding to show the video to anyone who came within thirty feet of your computer. Viral isn't the way to describe this thing: It became a basic building block of the Internet, and crossed over into pornography, World of Warcraft, South Park, and Sweden's Got Talent. It's currently got over 50-million views on the 'Tube.
Following the success of "What What (In The Butt)," Samwell released a few videos here and there, appeared in a pair of movies (Modus Operandi and Hamlet ADD), made an iPhone app ("Shaky Advice from Samwell"), and continued his work as a flight attendant. Last year, when his airline was shut down, Samwell took it as a sign that it was time to turn his artistic ambitions into a full-time job. Today he dropped a new video for "Just Be Free," his latest single, which you can watch above. In the video, Samwell plays Jesus, Malcolm X, and Madonna.
This week I gave Samwell a call to discuss maintaining viral fame, being a flight attendant, and how it feels to constantly be referred to as the "What What (In The Butt)" guy. I should mention here that he was probably the kindest person I've spoken to on the phone in my entire history of speaking on the phone and he'll probably hate me for calling him the "What What (In The Butt)" guy. The truth is that just because he made a video about butt sex doesn't mean he isn't a real and serious artist and entertainer, and reducing him to that one video isn't fair. I feel crummy, but calling him the "What What (In The Butt)" guy is still the fastest way to get the point across. Internet fame is a cruel mistress.
Noisey: Hi Samwell! It's so nice to talk to you, I'm really such a big fan!
Samwell: Oh stop, I bet you say that to all the boys. [Laughs]
So what's been going on with you since the you first started off?
Ooh, trying to do a rundown… Wow, well, even before that I had a regular job as a flight attendant.
Whoa. Are you still doing flight attendant stuff?
No I'm not. My company ended last year so I finally took it as a sign of the universe saying "This is the time to really go for broke, to pursue your artistic life as you've always wanted." So that's what I've been doing for the past year: Trying to see what happens.
When you were a flight attendant, would people recognize you on the plane as the "What What (In The Butt)" guy?
It was weird. Flight attendants are these proper stewards of the industry. We're in the public, but my relationship with the video was private: Sitting at home, wondering how people took it, if they were offended, or whatever. They I'd get on a plane and people on the flight would say "Wait, how do I know you? Oh yeah, you're that butt guy!" This still annoys me to this day, but whatever, I'm Samwell for fuck's sake, people! it's just something I have to get over. It's like when people call Madonna "The Material Girl" to her face. She hates it, but that's just what it is.
How have you maintained your career after such a wild overnight success?
Hmm, that's a very interesting question. Well, truth be told, that was not the song I wanted to put out. I knew that people would see me as just a comedian. I don't consider myself a comedian, I'm just funny, and I happened to do a fun song. With this new song, "Just Be Free," I'm hoping that the public will see a different persona.
You seem to be very openly critical of the religious right. Is that fair to say?
Yes, but I want to make it clear that I'm not attacking religion, I'm attacking the divisive and mean-spirited people in positions of authority who deny people their basic rights. I find a lot of religious people to be hypocritical, but it's not religion itself. My whole idea is about peace and freedom, being who you are despite everyone around you telling you not to be. Sometimes you have to be a little militant to get your point across. Not that you have to be shooting people of burning things down. Sometimes you have to just stand up and say "Listen: I'm here, I'm not going anywhere, so just fucking deal with it!" In the most respectful manner you can handle, of course. I am from the south you know.
I got sidetracked. So what else have you been working on since 2007?
Well, I put out a few songs that weren't quite as popular, but I still really enjoyed it. I did another song a few years later called "Protect Respect." which is my safe sex PSA. Then I just kept doing shows until I got back into the studio last year. I'm working on some new songs and working on writing my first TV show.
Wow! Can you tell me about the TV show?
Well, I started it with my writing partner because I think there needs to be some more… For lack of a better word, some more diversity in television. It seems to be very white, and last time I checked there are several different kinds of people in this world, and some of them are African American and gay! Our show is about a guy starting his first day as a TV talk show host, and all the inanity that ensues, and lives across the hall from his best friend. It's called "Sister Samwell."
What about your new video, "Just Be Free?"
The whole process for me was just a labor of love. I'm glad it got done, and hopefully people will have a good time and enjoy the song. I always take the advice of one of my biggest idols, Janet Jackson: You just hope you can get people's attention with your music and then they listen for the words and then hopefully change their mind. We listen to the beat and shake our ass, but I want people to actually hear the beat, hear the song, and govern themselves accordingly. Oh also, Madonna is another one of my idols, which is why she's in the video.