Dude, That is So Not Funny

Written by David Kushner, Wired

Sunday October 1st, 2006

Eric Bauman made big bucks posting other people's homemade grossout videos to his Web site. Now the geeks whose clips he swiped on the way up are trying to knock him down.

Click. An obese nerd burps a tune into a soda bottle. Click. A gawky teen puts fireworks into his mouth and lights them. Click. A deer suckles a horse. Like millions of young drones, Kelli Rinaudo is spending the afternoon surfing dumb videos on her PC at work. With her next click, Rinaudo uncovers a shot of a dude passed out on a couch, his entire face covered in black Magic Marker by some prankster. “Hey, Eric,” Rinaudo hollers, “check out this marker job!”

Over from another cube ambles Eric Bauman. A diminutive, unshaven 26-year-old in a T-shirt and khakis, Bauman has short, dark hair, bushy eyebrows, and a passing resemblance to a Baldwin brother. He expertly assesses the photo. It’s original, way more interesting than the usual cock-and-balls and “bitch” scrawls that typically end up decorating the faces of people who pass out on a fraternity couch. It’s clear, crisp, well lit. Heck, it’s just flat-out hilarious; the dude looks like he crawled out of Bigfoot’s ass, Bauman thinks. He pivots and gives Rinaudo the thumbs-up sign. The shot will be posted on eBaum’s World, the insanely popular – and profitable – Web site for goofy home-brewed media that has made Bauman the king of dot-comedy.

A lot of people think the stuff on his site is sophomoric, tasteless, offensive, and just plain dumb. And it is. But everyone loves a good sideshow, and Bauman is the master carny of the online world. Every day, Rinaudo, Bauman’s content manager (and girlfriend), sifts through thousands of online videos, animations, jokes, photos, and games. She looks for the crème de la crème of DIY lunacy – or, as she puts it, “idiots doing stupid things.” Each week, Bauman carefully selects eight links to add to the site. Then he turns the idiocy into gold.

Viral media is all the rage these days, and Bauman runs one of the few viral sites actually making money. Without spending a penny on direct advertising, he’s turned the high school hobby he ran out of his bedroom into one of the Internet’s top-ranked humor sites, getting 1.2 million hits a day. There’s a television pilot in the can, a book deal in negotiation, and a potential pact to bring eBaum content to cell phones. Annual ad revenue has doubled over the past year to $10 million, and the only overhead is bandwidth and salaries: Bauman is becoming a rich man. He has 30 employees who handle the coding, marketing, financial affairs, and assorted office details. He drives a shiny black Porsche Carrera. Besides gobbling up real estate around town and gas wells in Kentucky, he sponsors heavyweight boxing champ Hasim “the Rock” Rahman.

But Bauman’s success hasn’t just brought him riches and trips to Vegas. It has also gotten him mired in a messy brawl. His site has been hacked, his office vandalized, and his mug distorted on numerous online sites dedicated to attacking him. “Maybe Zeus and Thor will smite that whore,” goes the theme song for the animated site EbaumsWorldSucks. “Oh, eBaum’s World is going dowwwwwwn!” Bauman is not laughing. “We get death threats all the time,” he says.

Why the fuss? Detractors say Bauman built his empire on stolen goods – snatching obscure media from around the Web, erasing or denying credits, slapping on the eBaum watermark, then selling millions of dollars’ worth of ads around the purloined content. “He steals work and makes all the money,” says Kevin Flynn, an animator who is considering joining a class-action suit against eBaum’s World. Flynn claims that Bauman ripped off his viral ditty “Peanut Butter Jelly Time.”

Bauman is fighting back. “We try to let everyone know this is crap,” he says. “We try to clear our name, but it’s fucking impossible.” He’s a charming rogue, but it’s not hard to understand why some folks are hoping he’ll wake up one day with black marker smeared all over his own face. He walks to a nearby computer to play his all-time favorite eBaum video, “The Prank.” It begins with a guy on a toilet who takes his freshly baked ammo and smears it on a sleeping friend. The friend retaliates, fluidly. Bauman, a lifelong prankster, mouths the dialog by heart. Asked where he got the video, he shrugs between laughs. “I don’t know,” he says. “I stole it from someplace.”

EBAUM’S WORLD operates out of a 19th-century farmhouse in Rochester, New York, with an enormous American flag flapping over the front columns. The building sits on a two-acre plot next to Monroe Community College, the school Bauman briefly attended before dropping out to run his site full-time. Bauman’s father, Neil, a 55-year-old financial planner whom Eric hired to run his business, is happy his son took the entrepreneurial route. “This kid passes on more ass than you or I can even imagine,” he says with pride. “College is overrated. Most of those guys couldn’t sell a rowboat in a flood.” Eric, his tone suggests, could sell one in a drought.

As a kid, Bauman stood on his front lawn in Rochester with a python around his neck and charged people 75 cents to pet the snake. A hardcore gamer, he bought every system he could, then invited the neighborhood kids to come over and play – for a quarter a round. In high school he carried a universal remote, stealthily turning off TV sets or cranking up the volume. He blazed through the halls hurling stink bombs into classrooms, once causing an evacuation. Most infamously, he and his buddies terrorized a teacher named Mrs. Barnes because “she was too nice,” recalls Jason Martorana, Bauman’s former classmate and now chief operating officer of eBaum’s World. They’d hum in harmony or blow their noses wildly until they reduced her to screaming fits. Then, in a move that would launch his career, Bauman secretly tape-recorded her histrionics and posted them on the Net.

Like a lot of young geeks, Bauman had a taste for outrageous comedy. He was also astute enough to realize early that the burgeoning World Wide Web was the perfect way to distribute it. In 1998 he launched a bulletin board service, where people could dial in for free text jokes. That same year, while a senior in high school, he launched his homepage, eBaum’s World. He uploaded his audio files of Mrs. Barnes, along with other goofy, bizarre, and just plain dumb media he collected: videos of skateboarders impaling themselves, fat ladies impersonating roosters, a preacher whose pauses had been overdubbed with flatulence. Word spread.

Bauman promoted the site relentlessly. He spammed newsgroups asking for outrageous content. He snuck into the Monroe Community College computer lab and set all the PCs to default to his homepage. After striking an advertising deal with eBay, Bauman posted a note on his site telling visitors they could bid on his sports car there. There was no car, but his chummy teaser got people to click over to the auction site, which meant eBay paid him more.

Neil had long pushed Eric to make money at a real, offline, job. But one day Eric flashed a $3,700 check at his father, explaining that it was for a week’s work. “I gasped and said, ‘Holy fucking shit!'” Neil recalls. “Eric said, ‘I told you.'”

By 2000, two years after Bauman graduated from high school, eBaum’s World was on a roll. One of his biggest hits was the posting of “soundboards” – online synthesizers with buttons that geeks could click on to play back memorable phrases uttered by celebrities like Michael Jackson, Joe Pesci, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. With a deft user clicking between phrases – one button for “Hello,” another for “Good-bye,” and a third for “Hasta la vista, baby” – the soundboards could be used to make prank calls in the celebrity’s voice. eBaum’s World then posted the best of them.

“Thank you for calling Discount Tire Company,” chirps a receptionist in one such clip. “This is Donny! How can I help you?” Little does he know there’s a guy with a Pesci soundboard on the line.

“What the fuck is your problem?” the Pesci-bot demands.

“I do not have one, sir,” Donny replies gingerly. “Is there anything I can do for you, sir?”

“What if I was just to kick the ever-lovin’ shit out of you?” comes the reply.

When Howard Stern got pranked on-air with a Howard Stern soundboard, eBaum’s World hit the big time in more ways than one. Viacom – owner of Stern’s content – sent out a cease and desist letter, claiming copyright infringement. Scared silly, Bauman brought the letter to his dad, who simply said: “We gotta work this baby!” Neil fired off a press release, painting his son as the little online parody kid getting bullied by dumb old-media cronies. The strategy worked: The media jumped on the story, and the legal challenge withered.

According to federal law, Web sites are generally allowed to host content uploaded by users without liability until someone files a take-down notice. There are now questions about whether this “safe harbor” applies to companies making money off uploaded content through ads. But when the Stern crisis hit, eBaum’s World was able to seize on, and exploit, the law. Bauman realized he could pluck content from across the Net and then take it down only when someone made a major stink – selling ads all the while.

But even though the corporations couldn’t intimidate him or slow his growth, Bauman soon discovered that the kids who created his content were another story. A scorned geek, it turns out, doesn’t bark. He bites.

LINDSAY LOHAN’S facial expression never changes. That’s what 23-year-old college student Derek Lutz noticed one day last October while surfing the Web. “It’s just a staring-forward-with-the-mouth-open kind of blank expression,” he explains.

Lutz decided to poke fun at the actress. He assembled several symmetrical shots, set the pictures into a looping sequence, and then uploaded it to a site for viral-media makers called You’re the Man Now Dog. “I just wanted to get some attention,” Lutz says.

It worked. After making a splash on YTMND, the Lohan Facial, as it was dubbed, popped up on eBaum’s World. While YTMND includes author credits with each clip, eBaum’s World didn’t bother to give Lutz a shout-out. “What really pissed me off was that they placed their own watermark on it,” Lutz says, “as if they created it.” Bauman says he was simply indicating that his site was hosting a video that had been submitted without a watermark. But Lutz was hardly alone in his anger. For years, contributors to viral-media sites including Something Awful and Newgrounds had reported similar treatment. “There’s a history of [eBaum’s World] screwing over other authors and other sites,” says YTMND founder Max Goldberg.

Lutz says he emailed eBaum’s World requesting to have his work removed, but he got no reply. “After that,” he says, “the people on YTMND took it into their own hands.” A torrential denial-of-service attack was soon launched against eBaum’s World. Then, Bauman claims, delivery trucks showed up at his offices with pallets of empty boxes that pranksters had sent to sow confusion and clutter. Worse, Bauman tells of emailed death threats and of a suspicious white powder emptying from an envelope that Rinaudo opened at her desk.

Bauman soon removed the Lohan Facial from his site. He says the incident convinced him he could no longer fly by the seat of his pants. Today, all submissions must be made through an upload form, which includes a thorough consent-and-release agreement requiring authors to relinquish all rights to their material. In exchange, eBaum’s World has begun paying for content. The payments are usually less than $250, but the site has offered as much as $1,500.

Preventing another geek war isn’t Bauman’s only reason for going legit. In June 2005, eBaum’s World signed a multimedia deal with Fox TV Studios – from television to books – and the studio needs to secure all the copyrights. Not surprisingly, this is no easy task. “We’ve had to track down every single person in every clip and send them a release form,” producer Simon Andreae says. “It’s a nightmare.”

As it turns out, eBaum’s World hasn’t lost much content since it started asking for exclusive rights. “The people making this stuff are mainly kids,” says the site’s attorney, Bill Levinson. “They just want their 15 minutes of fame.” But the day will surely come when someone’s dancing-monkey video winds up in a McDonald’s ad, with eBaum’s World getting all the cash – so some viral-media makers aren’t waiting to lock in their copyright. “I’ve learned how to attach a watermark so eBaum’s World can’t remove it easily,” says Lutz. “I should have done this a long time ago.”

It’s the close of the workday at eBaum’s World, and Bauman is showing me a few more of his favorite clips. Click. A polio-ravaged transvestite dances in a clown hat like a freak out of a David Lynch flick. Click. A filthy doofus crams mashed potatoes into his face by the handful. Bauman enjoys this stuff as much as ever, but the years have chastened him. “I may have made mistakes early on,” he says. “Maybe I could have done a better job of tracking down authors. But you realize your mistakes and try to make it better.”

It could be that Eric Bauman’s newfound maturity is perfectly calibrated to the changing times. He was young and brash at a time when it was fine to flout the law and do whatever it took to grow online. Now he’s a bit older and has a few scars – reminders to stay on the edge without going over it. But the new attitude came at a price. With a final click, he boots up the audioclip that started it all: his recording of Mrs. Barnes’ rants. “Stop acting so immature!” she shrieks from the tinny speaker. “Don’t put your head down on your desk!”

When it’s through, Bauman isn’t smiling; he’s clearly uneasy about the effect on Mrs. Barnes of her ascension to online cult villain. Tens of thousands of people have listened to her meltdown, including, presumably, many of her students. (She snapped “no comment” when asked about Bauman for this story.) Bauman says he got a call from his alma mater asking him to remove the links and that he obliged. “I don’t regret what I’ve done, but it was mean,” he says. “I don’t want to ruin anyone’s life.”