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Nathan Barnatt Never Grew Up

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Wed, Jun 27, 2012 at 3:30 PM

click to enlarge Nathan Barnatt - W.B. FONTENOT
  • W.B. Fontenot
  • Nathan Barnatt

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Nathan Barnatt wakes up each morning in Star Wars bedsheets. If the trap door in his bunk bed isn't buried under toys, he pops through that to greet the day. For breakfast, he'll have some candy, then go play video games. Or jump on a trampoline. Or crawl through a cardboard-box tunnel maze he built with his brothers.

There's only one big difference between Barnatt and any other kid on summer vacation: He is 31.

Barnatt is an actor and a maker of online videos. And though he does not consider himself "a YouTube person," per se, at the moment, this 6-foot-tall, lanky, dorky, prematurely balding white guy with soulful eyes and elastic body is one of the most popular people on the Internet.

click to enlarge Barnatt as alter ego Keith Apicary - W.B. FONTENOT
  • W.B. Fontenot
  • Barnatt as alter ego Keith Apicary

A child's sense of limitless wonder coupled with an adult's creative capabilities is a powerful thing. Barnatt, for instance, really liked the song "Que Veux-Tu," by the French band Yelle. The band were already doing a music video for the song, but Barnatt made his own video for it anyway. He filmed himself dancing around his neighborhood -- at the grocery, the pharmacy, a tennis court, in a tree. The locations change, but his position from the camera stays the same.

"I don't really choreograph," he says, perched like a tightly coiled spring on the edge of the sofa in his Santa Monica apartment -- a large, sparse place he shares with his younger brother, Seth. In lieu of a dinner table, they use a vintage, glass-top Space Invaders arcade cabinet. "It's just me going super hard."

His moves include the sick cat -- drop to floor, arch back. The no-bones -- arms flailing at waist, also known as "the amoeba," because "amoebas have no bones." The windmill -- a basic breakdancing move. There are moves resembling butter churning and step aerobics. Barnatt makes them up as he goes along. "I'm pretty wiggly," he says.

To date, more than 1 million people have watched his Yelle video on YouTube, more than four times as many as watched the official Yelle video.

Dance videos are but a small part of his oeuvre. At heart, Barnatt is a character actor, not a dancer. At any given time, he has 10 characters rattling around in his head, among them a self-defense instructor with a wooden peg leg, the world's worst gym teacher and a weirdo infomercial salesman named Trale Lewous.

To say Barnatt fully inhabits these personas would be an understatement. Take Trale Lewous. Barnatt had an idea to make bad infomercials for products that don't need the advertising. He picked the candy Skittles -- he's vegan, and it's one of the few candies he eats.

For two years, he made fake commercials for them, in character as Trale. Trale mispronounces Skittles as "Ski-TELLS." The fake commercials caught on. Soon even people in the Skittles corporate office were pronouncing it Ski-TELLS.

The third year, the company held a contest. Whoever made the best video would receive a Skittles vending machine. It also gave away a couple machines to public figures. Kim Kardashian got one. So did a Jonas brother. Barnatt was incensed. "Two years' worth of free advertising and they're not just going to send me a vending machine? All right," he said. "I'm gonna enter that contest. And I have to win."

He won, and the Skittles vending machine now sits in a corner of his living room.

The company then sent him a boombox covered in Skittles and Barnatt made a boombox video, which got a million views in one week. That's when Skittles made him its spokesman.

Does he even like Skittles? "They're OK." He shrugs. "But how much candy can you eat?"

Nathan as Keith Apicary, auditioning for a Kimberly Cole music video

Barnatt's finest creation is undoubtedly a character named Keith Apicary, video game uber-nerd, enfant terrible of the geek scene. To become Keith, Barnatt dons Coke-bottle eyeglasses, musses his curly brown hair, flattens his voice into a nasal prattle and adds a juicy lisp. He hunches over and walks from the pelvis.

Most recently, as Keith, he crashed auditions for the music video to Kimberly Cole's song "U Make Me Wanna."

"If the female dance is easier, can I choose to do that one?" Keith asked.

"Absolutely," the casting director said.

"OK, cool," Keith said. "I like making my own rules."

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