By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007
There was a time, not long ago, when a 10-year-old boy could head to a neighborhood fair, get his face painted like a Halloween zombie and blurt out something utterly inane to a local TV news correspondent and nobody would ever think about it again. Oh, there'd be an audience that night, much of which would chuckle and think "Whaaaaa?" But that would be the end of it.
The moment would not endure as a video snippet, posted on Web sites and viewed more than 500,000 times, nor would it inspire T-shirts, or parodies or remixes or mash-ups. It would not lead a company in, say, England to track down the lad and offer him -- or rather, his parents -- cash to turn his baffling three-word apercu into a cellphone ring tone. He would not hear from the Jimmy Kimmel show. A handful of strangers would not call hoping to send him pets.
But thanks to the Internet, Jonathon Ware is a 10-year-old living in the golden age of inanity, when the most random of utterances is celebrated and memorialized. And so anyone can savor Ware's rendezvous with YouTube destiny, a 17-second masterpiece of comic triviality that has turned him into that most peculiar of media creatures: the viral-video celebrity.
Let's take it from the top. It's May 31. Ware and his sisters are visiting the Rose Festival in Portland, Ore. Jonathon has just left a face-paint booth, where he has emerged looking like Bart Simpson remade as a flesh-eater from "Dawn of the Dead." A KGW correspondent is on hand for one of those "Look what's happening downtown!" stories that are a staple of local news. She stops Jonathon and asks him to stand still for a quick, live interview.
When the camera cuts to the kid he is staring blankly at the lens, delivering what one online commentator described as "a 1,000-yard stare," which itself is kind of hysterical because, you know, he's got his zombie on.
"Back here live at the Waterfront Village with my friend the zombie, Jonathon," says correspondent Nancy Francis. "You're looking good, Jonathon. Jonathon just got an awesome face paint job. What do you think?"
Jonathon does not need to mull this one for long. Jonathon turns to the reporter and says, in a voice that is both flat and emphatic:
"I like turtles."
And that's it. Well, that's not entirely it. Francis appears momentarily stunned. "All right!" she says. "You're great . . . zombie," she says, her grammar briefly unglued, patting Jonathon on the back as she stands up. After a quarter-second of blankness, during which she seems to be thinking, "What did he just say?" she gamely returns to her on-air persona. "Good times here at the Waterfront Village, open for the next eleven days . . ."
Fade to black.
The first thing that should be said about this video is that it separates dabblers in the inane from serious connoisseurs. There are people who will watch and decide, "This isn't even a little amusing," and those who will weep with laughter on the first, second, third and 20th viewings. There are, apparently, plenty of the latter. Soon after the clip aired, someone posted it online, and "Turtle Boy" quickly assumed his place in the pantheon of unwitting digital heroes, alongside Dude Who Juggles to the Beatles, next to Boom Goes the Dynamite Guy, and most recently, Vapid Anchor Babe Interviewing Holly Hunter. Unlike these people, though, Jonathon wasn't demonstrating a talent (or a lack of talent), nor had he sought out his moment of fame (or infamy). He was just a youngster colliding with a desperate reporter.
Which makes the fallout from his appearance seem like the purest possible form of inanity -- meaninglessness squared. One fan spliced Jonathon into the guest spot of a recent and hostile interview conducted by Bill O'Reilly on "The O'Reilly Factor." (An increasingly irate O'Reilly appears to grill Jonathon about Iran and he bats away each question with "I like turtles.") Someone else did a Turtle Boy version of "The Shining," wherein the word "SELTRUT" is painted on a door, instead of "REDRUM." This list could go on and on.
Within a few weeks, the fuss was loud enough for KGW to return to the air with the clip, this time pleading with Turtle Boy, or his friends or family, to get in touch with the station. The Wares missed that broadcast, but a friend of Jonathon's sister caught it and sent a message via MySpace.
"She basically wrote to say, 'Do you know your brother is famous on the Internet?' " recalls Kim Ware, who is 16. "We were stunned."
The Wares called the station, which dispatched a reporter the next day. In the meantime, a ring-tone seller in the United Kingdom got in touch, as did Jimmy Kimmel's people, as did a nature show doing a segment about turtles. Someone started selling "I like turtles" T-shirts with Jonathon's face on them. Jonathon doesn't have an agent yet, but his parents are thinking about it.
"It sort of caught us by surprise," says Tina Ware. "Every day when I come home, there's a message from someone else on our answering machine. I just heard from a radio station in Grand Rapids."
Then she summoned Jonathon to the phone. At first, it sounded like he wasn't interested in conversing. It turned out that he was pretty busy.
"I'm scooping my dog's poop," he said.
Ah ha. He then explained that he'd been caught off guard by the reporter's question that day at the fair, and since he'd just seen an exhibit at the fair about turtles, the critters were on his mind. The notoriety has been fun, he went on, especially getting recognized, which happens a lot, considering that he was wearing face paint during that interview. A bunch of kids he didn't know surrounded him during a trip to the mall over the weekend.
"They were like, 'I like turtles, too!' "
Jonathon sounds game for whatever comes next, but he does have a goal: He wants to be on "Ellen." He's a huge fan of "Ellen."
"I just e-mailed her," he said. "She's rad. She's cool."
So, opportunity knocks, Ms. DeGeneres. Invite Jonathon to the show, paint him up as a zombie and give him a three-word script: "I like Ellen."
It'll ruin Oprah's whole day.