At the Buzzfeed office in Los Angeles, four men took turns trying on teensy, lace-embellished thongs in front of a thin curtain. What they didn’t know then is this light-hearted video would turn them into the viral sensation “The Try Guys.”
Zach Kornfeld ’12 co-founded the YouTube channel The Try Guys, which has garnered over 5 million subscribers in six months. The channel consists of four men—Kornfeld, Keith Habersberger, Ned Fulmer, and Eugene Lee Yang—who create videos of themselves trying out various hobbies, clothing styles, and topics in a humorous context.
The Try Guys got their start in 2014 at Buzzfeed, creating videos like “The Try Guys Try Labor Pain Simulation,”
which amassed over 32 million views on YouTube and 120 million views on Facebook.
Kornfeld first developed an interest for making videos in middle school, when he would create “bad rip-offs” of the movies he liked.
“Originally it was me in my bedroom with a cheap camcorder and some teddy bears,” Kornfeld said. “I’m just lucky that my hobby somehow turned into a career.”
Kornfeld said his passion for filmmaking stayed with him through his youth. Growing up in Scarsdale, New York—which has a high jewish population—Kornfeld said he became the go-to video editor during his teen years for bar mitzvah montages.
“The videos people made at bar mitzvahs were awful, so as a kid I was like, ‘I can do better,’ and so I became the most in-demand bar mitzvah editor in all of Westchester County,” Kornfeld said. “Through that, I taught myself how to edit.”
Kornfeld said he was attracted to Emerson because they allowed him to learn film production and take film classes as early as his first semester. He attributes most of his video production skills to working on student films.
“You really only learn by getting hands-on. Not to downplay the importance of my classes, but I’ve learned so much more from all the times I was doing extracurricular shoots,” he said. “There are so many opportunities to learn beyond the classroom—those are really the things that are going to make a lasting impact.”
Kornfeld said one of his few regrets during college was not joining any clubs or student organizations. According to Kornfeld, he auditioned for an improv group once, and after doing poorly at the audition, he didn’t try out for any others.
“I only worked on film shoots. That’s all I did,” Kornfeld said. “There’s fliers all over the place. Anytime someone was looking for anything, I took a little paper, I went in, and I tried to get on as many shoots as possible.”
Kornfeld said he tried to get experience with as many positions, sometimes taking roles with which he didn’t have any practice.
“My first semester of my freshman year I was an assistant director for an upperclassmen shoot. I don’t know why they chose me,” Kornfeld said. “I had to go home and google what that job was.”
Professor Linda Reisman teaches the 400-level classes of Producing for Film and taught Kornfeld during his senior year at Emerson. She said seeing Kornfeld find success with The Try Guys makes her proud.
“Sometimes you have a class where there’s a couple of students where, just instinctively, you know that they’re going to go somewhere with their lives. Zach was one of those students,” Reisman said. “I remember him vividly. He was articulate, passionate, and somebody who thinks outside of the box. I’m really excited for him and I can’t wait to see what he does next.”
After graduating in 2012, Kornfeld got his first job at the commercial production company Caviar from an internship he completed during his time at Emerson Los Angeles. Working for a few years as a production assistant, Kornfeld said he realized the job didn’t fulfill him in the way directing and producing did.
“My first couple of years out of college, some could mark as a failure,” Kornfeld said. “I reached a down point where I realized I wasn’t making anything. I was getting paid, but I wasn’t getting paid to do what I liked.”
In February 2014, Kornfeld started working for Buzzfeed at the advice of Ella Mielniczenko ‘13, who’s currently an executive producer at Buzzfeed. Mielniczenko, who was a Buzzfeed video producer in 2014, said Kornfeld’s skills in directing and conceptualizing viral videos made him a good fit.
“From the beginning, he had a really good eye for comedy and for creating hit content,” Mielniczenko said. “From there, he fell into being in The Try Guys and it just grew from there.”
Mielniczenko said she likes working at Buzzfeed because it reminds her of being in film school in the way video producers perform many jobs at their shoots instead of focusing on one.
“The cool thing that drew me to a company like Buzzfeed is that people were doing so many different roles,” Mielniczenko said. “The best part about working in digital media, whether it be Buzzfeed or another company, is that you don’t have to focus on traditional roles. You can be creative and make your way.”
At Buzzfeed, Kornfeld filmed, directed, wrote, and produced videos for the website. Through his job as a video producer, Kornfeld began making videos with the other three Try Guys.
“Over the course of the first couple of videos, we really started to hone what this thing was, what we liked about it, and what the audience liked,” he said. “It evolved from something we were doing just for fun into a hit really quickly.”
In a few months, The Try Guys gained a reputation for their videos. Their first viral video, “Guys Try on Ladies Underwear For The First Time,” uploaded on Sep. 4, 2014, garnered over 21 million views on YouTube. Most of their videos reach a minimum of 3 million views on YouTube, and many of their videos receive more views on Facebook. For example, “The Try Guys Wear High Heels For A Night” reached 13 million views on YouTube, while on Facebook the video nearly tripled that number at 37 million views.
“The Try Guys really came from the four of us making something, goofing off, having a great time, and seeing if we could recreate it,” Kornfeld said.
After making 121 videos for Buzzfeed, The Try Guys left in June 2018. Kornfeld said leaving Buzzfeed felt essential for the group’s growth and future endeavors. Kornfeld also said The Try Guys hoped to connect with their audience more by launching their own channel separate from Buzzfeed.
“We are so proud of everything we accomplished at Buzzfeed, but for where we wanted to go next we felt it was really integral to be on our own,” Kornfeld said. “A lot of it has just been about ways that we can deepen our fan engagement and connect with them directly, but also ways we can expand this thing that we’ve built to be as big as possible.”
Kornfeld said his biggest piece of advice to students is to allow themselves to be surprised by where their career takes them.
“I had one dream from the age I was 10 years old, and I was convinced anything short of it was a failure,” Kornfeld said. “My reality could not be further from what I dreamt for myself. The secret is that the real thing is better than your dreams.”