The Internet Demands Uplifting Videos. So He Stages Them.
Few online genres are as fascinating as the realm of “wholesome” content, an ever-widening pool of tender, morally uplifting stories about …
Few online genres are as fascinating as the realm of “wholesome” content, an ever-widening pool of tender, morally uplifting stories about moments of kindness, human beings caring for one another and people leaving big tips. Most of this wholesomeness is found in real life, captured in videos of charming family moments or warm encounters with strangers. Other examples are at least manufactured in real life, as with the TikTok influencer who films himself buying things for people living on the streets of Los Angeles. You might think a staged, fictional video of an inspiring moment, clumsily scripted and stiffly acted, would be infinitely less compelling, and yet: Consider the YouTube sensation Dhar Mann and his 11.2 million subscribers.
Mann makes short sketches that deliver positive messages. In one recent video, “RICH Kid WON’T TIP Pizza Boy, He Lives to Regret It,” we see three teenagers playing video games when the doorbell rings, announcing the arrival of the titular pizza boy. One boy’s mother gives him $20 to pay. The dead-eyed son answers the door; finding that the pizza has pineapple on it, he derisively rejects it. The pizza boy — earnest, apologetic, saintly — races away and returns with yet another pizza the son takes umbrage with. Only on the third trip does the son, grudgingly satisfied, take the pizza and leave an eight-cent tip. His mother tells him he wouldn’t be so callous if he’d ever had a job and issues an ultimatum: He won’t get his birthday present (a BMW) unless he works for a month. In a slow-motion montage set to sad oboes, we watch the son deliver pizzas to his own assortment of rude customers. Back home, he orders dinner, and when the original pizza boy appears, the son apologizes and leaves a $5.08 tip. The acting is wooden, but the apology is weirdly affecting; it is, even against the viewer’s will, satisfying to see the sneering jerk from two minutes ago contrite.
This is how most Mann videos work. In another, “Realtor Judges Poorly Dressed House Buyer, He Lives to Regret It,” we see two agents vying to sell a luxury home. The more experienced one, who has the unctuous dirtball mien of a young Steve Buscemi, tries to turn away a Black man in a cutoff T-shirt, tending instead to a rich-looking white woman. But the rookie, who says, “You should never judge someone based on their appearance,” helps the Black man — who, of course, turns out to be a wealthy real estate investor in disguise. He not only buys the home but also asks the rookie to work for him.
Mann is a serial entrepreneur, the owner of a cosmetics business and a former cannabis-industry supplier. He was engaged to a star of the reality show “Shahs of Sunset” and once pleaded no contest to charges of defrauding the City of Oakland; the conviction was later expunged. He started his YouTube account in 2018, dispensing motivational advice. The pivot into morality plays came fast, and he has since cranked out more than 400 videos. They cover an astonishing array of topics, from the workplace (“CEO Threatens to Fire Janitor, Son Teaches Him A Lesson”) to assimilation (“Son Hates His Mexican Culture, Friend Teaches Him A Lesson”), fatherhood (“Dad Abandons AUTISTIC CHILD, He Lives to Regret It”) and race (“Lady Calls Cops On Black Man Who Has 2 Bikes, Instantly Regrets It”). The same tropes recur in shifting combinations: spoiled kids, “gold diggers,” homeless men, chefs, people being shamed. The realtor story is repeated in a sketch about bartenders; the one about the Mexican American son is mirrored by another about an Asian American daughter.
These clips combine the high-definition slickness of today’s YouTube content with the feel of a corporate-training video you would watch alone in your manager’s office on the first day of work. The sets seem hastily decorated, denuded of all but the most obvious props. The acting is either overexaggerated or barely there, and Mann’s subtlety-free writing broadcasts characters’ motivations as loudly as possible. (“Don’t waste your time with poor-looking people,” the dirtball realtor says.) His videos also exude a child’s dreamlike grasp of life’s finer details. The spoiled son still pays for pizza with cash on delivery; the dirtball realtor completes a multimillion-dollar loan application in minutes; the Mexican American son is bafflingly hostile about his mother’s Cinco de Mayo decorations and, incredibly, revolted by the smell of enchiladas. Some stories are built with such broad strokes that they insult the viewer’s intelligence; others are so surreal that they verge into great, if accidental, comedy.
To some extent, their vagueness works. These videos sit neatly in a long lineage of short-form moral education, from religious parables to fairy tales to the sentimental moralizing of some serialized Victorian literature. Even the dramatic presentation is familiar, recalling everything from the clunky “social guidance” filmstrips of the 1950s to ABC’s “After School Special.” This sort of content was once part of an inescapable monoculture — a part it was easy to assume that the internet, with its tendency toward the niche, was destined to eradicate. Yet it recurs not only in Mann’s videos but in the growing supply of “wholesome” content that resembles, more than anything, the kind of mass-market, chicken-soup-for-the-soul material that thrived decades ago.
Parents sometimes comment on Mann’s videos to say they intend to show the clips to their kids; like training films, the videos exist in part for one person to foist upon another. But the enthusiastic comments on each new video confirm that kids and adults watch these stories on their own time. In fact, this blend of moral instruction and entertainment is a winning tactic for driving views. A number of creators have found success with similar videos, including SoulSnack (“Passion, Purpose and Positivity”), Life Lessons With Luis (“Family & Kid Friendly”) and Sameer Bhanvani (“Content That Inspires and Uplifts”).
Watch enough of Mann’s videos, and you can’t help noticing how ruthlessly and tactically they employ up-to-the-minute caricatures and stereotypes, fine-tuned to soar within YouTube’s algorithm. Numerous videos riff on the theme of white “Karens” accusing Black men of crimes. These are stories we already know, having watched the real-life versions go viral. Mann, recognizing our appetite for more, obliges by staging it. But he also comforts us by ensuring that the antagonists always get their comeuppance, the smooth conclusion we are denied in the real world. And he flatters us by making the problematic characters so obviously wrong that we have no choice but to identify with goodness — and, often, to feel bizarrely moved by the uplifting outcome we always knew was coming.
The contemporary references are so heavy that these videos are often not even parables. They are hermetically sealed re-enactments of real events: situations we have already made up our minds about yet crave to safely relive as fiction. Mann guarantees us both a happy ending and the feeling of being right. After his path through a few industries — real estate, cannabis, lifestyle blogging — it seems a good reflection of our moment that this is the content that has hit big.
Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein is a freelance writer in New York who covers work, economic life and culture.