He has a real name — Caleb Lawrence McGillvary — a disappointingly ordinary name, almost never used by his fans. In such instances, who someone actually is matters less than who we want them to be — whether that someone is Kai or Cleveland hostage rescuer Charles Ramsey or golden-voiced Ted Williams.
At first we laugh, and then something happens. (When we attempt to meme humor, do we end up meming pain?)
What we wanted Kai the Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker to be was a hero. He first appeared in February, when a video from a Fresno TV station was posted online. It featured an itinerant Carrot Top doppelganger, explaining to a reporter how the man he’d been hitching a ride from suddenly began attacking pedestrians.
“[Bleeping] buddy gets out and there’s two women . . . He runs up and he grabs one of them, man. Like a guy that big can snap a woman’s neck like a pencil stick. So I [bleeping] ran up behind him with a hatchet: SMASH. SMASH. SUH-MASH.” Of the incident, he explained, “It was [bleeping] gnarly, man. Holy [bleep]. That was like the biggest wave I’ve ever ridden in my life.”
Here was a man who was prepped for prime time — or, in the modern equivalent, for millions of clicks. Here, in this age of prepackaged fame, when even Honey Boo-Boo’s backwoods kin know how to mug and soundbite for the camera — was a man who oozed a sort of outréauthenticity. Who seemed completely oblivious to his own weirdness, who occasionally emerged from his surfer haze to say something that sounded truly profound: “Even if you make mistakes, you’re lovable and it doesn’t matter, your looks, skills, your age, your size,” he told the reporter, apropos of nothing, in a hang-ten drawl.
Kai had landed at a well-populated intersection on the Internet: the same one occupied by Ted Williams, the homeless man with the “golden voice,” or by Basil Marceaux, the Chauncey Gardner-esque Tennessee political candidate who stumbled into the national spotlight. Or, to a lesser extent, like Antoine Dodson of “Hide your kids” fame, or Charles Ramsey, the man who detailed putting down his Big Mac so he could aid in rescuing Amanda Berry from her decade of captivity: “I knew something was wrong when a pretty little white girl ran into a black man’s arms,” Ramsey told a reporter.
The intersection is occupied by people who live on the periphery of culture — because they are poor, or homeless, or perhaps emotionally damaged — and then become celebrated by society, churned through the fast-paced spin cycle of fame.
“It’s hard not to see a reaction against the polished celebrities the broadcast media have foisted on us for so many years,” says David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “The Internet picks up on the sort of people who’d never been given their own talk show or their own perfume, but who nevertheless have done something worthwhile.”
And so, in the course of the following months, Kai the Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker went through the prescribed ascension to fame: His video went viral on YouTube and Reddit, then on Buzzfeed. His interview was Auto-tuned, to comic effects. He went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” for a cutesy sketch in which the host pretended to pick him up by the side of the road, chuckling or shaking his head every time the Hatchet Man served up another Kai-ism. “I feel belonging with people, and you know, like, the trees are people and they are still alive,” Kai told Kimmel.
Ha ha, Kai. Ha ha.
But now, all of the clips of Kai take on a darker tone. When the videos first went viral, we stopped to comment on Kai’s heroism, but we spent less time concerning ourselves with the mental stability of a homeless man (“Home-free,” he preferred to be called) who had taken to carrying around a hatchet. We thought his words were hilarious but spent less time concerning ourselves with the fact that his thought process seemed confused, even incoherent. Jimmy Kimmel presented him with a surfboard — but shouldn’t that gift have been tinged with heartache? Where was a man who lived out of a backpack going to keep a surfboard?
If you met a hatchet-wielding hitchhiker in real life, would you laugh, or would you cross the street?
“It’s important to realize how the funniness in these videos is really close to something that’s desperately unfunny,” says Mark O’Connell, who wrote “Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever.”
He thinks of Ruslan Tsarni, the uncle of the alleged Boston bombers, who became affectionately known as Uncle Ruslan by the collective public, and who was widely memed for calling his nephews “losers.”
“This is a guy who is undergoing an incredibly traumatic experience, and then he becomes this ironic folk hero,” O’Connell says. “It’s really weird.”
But this uncomfortable blend of elevating, mocking, and pitying happens, if not frequently, then at least enough to notice.
The same people who had rushed to post links of Charles Ramsey hero memes also rushed to share news developments that he had previously been arrested on assault charges. The people who took on Ted Williams’s cause as a personal mission were offended when news came forth that Williams was an alcoholic with a criminal past, estranged from his family. The elements to all of these stories are deeply dark, involving kidnapping and addiction, but we viewed them as opportunities for . . . laughter?
Aisha Harris, writing for Slate, has talked about the troubling trend of what she called “the ‘hilarious’ black neighbor,” a grouping into which she placed Antoine Dodson and Charles Ramsey. She saw the memification of these figures as examples of white consumers laughing at black speech patterns, of viewers pretending to praise, while secretly mocking.
But it’s not a racial issue, or rather, it’s not just a racial issue. It’s also the issue of the spongy border between oracle and fool. It’s the issue of our responsibilities as viewers and our awareness of the latent toxicity in what we consume.
Here is the obligatory paragraph where we mention how this is nothing new. How humanity has always had a complicated relationship — slightly protective, slightly prurient — with the people on the periphery. Where we talk about how, in the 17th century, London tourists used to be able to visit Bethlem Royal Hospital and pay a shilling to watch the antics of the mad people inside.
Here is the obligatory paragraph where we mention that humor and pain often abut each other. The reason that we may have laughed at Charles Ramsey is because his monologue was the one aspect of a wretched, inhumane story that we could latch onto. A bright spot in darkness.
But that’s all that we saw: A spot. A single point in time. YouTube videos of wacky neighbors and accidental heroes capture these people during one moment of their lives — often a fraught, dramatic moment — and make them into stars, without consideration of context. Without consideration for the effects. We move on, and they are still trapped in our computers, viewer counts climbing up and up and up.
As for Kai: He will move on, too, just not on the same path. Details about his life will probably come out. Details about the alleged murder will come out. He will be held on $3 million bail in an Elizabeth, N.J., jail, Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow said in a statement. A court appearance had not been scheduled.