The Host of Buzzfeed's Unsolved Still Have Thoughts About the Zodiac Killer
Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej may have ended their hit Buzzfeed series, but they still have a few thoughts about everything from the online true crime fans, aliens, and of course The Zodiac
It was 2016 Ryan Bergara released the first video of what would become the wildly popular Buzzfeed true crime series Unsolved, where he alongside fellow Buzzfeeder Brent Bennet analyzed old cold cases. Not long after, Brent left and Shane Madej came along for the ride, and soon the duo soon amassed a huge and loyal fanbase with their deft use of witty banter to make the subject of murder and other heinous crimes easier to digest.
Five years and dozens of unsolved cases and spooky adventures later, however, the guys are ready to move on from their hit series wrapping with the last season of their spin-off supernatural series. I recently spoke with Ryan and Shane about ending their series, how their show stood out from the boom of true-crime-related content that came out within the past decade, and their thoughts on the reveal of the Zodiac Killer.
Tell me how you came up with the idea for a true-crime show. What did you want your show to do that other shows weren't doing at the time?
Ryan: The impetus of this show really starts with my relationship with the previous host Brent Bennett. We used to carpool to work for an hour's drive. And on the way, we would talk about true crime, and every now and then we would talk about the supernatural. Eventually I just kind of got the idea to record those conversations and see if I could do anything with those conversations because I realized that the way we were talking about true crime was not how true crime is presented in popular media. Everything is very -- and for good reason – serious. But there are aspects to true crime cases -- like the obvious and gross negligence of the investigating authorities, and some of just the wacky twists and turn that do have a lighter and more humorous aspect to them
What happened to the original host Brent Bennett and how did Shane aboard?
Ryan: Nothing happened to us personally. We're still friends. Wasn't like some behind the scenes blow up or something like that. He legitimately did the show to humor me. He never really had an interest in the show. He didn't want to be in the show. He didn't enjoy the topic of true crime. I was always just someone who kind of dragged him into it and that showed on camera. And that was why people liked him because he didn't want to be there. He didn't believe in all the theorizing and things like that. And eventually, that lack of interest kind of just led him to leave the show because he sat me down one day – I think we were about nine episodes into the first season – the show at that point was pretty popular and he kinda sat me down and talked to me and told me that, “I never thought this show would get to this point. I never thought that people would actually care… I gotta let you know that I'm not going to do this anymore because I genuinely don't enjoy talking about true crime and all, all these like horrible, horrible things and things that scare me.”
So after I had that conversation with Brent, ten minutes later, I walked downstairs [and] I sat next to Shane at Buzzfeed and I told him “Hey, Brent, just quit the show. I'm looking for a new host because we got to keep shooting. We have another episode coming up next week, so I need a new host and I'd like it to be you because you and I already have a natural rapport. We've shot things before. Is this something that you see yourself doing for a while because I don't know how successful the show will continue to be, but it might get bigger. And if it does, I can't have another host bailing on me so I need to know you're in it for the long haul? And I said this before but Shane very nonchalantly looked at his Google calendar, saw that he didn't have anything on the calendar for the next month. It was like, yeah, it looks like I'm pretty clear. And then seven days later, we shot the episode.
Shane: My memory of it is very foggy, but I do remember it did not feel like a decision of consequence at the time, which was interesting because it then became my entire job.
Ryan: Did you ever think that we would be here almost six years later doing the thing that I asked you if you would like to do that?
Shane: No but I’m thrilled because I've talked about this before, but one of my favorite things working at Buzzfeed was being told to do something because I have a lot of little creative ideas, but I don't know that they're always fit the criteria of Buzzfeed’s trendy, clickable videos.
How did the show evolve over time?
Ryan: [At the beginning] I always described it as like, oh...this for me is kind of like a video podcast. Because I wanted it to be kind of an experience where you didn't have to look at the screen. That's why we didn't need to have a camera in the first episode or the first two episodes. We kind of settled for goofy graphics on screen, because I always wanted the graphics to look like a mad man was making them. In fact, a mad man was making them because it kind of just played into the aesthetic of the show that here's two people they're talking in, you're in their mother's basement. And you know, there's two dorks, that don’t know what the hell they're talking about.
How did you all pick and research the stories you would cover?
Ryan: In terms of picking the cases, in the earlier seasons, that was basically just like, I had a list of the cases we're going to cover this season. Just because I thought they either had an interesting twist to them, or they were a case that I always wanted to kind of dig deeper into or see solved. And so that kind of carried us through the first couple of seasons cause I had enough of an interest in this arena that I already had somewhat of a bucket list. But as time went on, we started to have meetings and brainstorms where we would talk with the entire creative team. And we would just talk and present cases that we thought were interesting.
In terms of researching also in the early days, that was also exclusively me. So some of those earlier episodes weren't exactly the most factually accurate or, thoroughly researched. In the beginning, it played into the charm of the show. I was just a dude trying his best. As time went on, Buzzfeed did have a research staff that they put around me to mostly pick the topic and give us these amazing documents that were like eight pages, ten pages long about all the just the facts about the case.
Shane: I think we also -- and I don't know how conscious this was to Ryan -- but I mean, we always tended to do, outside of a few more sensational topics, we always tend to just stick with stories that were pretty old. That you didn't get a lot that was like, sort of in the last half of the last century, it was a lot of like very old cold cases. Which, I mean, not that it makes anyone's death less tragic, but I think with time between it's a little, it feels a little more okay. To sort of poke holes in the cases. We just never were all that interested in newer cases because it still feels really fresh.
To shift gears a bit: I don’t know if you’ve been following the Gabby Petito case and all the news surrounding it. However after the news of her disappearance and the news of her death hit the internet, a conversation started happening about the ethics of the online true crime community after there seemed to be this perverse giddiness about the ever unraveling details of the case. During the run of the show, did yall set any boundaries on the way you would cover stories or ever felt like there were times when you might be crossing the line?
Ryan: Oh yeah, absolutely. We had boundaries set. Just like Shane had mentioned before, we really never liked to cover cases that were too recent. Just because it didn't feel good for us. And I imagine it didn’t feel good for anyone involved. When we covered older cases, time passes, and the mystery kind of prevails and it becomes more of a thing of just really wanting to know what the hell happened all the way back then.
So that's why I, for the most part, would say the majority of our cases are in that earlier half of the century. In terms of just boundaries, when we're even talking about the case, we always made our best effort to never make light of the victims in the case and more so to kind of make light of the circumstances that surrounded the case, whether that be, for instance, someone throwing out the bones of the victim.
Have you had to deal with any situation of fans of the show not being respectful of you guys' boundaries or anything along those lines?
Ryan: I have to say that we are incredibly lucky when it comes to our fan base. I would say that 99.9% of the people I've ever interacted with that are fans of the show, whether it be online or in-person have been some of the most lovely, kind, compassionate, normal people. I feel very fortunate about that because I know that other comments sections on other places of the internet are a wasteland. So I haven't really had to figure out a way to deal with that just because it's always been very easy. In my experience, at least I imagine it's the same for Shane unless Shane’s been getting death threats on the reg’.
Shane: Uh, no. No death threats here so far, so that's good.
Ryan: Except from me
Shane: Yeah except from Ryan
So much of the popularity of the show came from your guys’ dynamic of Shane being the cynic and Ryan being the believer. What is one thing you’re cynical about Ryan that people might be surprised about and Shane what is something that you believe that people might be surprised about?
Ryan: Shane seems to be not as cynical about the one that comes to [my] mind. The Loch Ness Monster. I don't see it, because they’ve done so many things to that lake in terms of like sonar and whatnot that I can’t imagine Nessie having some sort of sonar eluding skin
Shane: When it comes to the cryptids like that, I'm not like a stone-cold believer so much as I think I give them grace in terms of, yes, there's a possibility. It's something biological like this could exist because it plays by the rules of reality. So it's not outside of the realm of things that are capable of existing. But I'm not like out here being like “BIGFOOT LIVES!”
Ryan, you're more of an alien believer than I am. I do believe alien exists but my definition of them is probably more boring.
Ryan: Yeah you think they’re like seventeen bacteria or something like that
Why end your show now? What would you have done differently?
Ryan: I decided to end the show now because it just felt, and I know this sounds like a cliche, but, um, it just felt like the right time. I didn't feel like there was anything left for us to say in that particular. No, I feel like if it would have continued. The show would have inevitable, fully gone in stale or, um, you know, people would have stopped caring or we would have stopped Terry and I didn't want any of those three things to happen.
So I just felt like why not end it in a, in a really good place and be able to go out on our own terms and actually have the ability to say a proper goodbye to the audience and also give a proper goodbye. To ourselves, you know, proper closure, um, to be kind of in control of that was very appealing to me.
Shane: I don't know if there's anything we would have done differently. I always would've loved to do more international travel, but obviously, that's very expensive and there's plenty of old haunted houses in America. So, you know, we had a lot to cover here, stateside.
What do you guys have coming up in the future?
Ryan: We got some things brewing. We have Watcher, of course, that's our production company and we're making a lot of fun shows over there. Namely Puppet History, which is Shane's baby. Lots of cool things happen on that show.
And then other than that, we got some fun stuff on the outside brewing. Some more hosting stuff, more acting stuff, stuff, lot of fun things planned, but you know, still things in the paranormal and spooky.
One last note, how did you react to the news of police allegedly finally uncovering who the Zodiac Killer was?
Ryan: I don't think it's solved. That's the short version of that. Yes, the case is compelling that they've put together for it to be him, but there's nothing that goes beyond circumstantial. In my opinion, it's just as strong a case as people have built for other, you know, other suspects, including some of the cases I know for some of the other suspects and this, is not me trying to be like, they don't know what they're talking about. I just don't see. A world where if that guy was still alive, he's going to jail. It's just not going to happen. Like, I don't think it can happen. But, you know, what do I know I'm wearing a Mothman t-shirt right now
Shane: I think we should all be content to just let it be a mystery
I joked on Twitter that he would’ve loved y’alls episode on him
Ryan: I actually thought about that recently. I literally just talked to my fiance about this last night. I told her, you know, they caught the Zodiac Killer and it occurred to me that that guy, if that in fact, was the Zodiac killer might have watched our episode about The Zodiac. And I wonder if there was ever a thought that crossed his mind, where he sought out retribution against me for making jokes about it. In that moment for about five minutes, my brain exploded. When we went to sleep that night, I locked every door in our house extra tight and I locked our bedroom door, which has a lock on it we never used. And then I just thought like if someone were to break in and they find another lock on our bedroom door, it's like, ah, I guess they’ll live.
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