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All the Web's a stage for Atlanta's accidental comic phenoms

Between ratchetness and respectability, the Hudsons are hustling their flow

When Emmanuel and Phillip Hudson appeared on "America's Got Talent" earlier this summer, dressed as the 'round-the-way hoodrats that made them Internet sensations, the audience exploded with laughter while half the judges' panel stared in silence. Turns out their tongue-in-cheek cultural critique of ratchet girls with tacky Yaki weave and ghetto drama galore proved a little too insidery for one celebrity judge in particular.

"Nothing personal, I just don't find it funny," king of shock radio Howard Stern told the audience. "I didn't get it."

One unconvinced Stern pales in comparison to the 200 million-plus YouTube views the brothers from Jonesboro, Ga., have accumulated in recent years. Since donning makeup and miniskirts for their 2012 viral smash "Ratchet Girl Anthem," the social media phenoms have spawned spin-offs including their hip-hop comedy mixtape Ratchet Du Soleil, released in January, and an online-dating spoof website RatchetPeopleMeet.

Their penchant for mixing comedic raps with physical gags has taken them from the bedroom, where they produced their early webcam videos, to Hollywood boardrooms. Hidden behind their exaggerated humor is a subtle blurring of the line between ratchetness and respectability. When those over-the-top parodies get lost in translation, they often wind up fueling the same black stereotypes the Hudsons are so talented at satirizing.

"You know how that goes," says 23-year-old Emmanuel, the older of the two. "African-Americans are looked at, unfortunately, as ratchet black people, period."

A comedy duo unintentionally shaped in the slapstick tradition, the Hudson Brothers are like the Laurel and Hardy of the 'hood. Their latest shtick is a throwback to that era. As hosts of VEVO's "Guess the Video," they conduct man-on-the-street interviews, giving contestants a few seconds to guess the artist and song title behind popular music videos for a $100 prize. Losers get a pie to the face.

It's a cheap laugh for chance comedians. But beneath the pranks and comedic conventions are two brothers trying to parlay their accidental success into a permanent hustle.

When I meet the Hudsons in a hot downtown Atlanta parking lot across the street from Walter's Clothing early one Tuesday morning, they greet me with casual fist bumps and detached coolness. Missing in action are the ear-to-ear grins and duck-face expressions known to induce mass hysteria in many of the 100-plus videos they've uploaded onto YouTube.

They've come today with a film crew of 14 in tow to record their VEVO spots. One assistant wheels around an iced cooler full of graham cracker pie crusts and Reddi-wip for making prop pies on the spot. Two ladies armed with towels clean up each losing contestant's face after the deed is done.

The unscripted game-show format means the Hudson brothers get to run wild with ad-libs. When they're not cracking on each other, they turn their observational humor on the contestants recruited from passersby on the sidewalk. The result leaves people on the set stifling their laughter while the cameras continue to roll.

Philip waves down a young couple across the street from the Five Points MARTA Station. The girl guesses wrong, and Philip Hudson lays out her options.

"Glasses on or glasses off," he asks, giving her fair warning to remove her spectacles before he hits her with the pie. The towel girls proceed with caution to wipe the whipped cream from her skin.

"Man, anybody can get this work. Old people, young people, teenagers, we pied babies before," Emmanuel jokes after the take. "I ain't gonna lie to you, we pied babies. If you wanna get this pie, who are we to deny?"

Funny thing is Emmanuel has never considered himself a comedian. He still doesn't, despite landing a cameo role in Ride Along, alongside Kevin Hart and Ice Cube, and becoming a co-star on Nick Cannon's MTV2 improv comedy show "Wild 'N Out."

"I never saw myself being famous for comedy," he says. "We both do music, serious music, but it just so happens that the comedy part popped off first."

Though he and his brother always knew they had a knack for making people laugh, it took a science class for them to recognize their comedic bond.

Emmanuel failed his to 10th-grade chemistry class and ended up repeating the course with Phillip. "That was kinda weird but fun at the same time," Emmanuel says. "I didn't like that until a couple of weeks in. Then that's when we just started acting a fool. That's when I knew."

His former drama teacher at Mundy's Mill High, Sharrell Luckett, remembers Emmanuel not as the typical class clown but a serious talent who excelled in dramatic roles. "He's one of the most talented students I've taught," Dr. Luckett says. "He took his auditions very seriously, and he rarely showed his comedic side."

The youngest of eight boys, Emmanuel and Philip started making videos after two of their older brothers, who were already making parodies, issued a comedic challenge in 2009. They responded by transforming R&B crooner Anthony Hamilton's love song "Charlene" into a takedown of beautiful girls with bad breath. The production was low budget and the humor was juvenile, but "Stanky Breath Fine Girls" got them more attention than their serious raps.

"We spoke on some real stuff and people could relate to it, I guess," says Philip, 22, who started out playing comedic foil to his older brother's lead in their early send-ups. "From the beginning my brother had to sort of force me to do the videos."

After Emmanuel got kicked out of Albany State University, he landed back at his parents' house. When his mother nagged him to stop playing on the computer and get a job, he gave her a prophetic word: "Ma, I know it may look like I'm not doing nothing right now, but these videos and these songs are going to take me where I need to be," he told her.

The breakthrough came with 2012's "Why You Asking All Them Questions." In the six-minute video collaboration with comedian Spoken Reasons, Emmanuel performs opposing roles in a mock battle of the sexes. Twisting his face up like silly putty, he alternates his lyrical delivery between men-are-from-Mars frustration and women-are-from-Venus attitude.

With social media as their main stage, the Hudsons took off, touring malls and schools across the country. But amid the laughter, they began to hear disapproving whispers after they donned dresses for the viral remake of "Ratchet Girls Anthem."

Viewed by some critics in the African-American community as an emasculation of the black male image, the men-in-drag trope, even when innocently conceived, is exacerbated by the longstanding history of racial degradation in America.

Dave Chappelle likened it to a Hollywood conspiracy on "Oprah" years ago as he recalled filmmakers attempting to talk him into a dress for his role in Blue Streak. He refused.

"Dave Chappelle, much respect to him, but he probably didn't want to do it because he didn't see any point in it. Which is fine," Emmanuel says. "But that doesn't take away from Martin Lawrence, who's one of my favorite actors. He played Sheneneh, and that was one of the most hilarious characters I've ever seen in my life. Jamie Foxx played Wanda. Eddie Murphy played a lot of female characters. And those are legendary people. So it's different strokes for different folks."

It's a full-time hustle, and they're content with taking whichever route gets them in the door. They recently finished taping a pilot for a TV show called "The Rookies" that they hope will get picked up by a major network.

In the meantime, they plan to keep serving fans their brand of ratchet humor, even if the rest of the world looks on in silence.

"Who we gonna listen to?" Emmanuel asks. "Half the world loves it, half the world hates it. And me and Phillip ain't got no problem with it, so let's' keep making the folks that like it happy."



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