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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.
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.”
He strapped on Virtual Boy goggles and a Nintendo power glove and danced with the girls, fannypack flopping. He busted out the no-bones and the sick cat. He threw in a backflip for good measure. “No one expected me to be able to dance,” he says now. “All these professional dancers were like, 'Holy crap, what's happening?' “
Barnatt pulls up the video on his iPad. His brother, a frequent collaborator and cameraman, filmed the scene on the sly. “The casting director asked if I had dance training,” Barnatt says. “So I started listing video games from the '90s that were dance-related.”
By the end, girls were cheering. Guys were pouting.
“He was messing everybody up,” one male dancer complains on the video. “He was distracting everyone.”
Distracting doesn't begin to cover it. Barnatt has rolled down entire staircases. He has dangled over escalators. He has jumped (head first) into trashcans and stumbled over shopping carts. He has fallen off roofs, fallen off bounce houses and fallen off roofs onto bounce houses. Fellow comedian Matthew Jay described these maneuvers as “some of the bravest (and possibly stupidest) physical comedy I've ever seen someone do.” Most of it has been captured on video.
A few years ago, the organizers of ScrewAttack Gaming Convention invited Keith to speak at a panel [Editor's note: This sentence was corrected July 2. See note at the end of the story]. Instead, Keith got kids in the audience to toss him up and down on a tablecloth. They tossed him so high he almost touched the ceiling. He led them on a conga line through the hotel up to the roof and jumped into the pool. Sopping wet, they marched through the kitchen, past the stunned employees, grabbing pots and pans and banging on them.
Downstairs, he climbed atop a grand piano; kids pushed him around on it. Keith picked up the “babes” sitting in the lobby. By babes, he means the middle-aged moms who'd brought their kids to the convention. And by picked up, he means literally picked them up and carried them around.
“They were in some couch section of the hotel,” he recalls. “And I'd go in, and be like, OK, I'll just take you to my room now.” When that failed, he and a kid squeezed into a hallway cabinet and whispered in the dark.
“It's kind of like a panel, but it's more like a crazy party,” Barnatt says. “I don't want to just sit there and answer questions for an hour. That's boring.”
His antics are silly, but they're also hard work. At conventions, which he is often paid to attend, Barnatt barely sleeps. He stays in character for 48 hours straight.
Making videos is a compulsion. “If I think of something, I just do it,” Barnatt says. On a flight back from Paris, he filmed himself dancing in the aisle, bumping passengers with his elbows. “It never ends!” he says, holding his head in his hands. “It's like, I'm on the plane, I'm going home. Nope. I have to have an idea. It's such a pain in the neck. I have to do it, or else I'll be kicking myself later.” He edits the videos on a computer in his bedroom for hours at a time, growing more and more impatient for the final product.
Filming began for Barnatt in the eighth grade and hasn't stopped since. His was a happy, imaginative childhood. Raised by a carpenter dad and a secretary mom, he was between two brothers who have since gone on to become a writer and a photographer. The Barnatt boys spent their youth shooting videos with rented equipment. They'd air their creations on local cable access in their hometown of Milford, Mass.
Asked what her son was like as a kid, Mary Ellen Barnatt laughs for a bit, then says: “Smaller.”
Nathan lacked “the embarrassment button,” she continues. “We had to hold him back a little. Because some things are not legal. You can't keep pulling your pants down.”
When Barnatt turned 20, he went to acting school and was cast as the village idiot in a play. But he dropped out after one semester when he started getting commercial work. Why am I paying to learn acting, he figured, when I'm already getting paid to do acting?
He dug graves to pay the bills. A friend's dad hired Barnatt to cut grass … at a cemetery: “Yeah, he didn't mention the grave-digging thing right away.” In between cutting grass and burying people, Barnatt would make up character sketches. He'd film videos in the graveyard after work. His boss never knew.
“I was in a lot of people's graves before they were,” he says, in an uncharacteristically melancholy way. For two years he dug graves, saving his cemetery money to move to California.
He moved to Los Angeles six years ago, right around the time YouTube launched, and immediately started loading videos onto the Internet. Suddenly, the short sketches Barnatt had been filming since he was a kid had found their perfect medium.
Barnatt embodies the maxim that “it's easier to apologize than to ask for permission.” Security guards rushed over when he filmed himself breakdancing in front of the Louvre. “They were like, 'You need to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for this shot!' ” he recalls in an awful French accent. He kept dancing as if he didn't understand them.
He's been kicked out of San Diego Comic-Con. Twice. Once in 2009 for crashing a panel featuring Peter Jackson and James Cameron (he jumped onstage with a toy gun; “Crazed fan attacks Peter Jackson,” cinema blogs wrote). Again in 2010 for climbing up the façade of the Convention Center onto the glass roof and sliding down.
Last year, he got kicked out of his own panel at Boston's Penny Arcade Expo, the U.S.' largest consumer video game convention. In character as Keith, he did backflips off the stage. “One of the security guards was telling me not to,” he says. “But that's Keith's thing. He gets really energetic.”
Fans booed the security guard. The guard called the cops. The audience, in one blogger's words, proceeded “to lose their shit.”
After that debacle, Penny Arcade Expo show director Robert Khoo made Barnatt sign a contract saying he wouldn't break anything or be a nuisance. Or, if he absolutely had to, could he please keep it to his own panel?
Barnatt signed, then promptly went next door to his friend's panel and pulled his pants down. Khoo kicked him out.
He's been kicked out of every convention he's been to except for one, in Canada. (He came close, moving all the furniture from his hotel room to the parking lot and then covering himself in maple syrup.)
Airport security guards find him particularly vexing. “Hey, do you want to shoot something for me?” Barnatt asked the intern who picked him up for a convention in Dallas.
“I'd love to,” the kid said.
Barnatt clambered up the baggage claim conveyor belt and started tossing bags around, much to the consternation of TSA officers. (Strangely, he's never actually been arrested.)
At Los Angeles International Airport, he climbed onto a baggage claim carousel again. “Why did you go up there?” the police demanded.
“I went up there because I wanted to see what it was like,” said Barnatt in Keith's nasally drone. “I played a game on a Sega Helio, and it was very similar to this device.”
Searching his bags, the cops turned up nothing but video games. They scrutinized his photo ID. “But all my licenses have crazy faces,” he says proudly. The Barnatt brothers have a long-standing contest trying to outdo each other by making goofy faces in ID pictures.
“I've been in handcuffs and I've been in zip ties and I don't break character until they say, just get out of here,” he says. “It always happens. But I figure if I get stopped by the cops for doing something, it's gonna be a good video.”
Good video is the reason that, for every authority figure who hates Barnatt, there are a dozen underdogs or rebels or geeks or artists who love him. Within a day of upload, his Yelle dance video got 50,000 hits. Within a week, half a million hits. Yelle loved it so much they made him their official remix guy. Now, every time they remix a song, they send it to him to make a video. Recently, he flew to London and Paris to shoot a second video. When Yelle performed in Los Angeles last year, he danced onstage with them in a safari outfit.
Kimberly Cole loved Barnatt's dancing as well. Her entire video is being rewritten to feature Barnatt as Keith, crashing the taping of Cole's video. The film crew tries to pull him out, but he cleverly finds a way back in. He starts dancing. Then everyone starts dancing, but goofy like Keith — essentially, what happened in real life.
Watch Cole's new video, starring Keith Apicary:
Rap artist Flo Rida also wants Keith to be in a music video. “Really? You want me?” Barnatt said when they called. “Are you sure about that?” He is not quite sure who Flo Rida is, but the idea of Keith, goofy white guy, dancing amidst rappers tickles him.
“It's weird to think this is all from shooting dumb videos,” he says now, tapping his feet absently. He's wearing fuzzy monster slippers. One monster foot bobs rapidly as he thinks.
As a member of YouTube's partner program, Barnatt makes money from his videos in exchange for letting YouTube run ads on them. (See “Game the System,” by Tessa Stuart.) His YouTube videos have racked up more than 30 million total views. For each 3 million views, he gets about $3,000. In the past year, he made $70,000 from his “dumb” videos.
“I could definitely live off just my YouTube,” he says. “It's kinda absurd what I'm making.”
For years, he'd been shooting these videos for free. “Now there are checks that just keep showing up.”
Barnatt began inventing characters during that time when pretty much everyone seems schizophrenic: high school. The early characters were vague — random weird guys who spoke in a fey voice while walking around the mall. “There were no jokes; there was no nothing,” he remembers. “It was just me rambling.”
Then came Merle. Merle was Barnatt's first real character, a homeless man who does stand-up comedy. Merle made people uncomfortable. “I wanted people to think a homeless man had stumbled in off the street for an open-mic stand-up night,” Barnatt explains.
Barnatt still does Merle occasionally at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. Merle lies on stage, immobile, for four minutes. “At the end he gets up to finish the joke, 'And then she said–' and then they cut the lights on me,” Barnatt says. “The joke is that he wasted all of his time. So the audience is totally ripped off!”
Barnatt, who is a member of Upright Citizens Brigade, regularly tries out material there. The jokes that get laughs, he throws into a video.
The devotion to craft that serves Barnatt so well in his professional life has been problematic for certain aspects of his personal life. Girls, namely. Girls are tough.
Not long ago, he saw a cute girl with blond pixie hair at a restaurant and asked his waiter to deliver a note to her with his phone number. The girl called him, and he cast her in one of his videos. But the minute filming wrapped, the romance waned. Barnatt believes himself to be “the worst boyfriend.” He can't even really say the word “dating.” He prefers “hanging out.” As in, “I'd rather be filming than hanging out with someone.”
He sighs. “I just wanna be making something all the time. It kinda stinks for someone I am hanging out with, because I don't give them much attention.”
That is, if they make it past his bedroom. Upon seeing his Star Wars sheets, one girl bluntly asked him when he was going to grow up. “And that was when I had an even taller bunk bed with a rope swing attached to it,” Barnatt adds.
Keith, on the other hand, has quite a few female fans. Perhaps they are being ironic, or sarcastic, Barnatt speculates. Perhaps they are drawn to Keith's geek bravado. They send him drawings and refrigerator magnets and love notes.
It can be hard to tell where Barnatt ends and Keith begins. Keith is an exaggerated version of Barnatt. Barnatt, like Keith, considers himself to be “a cheerleader for nerds.” Keith just cheers louder.
Barnatt doesn't like to admit that Keith isn't actually real. “I don't want them to see Nathan,” he says. “Because Nathan is like … a different person. I feel like Nathan is the no one who becomes all these other people.”
His whole life, Barnatt has been pushing for bigger things — bigger stunts, bigger crowds, bigger laughs. For someone with this kind of ambition, the worst response is no response at all. “Maybe they didn't want to give me the satisfaction,” he says frowning, of one stunt that fell flat. “Whatever.”
At the moment, he is waiting for a response from executives at the Adult Swim network, to whom he has pitched a TV show based on Keith. In it, Barnatt plays Keith. Barnatt's real-life older brother, Josh, plays Keith's brother. There is a dorky friend who lives in a van, who is based on (but not played by) Barnatt's dorky younger brother, Seth, who currently lives in a van.
In real life, said van sits in the driveway outside the duo's apartment, pissing off the neighbors. It has no toilet, so Seth pees into an empty two-gallon plastic jug. A couple mornings a week, Seth torments Barnatt by emptying the urine jug into the tub while Barnatt is brushing his teeth. “Special delivery!” Seth cries.
A few weeks later, Barnatt is at Disneyland, on the rope bridge at Tarzan's Treehouse, when the call comes in from Adult Swim. “Is that a yes?” he asks. “Can I tell my mom?”
At that same moment, three teenage girls who'd been eyeing him make their move. “Oh my God!” they say, “Are you Trale Lewous?”
Delighted, Barnatt yanks off his hat, exposing his bald head. The girls start screaming.
The pilot for his Adult Swim series, Youth Large, begins shooting soon. Someday, perhaps the Barnatt brothers will be as recognizable an entertainment commodity as the Coen brothers, or the Wachowski brothers. Until then, Barnatt is making good use of his remaining anonymity. He sneaks into spas at fancy hotels in Santa Monica, eats the free fruit and chucks it in the pool. He runs around the hallways playing laser tag.
“I always play,” Barnatt says. “I never got that thought where a lightbulb goes off in your head and you get the desire to do normal things. Like adult things? I guess I do, because I work hard. But my work doesn't feel like work. I feel like I've never actually grown up. I legitimately don't think I can.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly which convention had invited Barnatt to speak. It was the ScrewAttack Gaming Convention, not the Penny Arcade Expo Boston. We regret the error.