While you’re in quarantine, here’s a reminder to check out the free streaming app Twitch, which can be a weird and wonderful playground for gaming and beyond; this profile, which originally posted in July 2019, helps explain why:
The Twitch notification on my phone buzzed on a Saturday morning this past May, signifying that SourKoolaidShow was online. It wasn’t the channel’s normal schedule (weekends are usually host Dan Paul’s time off), but DP—as he’s known to his viewers—was in the middle of a Bloodborne boss battle that had been going on for weeks. His character, Cash Munny, was armed with a simple ax as he attempted to take down an asymmetrical and very angry late-game Bloodborne fire demon named Laurence. Despite protestations from the chat, DP was determined to defeat this boss with brute force his own way.
In some ways, it mirrors DP’s approach to Twitch itself. Born and raised in Billings, Montana, DP described his hometown to me in a phone conversation this week as “the end of the cattle drive.” He went on to say, “that’s where the cowboys stopped … we’re all the sons of outlaws. They didn’t have to abide by anyone’s rules and I have that stubbornness as well.”
But DP’s countenance is not one that viewers might initially link with a cattle driver (unless he’s roleplaying his character Bart, who sports a low drawl and a giant mustache). Now a father of two living in Oregon, DP is a jovial figure who laughs easily but takes his responsibility as an entertainer seriously. “When I came into Twitch, I immediately thought it was more a form of entertainment than watching games is,” DP said. “In entertainment, everything competes with everything.” From the start, SKS was about more than gaming.
For the uninitiated, Twitch.tv is a live-streaming platform that launched in 2011 (and is now owned by Amazon) that features “streamers” who host channels, mostly playing videogames. Twitch boasts 2.2 million monthly broadcasters, and 15 million daily active users. It’s overwhelmingly male, white and relatively young, although there is more diversity to be found within both the channels themselves and in chat than may first be apparent. Chat is an integral part of the platform, as users trade quips and emotes back and forth with each other and, in smaller channels, with the host. The games range from old-school platformers to the latest AAA titles; sometimes there are gimmicks that make popular streamers standout, others are just the product of being at the right place at the right time.
I first discovered DP when he was playing the character Grammy Wilde on Ezekiel_III’s channel in October of 2018. The two broadcasters, friends since high school, did a stream together as part of a donation incentive for Zeke’s St. Jude fundraiser. It was a cooking cast, something else that Twitch is known for outside of gaming, as Grammy Wilde schooled Zeke on how to make a number of brunch dishes that all turned out to include far too much vodka and oddly, radishes. It was outlandish, hilarious and all done live. I was cackling as the two riffed on their made-up family connection and concocted these horrible dishes, eventually causing enough smoke to billow from Zeke’s oven that it overtook his kitchen. Grammy (in full Mrs. Doubtfire garb) got on the floor and implored Zeke to do the same between fits of laughter. “It’s safer down here!” she called out.
It was enough of a compelling performance for me to spend most of my afternoon in rapt attention, and I gave DP’s channel a follow, thinking he might be another funny or charming gamer I could occasionally watch. I would not have predicted that half a year later I’d be excitedly logging on to Twitch on a Saturday morning, with DP telling those of us in the SKS chat that he was there to “wake up Laurence” before the demon could get a good night’s rest, battling away and dying over and over and over again. For several hours I did chores while I watched, pausing occasionally to interact with chat, encourage DP, or make jokes about the insanity, all to the dulcet tones of Laurence’s otherworldly shrieks in the background. Almost no one I knew IRL would understand it. But I loved it.
For the SourKoolaidShow, which launched five years ago, success initially included a little bit of everything. “We started doing really outlandish things that nobody was doing and it got a lot of attention very quickly,” DP told us. “People started to say like, ‘can you do that?’ And we started to get a lot of Twitch people watching this wondering ‘can they do that?’ Actually, after many of the things that we did, they ended up having to rewrite their rules of conduct and a new TOS.”
SKS started out with the intention to review videogames. DP served as the “sour” end of the spectrum, challenging viewers if they were “drinking the koolaid” of current game hype, while his friend Shawn provided the more balanced opinion and gameplay. But “it turns out that new games are pretty expensive,” DP admitted, and they weren’t making much money. (Twitch streamers are supported through ads as well as viewer donations and subscriptions through the platform; in the interest of full disclosure, I currently subscribe to the SKS channel). Instead, the channel became more about performance, with DP coming up with creative challenges for the duo to take on. “The whole idea was Shawn would get us on the internet and I would keep us there,” DP told us regarding how they split their responsibilities, with Shawn handling the equipment and tech side. “I can get an audience if he can get us on and streaming.” That included “doing crazy, crazy shit.”
They set up an encounter table, where they would role a 20-sided die (commonly used in Dungeons & Dragons), which led to comedic oddities. “Shawn would be eating sushi off me while we both wore Speedos,” DP explained. “Or we had to cut up jalapeños and put them on our fingers and play that way. Or we had to do ‘two-headed troll,’ where we both had to wear one shirt and I held the controller and he held the controller.” The channel gained so much popularity that they became partnered with Twitch very quickly (partnered streamers earn money and have more privileges on the platform; you can read the full breakdown here). But it also took its toll.
In August of last year I wrote about MANvsGAME, a very popular OG Twitch streamer (and another high school friend of DP’s) who had been on and off the platform for much of 2018 struggling with bouts of depression and burnout. Many streamers who make Twitch their full-time job are online 8 to 10 hours a day, sometimes streaming through weekends and holidays. More airtime means more possible viewers which can translate into subs and donations. Streamer burnout is a very real thing. For DP’s channel partner Shawn, after about a year of comedy and chaos, he was ready to take a break. The split is described as amicable, but it also left DP in the position of taking over the channel as a solo streamer. “I just received a 100% raise,” DP said. “My mind opened up.”
DP’s background as a playwright and actor in Billings was one side of the equation, but the other was his experience in stand-up comedy, which he’s been doing for 17 years. To keep the viewers who liked the dynamic of two hosts, DP invited fellow stand-up comedians to join the channel with him as the sole live audience, requiring 30 minute sets. But eventually he started experimenting more with character creation (like the aforementioned Grammy Wilde and Bart, among others). As has been mentioned on the channel recently though, there is a character mutiny against him—aside from Wally, a white-bearded wizard who raps about the astral plane. DP revealed that the resolution to this mutiny will manifest on the channel in new ways, ultimately tying things together in a kind of shared universe, which is an ambitious plan. But DP is nothing if not ambitious.
About a month into fighting Laurence, the fatigue was starting to set in. The jokes in chat were growing stale, and so we would talk about other things, with occasional punctuations of “good cuts!” to DP. Then there was the anticipation when Cash Munny would fight Laurence through a second or third battle stage. Is this it?! It wasn’t, not yet, and we wondered aloud why we were still watching a man do the same thing over and over again, failing, dying, all while Laurence gave his bloodcurdling screams. But we stayed.
“It starts out, you know … I’m a lot more full of jokes and commenting. I’ve got fresh stimuli, this is all new,” DP told me when I asked how the saga played out from his own perspective. “So it’s easy for me to make jokes and I can occupy that time pretty well after many, many days. Then it’s getting to be like … I don’t have those jokes anymore. I can’t. I don’t want to tell the same jokes. So I’m constantly searching my brain as I’m playing for new ways to entertain you as I’m doing the same fucking thing over and over. It becomes like Groundhog Day. It just goes through stages and styles of play where sometimes I’m really determined. Other times I’m bored and just distracted. And I’d rather do Open for Whispers the rest of the night than fight Laurence anymore.”
Open for Whispers is one of DP’s signature segments of the show, where he performs an impromptu dating profile for someone in the chat. (Direct messages between users on Twitch are called “Whispers.”) It’s always absurd and outrageous, pure stream-of-consciousness improv augmented by the fact that these bizarre statements are meant to woo potential suitors. “It’s kind of a false mockery where I’m making fun of them, but in a pleasant, warm way,” he explained. It engages the community, as does him starting each stream with about an hour or more of Just Chatting, a Twitch category where the host engages directly with viewers instead of doing gameplay. DP is sincere, funny and unabashedly vulnerable in these moments. It provides a coziness to the channel, like you’re sitting down with friends at the end of the day, which is helped along by the positive community that SKS has cultivated from its regular participants. And that’s not necessarily typical on Twitch.
“If you can make somebody laugh, it starts to put them in a better mood. It gets them away from whatever it was that might have been nagging them,” DP said in regards to his familial community and lack of trolls. “Once you’re laughing with somebody, you’re almost instant friends. If you can make somebody laugh a few times, then they kind of come together, and then they’ll share their own experiences.”
There is certainly plenty of laughter on SKS, whether in response to Open for Whispers, stories told in the channel, inside jokes, or even the gameplay itself. One of the most beloved examples of this is a remote co-op that DP and Zeke did for the game Far Cry 5, which is set in their home state of Montana. The full playthroughs are on YouTube and Twitch (and they are legendary), but perhaps the clip that best sets everything up is the infamous “X to Glide.” (You can watch it from Zeke’s perspective as well as DP’s.) Zeke posits in the stream that DP “cannot be this stupid,” and indeed, the gameplay on SKS is defined by DP’s unique approach to playing. But is he a comic genius, or a truly terrible gamer? Having watched the stream regularly for almost a year, I still genuinely do not know.
“A lot of people have have posed that question watching my channel over the years,” DP said. “Like ‘that was so funny! He had to do that on purpose.’ And there might be a mix of that. There might be occasional, ‘this would be funny’ or ‘that would be funny,’ or it might just be my attitude at the time, or it was was what I chose to do because I wasn’t thinking or wasn’t very playing very well that day. It might’ve been I’d had too much to drink, or it could have been ‘his comedic brilliance that he saw a joke there.’ I like to keep that up my sleeve.”
Early in his solo run on the channel, DP began titling his Dark Souls streams as “The Best Damned Dark Souls on Twitch,” which was only partly a joke. (In chat a typical refrain is, “this is the only Dark Souls stream on Twitch”). But DP means it. “I believed it long enough that people bought into it and they were like, ‘it is because it’s funny. It’s not the Dark Souls I expect, but it’s the Dark Souls I need.’” DP doesn’t usually play new games or AAA titles when they’re fresh, because Twitch is already saturated with them, even though his play style is unique. (His favorite games of all time include The Guardian Legend, Ocarina of Time, and Metroid Prime).
For me, whose play style—weaned on unforgiving platformers—is to do everything “right” the first time, watching DP was freeing. I started playing Far Cry 5 after watching him with Zeke, and gave my character an inspired motto: I’m not afraid to die! I loosened up and had fun. “I think it’s far more entertaining and fun when someone is struggling through something, or they don’t really care too much if they die,” DP told me. “It’s not a big deal. I’d like to get to the goal or whatever, but that’s not my goal. My goal is that you have a good time watching me do it and that I have a good time playing. If I’m not having a good time, I don’t play it.”
The Laurence saga continued for 21 days, spread out over several months. DP wasn’t always having fun playing it, but it became an obsession for both him and the chat. “You go through these grueling stages after playing, you know, the same thing over and over and over. I have a very addictive mind and obsessive mind, a very stubborn mind, and it is very natural for me to continue doing that—to fight the best that I can to until I beat him. Because I will eventually,” DP said. “And like … one of us is going to die. I’m going to die or he’s going to die. Since I’m very positive he’s going to die, I just look at it in those terms. I don’t quit.”
Perseverance defines the channel, and DP has big ideas for what’s next. But for now, SKS remains niche in its variety format and live numbers. SKS isn’t for everyone, but for the senators and generals who call it home, with the refrain “Strength and Honor!” it’s a place of refuge. (As well as refuse—DP has a habit of calling new subscribers “trash,” sometimes jokingly banning long-time subscribers for gifting out subs and “bringing more trash into the channel.” You’re not really family until you’ve been banned; the moderators bring everyone back in at the end of the stream).
With Laurence, perseverance won out. Cash Munny did eventually deliver the final blow after over 1,000 defeats. It was finished. DP bellowed out in success, clapping and exclaiming “there it is!” over and over. Chat went wild, donations and bits and emotes were flying. DP wiped tears from him eyes. “Finally we collect,” he said in the aftermath. “I needed that. Most of you guys stayed. And you watched, because you knew something was gonna break. Cash Munny collects. So many people saying you gotta change up your style … nah. That became metaphorically important. It became absurd. It became ridiculous. What a mountain.” Welcome to the SourKoolaidShow.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat, and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.