The Harlem Shaq: An Oral History

Shawn Bowers and Colin Hogan are two members of the two man comedy duo Scuba Mission. Recently, they released their own Shaquille O’Neal version of the Harlem Shake, called “the Harlem Shake - HARLEM SHAQ EDITION” to great critical acclaim (on Youtube). But as with all great works of art, triumph and fortune didn’t come easy... They had to overcome infighting, an unresponsive public and an overzealous Shaq to get their meme on the world’s stage it deserved. 

They took a moment out of their busy, now-famous schedules to talk about the creation of this epic meme-complishment.

Shawn: We’ve been making videos for a few years now, but none of them had ever gone viral.

Colin: Probably because we were doing really heady, intellectual trying to eat a bunch of popsicles quickly or videotaping amateur bike stunts. 

Shawn: To give you some idea, a normal Scuba Mission video gets between 50-200 views, if we're lucky. Whereas a reposted video of a monkey drinking it’s own urine can snag 100k views in no time. We wanted some of that piss-drinking action.

Colin: Last year, we started to create some link-bait YouTube videos on topical subjects or memes, like Scuba Says Shit or the Katt Williams Target scandal, all with the goal of finally getting five thousand views on something even if it cost us our integrity.

Shawn: The joke being that it wasn’t actually compromising any integrity at all, because we were in on the joke the whole time and knew we were compromising our integrity! 

Colin: Also, it’s kind of like... We didn’t really have any integrity left by that point anyway. 

Shawn: Yeah. 

In late February 2013, a hot new meme called the Harlem Shake started sweeping the nation. While they didn’t understand why just yet, Shawn and Colin were both hard as rocks. 

Colin: So the Harlem Shake came out. And I didn’t really like or understand it.

Shawn: I liked that it was a structured meme that you could definitely get “right” or “wrong,” in terms of the format. But I also didn’t like it because it wasn’t funny or good.

Colin: But my penis was still super hard and I couldn’t figure out why.

Shawn: My penis was also very, very hard, and I also couldn’t figure out why.

Scuba decided to hold one of their notorious creative conferences at the Potbelly on Southport to try and figure out how to address this meme and their mysterious boner situation. 

Shawn: We agreed to just brainstorm. Just work it out, figure out how to get in on this action and then milk that action for all the milk money we could get.

Colin: My brain started thinking big. Like... Big ideas, big people, Tom Hanks dancing on a piano... Which is from the movie Big, which is a joke. I got a big laugh from the room when I told it out loud a second ago.

Shawn: And my brain started naturally forming puns, which is what it does for any combination of words I hear in any setting. We had some big ideas for something called the Harlem Steak, which would have been mostly just us wiggling a raw steak.

Colin: The Harlem Quake came up, based on the classic PC first person shooter series.  The Harlem Rake.  The Harem Shake, which was a porn version.

Shawn: But in the end, we both sort of hit upon the same big idea at the same time.  Because, as we always say, great minds...

Colin: The idea was the Harlem Shaq.  

Their boners subsided almost immediately.  After finishing their sandwiches, Shawn and Colin moved on to filming. 

Colin: The clock was ticking, because the meme had already been around for about a week, which in meme years is like... a billion years. 

Shawn: Even though we were really together on the title “Harlem Shaq,” there were definitely some differing ideas of what the finished product should be.

Colin: I wanted to do an absurdist thing, with Shawn being the Helmet-Wearing-Shakey-Dancey person and dancing in the Jewel down the street. Sort of a misdirect, and then when the base drops, cutting to stock footage of Shaq dancing. I didn't realize Shawn was a huge pussy when it came to filming things in public. Definitely could never be on SpyTV.

Shawn: I tried explaining to him that that wasn’t how the meme works. The meme has a very rigid structure... 15 seconds of a person wearing a helmet or mask, dancing around people who pretend not to notice even though they’re in on it. Then the bass drops, the group goes crazy, and the last 2 seconds are in slow-mo when the lion growls. His vision of it was more like a prank show thing, and he kept trying to reference SpyTV, which I’ve never heard of and is probably stupid.  

Colin: So we found a busy Jewel with PLENTY of unsuspecting people in the bakery section and I was outside filming, so it was perfect. Very SpyTV, it was so perfect and such a good twist on the meme - a prank! Who would have thought! But instead of dancing, Shawn just grabbed a piece of bread and did this weird low level hip shake thing. It was embarrassing to watch, let alone film.

Shawn: Again, a bike helmet is not the same as a Power Rangers helmet or a Japanes noh mask or whatever. It doesn’t hide my identity. If someone saw me,  I wasn't prepared to admit that I was filming a Harlem Shake video because then I’d have to explain how ours was so layered and different and artistic, and that shit never translates. So yeah, I sabotaged the video. I half-assed it, literally.

Colin frantically edited together his version of the Harlem Shaq with the ruined footage:

Meanwhile, Shawn vowed to cut together his own version, the Harlem Shake - HARLEM SHAQ EDITION, to “show Colin how good things are done.” 

Shawn: My Harlem Shaq used found footage. You'd be surprised how many videos of Shaq dancing are available on the web... He's danced with Bieber, he's danced at half time shows, in commercials. The man thinks he can dance, so all I had to do was find two clips that loosely fit into the structure and the pun would drive the rest of it. Much more logical than Colin’s. 

Colin: Shawn ruined my video, and in doing so, ruined our trust. 

Shawn: My video was great, that’s what matters.

Scuba agreed to release the videos at the same time on February 18th to see which version the public would embrace or if they would do like they normally did, and ignore them both. What happened next was SO SHOCKING.

Colin: On the first day, my version got about 3 views.

Shawn: My version got about 200 views on the first day, and then about 500 after two days. So it was already on a pretty strong track, albeit slower than the fifty or sixty thousand I was anticipating on day one. 

Colin: I’ll be honest, I bailed on my version pretty quick, because there was so much excitement over on Shawn’s vid.

Shawn: The vibe was... crackling. 

Colin: I imagine it’s what Facebook felt like in the early days. Real crackling excitement.

Shawn: I felt like a crackling Mark Zuckerberg. And Colin was definitely Eduardo Saverin.

Colin: The better looking of the two. Dates hot asian chicks. Gets accepted into groups based on popularity... I think that sounds right.

Scuba sent a press release announcing their triumph to all major Chicago news outlets that day, but the response was less than encouraging despite all the organic traffic they were receiving. 

Shawn: NPR ignored us, like they were too good for us. 

Colin: You also have to remember that when we released our Harlem Shaq, it was the only Harlem Shaq online. This was... the early days. This was before the Harlem Shaq became it's own meme, separate from the Harlem Shake. We were, in every sense of the word, innovators.

Shawn: And then Shaq stuck his big giant head into our business. 

Shaq released The Harlem Shaq - FAMILY EDITION on February 20 via his Comedy Shaq Network, which is a Youtube channel dedicated to... comedy videos... that Shaq likes or is in, I guess?  It’s not really clear.  There also seem to be puppets sometimes.

Colin: The Family Edition was weird.

Shawn: During the bit where only one person was supposed to be dancing, they were all dancing in a Brady Bunch splitscreen formation. Then when the beat dropped, they were all still dancing, but in the same room, instead of in a Brady Bunch formation. There was no slow mo during the lion growl. Shaq was holding a flashlight.  It was like they didn't understand at all, very out of touch.

Colin: Shaq is usually so with it.  It was interesting to see him miss the mark so wildly on that one.

The Family Edition racked up a few hundred thousand views in the first few days, but also created a ripple effect that would benefit Scuba’s version. 

Colin: People were getting confused while trying to find the “authentic” version and were finding ours instead. Our plan was working. 

Shawn: We crossed 5k within a week, something we hadn’t been able to do in 3 years of making videos featuring ourselves. All we had to do was release a video that didn’t include us at all, with footage that we didn’t shoot and a song we didn’t write, but still take all the credit for it. 

Colin: So we thought “oh, let’s team up with them.”

Shawn: Why split the web with all these different Harlem Shaq videos when we could all be one big happy meme-leeching family and work together? 

Colin: Shawn noticed that Shaq’s son, Shareef, was commenting on the Family Edition video, so he creepily sent him a private message on YouTube. 

Shawn: It was a pretty cool e-mail, I played it pretty cool.  I said “listen, I’ve got three ideas... either Shaq dances and we’re sitting, or we could dance while Shaq is sitting, or all three of us dance while all the Shaq kids were sitting.” 

Colin: I don’t actually know what Shawn said in his message, because he kept doing that thing where you half-close your laptop when somebody walks up, like you’re looking at nude pictures or something.

Shawn: And he never responded.  The son of Kazaam never responded to my fucking message.  As if he’s too big to fail.  As if go fuck yourself.    

Shaq went on to release another Harlem Shaq video, this time in conjunction with a high school basketball team. Once again, it followed none of the established rules.  Once again, it got a bunch of blog attention and hits. 

Shawn: It’s fine, we kind of stopped caring at that point.  Once Shaq’s son never got back to me, I lost interest. 

Colin: Yeah, the world had moved on.

Then, on March 14th, almost a month after the meme was already basically dead, Shaq released “The Harlem Shaq - REBRANDING EDITION,” featuring Shaq angrily declaring that the Harlem Shake was not accurate to the original Harlem Shake, and that everyone should just rebrand it as the Harlem Shaq. 

Colin: My favorite part was when Shaq still didn’t do the Harlem Shake right.

Shawn: My favorite part was when the other guy with the Shaq puppet showed up near the end.

Colin: My favorite part was how they kind of rerecorded the song.

Shawn: My favorite part was that Shaq was sort of cross-eyed for most of it.

As the Scuba Mission version of the Harlem Shaq nears the end of its month-long trek towards ten thousand views (Colin’s version currently has 4 views), the men are looking ahead to their next project, be it meme-based or otherwise.

Colin: I don’t know where we’ll go next.  My hands are like... firmly in a gripping position, just ready to latch on to whatever coattails or low hanging fruit we can find next.

Shawn: I’ve also scheduled a doctor’s appointment for us to address why we had spontaneous erections that lasted for as long as they did.  So that should be good too.