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Impish and extreme pranks made Roman Atwood, 33, a digital superstar, but he’s now more likely to create videos of himself cavorting with his two boys and hanging out at home. The Ohio native started posting comedy videos to YouTube in 2009 while working full time at a rope-manufacturing plant. “It turns out, I wasn’t really good at that,” he says. Spurred by feedback from his then-small fan base, he decided to make a prank video — in which he and a buddy pretended to dump an empty watercooler on unsuspecting marks — instantly cementing his early career in hijinks. “I had more views on that first prank video than all 80 videos I’d posted in two and a half years,” he says.
His pranking culminated in “Natural Born Pranksters,” a feature-length movie from Lionsgate and Studio71 that Atwood directed, produced, and starred in. The movie (released April 1, 2016, of course) took the No. 2 spot on Apple’s iTunes movie chart, behind “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
“The movie was a lot of fun, but people don’t realize it took two years of work,” he says. The production had a crew of 30, compared with Atwood’s normal solo-guy-with-a-camera routine.
His favorite pranks? Putting the letter “B” on someone’s back and yelling, “You’ve got a bee on you!” And the time he surprised his girlfriend, Brittney, by filling the house with 250,000 plastic balls. Atwood has drawn inspiration from performers like Bam Margera, Jeff Tremaine (of Jackass fame), and Dave Chappelle (“He really taught me to be edgy”).
Starting in 2013, Atwood branched out, launching a personal vlog with segments featuring Brittney and his kids, Noah (now 11) and Kane (4). “My fear was pranks were going to get oversaturated,” he says. “The biggest part of my life is daily vlogging with my kids.” His prank-oriented YouTube channel has 9 million subscribers, and RomanAtwoodVlogs has 6.8 million.
That said, Atwood still delights in nutty stunts: In one recent video, he shot off a homemade “firework machine gun” with 1,500 rounds in the backyard.
“Roman stands out because in any given week, he can create the world’s most viral video, while at the same time posting a daily vlog demonstrating that family is what’s really most important to him,” says John Fitzpatrick, his manager at Studio71.
He’s taken heat for his more shocking antics: Atwood has twice tricked Brittney into believing one of the kids had died in an accident, prompting a Washington Post critic to label him “YouTube’s most appalling prankster.”
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Perhaps trying to defuse detractors, Atwood has focused his brand around the slogan “Smile More,” encompassing everything from T-shirts to games, and he’s also writing a motivational book, “Will Work for Smiles,” slated to be published in 2017.
With his prolific output, Atwood says he doesn’t have time to watch his older videos. “It’s extremely rare,” he says. “We’re running at such a fast pace—I upload and go.”