“I can catch the moon in my hands. Don’t you know who I am?” – Irene Cara
Life must be hard for the monkey who sniffed his finger. He didn’t know he was on camera. Didn’t know, when he happened to have an itch on his butt, he’d become the latest internet video sensation. Didn’t know that curiosity killed not just the cat, but his privacy. When he raised that finger to his nose, his backward tumble represented the fall of common decency, the decline of civilization and the subsequent dawning of the age of internet video fame. Poor monkey. Poor world.
But not everyone in stardom’s path is as innocent, perhaps victimized, as the monkey with a finger in his butt. Some of fame’s victims actually want what’s coming to them. Some of them are trying to get famous on the internet.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be well known,” says Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw. Late last year, following a breakup, Croshaw vented his ire on the internet, posting a scathing video review of Fable on YouTube. To date, over 500,000 people have viewed that video, including employees of this publication, who subsequently hired him and developed his ramblings into Zero Punctuation, now one of the most popular videogame reviews on the internet.
A game designer working for a major company told me earlier this year that he hates negative reviews, but loves Zero Punctuation. He said a negative review on Zero Punctuation means more than a positive review anywhere else. You can’t beat getting mentioned by the most popular guy on the internet, even if he’s cutting your balls off. That’s fame.
“Since I long ago decided that I hated kids and never wanted to have them, my reproductive instinct has transferred to my creativity,” says Croshaw. “I’ve always wanted to create works that will ensure I’m remembered after I die. I don’t think I’ve done that yet, though.”
That last part may not be entirely true. In addition to the reviews on Zero Punctuation, – which are viewed, on average, by about 1.5 million people – Croshaw also makes his own games, writes a monthly column at PC Gamer and has started doing contract work, theoretically a launching pad to making his own major-label games. “Which is handy,” says Croshaw, “because that’s really what I want to do with my life.” All of which would never have happened without achieving fame on YouTube.
YouTube is rapidly becoming the fame engine du jour for aspiring creative talent. Whereas, in a bygone era, a ticket to stardom might have literally been a ticket, by bus, train or airplane, to Hollywood, California, USA, the home of all things fame-related, the internet – and YouTube – have made fame a part of the global economy. Croshaw is the perfect example; he’s not even from America, and lives a world away, in Australia.
On YouTube, you don’t have to live in L.A., don’t have to take a turn on the casting couch; you just have to have talent. Instead of a television executive deciding your fate, it’s the entire world. Never before has the line between what the audience wants and what they get been so direct. Want to see a monkey sniff his butt? It’s out there – you just have to find it. Want to know how many people enjoy watching a monkey sniff his butt? That’s out there, too. Just read the numbers. Predicting a hit used to involve wizardry and guesswork. Now it’s simply point and click.
“I think [YouTube] is neither a replacement [for Hollywood] nor a stepping stool,” says Sandeep Parikh, currently famous for his appearances in The Guild, the World of Warcraft parody series, in which he plays the guild’s gnome Warlock who’s obsessed with the series’ star, and The Legend of Neil, a parody of The Legend of Zelda. “It’s going to be a whole new organism. TV will definitely be connected to the net seamlessly and will become another node, but a powerful node because it’s big and sits in your living room. I also think your refrigerator will be connected to the net and possibly your toaster.”
Parikh, a Los Angeles-based actor, writer and filmmaker, has seen both sides of the coin. His IMDb entry contains exactly two credits, one as co-writer of “Pretty Dead Things,” a political horror film released in 2006 (which promptly vanished after release), and another as an actor in The Guild. In the bizarre dichotomy that is fame vs. internet fame, the one Hollywood credit – being listed as a screenwriter for a film – will make people outside of Hollywood sit up and take notice, while the other is for something people have actually seen. Which, in turn, makes Hollywood sit up and take notice.
“I don’t want to be stopped on the street and asked ‘Hey, weren’t you that guy in that thing?'” says Parikh. “I’d rather it be ‘Oh, you wrote or directed that thing, that’s awesome!’ It’s like some kind of concealed weapon you can whip it out when it services you. (That sounds creepy.)”
Parikh says the amount of attention he’s received for The Legend of Neil took him by surprise, but considering his motivation, was perhaps inevitable. He says he saw a lot of Zelda parodies on YouTube and decided he could do better. He was right. The Legend of Neil was viewed by a quarter of a million people. The wild popularity of The Guild, as well, was also something of a surprise.
“I knew it would be popular,” he says, “but I didn’t quite understand the scope of how many nerds are out there playing WoW and other MMORPGs. The gaming community is so powerful online. It’s pretty amazing what happens when you give them quality content that they can relate to.”
Something Croshaw understands intimately. “I always pictured myself becoming a bestselling novelist,” he says. “In retrospect that might have been a little naïve, but I definitely didn’t expect to become famous from doing what I’m doing now, I tell ye that.”
The downside of being internet famous, according to Croshaw, is the fan mail. “Especially on review days, I’ll have to slog through something like 20-30 [emails] when I get up. I know they’re just being nice, and it’s flattering to know they like my stuff; I just wish they could like it with a bit less verbosity.”
But how famous is internet famous exactly? Hollywood celebrities cry their own rivers over the trials and tribulations of leading a life of notoriety. From paparazzi car chases to the difficulty of finishing a meal in peace, some go so far as to say they regret ever having become famous. Rocker and former husband of Pamela Anderson (with whom he recorded an infamous sex tape) Tommy Lee even wrote a book about it, complaining that those of us who aren’t famous will never understand what it’s like for those who are. Perhaps.
So how does internet fame stack up? While not famous for the size of his wang like Lee, Croshaw did have his moments of celebriphobia at this year’s GDC, where even a short trip down the hall inevitably resulted in more than a few handshakes and requests for autographs. One woman had been clandestinely following him around all week, finally accosting him on his way to the airport to show him her sketchbook. He had a beguiling manner about him, she said, showing him how she’d captured the jaunty tilt of his hat with pencil and ink. The experience was jarring.
According to Croshaw, that kind of treatment is rare, limited mainly to “games industry events … and once in an EB Games. Since my voice is more famous than my face it usually takes a minute or two to sink in, but when it does I’ll generally have some hands to shake.”
Everywhere else, he says, he’s just as anonymous as you or me. “[That’s] the nature of being internet famous, I suppose. I’m glad I don’t have to go around in a baseball cap and sunglasses like proper famous people, but at the same time, I’m recognized by industry people so reliably that when I meet ones who don’t know who I am there’s a tendency to feel a bit put out, if only because it’s a defiance of trend.”
Parikh looks forward to his first taste of recognition. “I suppose the first few times will be cool and then not so much. It’s pretty fun when you’re at a screening or a festival and people recognize you. But it’s never happened at a random bar or restaurant or anything. … I guess I’m not that net famous yet.” Yet. His success with The Guild and The Legend of Neil has already translated into notoriety for his stand-up comedy website, effinfunny.com, and The Legend of Neil is currently in development with Comedy Central.
I asked both men if they’d go back to being not internet famous if given the chance. Both replied “no,” without hesitation. And only Croshaw suggested he might someday want something different.
“It’s fun to do,” says Croshaw, referring to making funny videos on the internet, “but it’s seriously not something I intend to have as the only thing to show for myself at the end of my life. … I still haven’t written a bestselling novel, so there’s that. I suppose the only way I’m going to achieve that is to actually sit down and focus on an idea long enough to complete it, which at this point seems unlikely. Maybe I’ll wait ’till I’m older and more patient.”