LOS ANGELES — Grace Helbig sounds almost blasé about the prospect of becoming the female face of late-night television.
Helbig, a poised, 29-year-old Internet comic whose YouTube channel, It’s Grace, has nearly 2 million subscribers, said she expected to find out if the E! network would pick up her pilot any day now. If it happens, she will be the only woman on late-night TV.
“Seven years ago, a TV show would be the greatest thing to happen to me,” she said with a convincing absence of anxiety during an interview in her new house last month. “Now, it would also be great, but it’s also just another piece of content.”
Getting your own talk show or TV series has long been the dream of young comics, but Helbig belongs to a generation of YouTube stars who are platform-agnostic and making a good living reaching large fan bases without traditional media. She doesn’t need television to make her famous, because, among audiences who grew up watching shows on their phones, she already is.
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To be sure, there are bigger YouTube stars than Helbig — working under the alias PewDiePie, Swedish juggernaut Felix Kjellberg reaches 30 million YouTube subscribers with videos that feature him playing and commenting (with a lot of profanity) on video games. But Helbig has set her sights higher than a popular channel, and her crossover potential is as big as anyone’s right now.
During the past year, she has not only changed sites and rebuilt her audience, proving the devotion of her fans, but also dramatically expanded her multiplatform empire, releasing a movie online, “Camp Takota”; writing a book, “Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to Be a Grown-Up,” which entered The New York Times best-seller list on Nov. 9; and starting a podcast.
But it all began with videos. Some of them engage in proudly delirious silliness, like a discussion of being sick that turns into an ode to a box of stuffed clams. Others start with a commercial concept like “101 ways to say no to sex.” An improviser by training, she does not write scripts, and her freewheeling, off-the-cuff style and connection with her audience mean she has much in common with old-school broadcasters.
Many of her videos focus on popular culture, but unlike Chelsea Handler or Joan Rivers, past stars for E!, they are generally sunny, almost never cutting. And unlike many other popular vloggers, she keeps her private life at a distance.
Her videos were posted daily for more than five years until this summer, when she shifted to three a week to accommodate her busy schedule. It’s an auteur production, with Helbig shooting, editing and starring in the four- and five-minute videos, which she said reach an audience of primarily female millennials.
Her role as an Internet comic began in secret. In 2008, she started working for the website My Damn Channel in New York, appearing as a host in videos that directed users to new content. At the time, she was also taking improv classes at the Pit. “I thought Internet comedy is just a bunch of teenagers making jokes about vaginas, not real comedy,” she said. “I was embarrassed by it in my improv world, so kept it quiet.”
Sarah Palin proved to be her big break. Once John McCain tapped Palin as the vice presidential nominee on the Republican ticket, My Damn Channel quickly asked Helbig if she could do a spoof. With what she concedes is a weak impression, she racked up impressive views. Soon she was making her own comedy videos under the name Daily Grace, and fans started coming to her live shows wearing T-shirts with catchphrases from the videos.
In 2012, she quit improv and moved to Los Angeles, where she met other YouTube stars and realized she had a bad deal — she did not have ownership of her content or a percentage of ad sales. By contrast, YouTube’s Partner Program gives video makers 55 percent of its targeted advertising revenues. “I realized I was creating new media content, but under a traditional media contract,” she said.
In a risky, much-buzzed-about move, she left My Damn Channel, gave up the name Daily Grace and her 2.5 million subscribers.
“It was the perfect description of where our culture is now,” said Chris Hardwick, host of the Comedy Central series “@midnight,” one of the few television shows that have featured Helbig as a guest. “The creators are in charge now. The companies don’t matter. Her audience will follow her.”
As for television, she is cautiously hopeful. “Traditional TV is slowly figuring out the power and influence of YouTube,” Helbig said. “TV isn’t creating communities. It’s creating a viewership. YouTube is creating communities, a fandom, which I think is more powerful.”