Cutups rocket to fame, launched by YouTube

The Baltimore Sun

Brandon Hardesty is a moon-faced, 20-year-old grocery clerk who makes videos in the basement of his parents' Parkville home and posts them on the Internet. He impersonates Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Candy and Jodie Foster.

The Towson University film student even stages one-man re-enactments of scenes from movies such as Goodfellas and The Silence of the Lambs, earning a following on the Web, not to mention a description of "cinematic genius" from The Village Voice.

But in his most-watched effort, he's doing little more than clowning in front of the camera, laughing maniacally, flapping his tongue and barking like a mad dog. Chances are you've seen at least some of "Strange Faces and Noises I Can Make III" - since it's now part of auto insurer Geico's relentless television ad campaign.

"It's the American dream: You can get praise for something that you put very little effort into," says Hardesty, explaining that he made the video one evening after coming home "really hyper" from his job at the Weis market in Perry Hall.

Internet video sites such as YouTube have been since their inception a stage for antics that are at best entertaining and, perhaps more often, wincingly embarrassing. But the consequences of this look-at-me behavior are no longer confined to cyberspace - for better or for worse.

Hardesty is among a growing line of YouTube contributors gaining a measure of fame. At the same time, young people are documenting their lives - diner meals and dodgeball games, tasteless jokes and drunken exploits - creating videos that might be best kept from Mom. And the platform for outrageous behavior is blamed by some for inspiring such over-the-line behavior as dousing fast food drive-through workers with sodas.

"More people are looking for attention than are looking for money," Syracuse University popular culture professor Robert J. Thompson says of YouTube's allure. "The idea that something you make could go viral" - widely e-mailed - "and millions of people could watch it is very seductive."

Local YouTube users record themselves and their friends in outlandish situations, such as dancing while wearing a mask made of baloney.

"For a filmmaker, exposure when you're starting out is your No. 1 priority," says Daniel Regner, 18, a sophomore at Villa Julie College.

Regner describes his first YouTube posting as a tongue-in-cheek examination of the so-called "Five Second Rule." The clip shows his cousin eating a potato chip less than five seconds after it fell into a backyard pile of something that was definitely not onion dip. (He calls his style "kind of John Watersish.")

More than 2.5 million people have watched the video, which Regner posted when he was a Calvert Hall College High School student.

In a more recent endeavor, Regner wears a Viking helmet and a skimpy white dress, the top stuffed with apples, as he marches down The Avenue in White Marsh with several buddies also wearing women's clothes.

While many YouTube contributors test the bounds of good taste, others film themselves engaging in actions that are ill advised or illegal. Some suburban Pittsburgh teens were apprehended by police last month after they posted a video of themselves throwing a liquid in the face of a fast-food drive-through employee - a bit of Internet-propagated delinquency known as "fire in the hole."

"It's not funny. They can seriously hurt somebody," said Lt. Rod Mahinske of the North Huntingdon Township police. "We're treating it as the crime that it is."

Last month, WBAL-TV reported that a video posted on YouTube showed employees of the Woodlawn Best Buy store engaging in a bleep-riddled rant about customers. Attempts to later find the video on YouTube were unsuccessful.

"All I can say is, we don't condone inappropriate conduct by our employees, and we're looking into it," said Best Buy spokeswoman Nissa French.

In New Jersey, two college-age brothers were fired from their grocery store jobs last month after they posted a video of themselves rapping in the produce section, according to an Associated Press report. In the video, the brothers, calling themselves "The Fresh Beets," put bananas in their pants, and sing, among other lines, "Now stick with your gut, take some advice, it ain't safe in our produce paradise."

Grocery chain A&P; filed a suit seeking $1 million in damages and demanding that the video, which is on YouTube and the brothers' Web site, be pulled from the Internet. The company claimed the video motivated at least one "disgusted and distressed" customer to boycott the supermarket, and said several lines were "disparaging and disgusting," according to the AP report.

Some videos portray more troubling behavior. One clip on gang life in Maryland begins with gun shots, then moves to a young man who identifies himself as a gang member. If rival gang members come through shooting, "We're gonna shoot back at them," he says, displaying his gun for the camera.

Another video shows what appears to be an attempted carjacking somewhere in the Baltimore area. And segments from the witness intimidation DVD Stop Snitching are on YouTube.

With seven hours of video footage being uploaded every minute, according to a YouTube spokeswoman, nearly everything can be found on the site. Hundreds of millions of videos are watched each day, the spokeswoman said, although she declined to disclose the total number of clips posted on the site.

Geico's advertisement demonstrates the extent to which video-sharing Web sites have permeated popular culture. Candidates in the recent Democratic presidential debates answered questions posted by YouTube users, and the same is planned for the GOP debates.

Companies such as General Mills and Best Buy sponsor contests seeking homemade videos that promote their products. Pop culture sensations - such as the geysers triggered by Mentos candy dropped into Diet Coke or the faux-autobiographical LonelyGirl15 video blog - are spawned on the site.

Tom Kreft, a 20-year-old film student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has posted more than 170 videos on the site, most of them montages of his friends goofing off.

Kreft's multipart epics "Catonsville Nights" and "Random: The Series" show his friends streaking across a dodgeball field, drinking, belching, kissing, cursing, driving badly and playing with their food at the Double-T Diner - in short, some of the highlights of college life.

Kreft admits that there are portions of his videos that he wouldn't want his mother to watch. But ultimately, the aspiring filmmaker says, his goal is to be seen.

"If I'm lucky, something that I put out there will get spread around, and I'll be getting calls," says Kreft, adding that the closest he has come to fame is a stranger who recognized him at The Mall in Columbia.

In the Geico ad, Hardesty's facial contortions are followed by the slogan, "There may be a better way to spend 15 minutes online. Geico: 15 minutes could save you 15 percent on car insurance."

Still, Hardesty says he is delighted by the attention his videos have attracted.

While the third of his "Strange Faces" clips has been viewed nearly 3 million times, he has garnered the most praise for his movie re-enactments, recorded with almost no costume or scenery in his parents' home. In his version of the opening scene from Reservoir Dogs, his extraordinarily elastic face adopts the nuances of expression and speech of eight different characters.

The Times of London and The Village Voice have written about him, and he says that he has received calls from movie directors and TV producers. Not bad for a kid who never took an acting class.

"He's great," says Steve Bassett of the Richmond-based Martin Agency, which creates the Geico ads. Culling through YouTube clips to create the campaign, which in addition to Hardesty includes other YouTube contributors, was the "world's biggest casting call," he says.

Bassett, the creative director for the team that also came up with Geico's cavemen ads, describes the video campaign as "very current" and "organic." The ad featuring Hardesty debuted nationally in May and continues to air.

Hardesty says that he has made a few thousand dollars off the deal - enough to pay off his car - but the ultimate reward has been the recognition. Customers have come to stare at him at the grocery store where he works, he says.

"They say, 'You look exactly like that kid in the Geico commercial, uncanny, uncanny, sir,'" he says, mimicking a gravelly falsetto.

But all the praise hasn't gone to Hardesty's head.

Of his videos, he says: "It's just me making an ass out of myself."

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