A behind-the-scenes interview with the creators of Pittsburgh Dad
Pittsburgh Dad has become a beloved character in Pittsburgh. Since 2011, his YouTube videos have accumulated over 72 million views, capturing the humor and nostalgia of growing up with a blue collar “everyman” father. With episodes ranging from watching Steelers games to Kennywood picnics, Pittsburgh Dad quickly hit a funny bone in the Pittsburgh region and from there, developed into a full “Pittsburghese” brand.
The character has inspired beer, pint glasses, hot sauce, themed Eat ‘N Park Smiley Cookies, a book, in-game jumbotron videos, t-shirts, and more. He even received a declaration of “Pittsburgh Dad Day” by the mayor. The videos have developed such a fan base that Pittsburgh Dad does annual meet-and-greets not just in Pittsburgh, but in Pittsburgh sports bars in Florida and Ocean City, Maryland.
So on December 6th, 2017, AMA Pittsburgh will honor the creators of Pittsburgh Dad, Curt Wootton and Chris Preksta, as Hall of Fame inductees at our annual Marketer of the Year event. We caught up with them as they were filming their Steelers vs. Titans football game episode to talk about the growth of their brand ahead of their induction.
Q: Pittsburgh Dad videos started as a something fun to share with your own families. At what point did you start to think of this as more of a business?
CHRIS: Shortly after that first episode. It was in the first couple months, anyway. We had been working on other film projects prior to Pittsburgh Dad, so thankfully we had garnered enough experience from those, trying to publicize and trying to advertise those projects, that when Pittsburgh Dad began to take off, we were at least prepared for how to handle that. The show already had social media, it already had its Twitter page and Facebook page – we had built that stuff in very quickly. But it was once the views started really picking up steam, once we noticed that there was something more there and that the views were climbing with each video, then we figured we’d at least give more videos a shot. We said we’d give it a shot for six months, maybe a year. We said if it lasted a year, we’d call it a win, and here we are, gosh, what is it? Six years later. How long it’s gone was surprising.
Q: You mentioned using social media early on. When did you launch those channels?
CHRIS: We actually set up the social media pages – once again not thinking necessarily business, not out of a strategy per se – but we started the social media pages maybe a week before the show actually launched, before the first episode went up. When the video was going to be released, we wanted to share it on something, so we at least had those social media pages ready to go and indicated to our friends and family to follow those pages because something was going to come out in the next couple of days.
Q: Is Pittsburgh Dad a full time job for you both now?
CHRIS: Yes, pretty much. We still do other projects on the side for our own enjoyment. We still work on other films and whatnot that are different from Pittsburgh Dad, things we like, but yes – Pittsburgh Dad is certainly the full-time gig for the two of us. Very blessed to have it that way.
Q: You guys hit your first million views pretty quickly, in just over two months. To what would you attribute the success of your content?
CHRIS: I think the relatability to people’s families…There’s certainly been plenty of other Pittsburghese characters done on radio, on YouTube, WDVE and Jim Krenn, there have certainly been other ones done before that. Our focus is so much on family, and putting a spotlight specifically on the time period that we grew up, the 70s and 80s, and even certainly the 90s. So I think it was the relatability. You know, the number one comment we got early on, and still get a lot of, is that people felt like we were secretly filming their own families. And so I think there’s certainly some joy in the fact that kids could share these episodes with their parents, and say “Oh my god, this is you!,” or siblings could share the video between themselves and go, “Oh my god, this is dad!” The authenticity and the relatability, I think, were key.
Q: Do you have a favorite episode?
CHRIS: The Back to the Future episode is very near and dear to our hearts. It was a lot of work, and a lot of prep and thought went into that episode. I think it really accentuates our humor. The Back to the Future episode is fun for another reason, which is, the entire Pittsburgh Dad show is back to the future. The entire show is about a fun and humorous, nostalgic look back at the way we grew up and our families. And so here was an actual episode that represented that visually, you know, where we physically sent Dad back to the time period. We jumped the shark pretty early on there so we don’t have to worry about that anymore, we’ve already done it! Another one would be the short film we just released this summer, Street Light Stories. I mean, it’s not necessarily an episode because it takes place outside of the normal episodes, but it was the film universe version of Dad where we get to see the rest of the family, and this episode actually takes place in the 80s. It was fun getting to explore that as well.
Q: How did the Back to the Future episode come about? And – follow-up question – did they let you actually drive the DeLorean?
CHRIS: There’s a guy here, Steel City Time Machine, [who] owns the DeLorean that was furbished out by the guys at Universal Studios, and I happened to run into him at a comic book convention. We just were chatting, and he was like, “Hey, if you ever need this for an episode, I’d be glad to include it in an episode.”
CURT: It was like, ding ding ding! We’ll figure something out!
CHRIS: We told him we will find a reason to have it in an episode. Then we just started kicking around [the idea about] what would Dad want to go back to, and the joke was that he would go back to something so simple, and he wouldn’t go back to anything like the JFK assassination.
CURT: He doesn’t go back to something big, he goes back to Hills!
CHRIS: He goes back to a football game that he knows the outcome of. And then he goes to Kennywood and rides the rides that are still at Kennywood. We shot that episode, the stuff with the DeLorean in a church parking lot up in the North Hills. And it knocked us off our feet – we’re in this parking lot waiting for the Delorean to show up, and to see that thing pull into a parking lot, it literally feels like it just pulled out of the movie.
CURT: I actually got to drive the DeLorean and growing up that was one of your biggest wishes that you could actually drive one. And I gotta say, after driving it, it doesn’t really handle that well, and you’re sitting on the floor, you can’t see…and it’s no wonder that car wasn’t really a big hit among consumers in 1982.
Q: You both have turned Pittsburgh Dad into quite a brand – we’ve seen items like candles and hot sauce, commercials, sponsored episodes – how did the partnerships with those brands and products get started?
CHRIS: The first sponsorship, or the first brand partnership we did, was with Turner’s Dairy. They reached out to us very early on. You know, we were surprised – in the first couple of months of the episodes, we started getting reached out to by multiple different companies about advertising and sponsorship, and we approached it very carefully. We were concerned, we didn’t want the viewers to think that we were just trying to sell them things. And so we felt good about starting it off with Turner’s – it was a local company, it was a family-owned company, it was very integrated into Pittsburgh culture. It’s a product that Dad would actually use. That kinda kicked it off for us. And those guidelines are honestly are stuff that we adhere to even now. We don’t agree to many partnerships that don’t make sense for Dad. If it feel disingenuous to us – to the character, to the audience – we try to steer clear of that stuff. As for the products, we started selling t-shirts fairly early on because fans for Christmas were asking for things to buy as gifts. And then other things like the beer or the candles – or we started this new partnership with Steel City Clothing, once again a family-owned, local clothing company here in Pittsburgh, we started a new partnership with them and we’ve got some new stuff coming out with them. A lot of those products and things we do, like the Hill’s candle, for instance, are just things we’re like – it would be fun. Or it’s funny. Or it’s something that fans would like. But we try not to saturate with too much stuff.
Q: Do you two spend much time thinking about marketing?
CHRIS: Yes and no. I mean, I can’t speak for Curt – I will say that the vast majority of our time is more focused on the episodes themselves and the humor and the content.
CURT: Chris and I didn’t go to business school so we’re kinda green at this. So I feel like we just – when something comes along, we take it in and then judge it from there. I think most of the time we’re just focused on making a good show that people enjoy.
CHRIS: We feel that if the content is good, people will want to share it. The marketing really comes into play more so when we feel like there’s a big moment coming up, a big episode or something that we feel is special, and we’ll certainly put a lot more marketing effort into it. So for the Back to the Future episode, we reached out to DVE radio to see if we can get on to chat about it, and we reached out to the local news stations, or newspapers and magazines, to drum up some interest. We did a similar thing with the Kennywood episode. Street Light Stories was another one. If we feel like there’s something unique or special about it, we’ll do a little bit more publicity. But the show really, at the end of the day, relies on word of mouth and relies on shares and retweets. It relies on viewers sharing it with their friends and family, and posting it online.
Q: When you are creating content for these new episodes and projects, are you thinking about how to increase all of those views and Tweets and likes, or does it come organically?
CHRIS: It’s a mix. I will say that once again, our first thought is and always has been – Is this funny to us? Is this moment something that we’re going to laugh [at] and enjoy? And often times that translates into also making the fans laugh, sometimes it doesn’t – sometimes we end up with an episode with lower views and we’re like, Eh, we thought it was funny! Other times there will be a hot topic that falls into our laps – for instance, a couple months ago we shot a “Dad watches the eclipse” episode because everyone online, on social media, was talking about this eclipse. If we can get the character involved with that, people are already talking about it, they’re more likely to click on that, we reap the benefits of whatever’s hot on social media. Just a couple of weeks ago, with the release the new season of Stranger Things – we did Dad’s review of the first season of Stranger Things knowing that people would be searching online [for] the term, “Stranger Things.” Episodes that like help us break out of just Pittsburgh. We’ve ended up in the past with about four or five episodes per year trending on YouTube’s main page. And typically those are more national things. They’re either a movie review, or a big football game that we talked about, or something like that that helps attract some of those other viewers.
In part two, we will talk to Curt and Chris about how they got started with promotions and merchandise, their relationship with Kennywood, how the final Log Jammer ride came about, and what Pittsburgh Dad would have to say about marketing.