FUQUAY-VARINA — When they were about 15, a pair of best friends from Buies Creek stood in a cow pasture and signed an oath in blood. Neither of them can find the stained document anymore, but the gist was this: We promise to live a fantastic life making movies, and do it together.
Almost 20 years later, Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal find themselves sweating in a patch of Fuquay-Varina woods, dressed in crude rodent costumes made from cardboard and feather dusters, braving poison ivy to film a song they wrote about squirrels. Almost as soon as it hits the Internet, more than 250,000 people will log onto YouTube.com and watch - a small audience by their standards.
Let's listen in.
Rhett: This is the most important shot, when all I see is the squirrel mask and your mouth moving, and I become convinced that you are a squirrel talking to me.
Link: You keep hitting me in the elbow with your guitar. I don't think we need to dance.
At 32, the partners officially known as Rhett & Link have flown to off-kilter stardom from a red-brick office in Fuquay-Varina.
There, they dream up spoof songs and quirky commercials to post on YouTube.
Their plain-folks humor - aided by Link's signature black glasses and Rhett's rakishly raised left eyebrow - created a brand that has drawn as many as 7 million people. That, in turn, has lured clients ranging from McDonald's to dork-hero indie band Weezer.
And in 21st-century fashion, their small-town success has generated offers from cable TV, interviews on NPR and invitations to appear on couches opposite Jay Leno and George Lopez.
"Internet sensations," said Lopez, introducing them to his audience in April. "I have to say that, right?"
They do it all without an agent, mostly without a lawyer, sticking to a partnership forged in the pinky-swear, best-friends-forever world of elementary school.
Rhett: The way we conduct our business is exactly the way we conducted our friendship at age 12. We get mad at each other all the time. Nobody is walking out. Nobody is going home. Link is a lot more ...
Link: Good looking ...
Rhett: ... anal than I am.
Link: My eyebrow won't do what yours does.
Three years ago, Rhett & Link started making bizarre art out of low-budget ads for storefront businesses, introducing the world to:
Rudy the Cuban Gynecologist, a car salesman in High Point who announced, "I want to liberate this Chevy Impala from the car lot!"
Butt Drugs, a family-named pharmacy in Corydon, Ind., where customers boast, "For all my health needs, I turn to Butt Drugs."
And, most famously, Red House Furniture, also in High Point, where the employees made this pitch for both racial harmony and inexpensive couches: "Can't we all get along? ... Look at this sofa, it's perfect for a black person. Or a white person."
To date, Red House has drawn more than 2.7 million viewers. But Rhett & Link's brand has grown to the point where the product hardly matters. This summer, Dentyne sponsored an "epic rap battle" between the pair - Rhett wearing a red turtleneck with gold chains, Link in a white sport coat - that had almost nothing to do with gum. It topped a million views.
Not long ago, McDonald's called asking Rhett & Link to duplicate their "T-shirt wars" sketch, which had the pair changing into 222 different tops in less than three minutes.
Rhett: I told Link, "Let's not call back immediately. Let's at least wait an hour." It was like the hottest girl on campus saying, "I've seen you and I'm asking you on a little old date."
Even today, they get offers from Los Angeles lawyers and big-time agents, and once, they even drew an invitation to audition for the Broadway version of "Elf," based on the Will Ferrell movie. They declined.
Link: We wouldn't audition unless we were the Elf duo.
Rhett: We took a blood oath.
The collaboration began on the first day of first grade at Buies Creek Elementary School, where both got caught scribbling naughty words on their desks. Details of the profanity are lost to time and foggy memories.
Link: Probably fart and dang. We were edgy back then.
Their teacher was young with big black hair, a Lumbee and Coharie American Indian named Miss Lenora Locklear. As punishment, she had the boys stay inside and color unicorns during recess, a sentence that brought Rhett & Link instantly together as they compared notes on how to draw supernatural animals.
This was years before any blood got drawn, but the pair stayed inseparable through every chapter of young life. In sixth grade, they each had the same first girlfriend: Lesli. In the seventh grade, they each got their first kiss from the same girl: Amber. In the 11th grade, they started a rock band, Wax Paper Dogz.
In quieter moments, they would sit on a pair of boulders along the Cape Fear River, one big and one small. There, they imagined themselves leading lives with zest and daring. Whoever sat on the big rock got to talk. The small rock was for listening.
They first picked up a video camera after Rhett's father bought one to record his son's basketball games, and as teens, they toyed with an original series called "Gutless Wonders."
But when college came, neither chose film school. They had practical sides, so they chose engineering at N.C. State University, living together all four years.
In Raleigh, they found their outlet shooting videos to entertain Campus Crusade for Christ, a nondenominational ministry. In the most memorable of these, Rhett & Link play video games with their shirts off. When they leave for class, viewers see they are nude - though backpacks are strategically worn.
After college, they worked at first as engineers - Link industrial and Rhett civil - but soon shed deskbound life and rejoined Campus Crusade, this time working for the group's mid-South headquarters as, in their own words, "videographers/speakers/lounge singers." The next break was short-lived but totally unexpected. They got called to host a TV show on CW, a sort of hipper "America's Funniest Home Videos," which lasted four episodes.
Rhett: We were a little ... is "stilted" the word?
Suddenly unemployed, they started shopping their online videos to commercial sponsors, landing their first paying gig for a song about Cornhole, the popular beanbag-toss game. They appear onscreen in the video in wigs and bandanas, beer cans in their back pockets and sandwiches in their hands, glorifying the world's easiest game.
Rhett: Suddenly it was like, hey, we can make money at this, which was important. We were both married. Link already had a kid.
On the strength of Rhett & Link's humor, and a belief in the possibility of viral marketing, Georgia-based risk management firm Microbilt sponsored a local business appreciation project. Rhett & Link took nationwide nominations for the most worthy companies and made ads for them, such as a spot for an Alabama mobile home sales firm, Cullman Liquidation, starring proprietor Robert Lee:
"A bouncer in Birmingham hit me in the face with a crescent wrench five times, and my wife's boyfriend broke my jaw with a fencepost. So if you don't buy a trailer from me, it ain't gonna hurt my feelings. So come on down to Cullman Liquidation and get yourself a home. Or don't. I don't care."
The pair capitalizes on an era when anybody with an inexpensive camera and a laptop can make magic. To David Baldwin, a Durham advertising executive, their work reminds a tech-crazy world that creativity still matters most.
"I really admire them," he said. "What those guys are great at is coming up with ways to insert brand, product and themselves into popular culture."
The duo from Buies Creek explains it differently.
Link: It was a relentless and blind pursuit. We were pursuing something that doesn't exist and then, when we found it exists, we found ourselves in it without even knowing it.
Somewhere along the way, Rhett & Link remembered Miss Locklear, their first-grade teacher, and they filmed a documentary about their attempt to find her 25 years after she kindled their friendship.
It was important to trace their beginnings, having had their faces appear on screens across the globe. To say how or whether they found her would spoil the story of "Looking for Miss Locklear," but suffice it to say that Rhett & Link are always looking backward as the road widens ahead.
As their popularity grows, Rhett & Link wonder about bigger ideas. Could they make a full-length movie? Their minds sometimes race.
But to this day, they address their fans as "mythical beasts," a nod to their unicorn-drawing days.
And they always remember themselves as a pair of kids, wide-eyed over what they could make out of crayons and paper, bound together by blood.
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