Inside “The Many Worlds of Ross and AJ”
Thursday at 10:20 pm
It’s hard to believe, but the duo now racking up millions of hits on TikTok barely knew each other when they were up-and-coming comedians in Chicago. As their careers skyrocketed, AJ Lubecker and Ross Kelly separately made the pilgrimage to L.A. They met by chance on a film set and comic sparks flew. That fateful meeting led to the creation of The Many Worlds of Ross and AJ, now playing on TikTok and YouTube to the delight of millions worldwide.
Back in Chicago at age twenty-one, AJ made history as the youngest comedian ever to host his own Friday night show at the world famous Laugh Factory. Ross, also a creator and host at the Laugh Factory, was celebrated for his innovative, dynamic and non-conformist style. They hosted back-to-back shows, but to each other were just quips passing in the night.
No one could have predicted that three years later and two thousand miles away, their synergy would explode into a phenomenon. Each episode of The Many Worlds of Ross and AJ begins with a relatable scenario – a surprise party, a new iPhone, a bee-sting allergy, getting takeout – then quickly devolves step by hilarious step into mayhem. Through a magical comical process that is Ross and AJ’s alone, each video arrives at a wildly creative finale.
If that pattern strikes a chord – day-to-day routines morphing into previously unimaginable mad scenarios – well, it should. Ross and AJ’s perspective would be delicious in any era, but it is especially resonant now. They echo everything that we’ve all lived through this past preposterous year. All of our daily lives have transmogrified into a new reality where all we can predict is unpredictability. The difference is that Ross and AJ’s predicaments always end on a highly original and hilarious note. On TikTok, Ross and AJ somehow manage to pack their adventures into 59-second vignettes. You’ll find expanded sketches on YouTube.
Granted, you may not relate to every scenario. In one inventive theme that runs through several videos, Ross and AJ persist with a misguided but well-intentioned decision to gift a leopard to friends on special occasions. What could go wrong?!
But the real question is what is going right in The Many Worlds of Ross and AJ? Behind the scenes, the answer is “everything” – which shocks and delights them both. They are now recognized on the street and in condo hallways (even with masks). Viewers are cosplaying and reenacting their videos which are racking up literally millions of views and likes.
Ross and AJ kindly spoke with me by phone about their chemistry, comedy and how they’ve created exactly the right content for our times and beyond.
Teme: How did The Many Worlds of Ross and AJ begin?
AJ: Last summer we recorded a few sketch videos for Instagram. Our friends and different comedians “liked” them, so we kept doing them. Then they blew up on TikTok and …
Ross: … AJ told me one day, “Hey, we’re getting a ton of views on TikTok!” And I was like, “That’s great! What’s TikTok?” There was so much happening on TikTok, that we lasered our focus on that.
Teme: Did you know each other from Chicago?
Ross: We did. We both had shows at the Laugh Factory on Fridays. I produced a show with some friends at eight o’clock and AJ’s show was at 10 o’clock, but we didn’t know each other very well. Then AJ moved to L.A. and a year later I, unrelated, moved to L.A. He was making a short film called Born with II. I did a scene in it and it was like fireworks. The word “magic” was thrown around a lot. Their word, not ours. We decided to team up.
AJ: We took the dynamic that we had in the short film and tried recreating it in short video format and it worked. Now we’ve made over a hundred short videos together and we have the web series now, too.
SECRETS BEHIND THE FRIENDSHIP
Teme: Your dynamic on film is very funny. Does your friendship have a similar dynamic in real life?
AJ: Our friendship started as the videos gained traction. Is that kind of right, Ross? Our friendship was formed inside of the characters we’ve created. So it’s kind of strange.
Ross: Yeah. There was very little time where we were just friends. It started within the videos. So I actually now am wondering how much of our friendship is informed by these characters that we’ve created.
AJ: I hadn’t really thought about it that much but, yeah, I feel like our friendship is basically that.
Ross: I bet you weren’t expecting a psychological breakthrough, Teme!
Teme: No, I wasn’t, but that’s always exciting! You guys are great together. What was your first impression of each other?
Ross: I would just see the beginning of AJ’s show at the Laugh Factory. He did these stunts on stage before the show. I don’t know … he was very young and then we would leave, and that was kind of it. He would pop in at the end of our show and just see us gathering our papers together. So there wasn’t really any first impression.
AJ: I was doing standup in Chicago. I knew Ross was doing stranger comedy than the normal stuff. So I always liked his stuff, but I don’t remember an initial love at first sight.
Ross: No. But then we started going to some open mics in L.A. because we were both pretty fresh on the L.A. comedy scene. Then I saw him do standup. His jokes were hilarious and his delivery was hilarious, and then it was like, “Okay, we do have very similar sensibilities.” There was a lot of overlap in what makes us tick.
Teme: What do you admire most about each other?
Ross: Definitely AJ’s borderline compulsion to keep things moving. If there is any line on the to-do list that is unchecked, he’s working on it right now.
AJ: I’m more of a just-want-to-keep-firing person and Ross takes more time looking things over which is a good balance and why we work well.
SHOWRUNNING IN A PANDEMIC
Teme: How are you handling filming in a pandemic?
Ross: It’s only us on set and we are part of each other’s bubble as is any cameraman.
AJ: The web series is entirely outside which was a COVID decision. With the TikTok videos, we’re primarily outside. When we’re inside, we’re doing the open windows, but it’s still just us. So we feel pretty comfortable.
PEAK COMIC WRITING
Teme: How much of your videos is improvised and how much scripted?
AJ: We almost entirely improvise everything.
Ross: I think a good example is [a video] we did where AJ had this old 2008 iPod.
Teme: I saw that! It was hilarious!
Ross: So AJ just pulled out the iPod and was like, “What if there was something with this?” And then we batted shit around, like if I bought an iPhone 12 on the street, but it came with a lot of “caveats.” When we’re creating a video, we kind of fumble our way through some sort of plot and jokes and then we run it five or six times and …
AJ: … lots of times we start on a wide establishing shot and that normally is the longest take. Then when we go to close up we know the lines we want to hit. By the time we’re done with the first cut, most of our videos are two to three minutes long. So then we’re forced to cut two minutes of jokes while still having the video make sense.
Ross: It’s definitely not easy to have hundreds of 59-second videos with a beginning, middle and end.
AJ: You can see in editing that we made us walk twice as fast as we really were walking just to shave off half a second.
Ross: Even right now giving these answers I’m like, “How’s Teme going to fit this in 59 seconds?” That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to do the web series. We could let jokes breathe and not have to be right on top of the next thing.
AJ: Both of our standup styles are very slow and meandering and now we find ourselves doing the opposite of what we do on stage. There’s no space in our videos, but I think that’s what makes them unique. People watch the videos multiple times because there are so many jokes. They say, “Oh, I re-watched that video again and I heard two new jokes that I didn’t hear the first time.”
Ross: It’s a brand new muscle for us, so we’re well-rounded. We’re now what the French call “la foucage totale.”
Teme: My French is not that good. I may have just learned something new.
Ross: I don’t really think it’s a French word.
Teme: It sounded like legit French! But consistent with that, you have an amazing number of jokes and surprises and twists in a very short amount of time. How do you do that?
Ross: We start with a funny premise and we know it’s funny, but then AJ will be like, “Well, what’s the ‘out’?” We’re on top of that from the beginning.
AJ: That’s always where the majority of writing is focused. What’s the “out”? What’s the highest, weirdest point where we could take this? Lots of times, we start with one version where we’re like, “Oh, everyone’s going to be expecting this.” Then instead we try to write the highest, weirdest point that we could take it. A lot of times when we’re writing, it feels like racing each other to the same point. We both can get to the same weird punchline, but we’re bouncing it back and forth trying to beat each other to it …
Ross: … and when we are writing, we’re trying to be cognizant of what people would expect as the next thing to happen …
AJ: Yeah …
Ross: … and not do that.
CHICAGO IS A WAY OF BEING
Teme: How does your background in Chicago comedy influence this series?
Ross: When you’re in L.A. you can pick out the people from the Midwest. They have a sense of accessibility about them.
AJ: On TikTok we don’t know where all our followers are, but I like to think that a majority of them are from the Midwest because our voices sound like them. Everyone that I’m friends with out here happens to be from Chicago.
In the three years of being out here, I’ve noticed that when I’m out and about and talking to someone for an hour it’s like, “Oh you’re from Chicago. That’s why I like you.” That’s why Ross and I enjoy each other’s company.
EXCUSE ME, ARE YOU …?
Teme: What’s the most unexpected and surprising thing that’s happened with your series so far?
AJ: The initial thing that happened with our TikTok videos was the lip syncing. There were hundreds and hundreds of videos of people reenacting our sketches. One person would be playing me and the other person’s playing Ross and they’re lip syncing our jokes.
Ross: It’s flattering. They use our audio but they film themselves.
AJ: The first time that we had a video do a couple million views in a day, people started recording their own versions of it with our voices. There’ve been times where people weren’t sure which one of us was Ross or AJ But we thought, “Wow, people are really liking what we’re doing if they’re reenacting it.”
Ross: Some are cosplay with full makeup.
AJ: What’s also been cool is all the different types and ages of people who have recorded versions of our videos. There’s a ton of high schoolers that are doing it and also cosplayers and regular adults.
Ross: I don’t know what you mean by “regular.” Another thing is that we’ve been recognized on the street. The first time that happened I was way more excited than the guy who recognized me. I was pumping gas and he was like, “Hey, I’m sorry, are you on TikTok?” And I said, “I am!” He said, “I don’t know your name. But I think I remember watching one of your videos.”
AJ: Ross was like, “You want a picture?!!”
Ross: I followed him home. I was like, “You want me to meet your family or …?” Then we wrote something about that.
AJ: We wrote a video where I was jealous that Ross got recognized.
Ross: After I got recognized my head exploded but recounting it, it’s not a very interesting story. Then AJ got recognized.
AJ: It was after Ross and I did a series of videos about moving because I was moving from the apartment building where we were filming. I’d just moved to the new apartment building and I met someone in the building who actually knew me from TikTok. He said, “I was just watching your videos!”
HOW DID THE LEOPARD GET IN HERE? AND WHAT ABOUT BOB?
Teme: How did the running joke about leopards get started? And how did you recreate the recurring character of hapless Bob?
AJ: It was a thing that we mentioned when …
Ross: … we started the videos …
AJ: … a year ago. And in the first video we …
Ross: … mentioned Bob.
AJ: … and then people started commenting, “Oh, I hate Bob” or “Fuck Bob” even though no one really knew Bob, but we had mentioned him in passing in a bunch of videos. Then we started building out his character. Then the leopard thing happened. We were writing a story that it was Bob’s birthday. So we made a video of me practicing surprising Bob for his surprise party. Then the surprise party happens and we brought the leopard there. I really have no idea where that came from to be honest.
Ross: I think that was just a stream of consciousness.
AJ: It started as a total random thought. Now it’s an ongoing joke.
Ross: Then finally in the web series we killed Bob after like fifty videos mentioning Bob.
AJ: Bob is played in the web series by Bill Cruz who is also a comedian from Chicago.
Teme: He’s great. I remember seeing him at the Wilmette Theatre years ago!
Ross: He’s still got it!
AJ: He’s still got it. The whole time we’d been thinking of Bob, we had Bill in our heads for that guy. We were excited to introduce him and film with him through the web series.
Teme: I really enjoy the cameos by Chicago comedians – like Tim Barnes!
AJ: I actually heard about TikTok from Tim. He’s just a really funny dude. We were excited to work with him.
Ross: We met with him like a week before he got The Tonight Show job. We met him for a beer and he was like, “I have an interview with Jimmy Fallon tomorrow.” And I’m like, “WHY are you OUT?”
AJ: I was like, “If it were me, I’d be walking around in hockey gear making sure I wasn’t going to hit my head before that interview!”
Teme: What about your subtitles? They have a unique vernacular that’s really fun to read.
AJ: Standups were doing that on Instagram. They would post a clip of a joke with a subtitle for it. And then we started …
Ross: … seeing that there’s a possibility for more jokes there. We began squeezing in some jokes and then it got out of control …
AJ: … and then we started getting comments about the subtitles and people watching the video twice: once to watch the video and a second time to read the subtitle. Then that became a very important part of the videos. I mumble a lot more than Ross, so then we started writing any sounds that we make in subtitles. That was what people noticed and then we ran with it.
Teme: The subtitles feel really universal. I realized I say inaudible things that sound exactly like the mumbles you’re putting in subtitles.
Ross: Right. But you would never think about it until you saw it spelled out in front of you.
HOW TO GET A MILLION VIEWS
Teme: What is your advice for TikTok success? Is there some algorithm?
Ross: Nope. No clue.
AJ: We get asked that and we really don’t know.
Ross: We’ve read dozens of articles about the algorithm like, “You’ve got to post on Wednesdays at 3:00, not at 3:30.” I read one that said, “You’ve got to go by Greenwich Mean Time.” So I posted once in the middle of the night and it did like three million views and I was like, “We got it. This is it.” And the next one did like twelve.
AJ: I like to think that if you post really funny stuff to TikTok that you would find success. It’s definitely been a building process. We don’t have any secrets about peak posting times or anything like that, but I do think in a more optimistic mindset that we’re making good stuff that resonates with a lot of people. The algorithm is very … well, you can’t figure it out.
Teme: I think maybe it is just quality. The videos are great.
Ross: We’ll go with quality. Go ahead and write down “quality.”
THE BRIGHT WORLD OF ROSS & AJ
Teme: What do you hope audiences will take away from your videos?
AJ: Primarily, we want them to be a bright spot for people.
Ross: We want to provide surprise and humor and a little brightness.
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