Angela Tuell 0:05
Welcome to Media in Minutes. This is your host Angela Tuell. This podcast features in-depth interviews with those who report on the world around us. They share everything from their favorite stories to what happened behind the lens and give us a glimpse into their world. From our studio here at Communications Redefined, this is Media in Minutes.
On today's show, we have social media influencer, comedian, and author James Breakwell. James is a self described professional comedy, writer, and amateur father with four daughters 10 and under. He is best known for his family humor Twitter account, Exploding Unicorn, which has more than 1 million followers. James has also written three books about to release the fourth in June, and has been profiled in publications such as USA Today, Us Weekly, Reader's Digest, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, and many more. Welcome, James, I have to say I'm super excited to talk with you. 1.5 million social media followers and probably more is quite impressive.
James Breakwell 1:11
Yeah, I'm excited to be here. Thanks for having me. And I also am impressed with your math skills. Everybody always just goes a million for Twitter, but you actually added them all together. So you, you did your background research. I'm going to stay on my toes with you. Good, good.
Angela Tuell 1:26
So I actually get this question all the time, you might be sick of it. But what exactly is an exploding unicorn? And how did that come about?
James Breakwell 1:34
Well, obviously it's a, it's a unicorn that explodes. It's quite literally what I'm going for, the image there. And I started out, it's, it's from a long, long time ago, back in high school. I was - I had extra time at the end of the computer literacy class. And, like most normal kids, I use that extra time to start writing a fake book of the Bible. It was one of the first humor pieces I wrote and sent out and one of those, and I sent it to my friends and I watched them open it and laugh. And that's kind of what got me hooked on all this to start. But one of the entries in there was about unicorns filled with hydrogen. And the passage ended with, "and that's where we get the saying it exploded like a unicorn." And because I never grew up, that, that image of bursting unicorns kind of stayed with me all those years. And so eventually, when I started a website, I made it exploding unicorn.com. And then when I branched out into Twitter and Social Media, I just kind of kept that same image going. So I guess the real cautionary tale here is be much more creative when you're 16. Because those things stick with you forever.
Angela Tuell 2:34
That's probably the reason you had four girls, right? Because of the unicorn thing.
James Breakwell 2:37
You know, the funny thing about that is when my wife and I got married, we agreed our family plan was we were going to have four boys. We were in complete agreement on that. It shows you, shows you how good we were at that one. But it's worked out wonderfully. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Angela Tuell 2:50
So tell us how your Twitter handle took off? Did you set out to become internet famous? Or did it just happen?
James Breakwell 2:57
Yes. So I was, I was very deliberate with this. So I started at in blogging, kind of when blogging was dying. And I put a whole bunch of words out there trying to get people to read these 1000 word or 2000 word posts. I just couldn't do it. I kind of wrote in the wilderness for probably 10 years. And then, I kind of figured out that you know, there's a social media thing going on. And I needed to use that to direct traffic. So I joined Twitter at first just to share links to my blog. And I eventually realized you can't just tweet out random links, you have to write jokes and original content for Twitter. So then I became obsessed with Twitter and I started writing jokes just for Twitter, kind of taking snippets of conversations or what I was observing. And Twitter really gave me some good feedback. You can kind of see what people respond to and what they don't. And what they liked was stuff about my kids. Like, I didn't set out to be a parenting blogger, I was kind of an everything comedy blogger. And so I really felt near, you know, focused in on that, put in a ton of time, and I gradually grew it up to about 200,000 followers. And then from there, BuzzFeed got in touch with me and they ran an article on me and that's what kind of made everything explode. They had an article with 20 of my tweets in it and just a bunch of stuff about me and all those tweets had active - Are they all those those jokes they posted mine had active links back to me when people clicked on that goes to the other 15,000 jokes I'd written just like that. And that, you know, over the weekend, I gained you know, like six figures and followers and then within a month I had an agent and within a couple months I had a book deal, so that kind of changed everything just that one article.
Angela Tuell 4:26
Wow! What did it feel like to get that check, check mark in the blue circle?
James Breakwell 4:31
You know, the the checkmark is definitely something that's overvalued. It really is, like when you don't have it, it's the thing you want the most in the world. And then you get it and you realize absolutely nothing changed. Like it doesn't, it doesn't impress anybody on the internet or off the internet.
Angela Tuell 4:48
Right. And I'm sure, though, once that happened, you became the you know, an official social media influencer. And you started getting lots of PR professionals and brands probably reaching out to you. How do you handle that?
James Breakwell 5:00
I actually like it when they reach out. Now, they have not been reaching out as much in these unprecedented times. But every time they do, it's always fun because they come at me and they're like, Okay, well, we're trying to contact James Breakwell, you know, reaching out to his team, they kind of assume they've got like this whole network of underlings over here. And it's just me. But it is, it's great, because that gives me a lot of flexibility because I'm ultimately the decision maker for everything. So yeah, PR companies reach out to me and then the first thing I do is kind of look at, you know, is this a good fit or not? Because generally, the brands that come to me that the nice thing about having such a large internet presence is they know who I am and, and what I represent. Like, if you you came to me and you were selling, like, ninja stars or machetes, I probably wouldn't do that. That's not really gonna fit with what I do here. But you know, there are people will come with like jams and jellies, or just stuff, let's stuff like that kids products, family vacations. And usually we can work something out. Sometimes they want video and video is actually my least, it's probably it's the most impressive looking product to put out for an advertisement, it's my least favorite to work with. Because when you've got four kids, like, you can't. It is so hard to edit a video because there's always somebody crying or not supposed to...
Angela Tuell 6:10
Like a photo - we're not - there's always someone not looking at the camera.
James Breakwell 6:14
I much prefer photos, because with photos, I can just tap a million of them in a row. And out of those million, there'll be like two that are good. But if you do a video, like, out of 10 minutes of footage, there might not be like any usable footage in there. That can be really be a nightmare. But yeah, I definitely prefer the picture form. And I've kind of, over time, figured out what works and what doesn't. So a lot of times companies will come and they'll want you to, like, tweet out a link or share a link. And that's actually the least effective way to get engagement. Engagement - and sounds super counter intuitive - it seems like if you put out a link, people are going to click on it, that's direct engagement. That's not how it works. Because the social media services, if you put out a link, they just tend to bury them and nobody sees them, they get very few impressions. So what you want to do is you just put something talking about the product. And generally that will direct more people to it overall, it will get exponentially more impressions. And even when I'm like when I'm trying to sell my own books I've discovered tweeting out a link to my book is useless. Sharing a picture of my book and talking about it will make people who are interested, take that extra step and search it out and buy it. It's the exact opposite of what you would think. But it's much more effective. Yeah.
Angela Tuell 7:19
So you began the Exploding Unicorns in Twitter about five years ago. What have been some of your favorite moments along the way?
James Breakwell 7:26
Going viral was definitely a head trip. I really enjoyed that. You know, for a couple of days, I just sat there refreshing my account, every time you see the numbers go up. And that was a lot of fun. The first time I got flown somewhere, I Okay, so here's, here's my complete narcissism moment. After my first book came out, the Free Library in Philadelphia, I think is its name, they have all these prestigious speakers come and they asked me to come speak and I'm not prestigious by any means, but I was pretty honored and they're gonna fly me out there and do this. And as I go there, you know, anytime somebody like physically taking you someplace, it seems like a big deal cause I never fly anywhere. So I'm in the in Indianapolis airport, right waiting. And as part of the book tour for this thing, I had done a interview. And I'm just like I'm doing now do podcasts and all that kind of stuff. Not so much podcast back then. But one of the interviews was with Runners Weekly or I think that was the name, or one of the running magazines. And I couldn't find it anywhere. But they had it at the airport. And so I went to the airport store, and I bought this magazine and in it there was a full page picture of me. And I sat there reading an article with a full page picture of me as I was waiting for somebody to fly me someplace else. I was like, This is it, I have officially made it. Now I've I have not had a similar moment since then. So those those things do not happen very often. But it was pretty cool that day.
Angela Tuell 8:40
Was your wife excited or rolling her eyes?
James Breakwell 8:43
The thing about wives is they are universally unimpressed by all of this stuff - It's, kids as well, like with my kids. You know, you think Oh, I got it. You know, I put out all these books, they don't care. I've got all these followers on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, they don't care. The only thing that exists to small children, as I'm sure you will know, is YouTube. Like if you're not a YouTube star, you're nothing. In fact, my six year old has started introducing me to people as a YouTuber. And I've got like a pitifully small following on YouTube. But that is the the aspiration for all kids. So I guess, I'll take what I can get.
Angela Tuell 9:13
I still think it's over like 200,000 or something, so...
James Breakwell 9:17
It's, it's 20,000. You added zero and I appreciate that.
Angela Tuell 9:21
I was trying to make it a little...
James Breakwell 9:24
And I mean on the grand scheme of, like, all YouTube accounts, like 20,000's pretty good. But in terms of, like, the point where you start making money on YouTube, it's, it's miles away. And my six year old, she watches so much YouTube, she comes up to me with all these schemes. She's like, so here's, here's what we're gonna do when you get your golden play button, which is like what happens when you have a million followers and it's like, I add like 50 followers a month on YouTube. It is not gonna happen.
Angela Tuell 9:49
So you're not going to be cool until that happens though. With her.
James Breakwell 9:53
Yes, yes. If I don't get that plaque I will forever be a disappointment but that's okay. It's good to kind of set their expectations low and keep them there.
Angela Tuell 10:01
I have to admit, one of my favorites was your four year old, at the time, saying that girls aren't as tall as boys because their brains are too heavy. You are raising them right.
James Breakwell 10:13
They, you have the things that they come up with and they're kind of perspective on the world. It's it's really been a gift. And so when I I started comedy writing long before I had children. I never would have envisioned it would have gone this way. But yeah, just kind of the things they say as a starting point to create articles and create jokes and do all that it's, it's a, it's a perspective I never would have had. So that's been really a joy to experience. And the awesome part about it, is no matter how weird or off the wall, what my kids say is, like, there'll be somebody out there who calm I'm like, Oh my gosh, my kid did exactly that today. We're kind of all in this weirdness together. It's just so universal.
Angela Tuell 10:48
Yes. Oh, I felt that way. So much as I'm reading your things like, wow, it's not just our kids. That does feel good. I have heard that one of your proudest moments involved a taxidermy bear. Can you tell us about that?
James Breakwell 11:03
So my, my brother was getting married. And over the years it'd come up we had, at a previous time, attempted to buy a giant taxidermy bear as a joke wedding gift. Like it was his idea originally, and the original plot fell through. So then when my brother was getting married himself, I was the best man and I took it upon myself to make this bear happen. And there was so much cloak and dagger stuff going on with this. But the weird thing is, as I was being super secretive within the family, I was putting this out on my newsletter every week, like every stage of this, like 10s of 1000s of people were reading about this. And because my direct family never follows anything I do on social media. My brother had no idea. Yeah, like I, like, and when I finally found that was actually through the newsletter. Somebody alerted me to a bear up in like Northern Michigan. It was like a seven or eight hour drive away. But it was a great - he was a seven foot tall bear - it was incredible! And so, like, the next morning, I told my wife, like, you got to take the kids to school. I have to go get this bear. I just rushed up there to get this thing. It was, it was kind of a harrowing journey. And on the way back I've just got this giant bear like rolling around in the back of my minivan because I did not properly secure it.
Angela Tuell 12:13
I was going to ask you if it was in the passenger seat or not.
James Breakwell 12:16
Oh, no, this thing was big enough I had to lay down both rows of seats and squeeze it in back. And then my wife's one condition, because of the wedding was still months away, she's like, "That thing is not coming back to our house." So I found a friend. Everybody needs a friend like this. Like, "Hey, man, can I stash a giant bear in your living room?" And actually, originally, I promised him like, well, we'll just stick it like in a back bedroom and it won't be a big deal. It was so big and so long, it could not fit down his hallway. So yeah, we stuck it in his living room. And it was just like lurking behind his chair and we like threw a tarp over the top. So it wasn't immediately obvious when you look into there's a giant bear. And so four months after that, I started pulling on the rest of my family, because this wasn't just gonna be a bear at the wedding. It was gonna be a classy bear at the wedding. So I had my mom make him, like, a vest. So it was like he'd like have a tuxedo going on. He had a bow tie. I went and bought him a monocle and a pocket watch. He had a staff and a top hat. He was very classically dressed, it was all appropriately tailored. And then the crowning part of it was my sister. I'm one of seven kids, there's children all over the place in the service. She's in college now. And actually, she's in law school, but that is nothing compared to her greatest skill, which is gift wrapping. So it's like I want to wrap this bear but I want it to be super obvious what it is underneath the wrapping paper, like, it needs to be, like, tight to the bear all the way around. And it was not a job that can be accomplished by traditional wrapping paper. So she she went and got tablecloths, these really fancy tableclothes, and wrapped it around perfectly around each arm, around each leg, around the snout. And then on the designated day after the wedding ceremony, I still had to get this bear in place. So after my brother got married in the church, I went to my van which I had strategically hidden down the street and I raced to the wedding venue because I couldn't get in there beforehand. And I there was like a bus going taking everybody else. So I got there like minutes beforehand and had to have a group of people helped me rush it in, and we hid it in a closet. And then in my best man speech at the very end, I revealed you know, I said we've got this gift for you and we've rolled it out. I put it on rollers, and it was awesome. He unwrapped it right there in front of everybody. Everybody want to get their picture taken with the bear. In fact, that one of the my favorite pictures from that is the bride who had no idea about any of this. This was this was completely...Okay, she's a, he married somebody, she's an immigrant from China just recently, and she just got hit with a flu and they met she barely spoke English and he didn't speak any Chinese. And I think that's the only reason she could stand him. Is that they just she had no idea who he was. But they are out in California rents are so expensive, you just go on Craigslist and find somebody. And so they just randomly met, they became roommates. And you know, a couple months later they were dating and then they were married. So, Yeah, so anyway, that the reason I tell that is so half of the people at this wedding, we had flown over from China. So her whole family was there. And they had no idea why this giant bear in a tuxedo was in the middle of this wedding dance floor. Like, is this just a normal American? No, but she she had no idea what was going on. She loved the bear. And she actually assembled ever all the guests in the wedding together so the photographer could have an overhead shot of everybody gathered around the bear. That was that was probably my crowning achievement. And the whole time I, I chronicled it all on my newsletter, and people got really invested in it. And I had some people tell me, like, they teared up at the end when I talked about and the best part was that I had a couple people film it. So I was able to share the video of the big reveal, and it was amazing.
Angela Tuell 15:46
Oh, that's wonderful. We'll have to link to it up here. What - where is the bear now?
James Breakwell 15:51
The bear. So for a couple months afterwards, my brother, he's in the military and he was on a base, he could not take it back with him that day. So I ended up back in my house, which my wife had explicitly forbidden. But once we got in the house, it turns out we've got an old Victorian house and it actually looked really classy. And here, I had it in the back of me when I was recording my YouTube videos. It really, it really gave me some gravitas. But then, at Christmas after he got married, he came back and he rented a Uhaul. And he drove it back. So it is now out in Oklahoma at his house. And it's in his living room. Yeah, he's expecting his first child now. So that bear is going to be there for the life of his kids growing up, just the centerpiece of their living room.
Angela Tuell 16:32
It will be, and they will, they will think that's normal. So you know, obviously that story is amazing. What about some comedy you thought would go over well, but didn't? Does that happen often?
James Breakwell 16:39
It does sometimes. I've learned what things to stay away from. I'm pretty positive. I just put out, you know, funny light-hearted things. But the internet is the internet. And people get worked up about the craziest stuff. I had one person one time who unfollowed me because my kids were eating corn dogs and they, like, they could not condone that. Or they somebody freaked out because they saw my kids eating grapes that I hadn't like diced up into microscopic pieces. The biggest...And then when I got my pigs, of course, my pet pigs, I went through the internet for that as well. That was a separate scheme. And people got really upset about that, like you can't take care of a pig, it's going to end up in a, you know, a humane society or an animal shelter, it's going to destroy your home, it's going to eat your children. And it's like, you know, I've, I've been raising four daughters, I'm pretty sure I can I can handle a pet. And, you know, pigs, they they they do get into things. But ultimately they they're short, they don't have thumb. So they're really not that much work. And the worst one, I found out this real early on, if you are in social media at all, never post pictures of your kids in car seats. People have meltdowns about the ways your kids are in car seats. And that's one of the one of the stories I told in my upcoming book piano. Lesson learn there are things things that are hot button issues for people, the less said the better sometimes.
Yeah, I like your parking lot rule. That if you wouldn't say it to a stranger in a parking lot, don't say it online. I wish everyone would live by that.
And nobody does. That was, yeah, actually, I probably should be grateful that it, that there was that big backlash about the car seat thing and that it happened about something that was so relatively unimportant. So it was such a great learning experience and such a, gave me so much perspective on that. But yeah, the parking lot rule just for reference, if you wouldn't say it, uh, say to a stranger in a parking lot, don't say it on the internet. I don't know that anybody ever follows that. We get behind the keyboard, we have the anonymity, it's like, you know what this person would really like? My unsolicited opinion about how their child is going to die. All right. Thanks for that.
Angela Tuell 18:37
So can you give us a sneak peek into your newest book, How to Be a Man, which comes out on June 1, right?
James Breakwell 18:43
Angela Tuell 18:43
And I do have to read the description to everyone. So there's no wrong way to be a woman. There are countless wrong ways to be a man. James Breakwell should know. He's tried just about all of them. Journalism. Pig ownership. Felony lawn gnome theft. Whatever masculinity is supposed to be, this can't be it. But can you really fail at something no one can quite define? Apparently. So tell us a little bit.
James Breakwell 19:08
So, it's, the full title is How to Be a Man (Whatever That Means): Lessons in Modern Masculinity from a Questionable Source. And I am the most questionable source out there. So the title is 100% true. And I wanted a chance to kind of explore some stories from my own life. And so much about the comedy writing I do is focused, it's focused on the present moment, and it's focused on my kids. You know, what's happening in our lives today, what's happening this week. But there's been a lot of funny stories I've built up over time that I never had the chance to tell because when they were happening, I didn't have an audience. So this is me going back. And you know, here's the crazy stuff that happened in high school, in college and the early parenting years before I was on Twitter. All of that. Basically my 35 years of best stories all condensed down. And the unifying theme is what did the story teach me about how to be a man, or what should it have taught me, because I probably learned the opposite, you know, through all this trial and error, mostly error. It was a really great book to put together, it was a really personal book to get put together. You know, there's a few stories that aren't necessarily comedy in there, but they definitely fit under the, under the theme of manhood. So there's some some vulnerability that I hadn't shown before. So I think the people who are used to reading my regular books are going to see a little bit different side of me, and hopefully, hopefully they appreciate that. But yeah, I'd say it's been a great book to put together. I think it's been my favorite writing experience so far.
Angela Tuell 20:23
That's great. That was going to be what I was going to ask you is what's been your favorite one to write?
James Breakwell 20:27
Yes, definitely this one because, because these so so much my earlier stories, like I wrote a parenting guide, The Zombie Apocalypse. And that was fun to write too. But it's not something you have to fact check. Like, there are no zombie experts out there. But with this when I'm writing these stories, and it's like, you know, there were other people in here. And you know, there's nothing more unreliable than an eyewitness, especially when that eyewitness is me and very young. So it gave me a chance to go back to my parents and say, Hey, do you remember this? How do you remember what happened? Or go back to my college roommates and say, "Hey, remember the lawn gnomes?" And it just that especially was a blast, because you know that that lawn gnome story, there's six different versions of the story out there. And I kind of took the took what I think is the most plausible and cobbled them together. But that's one of those situations where you will never ever get the full truth, it has definitely been lost to time and alcohol.
Angela Tuell 21:14
Well, that's great. I can't wait to read it. So besides a new book on the way, what's next?
James Breakwell 21:20
So I'm continuing to grind away on all my social media platforms. You can find me on Twitter at Exploding Unicorn without the E or on my website, explodingunicorn.com. You can sign up for my newsletter through there. And that's probably my biggest passion project outside of books right now. Every week I send out about a 2000 word comedy article, just about what's been happening in our lives that week. And it kind of keeps me on my toes, it teaches me to write fast and people really like to connect with me that way. As far as future projects, I've pivoted somewhat. I, actually, my biggest accomplishment during the pandemic was I managed to sell a science fiction book. So it's gonna be my it's a it's comedy science fiction, with some drama and stuff thrown in, but that it's called The Chosen 12. And that's going to come out next year through Rebellion Books. So that'll be a whole new experience for me as well.
Angela Tuell 22:07
Sounds like you spend all of your free time - which free time is, it's not really existent with kids - writing. Right?
James Breakwell 22:14
I spent a lot of time writing but the great thing about writing about kids is parenting time and writing time overlaps so much, you know, you can just hang out with them. And at the same time, you're, you're you're you're doing quality time, but you're also gathering joke material. So it's a I think, I think multitasking is the key to success at anything. And I definitely found a way to do that with this.
Angela Tuell 22:33
Yes. And before we go, we have to circle back to the pigs. So you have two and they're pets that actually live in your home. Right?
James Breakwell 22:41
Yes, yeah. So you and you want the story about how I got those, or do you want the story about why I have them?
Angela Tuell 22:45
James Breakwell 22:47
Okay, so I was I was born in a pig farm in Iowa, and my dad hurt his back, we had to move off. And I was real little like three. And along the theme of never growing up. I was convinced for my entire childhood that being a pig farmer was the greatest profession in the world. And like, I was the first man in my family to not raise pigs. So I always just had this love for pigs. Fast forward to when I was an adult, I found out about mini pigs. And my wife said, we're not spending money on that. And that was the loophole. She didn't say we couldn't get one. She said we're not spending money on that. So going by the letter of the law. This is after I went viral on Twitter. I reached out to a pig breeder in Indiana. I said, Hey, if I can get you social media promotion, will you give me a free pig? And they agreed they said, if you get us so many likes on our Facebook page, we will, we'll give you one. And so I reached out to my followers on Facebook and Twitter and I said, "Hey, guys, helped me endanger my marriage. Let's, let's get this page lots of likes so they, so they'll send me a pig." And sure enough, people banded together. They just love chaos. And a couple weeks later, I got a pig. And then a few years after that we decided the pig needed to have friends so we found another good deal and got that as well. So yeah, we have two pigs. They're fun. They have totally different personalities. They do get into a lot of things. I was in the middle of a phone call earlier today and I had to put it on mute to chase my pig out of the kitchen. She toppled over a pan lid so yeah, they they they're they're kind of like Raptors, they always test your defenses, but never in the same spot twice. Never in the same way. So all the things you do to childproof a house. It's like, it's like that times 10. But the good news is they can't reach stuff up high. So really, you can focus your childproofing down low and then you're pretty safe.
Angela Tuell 24:23
How big is a mini pig?
James Breakwell 24:25
So they're not. The term mini is a little misleading. So they're short. So they don't come up past my knees. So they are much smaller, and Gilly our older one weighs about 100 pounds and she should be about full grown. People say that's huge. It's very, she's very dense. They're like, hey, because you know you picture 100 pound dog that's pretty tall. 100 pound pig is, is short. She's a brick made of ham. But like a full size pig, a full size farm pig is like 600 pounds, so she's a sixth of that. But if you think you're going to get a pig that still fits in a tea cup as an adult like that's never gonna happen. They get up to about your knees and they weigh 100 or so pounds.
Angela Tuell 25:01
Okay, and your wife then, eventually, liked it? Cause the second one?
James Breakwell 25:06
I don't know if "like" is the right word. I think, as with all my endeavors, "tolerate" is the more accurate word. She definitely tolerates them, but they are my responsibility. So what? You know, when we hear something crashed downstairs, like, "go see what your pig is doing." I know where the responsibility falls.
Angela Tuell 25:24
Well, that's great. Thank you so much for joining us, James. We'll definitely see you on Twitter.
James Breakwell 25:29
Yes, thank you so much. Yes, please do. Thank you so much.
Angela Tuell 25:34
All right. Thank you. As we mentioned, you can find James on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. We'll share the links in our podcast episode description. All of his books are available on Amazon and other retailers. That's all for this episode of Media in Minutes, a podcast by Communications Redefined, available anywhere you get your podcasts. You can find more at CommunicationsRedefined.com/podcast. I'm your host, Angela Tuell. Talk to you next time.
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