It’s the American Dream, digitalized. You and a buddy are freshman in the biggest city in the country and you want to make a name for yourselves. Pre-internet, your dreams would have been a lot less realistic, but the invention of the smartphone has given a voice to anyone who wants to talk — and a world-wide receiver for anyone who wants to listen. And the truth is, while New York City hates a lot of things, one thing every New Yorker loves is talking about…New York! So, you get a camera, one of you carries a hand-held microphone, and you walk outside your dorm and start recording videos letting almost anyone who wants to say something, speak their peace. Nothing more, nothing less; you’re handing the microphone to the streets of all five boroughs and what you receive is everyone’s funniest, rawest, and unapologetic versions of themselves. A stereotype of NYC that those that live there love and are obviously proud of.
“We replacing Cuomo with… Bobby Shmurdah,” says a gentleman, “Trae Young is bald,” chants a crowd of angry New York Knicks fans after a tough loss, “ISIS killed Biggie. You already know who I am,” says the ‘Queen of Brooklyn’ — while a lot of viral street interviews on the internet rely on scripts and structure, @sidetalknyc thrives off of the unexpected and expectedly unexpected that comes from the streets of New York City. Scripting NYC street-interview comedy would actually make it harder for such video content to find a home online.
Interviews with a Spiderman with Timbs on (nicknamed SpiderCuz) drinking Hennessey blow up so well on social media because of New York’s reputation for being a city where that type of behavior is very natural, what it’s known for, and what makes its streets so well-loved. Making internet content out of the natural habitat of New York City has been done countless times, but perhaps never as raw and authentic of a final product that just shows real people without a filter.
Their videos, during a pandemic in 2020 when many who left the city for health and safety reasons hadn’t yet returned to New York City, were a way for people to look back to see what was going on everyday with everyday people. Fans have said their videos “made the pandemic bearable” and people who have moved out of New York City for good have said, “I grew up in New York and your videos remind me of growing up in the city and it’s literally the best thing.”
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Jack Byrne and Trent Simonian are those two friends who are chasing that digitalized American Dream, coming to NYU to study film and grow a brand through making videos. To learn more about how they started and grew @sidetalknyc to over 600,000 followers on Instagram, they were gracious enough to get on a phone call with me to share their own story, this time around.
Jackson Weimer: So the name ‘Sidetalk’ comes from Sidewalk + talk, just want to make sure.
Trent Simonian: Yup, you got it.
Weimer: Sweet, I figured. So, what was the first ever video you two filmed together?
Simonian: Our first video we filmed together was Episode 1 of Sidetalk, New York Fashion Week. For a year we had been planning Sidetalk; we were ready to go. We both got into NYU, and literally that first week of school, we got the microphone and shot that first video and have been uploading ever since.
Weimer: When you first went out to make videos, was there a type of person or content that you were looking for?
Jack Byrne: In the beginning. we were talking to literally everybody. When we first started, we were pretty reliant on the host, Trent, to go around and talk to any stranger we could find. After the pandemic hit, we came back and the city was so quiet. There was really no energy for us to go up and receive from people like we were getting before. So, we changed the style of the show up a lot. We started to look for individual characters who had interesting personalities, events like Knicks games, and public reactions — like when Andrew Cuomo got kicked out of office.
Weimer: How do you decide where in New York City to shoot?
Byrne: We try and make it so the videos are shot at places in New York City that you’re not familiar with from movies. Sometimes, we’ll do something in Times Square but that’s more so because there’s an interesting character there.
Weimer: Trent, how do you find the courage or confidence to walk up to groups of people with a microphone? What’s your background like before Sidetalk?
Simonian: In high school, I was the host and producer of our high school’s TV broadcast. So, I started practicing then and just go up to student and teachers. Ultimately, it just comes down to the confidence you go up to groups of people with. We’re also are very friendly with everyone we interview. We make sure they know what they’re getting into. We don’t expose people.
Weimer: I noticed you mentioned that the way your Instagram account grew its first 10,000 followers was from a caption tag from @newyorknico?
Simonian: The story is pretty funny. I’m from Los Angeles and I used to always tune into Nico’s page just to learn about New York City. I would always learn about these funny characters and cool stuff that was going on in the city. So, eventually he started to like our page when we had around 1,000 followers and he said, ‘these kids are onto something’, which was really cool. Then, he shouted out our Purim video which got us to 10,000 followers and we’ve had a presence in New York ever since.
Weimer: All of your videos are 60 seconds long. So, how much footage do you usually cut out on a given shoot?
Simonian: About 99% of the footage gets cut out. Sometimes that’s almost two hours of footage that never sees the light of day.
Weimer: Is there any plans for expanding Sidetalk to include longform content?
Simonian: One minute is what makes us so unique. That’s why I think our videos are so popular. For Sidetalk, we won’t change the one minute format up. We eventually do plan to expand our creative talents and make long films and such, so that will come eventually.
Weimer: Do you ever announce where you’re going to film?
Byrne: There’s two different ways that we do it. If we’re doing an episode with someone we reached out to, then we’ll do an episode with them and not tell the audience where ahead of time. But, for example, we hosted a water balloon fight in Central Park, which we told everyone about and had a huge amount of people show up to.
Weimer: How does being a student at NYU factor into your shooting schedule for Sidetalk?
Simonian: We made our school schedules around Sidetalk. Sidetalk is our main priority. When we are not doing school, we are doing Sidetalk. Our free time is 110% consumed by Sidetalk. It’s the first thing we do when we wake up and it’s the last thing we do before we go to sleep.
Weimer: How have your professors and classmates reacted to Sidetalk?
Simonian: They’re super supportive and a lot of them look out for us, which is good to have. Great to have a good support system from our school.
Weimer: What do your parents think?
Byrne: They’re super cool and supportive. They follow and have post notifications on. They’re some of the biggest fans.
Weimer: Is there a lot of vulgarity or stuff you can’t show on YouTube/Instagram that you have to cut out?
Simonian: We cut out tons of stuff. Believe it or not, we try and put the cleanest stuff in the episode. Obviously, we cut out anything that’s sexual or racist.
Weimer: Is there another city you’d like to film in next, or is that not a plan for you two?
Simonian: Maybe not with Sidetalk, but eventually, we’d like to travel around the United States and go to all sorts of events and whatnot. There’s so much we haven’t touched here yet. The possibilities are endless.
Weimer: Has the success of Sidetalk impacted your career plans?
Simonian: Definitely. This has really proved that we have the ability to make some really cool content that’s unique. That just motivates us to continue to make unique content going forward, whatever that may be.
Weimer: With your recent Knicks Opening Day video that’s been blowing up, NBA social media teams have been using the phrase ‘Bing Bong!’ which was said in that video. What’s that been like and have the Knicks reached out to you?
Simonian: We don’t go to every Knicks game, we pick ones where there’s something building up and a reaction is sure to take place postgame. We usually don’t go to the games. We come around half time, wait outside, and check the end of the game on our phones. Then, as people start to exit we gather the energy outside of Madison Square Gardens and start asking people questions. We take the energy inside the stadium and bring it outside.
The Knicks and MSG have been super cool and supportive.
…we definitely hope to do some cool stuff with them…soon.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity