Three grandmas wrapped in pink and purple sit against a grey backdrop, ostensibly sober. Then the bong comes out. “Do you know how to use this?” A producer appears at the edge of the screen and explains. The grandmas light up, giggle, then go for a vape. Five minutes in: “Yep, I can feel some tingle in my brain.” Thirty minutes in: “I could go iron now for days.”
As Washingtonians enjoyed their first puffs of legal recreational weed, the grandmas went viral, landing the production company Cut on the YouTube map in 2014. Today, its channel clocks 10.5 million subscribers. And now I’m one of them, after getting hooked in quarantine. Their videos achieve what social distance can never: the beauty of unscripted encounters. I'd often wondered about the everyday people they cast, always on the basis of identity.
Turns out, they're from Seattle. In a 2017 video, producer Christopher Santo Domingo Chan explained that Cut is made possible by the ethos of our city: “We have our own kind of culture of politeness and reservation here, and it’s just so funny to watch those people be awkward with each other on camera.” For those of us who live nearby, Cut offers the added amusement of possibly catching someone you know. You might see that kid from high school get matched in a game of who’s slept with whom. Or you could become that kid for everyone else. (Cut sends out casting calls through an email list and accepts applications on its website.)
Adriane Phi, a junior at the University of Washington, applied to a number of calls before she got her golden ticket. In February, she and her boyfriend, Jerick, found themselves in a pale pink studio. At first, the camera intimidated Phi. She recalls thinking, “I don’t know if I want to tell the whole world about my very personal relationship.” But the crew asked compelling questions, so she and Jerick could riff off each other. By Valentine’s Day, there they were, spliced together with six other couples in a video that escalates from early texts to reflections on their future together. “I took things very slow,” Jerick says of their first kiss. “Very,” a sassy Phi stresses to the camera.
Not all participants hail from here, though. It was hard, for instance, to find a priest willing to get high on camera, so they had to fly one out from Florida. But the vast majority are locals, whether the Cut community’s own family and friends, international icon Jay Park, or 50 Republicans, at least one allegedly cast right off the street.
To date, Cut’s body of work resembles a cross between a raunchy college sleepover and a seminar in American identity. Queer men react to a homophobic slur; Black parents tell their children about profiling from the police; and two people share what led them to and from the Islamic faith. Select groups candidly discuss politics, self-harm, and sex.
Hard-hitting testimonies, however, compete with Cut’s lighthearted fare. Every other release puts alcohol or kink on the table. Exes spill uncomfortable truths, and blind dates strip tease during a game of Fear Pong.
At its most profound, Cut seeks to upend our assumptions. The “Lineup” series prompts people to guess strangers’ countries of origin, incomes, sexual orientations, and other traits that seem laughable to ask point blank. In 2019, three people guessed which participants had a criminal record. “Visually,” a producer prompts one guesser, “what do you see that might say criminal or not criminal?” The man looks incredulous, but goes on to guess, drawing on six years in prison himself. He and his fellows cite tattoos, haircuts, glasses, and “the way you walked up here.” They ask about jobs, families, and drug use. In the end, they guess accurately about half the time.
In segments like these, Cut interrogates our own implicit biases. With rough sample sizes, sharp edits, and ad-libbed accounts, the videos offer a window into the diverse perspectives within any given group. Online, we’re barraged with news and broad observations about categories of people. We then automate assumptions based on these trends, but there is no one way to date, practice faith, or gain a criminal record. There is no one voice for Black or queer or elderly Americans. Every one of us—like our neighbors who showed up at Cut—are wrong about each other as often as we’re right.