Short Attention Span vs the Robot Apocalypse

UNHhhh creators Ron Hill and Jeff Maccubbin on their new show Why R Humans? and how no one can pay attention to one thing anymore.

We are Ron Hill and Jeff Maccubbin, the editors of the comedy web series UNHhhh with Drag Queens Trixie Mattel and Katya. And we just created a new animated show about the robot apocalypse called Why R Humans? The episodes we work on are anywhere from 10 minutes to a full episode of TV, but we now live in a world where our eyeballs can’t stand to watch anything for more than one minute. How do we edit a piece so that our distractible viewers don’t swipe away to watch cat videos? The following is a conversation we had in which we tried to reckon with modern attention spans. (Oh, and both UNHhhh and Why R Humans? are available on WOW Presents Plus!)

Jeff: OK, Ron. Are you ready and focused?

Ron: You have my undivided attention. Ha. That phrase is a lie these days, right? I eat dinner while scrolling Instagram. I have Twitter open on a second monitor while video chatting with friends.

Jeff: I currently have 10 tabs open of shows I’m watching. I watch one until – uh oh, a side character is giving their backstory – at which point I pause and move on to the next tab. Action, Romance, Comedy, how to cook Pad Thai. To sit through one story for 30 to 60 minutes is almost impossible. Especially when I’m lying horizontally on my bed with a laptop on my chest.

Jeff Maccubbin.

Ron: You’ve always been really normal, Jeff. But what you said reminds me of the trend on TikTok where people repost clips from TV shows in a frame next to video game footage and soothing 3D animations just to hold our attention. And as content creators? Well…

Jeff: We’re fucked.

Ron: Yeah, pretty much.

Jeff: Us video editors are in charge of pacing your visual experience. What does it say when we are finding it impossible to write this article without getting sidetracked 100 different ways. At one point, Ron even did a one-man rendition of a scene from Airplane. But talking about how hard it is to write a piece within the piece surely feels cliché at this point.

Ron: But it makes our point. And don’t call me Shirley. Our brains are broken. Nothing holds our attention anymore.

Jeff: When I was a young lad, Moonstruck was my favorite comedy movie. It made me laugh so hard. How many times have I slapped someone in the face and yelled, “Snap out of it!” Luckily, no one has pressed charges. Yet. I found out a friend hadn’t seen it, so I decided to show it to her. And 20 minutes in she told me, “It’s so boring. Nothing funny is happening! Can we turn it off?” I was horrified.

Ron: Your paragraph is getting too long. I’m going to butt in here to break things up a little or everyone reading this will bail.

Jeff: Just like my friend wanted to bail on Moonstruck, which would have been grounds to end the friendship immediately, but I actually noticed it too. The pacing was moving at a monumentally slower pace than I remembered. Did Cher really spend five minutes drinking wine to smooth jazz by a fireplace? Did everything used to move in slow motion?

Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova in UNHhhh.

Ron: Look, I’m not a behavioral scientist, but I can Google. Our attention span is about a third of what it was 20 years ago. For me I’m pretty sure my attention span got dramatically worse during the pandemic. <INSERT ANECDOTE HERE>

Jeff: You’re totally going to forget to add something later.

Ron: That would be pretty ADHD even for me.

Jeff: As video editors, we are constantly trying to wrangle your eyes back to the screen. Most editors use a music cue or a quick cut to keep your attention. Ideally, you shouldn’t notice it. The music cues subliminally keep your attention and the cuts lead you to the next visual plot point. However, Ron and I are the opposite of subtle. Our editing is in your face. It takes over the screen and holds you hostage. Our style of text on top of images on top of video makes it naturally suited to short attention spans. We’ve heard industry folks even coin the phrase “I need an UNHhhh look to this.”

Ron: For context, our main work is on a show called UNHhhh

Jeff: How do you pronounce UNHhhh? Honestly, you just kind of have to moan it and hope for the best.

Ron: We start with two drag queens talking in front of a green screen. In the edit, we put them over a white background – and then the real work begins. We add text on screen, place them in little Photoshopped scenes and even animate whole stories with them in it.

Jeff: The queens are hilarious and their stories are funny on their own – but then we add our own layer of gags to it. So you get two voices at once – the drag queens, and then our sort of visual commentary or reinforcement.

Ron: That makes it sound a lot more highbrow than it is. Sometimes we just add fart sounds.

Jeff: And other times we add birds on their shoulders, spinning basketballs on their fingers. At any given time, there is the joke the queens are saying and then there’s the subtle joke in the background that we added as an Easter egg.

Ron: But eggs were way cheaper back then, so it was easier. We didn’t know how good we had it.

Jeff: Ron, don’t get sidetracked.

Ron Hill.

Ron: We started doing this editing style before TikTokkers were doing that “overlay three videos at once to hold everyone’s attention,” by the way.

Jeff: Way before TikTok. We’re old.

Ron: This wasn’t a calculated attempt to hold people’s attention. It was more of a calculated attempt to hold our own attention. When Katya, one of the queens on the show, threw a fan into the air, I decided to follow that fan out the building and into space.

Jeff: And when Trixie and Katya practiced their pick-up lines on each other, I didn’t need to turn it into an epic 80’s Calvin Klein-esque perfume commercial called SedUNHhhhcution. I had to.

Ron: And as we developed this style of layering more things on top, I think it made our attention span as viewers way worse. Whoops.

Jeff: Yeah. We’d show a section to our parents and they honestly couldn’t process all of the visual information fast enough. They felt like they’d miss too much.

Ron: But that’s kind of the point, right? Remember the part where I tried to bring up Airplane while writing this? I think that’s where it becomes relevant again.

Jeff: 😐

Ron: You’re not supposed to get every joke or reference. Gen Z doesn’t have some magical ability that lets them process lots of streams of information at once. I think you just accept that you’re going to miss some info and it doesn’t bother you. And in comedy, I think that’s valuable. Airplane has multiple jokes a minute. If one doesn’t make you laugh – there’s another one coming that will and you don’t have to wait long for it.

Jeff: We actually make our work under the assumption that an obsessed teen will watch it about five times.

Ron: And with a new show we created from scratch recently, Why R Humans

Jeff: New episodes out now!

A still from the “Sex” episode of Why R Humans?

Ron: We ended up pushing this farther and we kind of have two shows going on at once. There’s our UNHhhh editing style over interview footage and that’s on a screen within a screen.

Jeff: And that screen’s being watched by robots from the future.

Ron: Confused? We like to pretend that’s the point.

Jeff: I wish we could say that continuing to add more and more in the edit is a strategy – but honestly, I think it’s just this weird arms race where as soon as you get used to a certain joke or visual-gag density, you have to keep ramping it up or even you, as the creator, get bored.

Ron: Do you think the people reading this are bored?

Jeff: Definitely. Modern joke-telling has been around since Vaudeville. Many of us know where a joke is going.

Knock, Knock … Who’s there? … Annie … Annie Who? … Anybody home?”

That’s hacky. You have to subvert …

Knock Knock … Who’s there? … Annie … Annie Who? … Annie, are you OK? Are you OK, Annie? Smooth Criminal.”

Or just go completely off the rails…

Knock Knock … Who’s there? … Annie … Sorry, you’re canceled, your adopted father, Daddy Warbucks, is a war profiteer – get the hell off my porch!”

Ron: See! I didn’t get the Smooth Criminal reference, but the little orphan Annie one brought it home for me. Airplane.

Jeff: I guess what we’re saying is, this is just life now. No one can concentrate. So it’s better to appeal to people by just embracing the chaos and leaning into their short attention spans. Throw stuff at them to keep them engaged.

Ron: Exactly. How do we keep people watching our shows that are sometimes 20 minutes long?

Jeff: By taking our viewers’ retinas hostage and inundating them with as much as possible.

Ron: Is this the end of deliberately paced, deeper, more nuanced content? Probably.

Jeff: It’s the end of this piece of content. I don’t want to do this anymore.

Ron: Yeah, you’d better go lie down on your bed and watch 10 shows at once.

Jeff: Oh, I’m already doing that.

Ron Hill is a self-proclaimed giant nerd hailing from a farm in New Hampshire. His first job out of college was a night assistant editor at World of Wonder. At one point someone thought letting him edit on UNHhhh was a good idea and the world has been suffering the consequences ever since. His work includes serving as the international writer and producer of Morning T&T with RuPaul’s Drag Race UK talent The Vivienne and Baga Chipz, as well as playing the Cowardly Lion in his middle school’s production of Wizard of Oz.

Originally from Baltimore, Jeff Maccubbin arrived in L.A. with nothing but his car and a film degree. He quickly entered the comedy scene, horrifying audiences across Los Angeles with his so-called “jokes.” Under the pseudonym “Evil Jeff,” he started his own YouTube channel that garnered millions of views before joining the World of Wonder family. Jeff is one of the main editors of the award winning YouTube show UNHhhh starring Trixie and Katya. He has also worked on dozens of other WOW productions including The Vivienne Takes on Hollywood and his latest show, Why R Humans?