“Glee,” Fox’s sharp and subversive musical comedy series, is averaging a respectable 8.6 million viewers a week.
And apparently all of them are going online to champion and celebrate the show, which is turning out to be more viral than H1N1.
“Glee” may rank 42d in the Nielsen ratings, but it’s a phenomenon on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
“We monitored Twitter feeds,” says Chris Albrecht, coeditor of NewTeeVee.com, a Web site devoted to online video, “and ‘Glee’ is absolutely crushing the competition. Of all TV shows, it’s the one people Twitter about the most.”
Fans of the series — imagine “High School Musical” with a wicked sense of humor — call themselves Gleeks. They have a unique way of expressing their devotion: taping do-it-yourself copycat videos of the show’s rousing musical numbers, then posting them on YouTube or on their individual home pages.
The spontaneous explosion of tribute videos was the first indication to the makers of “Glee,” which airs at 9 p.m. EST Wednesdays on Fox, that their show was hitting a sweet spot with viewers.
“Right after we aired the pilot in May, people started posting their own versions of our songs online,” says Dante Di Loreto, “Glee’s” executive producer. “It was so exciting to see because we knew then that we had touched a chord.
“Believe me, I’ve seen a lot of different versions of our songs,” says Di Loreto of the online reproductions. “No matter how crazy they get, it’s still flattering.”
Things certainly do get loony in these play-at-home versions of “Glee.” There are videos featuring puppets, Disney cartoon characters, even a live leaf bug grooving to the show’s cover of “Gold Digger.”
Remember the sparkly rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “I Say a Little Prayer” delivered by three lissome cheerleaders on one episode?
Imagine it painstakingly reenacted by three bearded gay men in baby Ts.
“People say, ‘You should do it in drag,’” says Jason Whipple, who lip-syncs the lead. “I say, ‘We ARE doing it in drag! It’s boy drag.’”
Whipple, who recently moved to San Francisco from Vermont, made the clip as a lark in his apartment with two friends and a digital camera. They dubbed their hirsute trio the Full Silkwood, after a typically audacious punch line from the show.
His little jape has turned Whipple into a minor celebrity.
“I was walking with a friend of mine to a coffee shop,” he says. “A couple of people stopped us. ‘You’re the guy from the video!’ My friend was like, ‘You just moved here a month ago. How does everyone know you?’”
One of the more ambitious tribute videos is a shot-for-shot restaging of the pilot’s showstopper, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Filmmaker Wes Kim recruited six friends for the reenactment, shot in downtown Seattle. Because he didn’t have a portable device to play back the episode, Kim had to refresh his memory of the source material by different means.
“Everyone had iPhones and smart phones,” he says. “So for specifics, we would watch bits of it on the spot.”
Most Gleeks avoid the big production numbers and their complex choreography, preferring to imitate the more manageable songs performed by trios or duos.
The vast majority of these knockoffs seem to be shot in bedrooms or finished basements using Web cams. They look like outtakes from a sleepover party. The jerky and murky results are often embarrassingly amateurish.
So why do people upload them to the Web for all the world to see?
Say hello to the “American Idol” generation. Everyone is a star waiting to happen. Just add microphone.
“A lot of the literature about contemporary youth in my discipline talks about narcissism,” says Alexander Riley, associate professor of sociology at Bucknell University. “This is a generation that is driven in the direction of obsessive concern for self. It’s a narcissism with a powerful degree of requiring the approval of others.”
Uploading videos, says Riley, “has a lot to do with the role celebrity plays in a society like ours. It’s increasingly apparent that many celebrities are made by a particular process. There’s the thought, ‘If they can be a celebrity, I can, too.’”
Fox, of course, is eagerly fanning the online fervor for “Glee” in all its forms.
“We’ve got over 700,000 Facebook fans, up from 17,000 when we launched,” says Hardie Tankersley, the network’s vice president of online content and strategy. “All the major characters have a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. Sue Sylvester (played by Jane Lynch) has her own Twitter account.”
“Fox has been really active in digital marketing, ” says NewTeeVee.com’s Albrecht. “They’ve been able to leverage iTunes, and that gives them another outlet to propagate the show.”
More than 2 million songs by the “Glee” cast have been purchased on iTunes. Last week, six selections from the show were among iTunes’ Top 200 downloaded songs. Nine episodes were among the Top 200 in TV sales. And “Glee: The Music, Vol. 1,” released Nov. 3, sold 113,000 copies its first week to capture the No. 4 spot on the Billboard 200 chart.
The number of tribute videos may really go through the roof in the next few months if a novel initiative by the show’s producers pans out.
“Based on fan demands, we’re going to include instrumental versions only on some special editions of the soundtracks as an added element,” says Di Loreto. The second soundtrack will be released early next month.
“It’ll make it easier,” he says, “for people to do karaoke versions of our songs.”
As though Gleeks need any more encouragement.