Credit via Twitch
When I was a teenager, my friends and I had a blast watching television together â often really bad television â and mocking it ceaselessly. We became the entertainment, not whatever clumsy dialogue or plot twist we derided.
Last week, I felt as if I was 16 again as I watched hours of a four-day, nonstop showing of âThe French Chef,â Julia Childâs groundbreaking cooking show, with several thousand complete strangers online. It was a surreal experience and, at times, hysterical.
The Julia Child marathon took place on Twitch, a service owned by Amazon that has developed a gigantic online audience by letting gamers broadcast themselves playing Counter-Strike, League of Legends and other games over the Internet.
While there are plenty of other video streaming sites â notably, the much larger YouTube â a big part of Twitchâs magic is how audiences interact with each other and broadcasters in real time through a chat room adjacent to whatever video is streaming.
With the Julia Child marathon on Twitch, the peanut gallery was everything. If you want to carefully study Mrs. Childâs technique for making roast duck Ã lâorange, there are much better places to find episodes of âThe French Chefâ online, including iTunes and YouTube. Nowhere else but Twitch could you see Mrs. Child lionized for her knife skills as though she had disemboweled an enemy in Mortal Kombat.
âThis stage is difficult, but Julia is executing this perfectly, top level player,â one Twitch viewer wrote.
Part of the charm of watching âThe French Chefâ on Twitch was the fish-out-of-water nature of the event. Twitchâs audience skews heavily toward men ages 18 to 34. Not only were most Twitch viewers not alive when the show began showing in 1963, but some of their parents were not alive either.
This was the second time Twitch has turned to a dead public television icon to branch out from its usual game-heavy content. Last year, it surprised a lot of people â Twitch executives included â when a weeklong stream of more than 400 episodes of âThe Joy of Painting,â featuring the landscape artist Bob Ross, attracted 5.6 million viewers.
After âThe French Chefâ marathon concluded Saturday evening, Twitch began showing a batch of other cooking programs on a new food channel, including âJulia and Jacques â Cooking at Homeâ featuring Mrs. Child and the chef Jacques PÃ©pin, and âA Taste of Historyâ with the chef Walter Staib.
The Twitch chat rooms around âThe French Chefâ and âJoy of Paintingâ events were a thicket of gamer in-jokes, jargon and emojis (theyâre called âemotesâ on Twitch). The community generates memes â popular online jokes and catchphrases â at a head-spinning pace, a lot of it indecipherable to people who arenât fluent in the native tongue of Twitch and game culture.
At first, I felt as if I was Neo in âThe Matrix,â watching incomprehensible lines of code cascading down the screen in front of me. I caught on with some Googling and consulting with insiders at Twitch. A lot of the chat was sophomoric, some of it was offensive, but enough was so funny and well-timed that I kept coming back for more.
In one early episode, Mrs. Child used a wooden mallet to whack a carving knife through the spine of a roasted chicken. It was an amusingly violent scene, one that the Twitch chat room ran with, turning her into a Hannibal Lecter with an apron.
âHAMMER TIME … SAVAGE … THE HORROR … THE BUTCHERER,â the messages flew by.
The chat room roared with Mrs. Childâs copious use of butter and different forms of alcohol in her recipes. Whenever she dumped salt onto a dish, a flood of salt can emojis followed.
When Mrs. Child employed some deft knife work, the Twitch chat room filled with the letters VAC. I later learned that the expression stands for Valve Anti-Cheat, software that detects whether players are cheating in games made by the publisher Valve, such as Counter-Strike. The suggestion seemed to be that Mrs. Child’s kitchen skills were so expert as to be suspicious.
Conversely, whenever Mrs. Child dropped a bit of food or made another mistake, which she did often, the Twitch chatters pecked out âRuinedâ â a meme that became a favorite during the Bob Ross marathon when the painter seemed to make a clumsy brush stroke. âRoux-endâ was another variation during the Mrs. Child event.
Ultimately, Mrs. Child did not attract as many viewers as Mr. Ross did on Twitch. At its peak, about 8,000 viewers were watching her at the same time, compared to about 183,000 for Mr. Ross, according to Twitch.
Whenever I checked, the size of her audience was sufficient to place her in the top 25 broadcasters on Twitch at those moments. About 1 million viewers total tuned into the show at some point during the marathon â not bad for a television show that started more than half a century ago.
In this case, Mrs. Childâs show was the appetizer. The Twitch community was the main course.