How a cheeky community college dropout and his unsuspecting family became neighborhood celebrities—and YouTube’s next big thing.
“Parents aren’t disciplining their kids enough! So the kids can just run around and they don’t care. They’ll do whatever they want and get away with it because their parents don’t do anything.”
So pontificates Joe Santagato, eager to criticize the populace for improprieties that have produced irresponsible, overly dependent and needy young adults. “I know how to keep my kids in line,” he goes on, employing the present tense, even though the twenty-year-old community college dropout from Astoria, Queens, doesn’t have any kids of his own yet. “My kids don’t need phones or computers. If you’re a little kid, what do you need a phone for? Who are you going to call?”
It’s this type of self-righteous, quick-witted humor that has made Santagato, the founder, proprietor and featured performer of the YouTube channel SantagatoTV!, the unlikeliest of web celebrities.
“I just don’t go to the mall anymore. It got weird,” says Santagato, whose channel has more than 128,000 subscribers and recently topped seventeen million total hits. “I love my fans so much, but I felt guilty going out with my family because the amount of people coming up to me made it difficult for them to enjoy their day. But they’re in the videos too and it’s so big now that they get approached when I’m not around anyway.”
Santagato was raised on a block typical of the “Upper Ditmars” section of Astoria, which lies between the last stop of the elevated N/Q train and the westernmost outskirts of LaGuardia Airport. It’s quiet by New York City standards—a middle-class neighborhood with front yards, back alleyways, rows of trees dug into the sidewalk, and enough pizzerias within walking distance to visit a different one each day of the week. The youngest of four children, Santagato is active and athletic, making good use of the neighborhood’s many courts and sports fields. But every Tuesday, he retreats into his basement at the family’s home—past the spacious, sun-filled living room with its flat-screen TV, sectional couch and recliner chair; past the dining room table with room for eight; and through the cozy, highly-trafficked kitchen. It is down here, in tight quarters, around his checkered bedspread and boxes of SantagatoTV! merchandise, that he works.
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It all started in September 2011, when Santagato posted a video blog entitled “A Talk About Sluts.” Laying on his bed, shirtless, he spoke candidly to his webcam, running through a raw and spontaneous monologue. The video, in which he simultaneously urges girls to avoid throwing the hurtful s-word around; yet himself asserts that “sluts have no shame; they’ll do anything because it’s their job,” got fifty likes overnight, mostly from other teens he had no relationship with. The unexpected response thrilled and shocked Santagato, so, he figured he should do another one.
Santagato tackled the topic of Facebook in video number two, declaring that, “Checking-in somewhere on Facebook is dangerous! You’re volunteering to be thrown into a van, so you might as well check-in to heaven.” “A Talk About Facebook” established Santagato’s unique and unexpectedly mature brand of observational comedy, and jumpstarted a following that hasn’t stopped growing since.
At first glance, he might come off as a knockoff Pauly D from Jersey Shore—a point reflected in numerous comments from viewers. But, despite his Italian-American lineage, accent and muscle-toned, frequently shown torso, Santagato sees himself as the anti-Pauly D, regularly poking fun at the spray-tan, gelled-hair crowd. “What Goes On At Clubs,” a SantagatoTV! fan favorite, sees him attack “pre-gaming” rituals, like “exaggerating about last week,” womanizing regulars, drunks who start unnecessary fights, and those whose dancing technique resembles “an Irish jig while swatting flies away from their face.”
“I study people, their reactions, their emotions, and try to predict what they’re going to do in any given situation,” says Santagato, explaining how he chooses his objects of ridicule. He has a deep pool to choose from—after all, he grew up in Queens, one of the most diverse urban areas in the world.
White students make up just about one-third of the population of both the neighborhood elementary school, P.S. 2, and junior high, The Louis Armstrong Middle School in Corona that Santagato attended; most of his classmates were black or Hispanic. When he began ninth grade at the private St. Francis Preparatory School in Bayside, Queens, he actually “felt strange being around so many white kids.” Compared to most institutions in the country, “Prep,” as it is locally known, seems incredibly diverse, but to Santagato, his culture shock came from being exposed to so many rich white kids.
“I wasn’t into what they were into and didn’t hang out with them on weekends,” Santagato explains. “They were so white,” he adds, laughing at his own words.
“Being exposed to such diversity in Queens has shaped him into the person he is,” asserts his older sister Shannon, twenty-four. “Joey accepts everyone and doesn’t judge people. He’s quick to defend others who are being bad mouthed.”
Shannon, the only sister, is about to begin graduate school to study speech pathology. Thomas, the eldest of the clan at twenty-eight, is an aspiring Olympian currently training in Lake Placid, New York, for the skeleton competition. For a time, he was a gym teacher at a school for students with special needs, but his competitive nature compelled him to shoot for a chance at being a part of Team U.S.A. Keith is only eighteen months older than Joe and “practically his twin,” says their mother, Elizabeth, fifty-seven. Like Joe, Keith went to Queensborough, but stopped and is still “figuring things out,” taking his time before he settles on a school and a major.
All of Joe’s family agrees that, while growing up, Joe was, ironically, the most quiet and independent.
“I never had to worry about him. He’s always been pretty mature for his age,” recalls Elizabeth, a secretary at P.S. 2. “But also very sensitive and loving, the most loving of all my kids.”
The legitimacy of these familial accounts might be called into question upon viewing just about any of the vlogs on SantagatoTV!, all of them rife with criticisms of—well, just about everyone. In the opening of “Games that Girls Play,” he states point blank that “girls are assholes.” But a few weeks later, he tactfully produced a video entitled “Games that Guys Play.”
“Joe brings things to light in his videos, but he’s just being funny,” says Shannon, in his defense. “He’s really looking at behaviors a lot of people do, regardless of their backgrounds.” Shannon also insists that whenever she and the other members of Joe’s family and circle of friends participate in the tapings, he gives them explicit instructions to not direct insults at a particular ethnic group or homosexuals. He tells them to generalize everything, so that more people can relate to the humor.
“Whenever I do an impression of a girl, it seems like the voice mostly comes out sounding Hispanic,” Santagato admits with a smile and a shrug. “But I think that’s just because those are the types of girls I know and have always been around, so it’s just natural, not racist.”
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While a student at St. Francis Prep, Santagato earned average grades and didn’t act out too often. He wasn’t a class clown. “Most of my teachers probably don’t even remember me,” he says. As his senior year went on, he struggled with the concept of continuing his education and accruing debt while unsure about what he wanted to study. Though many of his friends felt differently and committed to schools outside of the city, Santagato never seriously considered going away to college. “I wasn’t ready,” he says. “And everything I need is here in Astoria.” Santagato settled on Queensborough Community College—“a school anybody can get into,” as he puts it—mostly to appease his mother. Never very focused or motivated, he often found himself sitting in his car, parked outside of the campus, unable to will himself to class. “It just felt like a waste of time and money.”
“Oh, I hated that he dropped out,” his mom says, naturally. “He could become a superstar, who knows? I still want him to go to school so that he can have something in his back pocket, but I can’t force him.”
For about a year after he left school, Santagato worked as a pizza delivery boy and waiter in Astoria. It was during that time period that SantagatoTV! started taking off. He taught himself how to edit videos, using the iMovie software on his MacBook.
“It’s not easy to do–conceptualizing the videos, filming them, editing them,” says Thomas, who has been filmed by Joe for sketches many times. “Joe knows how important that whole process is; it takes time and intuition that can’t be taught.”
Santagato also set up a schedule that meant, no matter what, a new vlog would be uploaded every Tuesday night, so as to establish self-imposed discipline. “There are some Tuesdays where it gets a little hectic around the house,” his mother says, smiling while she recalls stories of her son digging through closets, hastily looking for props, or calling his friends to urge them to run over so that they can play a role in a sketch.
“I always get the video done on time though!” he interjects.
As SantagatoTV!’s hit tally soared, the videos became more intricately developed–the editing is of a higher quality, there are numerous skits in each that serve as acted-out examples of his observations, and the subject matter has broadened and become more mature. Though he still makes time for rants on “haters” and how awesome it is to be a baby, he provides social commentary on media manipulation and Election Day, as well as more mundane topics like rampant texting.
“I may do some crazy shit, but, underneath it all, the videos are usually about how people should just be themselves and if they do silly things, it’s ok. We all do.”
Since this past fall, his newly-launched merchandise online store, with logo-clad shirts for sale alongside SantagatoTV! iPhone cases, has been his primary source of income. He applied for Google Adsense, the program by which Google plays middle-man in auctioning off ad space on websites. For a time, Santagato pocketed some cash from the service, but says he was inexplicably dropped for “invalid click activity.”
Undeterred, he taught himself how to construct his own website and began doing personal appearances at clubs for a fee. He is currently exploring avenues that will allow him to once again earn click-based ad revenue, and is confident it will work out in his favor.
“I already make enough money now where I can live on my own, but I don’t want to yet,” he says. “I could lose all of this tomorrow for all I know.”
Since elementary school, Santagato has kept a close-knit group of friends. “I’m so lucky. I have about fifteen ‘best friends.’ We’re all so close it’s like we live together, so we can’t ever stay mad at one another for very long.” Several now help him manage his blossoming career.
“If any of my friends made their own YouTube channel, it’d be even better than mine,” he insists. “When we hang out, all we do is go back and forth, trying to say something funnier than the person who last spoke. I don’t even think I’m that funny, compared to some of my friends.”
Santagato’s mates have been rewarded by being cast in his vlogs and having their Twitter account names flashed during the credits, resulting in a degree of notoriety for them as well, though it doesn’t compare to the attention Santagato’s family gets.
“I’ve always had stage fright and it’s like I’m on stage all the time,” says Shannon, who has been asked to pose for pictures while strolling the mall all by herself. She says she was followed home by a group of girls once and is getting worried about strangers knowing where the Santagatos live. “People have rung the bell actually thinking that we’re just going to invite them in for pizza. They look at us like we’re Astoria’s Kardashians!”
Keith has been followed so many times that he’s used to it. He shows up in most of Joe’s videos, has well over 12,000 Twitter followers, and has been stared at by strangers, not just in Astoria, but also in a few Manhattan clothing stores, at Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Recently, Joe Santagato was in a Taco Bell in Bayshore, Long Island and had to leave because he felt uncomfortable eating while being gawked at.
Elizabeth says that the house is getting an increasingly disruptive number of phone calls, prompting the family to put on fake foreign accents when they pick up, and when she leaves for errands or shopping, it surprises her when she is not noticed. She maintains that she is supportive, but can’t hide twinges of reluctance. “I’m scared,” she admits. “I just wish I could help him more. I’m a dinosaur and don’t know anybody who has gone down this path that I could possibly introduce Joey to who could give him advice.”
Joe says his mom is very supportive and he likes to make it easy on her by not asking for much. His dream would be to “get into acting” and one day have his own television show. “All I need is for someone to give me a shot. That’s what I live for. And I’m confident that I’m going to be good at whatever I’m asked to do because I get obsessed. SantagatoTV! is the only thing I think about right now and I really try to get better at it every day. So if I got an opportunity to do something bigger, I’d be all about it.”
“Everything I talk about is a shared experience, which always makes for the best comedy,” he says. “It’s stupid stuff everybody’s done, but I just happen to be someone who thought to post videos about it online.”
Santagato’s ability to poke fun at himself and the idiosyncrasies he shares with others is extremely important in creating a bond with his audience—and a large reason why he comes across as funny rather than callous. In “Don’t You Feel Stupid,” Santagato offers a contemporary take on a George Carlin-esque stand-up routine, humorously discussing the many things he does over the course of any given day that make him feel as though his brain has failed him.
“People get inspired. They can relate to me,” says Santagato. “I think I get attention because people see that the channel is popular, but then they realize I’m just a kid from Queens, doing the videos out of my basement.”
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Michael Stahl, a Queens-based journalist and a Narratively features editor. He barely tweets anymore @MichaelRStahl.
Kyria Abrahams (www.kyriaabrahamsphoto.com) is a photographer living in Astoria, Queens, and the author of “I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed–Tales From A Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing (Touchstone, 2009).”