A pizza-based conspiracy theory gained traction this week after YouTube megastar Shane Dawson released a video suggesting Chuck E. Cheese’s recycles slices. The basis for his video is a long-standing rumor that the children’s arcade chain cobbles together pizzas using uneaten pieces that customers have left behind at their tables.
In the video, Dawson launches an investigation into the claims, which mostly consists of him looking at pictures of Chuck E. Cheese’s pizzas, and then ordering one himself to ogle at the misaligned crust. It’s hardly thorough, and Dawson includes the disclaimer that he’s only presenting a “theory.” The video has garnered close to 16 million views as of Wednesday night, and multitudes of Twitter users have been calling on the chain to admit to the unsanitary practice.
“The claims made in this video about Chuck E. Cheese’s and our pizza are unequivocally false,” the company said in a statement on Tuesday. “No conspiracies here—our pizzas are made to order and we prepare our dough fresh in restaurant, which means that they’re not always perfectly uniform in shape, but always delicious.”
Unlike the Pizzagate conspiracy—which eventually motivated a man to shoot up a pizza parlor that he believed was harboring a child trafficking ring run by elite Democrats—Dawson’s rumor seems relatively harmless. But its virality shows how Dawson, one of the first YouTube stars to gain mainstream recognition, has of late been venturing into more treacherous territory.
Over the years, Dawson has attracted criticism for offensive humor, but it mostly hasn’t hurt his popularity. He’s far from a fringe figure. His channel currently has more than 20.6 million subscribers, and he’s also written memoirs, hosted podcasts, and made a feature-length film. His latest turn has him testing the bounds of YouTube’s stance against conspiracy content. In recent videos, he’s promoted unfounded claims that the recent wildfires in California were the result of arson and that iPhones are surreptitiously recording their users.
Dawson began making sketch comedy videos as a teenager in 2008, while he was an employee at Jenny Craig. He was fired from the company for filming raunchy content at his workplace, but his videos soon started amassing tens of thousands of views. YouTube asked him to join its fledgling partnership program, which connects channels to premium advertisers, and he embarked on a new career as a creator in Hollywood.
Dawson’s early videos featured him portraying an assortment of oddball characters who all interacted with each other, à la Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor. In other videos, he parodied celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. His sketch content is usually frenetic and irreverent—a chaotic in-your-face approach to comedy that gained popularity on YouTube in the early 2000s with other creators like Smosh and Filthy Frank.
Dawson also gained plaudits for producing vlogs detailing his experiences with depression and suicidal thoughts. He is also openly bisexual and has discussed his struggles with coming to terms with his sexuality. In 2014, Dawson directed a feature-length film entitled Not Cool, a coming-of-age comedy that won him a $250,000 prize from Starz’s reality TV competition The Chair. The film got a theatrical release, but it was generally panned by critics. Dawson wrote a memoir called I Hate Myselfie in 2015, and another called It Gets Worse in 2016, both of which landed on the New York Times’ best-seller list.
Dawson’s success has come with bouts of controversy, including accusations of racism. During a 2012 performance at VidCon, an online video convention, he invited young girls onstage to act “ghetto” and made jokes about chicken and “booty dances,” which earned him censure. One of his most popular personas was Shanaynay, a cartoonish white woman who exhibits stereotypically black mannerisms and appeared in shorts like “Ghetto Drive-Thru From Hell.” Black vloggers again condemned Dawson in 2014 for donning blackface in various sketches. He initially mocked his critics, but then apologized and took down the blackface videos.
In recent years, Dawson has moved away from sketch comedy and begun producing more documentary-style content. He filmed a series in 2017 in which he confronted and reconnected with his father, who had been an alcoholic and abusive in his childhood. Last year, Dawson released a three-part documentary looking back on TanaCon, a disastrous YouTuber conference that fell apart because of overcrowding, scheduling mishaps, and inadequate security measures. The series was well-received, drawing comparisons to Wild Wild Country and Making a Murderer. He also produced a documentary exploring whether controversial YouTube star Jake Paul is in fact a sociopath.
But Dawson’s documentaries are becoming less and less grounded in fact. Dawson has in the past created list videos and vlogs discussing conspiracy theories surrounding the 2017 Las Vegas shooting and Tupac’s death, but they’ve never seemed to be the core of his channel. In the past week, he released two 90-minute videos investigating popular urban myths and rumors, often with a credulous eye, in what he calls his “Conspiracy Series.” In his first video, Dawson visits areas in California affected by wildfires in 2018 and presents the possibility that they were sparked by direct energy weapons or insurance schemes. In the second, he examines Chuck E. Cheese’s pizzas and talks with an old YouTube acquaintance who says she almost became the victim of human trafficking.
He has also demonstrated an affinity for subversive figures. When Infowars conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson tweeted about a “Conspiracy Series” video, Dawson responded, “i’ve never made money on my conspiracy videos and i’ve had some removed. it’s the risk of being into this dark shit i guess! love ur stuff btw!!” He also twice hosted far-right YouTuber Blaire White on his Shane and Friends podcast.
It’s unclear what’s propelling Dawson to flirt with the fringes. Motherboard recently suggested that YouTube’s incentive structure often encourages creators to produce inflammatory and conspiratorial content, which seems to be a particularly effective driver of views and engagement on the platform, noting that two of Dawson’s top 10 videos are titled “MIND BLOWING CONSPIRACY THEORIES.”
Dawson has largely been able to skirt YouTube’s recent efforts to demonetize and suppress conspiracy content by framing his claims as theories rather than foregone conclusions. It remains to be seen if he’ll continue to toe the line or if YouTube will decide that maybe pizza rumors can be dangerous after all.