Talking to YouTube Star Matt Lacey
Matt Lacey is known to backpackers and travellers around the world for his Gap Yah parody creation Orlando Charmon. The videos of the comedian’s gap year alter ego have clocked up more than four million views on YouTube since they first appeared in 2010, and Matt has since grown the character into a brand by taking him on tour, releasing his own book, promoting charities and competitions, and even collaborating with the Telegraph.
But is Orlando a harmless send-up of a well-known gap cliche or a damaging stereotype that reinforces negative perceptions of gappers? With the Gap Yah phemonenon refusing to die, gapyear.com decided to quiz the man behind the viral meme to find out why he created Orlando, what effect he’s had on the world and whether he can ever escape him…
Hi Matt. Let’s go back to the beginning; why create the Gap Yah persona?
It just started off as a silly voice. I was doing it to take the mick out of my posh friend. I was writing comedy at the time, so I developed it from there, added some jokes and created a whole character. I’ve performed it as part of the university comedy group I was in.
Which university was that, Matt?
Oxford. I was studying History. My dissertation was on an obscure 14th Century Irish law that outlawed the moustache.
Who was the friend that you based Orlando on?
Well, there were a few to be honest…
Yeah, it’s a bit of an old stereotype, isn’t it?
You went on a gap year yourself, didn’t you?
Yeah, Tanzania. I really liked it. It was a fantastically varied country. I was doing a kind of, I suppose, slightly clichéd charity trip in a rural village. I taught some English and built some houses for teachers. I was in the back of beyond and did some travelling around Kilimanjaro, went on safari and visited Zanzibar – an amazing place.
Was that before or after uni?
Before. I was living in Ireland and working in a Chinese restaurant to earn the money.
Do you think the video went viral simply because it was funny or because it tapped into something people believe about gappers?
Definitely both. It’s funny, but lots of things are. A lot of it comes back to being shared, and it’s very sharable. I think if people couldn’t relate to it by saying, ‘that’s me’ or ‘that’s like someone I know’ it wouldn’t have spread.
With the Gap Yah viral, what was your reaction to the way it took off?
To start with it was uploaded and just kind of sat there for two weeks. I thought ‘Ah, that’s a shame; I thought it was actually quite good. It always went down well live’. Then it got a few more views and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s good’. But then it took off and exceeded any concept I had. It really exploded; one day it went from couple of thousand views to 40,000 views.
Don’t you get paid advertising once a video gets more than a few thousand views?
Yeah, it’s called the YouTube Partnership Scheme and they share ad revenue. But I didn’t expect [the Gap Yah video] would be as successful as it was, so it’s not up on a channel I control.
So is someone else making the money?
Well, no one’s making any money, basically.
So did you do a lot of promotion yourself?
I did nothing. Absolutely nothing. It just took up on its own.
Do you think that having a hit like the Gap Yah video you almost fall into the trap of being a parody of yourself; people expecting that of you. Has it been hard to forge other comedy?
Yeah, that definitely could be a problem. But I’m working with other comedians. I’m in a group called The Unexpected Items and we’ve done the Edinburgh Fringe Festial two years running now. When you see the character in context of the show it works quite well. I guess it’s like a band playing one song that’s really popular, you can just be known for that.
What effect do you think the Gap Yah phenomenon has had on people’s perceptions about who takes gap years? Does it give people a negative impression?
I remember I got sent a press release about less people going on gap years. There was a line that said part of reason for last year’s fall in people taking gap years was due to a negative perception of gap years because of video called ‘Gap Yah’.
I thought, yeah, it could be that or it could be the fact that taking a gap year would cost you £35k more that year. I don’t know, maybe [the video] had an effect, but I think most people take it with a pinch of irony.
Do you think the video might have reinforced some negative perceptions of gappers? When stories in the posh tabloids reference Orlando in a story about gap years the story comments are all like ‘yeah, that’s exactly what youngsters that take gap years are like’.
I don’t really know what stories you’re referring to… I don’t know; it’s a negative stereotype. But I have met people like that.
I think we all have.
It’s probably quite nice to have something to puncture the pomposity of recently returned gap year travellers.
At gapyear.com one of the things we’re often asked by the media is how worthwhile or relevant gap years are. Would you agree that they are still important and beneficial for people who do them?
Yeah, I think if you plan your time well it’s a very useful break from education. You can use the time well and get a bit of life experience. I think part of the reason the Gap Yah stereotype grew up is because you’re 18 at the time where you’re growing up and changing quite a lot, which is why you get this ‘I’ve found myself’ travelling thing.
You’re taking people out of their usual frame of reference and they’re just generally growing up. I think a gap year is a useful thing to do before university. You’ll know a bit more about what you want to do afterwards. And plus it’s just nice to travel.
So you’d say that the Gap Yah persona is definitely not representative of most people that take gap years; it’s targeted at a specific type of person that would take a trip?
So what are your next travel plans?
I don’t know. My girlfriend is going to do a Masters in African History, so I’m thinking of going to Mali. It would be amazing to go to Timbuktu, but it’s supposed to be a bit spicy there at the moment.
Is Africa one of the places you always want to go back to?
Not particularly. I go with the flow really. I’d love to go to Istanbul; I’ve read a lot of history about it.
Ok Matt, a few cheeky questions to finish: What three things would you take on a desert island?
As me or Orlando?
Hmmm… A massive book. Something to really pass the time.
Like Anna Karenina. Or War and Peace.
Eventually you could use either for a fire.
Or a pillow. What else are you taking?
Probably some kind of boat, to get off. And a dog.
Companionship. Very important.
Yeah, you don’t want to be talking to the basketball like poor Tom Hanks.
Yeah, although it was actually a volleyball. What’s your favourite fruit, Matt?
My favourite fruit bat? Probably the African fruit bat. Favourite fruit? Blood orange.
Romantic meal with the girlfriend or beers with mates?
Probably have to say the girlfriend thing because she’ll read this.
It’s the sensible answer, that one. What about a desert island just for dudes. What do you think about that?
It sounds a bit… limiting.
Yeah, we all think girls should be involved.
It sounds a bit like prison.
So how long are you continuing with Orlando?
We’re off and on. I get bored with him every so often. Being honest, it’s all about opportunities – it’s quite difficult to get established in the comedy industry, so having even a little foothold means I’m not willing to just bin it.
But I don’t want to be an 18-year-old gap year student forever.