Audience enthusiasm for the Green brothers is typically measured in six-digit YouTube views.
High-decibel laughter and applause were a better gauge on Friday at the University of Montana, where Hank and John Green quickly switched between comedic banter, humorous science talk, frank discussions of mental illness, and amusing songs about science.
"We've never actually played Missoula before, in all the years that Hank's lived here and all the years that we've been making stuff," John said to a crowd of 420 in the Urey Underground Lecture Hall.
The Vlogbrothers were here on tour to promote "Turtles All the Way Down," John's novel released earlier this month. It's his eagerly anticipated follow-up to "The Fault in Our Stars," a 2014 young adult novel about adolescence, love, illness, death and dying. Calling it a best-seller seems an understatement —there are more than 23 million copies in print, according to the New York Times.
“Turtles" follows a 16-year-old named Aza and her friend Daisy investigating a fugitive billionaire on the run. All the while Aza is struggling with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, with which John has dealt his entire life.
He opened the evening by reading an excerpt, and explained how he wanted to write a detective story in which the protagonist’s disorder is “distinctly unhelpful, someone who isn't Sherlock Holmes" even if they are Holmes-like.
In the book, he writes that the thought spirals are like "invasive weeds or something, these thoughts seem to come to my biosphere from some faraway land, and then they spread out of control."
While noting that his own life is much different than Aza's, he said he had a childhood marked by "obsessive worry.” He was constantly panicked that he had been poisoned. To cope, he could only eat certain foods at certain times, or sit in certain seats in the cafeteria. Nor was he able to express it to others.
"It felt like I was trapped in a prison cell the exact size and shape of my body," he said, that he was “a passenger in my own consciousness. If I can't stop thinking these thoughts I don't want to have, then whose thoughts are they exactly? Who's the captain of this ship I call myself?" he said.
Aza must cope with that "fracturing" and overcome it in order to "imagine the lives of other people with compassion and some semblance of real understanding, which I think in the end is the actual key to solving any mystery, and also a challenge for each of us," he said.
After John's introductory reading, Hank took the stage in a furry suit, identifying himself as Dr. Lawrence Turtleman, and went into a science bit on phylogeny and taxonomy. Then the two answered written questions from the audience and recorded a podcast live on stage.
Their banter is rapid in a way that seems only possible if it's between trained actors or siblings. They joked about Hank's love of peanut M&Ms and "Attack of the Clones" and John discussed the importance of reading both deeply and broadly. He compared the relationship between readers and writers to a sustained dialogue, quiet but not alone, that can't be replaced by the internet. He also encouraged young writers to "give themself permission to suck" so that they don't discourage themselves with high expectations early on.
Whether serious or completely ridiculous, the crowd loved the free-form, two-hour show.
One testament of the fan commitment came in the form of Bri and Dwight Camillucci, a married couple who drove seven hours from Logan, Utah. They said they had to drive back after the performance was over to work in the morning. They’re originally from Kalispell, so this was the closest stop on the Green Tour.
They’ve loved the Greens’ videos since they first started making them. Dwight said the “CrashCourse” videos were the sole reason he passed chemistry in college. Bri, who said “Turtles” contains John’s best writing so far, loves the way they convey their personalities to their fan base through their work.
In another Q&A section, John discussed depending on others as an adult with mental illness. He said it's something of a "romantic lie" that people can live completely independent of others. He thinks it's important to remember that people are grateful to help.
"It's not merely a matter of obligation and burden, but love is also an opportunity," he said.
Toward the end, Hank returned to the stage with his acoustic guitar. In a nod to Woody Guthrie, he'd inscribed it with the phrase, "This machine pwns noobs." He sang a song about the deep sea anglerfish — the males of the species are "sperm-producing parasites" on the females.
His other tune was about how weird the principles of the universe are."I'm kind of freaking out," he sang. "What is this all about?" The fans, who dub themselves "nerdfighters," loved this — even the existential songs have science and humor.