A few weeks ago, I paid a long-overdue visit to my old college roommates, who now live in Washington D.C. After the obligatory chat about the sort of topics that grown adults are supposed to discuss — jobs, (their) weddings, (their) home buying, and (our other friends’) kids — we gleefully reverted back to our most natural state when together: lounging on the couch, flipping through dumb TV shows and YouTube videos.
The objective of our improvised game was to find a video that bored the other roommates into submission, and with a run of wordless crafting tutorials, my friend Malaka had definitely scored a few points that round. But I was on a mission to find something even better, a channel that could destroy their patience and long-held assumptions about human nature. I grabbed the remote and went on an odyssey that led me to someone named Tami Dunn. To my old pals’ slight confusion, I cautiously clicked on the pleasant-but-grainy photo of the retired woman and her bearded husband.
Tami Dunn is a middle-aged woman living in Kentucky with her husband, Kevin, and their grown daughter, Ashley. From what I can tell, they have a nice, spacious home in the suburbs, and do not want for life’s basic pleasures. In fact, their channel is in many ways about enjoying those simple delights and treats, and they make an art — however unintentional — of indulging in pure low-level consumerism in a way that reminds us of the little miracles that line the shelves of bulk retailers.
I live in New York City, and tend to complain that everything is boring; the Dunns of suburban Kentucky revel in mundane details, engaged equally by nutrition labels and price tags. This isn’t to say they’re naive, or that I envy them for perceived simple-mindedness; with 14,000 subscribers and a load of dedicated fans, they have clearly figured out how to succeed at YouTube, a mastery that has thus far evaded me.
Really, I’m just trying to explain — or figure out — why I am obsessed with the Dunn family’s videos.
Tami uploads several videos per day, spread across a number of different genres and sub-channels. The first one we explored together that night in D.C. was the weekly review of her grocery shopping haul, which was filled with up-close looks at a bevy of boxed and bagged processed foods. All the food, purchased at Wal-Mart and Kroger, cost a grand total of $46, a sum that seemed microscopic to us city-dwellers; for context, I dropped $15 on some milk and lunch meat alone this morning, and that wasn’t at some fancy organic market.
My friends were as amazed and entranced as I was that night.
The list of steals ran deep and wowed us with its each revelation. Gorgeous ripe pineapples cost just a dollar each, large containers of BBQ sauce went for 50 cents, and the stores might as well have just been giving boxes of granola bars away, once you calculated their cost-per-bar ratio. And whereas I would sigh and dismiss Ghostbusters-themed Twinkies as a crass corporate marketing tie-in, Tami and Kevin searched near and far for boxes of Key Lime Slim and White Fudge Marshmallow, and showed them off with joy.
Later, Kevin taste-tested each snack for his lunchtime food review channel, which also features their son Andrew. A few months ago, they did not like Marmite or Vegemite sent to them by some fans who visited the UK. Way too salty.
There was at first an element of disbelief as we watched the grocery videos, because generally, we expect some kind of tension in anything we watch, be it big studio films or YouTube videos. That’s the golden rule, the reason people continue to tune in week after week. But there is absolutely no friction to be found in most of Tami’s videos, beyond whether their daughter might like a toaster strudel. And yet, for as much prestige episodic TV as we all binge-watch, the revelation of the next discount or exciting limited edition processed pastry stirred far more excitement than speculation over who might die next in Game of Thrones.
The low stakes in a low-fi Pleasantville is part of the appeal, I think. Watching these videos allows me to escape into a world in which the biggest concerns are what to buy baby Gavin for his third birthday (Shaun the Sheep DVDs and an array of Toy Story stuff), the best strategy for ordering at Cheesecake Factory (eat a meal at home and just get a slice of cake, their speciality, at the restaurant), and how to refinish wooden floors (I live in a rental apartment, so I did not take notes). And you can’t compare it to reality TV, either; those shows are all manufactured drama; the Dunns are the antithesis.
I’ve only dabbled in the long video chronicles of the Dunn family’s recent vacation to the UK. Their running time is part of it — it’s easier to steal away 10-15 minutes here and there than watch a 90-minute video — but I also feel no real desire to watch a walk-through of the Tower of London or a prestigious art museum. I can watch documentaries or even travel to England myself to get a better version of that experience; even from 5,000 miles away in New York, it is very accessible, and from a million different angles.
Really, I’m more interested in the little world that the Dunns have created in their home, and immediate local surroundings in Kentucky. Part of my attraction, I suspect, stems from my weakness for observational consumerism, which is what I call my interest in not so much buying crap but simply celebrating its existence; it formed during a childhood spent in New Jersey malls, and has led to a long-held fascination with QVC (which I visited and wrote about back in 2012). But I think it’s deeper than that.
I live in New York City, and am attached to the internet at all times. Lately, that’s meant receiving a non-stop flow of troubling news and apocalyptic transmissions from tragedies across the country. Nothing in the real world, it would seem, is good right now. The country is burning. But Tami and the Dunn family continue to put up a slew of happy, silly, deeply context-free videos focused on the most mundane of life’s pleasures, highlighting the things I take for granted or even cynically ignore, from the joy of a good deal on store brand cookies to the impressive detail on new Ghostbusters toys (Gavin was recently given a toy Ecto-1).
This is not to say that the Dunn family lives in a fantasy land, concerned only with coupons and crafting; I’m sure their Kentucky home hosts as many serious conversations and sleepless nights as anywhere else. But none of those problems ever make their broadcasts, and so there’s always a sense of calm, of silliness worth celebrating. Family sitcoms tried to create this atmosphere for years — I always think of The Cable Guy, and Jim Carrey’s maniacal character’s obsession with the facade of the Brady Bunch — but here, it feels more real.
There are plenty of other, more successful and popular YouTube families, but the Dunn’s DIY production values and lack of mid-video edits give them a special sense of authenticity. After a full day working on an internet publication that runs on irony, writing about glossy, never-as-clever-as-they-think TV shows, there is something comforting in the Dunns’ amateurism.