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Viral video killed the reality TV star

| Friday, July 14, 2006

Andy Warhol was half-right. It's surprising, in a way, the number of ordinary Joes that can become famous overnight these days (Hello, "Big Brother 7: All-Stars"!). Still, the short life span of this millenium's fame means that an estimated 15 minutes of fame seems way exaggerated.

Warhol never lived to see the Internet, which creates "celebrity for 15 seconds," in the words of Fritz Grobe.

Grobe is at Ground Zero for the first generation of downloadable viral video stars -- a kind of celebrity that might not last much longer than an insect's life and only requires sufficient bandwidth to make happen.

Grobe, 37, a Yale dropout and son of mathematicians, and Stephen Voltz, 48, of Norfolk, Mass. -- the Maine performance artists -- made a video of themselves dropping Mentos mint candies into two-liters of Diet Coke. Captured on camera is an eye-popping exhibition of Bellagio-like soda geysers, simultaneously set off and impressive by anyone's standards.

After posting a video of the stunt on the Internet June 3, appearances on the "Late Show with David Letterman" and the "Today" show, media treatment from The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio, and still more interview requests from Polynesian TV followed, according to Voltz, leading the artists themselves to question: When are their 15 seconds up?

"That's the biggest question, isn't it?" said Grobe, who hopes to parlay the video's fame into something bigger but isn't so naive to assume that's any sure thing. "Are we a one-hit wonder?"

"It's a shocking illustration of Andy Warhol's '15 minutes of fame,'" Grobe said. "All of this is so new there's no road map."

But Michael D. Rechtenwald, an English professor and postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, thinks he knows where the road ends: mostly nowhere.

"I don't think this is a lasting fame," he said. "This moment, it's perhaps a flash in the pan."

Rechtenwald, a culture maven who teaches a counterculture summer course, "The Beats to Hip-Hop," and has appeared on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country," said what's unique about the viral video phenomenon might not last for long. The viral video star has total control over his material and distribution, and is capable of gaining for himself "lots of exposure with minimal cost" because of the limitless possibilities of the Internet.

Rechtenwald doubts that will last. Not because viral video won't exist, but rather artists' work will be harder to find.

Rechtenwald mentioned the quiet debate swirling in Washington, D.C., about eventually switching a World Wide "superhighway" into a "toll highway" with leading Internet providers making the case for more control over content.

It's possible that Grobe and Voltz's story might never be duplicated if the Internet someday morphs into something like cable TV, and certain avenues and alleys are blocked or harder to find.

Grobe said his video moved rapid-fire from a personal Web site,, to blogs and, with Letterman's people finding the video on a German blog. It has been seen more than 4.2 million times, according to, a Web site that tracks the video's viewing for the pair.

There are other viral video stars out there such as a sketch comedy artist Ze Frank, also on, who has many videos on the site, but nobody has approached the heights of Grobe and Voltz.

That includes an enterprising local team Tunesmith & Anthony who made a video, "The Pittsburgh Pigeon Sniper: May We Never Forget," about the March 22 faux-sniper emergency Downtown. That 98-second slide show, featuring Mayor Bob O'Connor memorably running in a state of alarm, has been seen only a relatively paltry 2,100 times, on the popular Web site

Viral Video Hall of Fame

(Home of Tunesmith & Anthony, Pittsburgh viral video-ists)

Tony, in his "30s" with a "white-collar" job, said his blog is just for fun, and he doesn't see any career emerging out of it. He began it a year-and-a-half ago and treatises on divisive culinary queen Rachael Ray followed, as well as videos such as the one posted last week, showing two elderly men coming to blows in a driveway.

This one belongs to arguably the most popular genre in the viral video universe -- white guys, about 29 years old, dancing as wacky as they know how. Matt Harding, of Seattle, has a unique peg in that he dances in lesser-traveled places such as Jordan and Peru. Among his credentials is the boast that he "has never lost a staring contest."

Hosea "Ze" Frank, New York-based, has on his blog well-produced "educational videos" that are not so much educational as they are funny. "How to Impress Your Date" features the hero of the blog acting spastic in the presence of a blond love interest on a repeat loop, in a Brooklyn restaurant.

Video blog that once generated more than 200,000 daily viewers to its "The Daily Show"-lite, SNL "Weekend Update"-inspired Internet delivery of the news. Buxom star Amanda Congdon's departure this month, though, has sent the Internet reporting community into a frenzy, and viral video's version of the Star Jones Reynolds-"The View" feud threatens the blog.

"The Andy Milonakis Show," on MTV2

Milonakis is viral video's answer to Andy Kaufman, whose weird comedy has landed Milonakis on a hard-to-find cable channel after making a big splash on the Internet with profane rapping by the rotund boy-man. Milonakis has a medical condition making him appear far younger than he is. Looks like a naughty tween doing what he does but reportedly 30.

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