Meet Ed Bassmaster, Philadelphia’s Biggest Star … on YouTube
There isn’t much that grates on Philadelphians more than having their city defined by a tired canard about a Santa Claus who got booed in 1968. (Or by a bell. Or a sandwich.) Which explains the citywide stomach-drop when news broke in August that a defenseless globe-trotting robot had been annihilated here. Every hard-fought reputational victory, every hint of burgeoning cosmopolitanism — put on hold for the foreseeable future. “Somebody put a lot of work into that robot,” ashamed resident Cathie McMullin told 6 ABC. “It’s been all over the world, and ‘Welcome to Philly! Let’s kill you.’”
HitchBOT, constructed by Canadian engineers, was a science experiment in human compassion. A white plastic bucket equipped with GPS plus blue pool floaties for limbs, the robot was to hitchhike across the world, relying on random humans to transport it from one city to the next. It made it across Europe but couldn’t make it from Massachusetts to San Francisco; on the morning of August 1st, hitchBOT was found, wasted and inert, on the streets of Old City. A few days later, grainy video footage emerged of a man in a throwback Randall Cunningham jersey appearing to assault poor hitchBOT.
The hitchBOT murder mystery was a case study in virality, a news item that managed to combine the Internet’s two favorite things: a heartwarming parable about generosity/resilience/gumption, and outrage at whatever the inverse of that is. It’s fitting, then, that the guy in the Eagles gear wasn’t actually a robot-beater, but a YouTube star from Northeast Philadelphia named Ed Bassmaster. And he wasn’t murdering a robot, just pretending to — as his character “Always Teste,” a perennially unemployed goon with an aggro streak.
Bassmaster, 42, has two million YouTube subscribers. They watch him trot out a number of different bizarre personalities, most of which basically go out into the world and make people feel uncomfortable. This is lowbrow stuff — imagine the Jackass crew trying their hand at the Candid Camera genre. (“Farting in the Library” is one of his more popular videos.) But Bassmaster is also a talented mimic and character actor; his bits share DNA with Da Ali G Show and Comedy Central’s The Kroll Show.
After nearly a decade of glamourless toil, he’s begun to taste aboveground success, shooting bits featuring James Franco, Aaron Eckhart and Tony Hawk. Next year he’s getting a television show, on CMT, and there are discussions about a potential movie project, though on that front he remains coy.
And yet it’s hitchBOT that made him a household name in Philadelphia. “I still get called ‘robot-killer,’” Bassmaster says, bemused, sitting on his couch one morning this fall. “My stepdad, he works for SEPTA, he texted me, ‘What did you do? Everybody here is mad at you for destroying some robot.’”
For starters, he didn’t destroy the robot. Ed Bassmaster and his friend Jesse Wellens, 33 — a formidable figure in the “vlogging” community — had been milling around on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art when a man and a robot, looking like an MIT ventriloquist act, approached them. Wellens agreed to adopt hitchBOT, but he and Bassmaster quickly grew disenchanted when the robot insisted on talking to them. So they left it in Elfreth’s Alley and told their millions of fans about it, hoping one of them would transport it to Washington, D.C.
When hitchBOT was discovered slain the next morning, 6 ABC, among others, got in touch with Wellens and Bassmaster. Instead of appearing as himself, though, Bassmaster showed up on-camera as Always Teste. “The reporter asked me, ‘Is that your real name?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, when I was born, I came out of the hospital crying all the time, and my mom was like, “Damn, he always testy,” and Teste was our last name.’ And the lady standing next to me taking notes was like, ‘Aww, that’s a beautiful story.’” Soon thereafter, Wellens and Bassmaster resolved to prank the news once more, this time cutting a doctored video that implicated Always Teste himself as the robot-slayer. The footage hit the Internet, and once more, the Internet melted down.
One of the upshots of the hitchBOT prank was that it laid bare the suspect emotional vulnerabilities of the news-consuming public. Just as last summer’s story about slain Zimbabwean lion Cecil drew more coverage than any investigation into industrial-scale beef slaughter would have, the “murder” of a robot drew far more scorn than the death of any local Homo sapiens in recent memory. Less obviously, though, another, bigger story about the Internet lurked beneath the hitchBOT clickbait.
While tens of thousands of Philadelphians puzzled over the appearance of “Always Teste” on their television screens, many more people around the country would have known exactly who he was. Neglected by the press, equipped with zero professional comedy experience, Bassmaster has cultivated a massive, devoted fan base that’s propelling him toward mainstream glory.
Bassmaster is the rare Philadelphia representative of a phenomenon that has already upended the entertainment industry: the birth of the bona fide YouTube celebrity. And while the rise of amateur online “influencers” signals a definite paradigm shift — one wonders if Bassmaster and Co. need or even want Hollywood’s help — it also raises some mildly perturbing questions about what we, as viewers, want from our empty-calorie diversion. If virtual nobodies like Bassmaster can make it big with nothing but a GoPro cam and a talent for weird voices, does that mean his fans have reverted to grade school, where the funniest person in the world is the kid sitting next to you, making fart noises?
ONE FRIDAY IN SEPTEMBER, Ed Bassmaster invites me over to his house, a modest rowhome not far from the Northeast Philadelphia Airport. On the to-do list today: Shoot an intro to a segment for his CMT show in which his character, “Emilio,” an exuberant gay-coded fellow in an Elton John wig and bad sunglasses, opens a Christmas present from his grandmother. We’re sitting in Bassmaster’s living room, each of us on identical brown couches, facing a big-screen TV. Bassmaster thinks it’ll be funny if the present is his obese cat, Robert. The cat proves difficult to wrangle, so I suggest we use his slower pug, Richard. “The cat is more breathtaking than the dog, because he’s freaking huge,” Bassmaster reasons. “That’s the reveal, pulling that big-ass cat out of the box.”
Bassmaster, who’s not tall and sports a perpetual five-o’clock shadow, is wearing Nikes and expensive-looking sweatpants. Sitting at home, he can seem preoccupied, even anxious. On the road, he’ll roll his eyes at shitty drivers. At a restaurant, he’ll scowl at a young girl who gets “in his zone” to inspect a flower. When he smokes weed, which is not infrequently, it seems joyless, and medicinal. But when he starts to perform, an appealing dynamism emanates from him. The metamorphosis doesn’t require him getting onstage or appearing on a set; he just needs to screw his face up funny and tell his kids to leave the room.
We end up settling for Richard the pug, who is easily bribed with treats. Bassmaster rests his iPhone horizontally on the lip of a coffee table, sits on the floor in his wig, and records the bit. It mostly consists of Emilio getting excited and repeating his catchphrase “Oh, would you look at that?!” ad nauseam. (Bassmaster fans seem to enjoy this character especially; a video of Emilio inspecting a used car has garnered 24 million views.) When Bassmaster returns from the bathroom, where he went to wash Richard’s drool from his face, he discovers the video didn’t actually record. “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill myself,” he says, double- and triple-checking his iPhone. Then he chills out: “That’s okay. Whenever something like this happens, it just motivates me to make it funnier a second time.”
The Best of Ed Bassmaster
1. Zombie Drive-Thru Prank (2012): Ed dresses as a zombie and scares the hell out of fast-food workers (27 million views).
2. Look at This Car! (2010): Ed, as “Emilio,” inspects a used car (24 million views).
3. Drive-Thru Pranks (2009): Ed annoys fast-food workers (16 million views).
4. The Incredible Hulk Trailer (2008): Ed gets pummeled by his son Jake (9 million views).
5. Elmo Prank Call (2008): Using his Elmo voice, Ed calls the pharmacist (8 million views).
6. Look at This Dog (2010): Emilio again, this time encountering dogs (8 million views).
7. Ultimate Farting (2010): Ed goes to Times Square and farts. Repeatedly (7 million views).
8. Ugly Face (2009): Ed makes faces that freak people out (6 million views).
What’s remarkable about this sequence isn’t anything Ed Bassmaster/Emilio does or says on-camera. It’s more high-energy than it is — well, funny. What’s remarkable is that he’s shooting a video on his iPhone, in a crappy wig and his wife’s cheap sunglasses, for a forthcoming TV show on a Viacom-owned cable network that reaches more than 92 million American households. What’s remarkable, in other words, is just how unremarkable Bassmaster seems.
Bassmaster was born, not Bassmaster, but Rodriguez, and grew up not far from where he lives now, in the Northeast. His dad, of Puerto Rican descent, left the family when he was a toddler. His mother, “half Italian, half Russian Jew,” remarried a couple times, but the family never maintained any stability. Rodriguez/Bassmaster dropped out of high school in 10th grade and, despite childhood ambitions to appear on Saturday Night Live — Eddie Murphy and Martin Short were inspirations — was unwilling to leave Philadelphia to take a stab at showbiz. “I would have had to be in New York or L.A. to get discovered,” he concedes. “I had known that for years. I got into an argument with my stepdad one time” — not the SEPTA stepdad — “we were arguing about doing comedy and going to New York. And I said, ‘I don’t have to be in New York to make it.’ And his argument was, I did. And that was the last time I talked to my stepdad, which was 10-plus years ago.”
I suggest that his stepdad was right.
He nods. “At that time, he was right.”
Ed Bassmaster uploaded his first YouTube videos in December of 2006. They debuted a bit that would become one of his mainstays: In one, a friend poses as Teste’s parole officer as Bassmaster badly mangles a job interview. When the interviewer asks him about experience, Teste, doing a Philly-inflected ghetto-lilt, replies, “I used to work in the lab with animals, but what they said is I stuck a frog in the microwave so I kind of got let go, you could say.” One hundred thirty-eight thousand views. A couple weeks later, Always Teste was getting pulled over for a DUI. When the “cop,” unable to get Teste to walk a straight line, asks him if he knows “what his right foot is,” Teste replies, nonsensically, “Officer, my shoes is not like your shoes.” Three hundred thirty-six thousand views.
When Bassmaster cut those videos, he was working as a sales rep at an AT&T store; Teste was inspired by the man-child customers he dealt with on the job. While staying in Philadelphia pre-Internet may have been a dubious career move, it also may have helped Bassmaster develop his act. Before taping the Emilio bit, we hopped in his plus-size black Dodge Ram to pick up his two sons, ages seven and 13, from Catholic school. On the way there, he begins kvetching about the particularly unattractive cross-section of Northeast Philly in which he lives.
“There’s some freakin’ characters around here,” says Bassmaster. “There’s one guy who walks around here, he’s got a hole from smoking. You know, a ‘trache.’ You know, he doesn’t talk. He just goes around asking for money, like, ‘Eeeeeecchhhhhhh.’ And that’s the extent, of his, like, communication.”
I ask him if the area bums him out. “Yeah,” comes the immediate response. “Like, this chick, she’s a drug addict who walks up and down my street five times a day. The cars get broken into, up and down the street. A lot of the people who live here, they just don’t move on. They get stuck here.”
And then end up in his bits. One of his characters is a guy he calls “The Hacker,” who wears flannel shirts, has long, stringy black hair, and diphthongs his “O’s” in gloriously Philadelphian fashion. Essentially, the Hacker act consists of Bassmaster going to public places and coughing uncontrollably while earnestly trying to engage with people. (The Hacker’s 2009 interview with Philly product Danny Bonaduce reaches its apex when Bonaduce asks, “Does anybody ever get actually sick when talking to you?” The bit was staged — most of Bassmaster’s aren’t — but Bonaduce looks legitimately revolted.)
In the late 2000s, Bassmaster was able to leave AT&T and become a full-time YouTuber. Three years ago, he got snapped up by Maker Studios, a major Los Angeles “multi-channel network” that promotes and supports successful social media stars. Through Maker, Bassmaster found himself partnering with brands and talking to TV-world pooh-bah Tony DiSanto, a former executive at MTV who’s currently producing his show for CMT.
Into what does he hope to parlay his newfound success? Oh, just a house in the ’burbs with a little land in the back for his kids. But even that seems far away: “As much as I say I want to move out of the city, I’m still here, and I keep thinking, well, when I move, will I still be coming down every day all day because it’s more exciting than out there?” Anyhow, in a twist of fate more befitting Always Teste than a guy with a TV show, he’s still “paying Uncle Sam” right now because of a “bad accountant.”
Bassmaster, who actually bass-fishes and adopted the moniker for use in online fishing forums, is in some ways more effective at channeling the redneck thing than are other leading lights of the disaffected working class, like Larry the Cable Guy and Bill Engvall (fellow CMTers). Whereas they evince a sort of defensive hillbilly chauvinism, Bassmaster isn’t really taking anyone’s side. And yet he’s not exactly urbane, either. When I ask him about Stephen Colbert, whose new CBS show debuted the week before we sat down, he looks at me blankly. “I don’t watch any TV. I’ve heard that name, but I don’t really know who he is,” he says. “I prefer to be in my own shell and not be bothered by any of that stuff.”
The willful ignorance and studied parochialism mark Bassmaster as a Philly product. Indeed, it’s his lowest-common-denominator appeal that attracted his biggest local boosters, Steve Morrison and Preston Elliot of WMMR. “We first came across a video of him called ‘Ugly Face’ where Ed would be talking to someone at a Walmart or something and all of a sudden he would freeze and make this bizarre, twisted face,” says Elliot. “We thought it was hilarious.”
But more than that, those attributes help explain YouTube stardom writ large, 10 years after the channel’s inception. The millions of viewers, many of them teenagers, who are watching Emilio look at that used car? There’s a decent chance they don’t know who Stephen Colbert is, either.
THE MOST POPULAR YouTube star in the world is a 26-year-old Swedish guy who goes by the name “PewDiePie.” PewDiePie films himself playing video games while he narrates the action on-screen. His YouTube channel boasts 40 million subscribers; in 2014, he earned a reported $7.4 million. When I told Steve Raymond, CEO of YouTube talent management agency Big Frame, that I didn’t really get PewDiePie’s appeal, he replied, “You should have seen us trying to raise venture capital money in 2011 on that stuff. People looked at me like I had two heads on.”
It’s a good bet that you, reader, also had no idea who PewDiePie was until a few moments ago. Your children — or you, in the unlikely event that you are a child — might, though. This year, Variety commissioned a survey that found the five most “influential” celebrities, as gauged by 13-to-17-year-olds, were all YouTube stars: comedy duo Smosh, video game commentator Vanoss, other video game commentator KSI, sketch actor Ryan Higa, and, of course, PewDiePie.
Since YouTube was born, it’s been a repository for dumb homemade content that elicits involuntary laughter. Its earliest “stars” included a teenager mouthing the words to a song by a Moldovan-Romanian pop band and the guy who begged the world to “Leave Britney alone!” for two minutes. Few of those early viral videos translated into long-term success for their creators: Numa Numa guy is a fledgling musician in New Jersey with 963 Twitter followers, and the Leave Britney Alone guy went into porn.
But YouTube matured, and social media platforms and smartphones along with it, so users, and not just their one-off videos, started getting famous. “What’s emerged in the past 30 months,” says Byron Ashley, a talent manager at Big Frame, “has been this notion of the broad-appealing personality — the cool kid in high school on a national level.”
The cool kids on YouTube that the rest of the kids emulate are, in turn, the ones advertisers want to hook up with. “I think there’s a massive shift going on right now,” says Jason Cosgrove, a vice president at DEFY Media, another multi-channel network. “If you look at it from a brand perspective, you see a channel like Smosh. With 21 million subscribers, [advertisers] know exactly what audience they’re getting there.”
With the hike in ad dollars came the rise of a sort of alternative studio system, and the inevitable corporatization, for better or for worse, of the viral video industry. In 2012, Bassmaster signed with Maker, which helps him negotiate deals with brands, movie studios and (hey, you never know) book publishers while also providing the infrastructure necessary to produce original content. When Disney bought Maker Studios in 2014, in a deal that was valued at as much as $950 million, it was as sure a sign as any that Old Hollywood had officially been disrupted (or that New Hollywood had been co-opted).
OpenSlate, a firm that crunches numbers about the online video industry, estimates that Bassmaster’s four million average monthly views net him about $52,700 a year, strictly from ad revenue. But that doesn’t account for the sponsored content he creates — in one recent guerrilla marketing campaign for a speaker company, he dressed up as an elderly woman and busted age-defying moves on an oceanfront boardwalk — or for the terms of his agreement with Maker.
Long before CMT came calling, Bassmaster tells me, his salary was “well into the six figures.” Which may explain why he’s so ambivalent about the whole TV thing.
AFTER EMILIO OPENS his Christmas present, we hop into my car and make for Rittenhouse, to meet Jesse Wellens. Once we get onto Torresdale Avenue, Bassmaster lights up a joint, rolls down his passenger window, and takes a few drags. He isn’t worried about the cops: “The police in this Eighth District, at least four of them are really big fans and have spread the word.” He’s more worried about what his new boss, CMT, might think. “They’re a family network,” he says, and asks me not to write about the weed.
It’s a peculiar anxiety from a guy who can seem nonplussed about his television show in the first place. When I ask him about CMT’s ratings, he responds, “I honestly don’t know. Can you name one show?”
I tell him no.
“There you go,” he says, laughing. “I can name a few because I’m partnering up with these guys. CMT is trying to rebrand, trying to reach out, to do some original comedy. I just hope it’s the right move, that’s all.” (The Ed Bassmaster Show will debut in April.)
When we arrive in Center City, we park the car in the garage of Wellens’s luxury high-rise and embark for Rittenhouse to meet the vlogger himself. Wellens is about a foot taller than Bassmaster, with tons of product in his full head of black hair. His long-running YouTube series, Prank vs. Prank, consists of him and his girlfriend Jeana, well, pulling pranks on each other. Prank vs. Prank has about nine million YouTube subscribers. BF vs. GF, another nearly identical channel they run, has almost eight million. OpenSlate estimates that the two channels earn them more than $1.5 million a year.
Bassmaster and Wellens are Philly’s preeminent YouTube stars. Or, at least, the preeminent Philly YouTube stars who still live around here. “JennXPenn” a teen vlogger from Bucks County whose real name is Jenn McAllister and whose exact skill set is nebulous, moved out to L.A. in 2013 when she signed with a Maker competitor, AwesomenessTV. Grace Helbig, a 30-year-old comedienne/“personality” with a seven-figure fan base, is from South Jersey but also lives in L.A. Bassmaster tells me a local news channel did a story a little while back about “Philadelphia YouTubers that are making it.” It featured him “and some other YouTuber who does origami.”
Which is to say: On this crisp September afternoon in Rittenhouse Square, I’m in the presence of a disconcertingly pedestrian species of entertainment royalty.
Our first fangirl of the afternoon is a freshman at the University of the Arts who walks up to Wellens and asks if he is indeed Jesse from Prank vs. Prank. I take their photo, which, in that it isn’t a selfie, feels like a small blow against social media hegemony. “I saw you the other day because I moved here for college,” she says, “and I was just staring at you.” I ask her what her favorite prank was. “The dog poop one?” Wellens stares blankly. “Cat poop?” she muses. He turns his attention to a remote-controlled skateboard he’s brought with him.
While Wellens revs the board back and forth in an attempt to freak people out, I ask him what he thinks of CMT’s forthcoming Ed Bassmaster Show. “I’m excited about it, I can’t wait to see the show,” he says, his enthusiasm level near-catatonic. “I’ve seen a lot of … it’s been a long time coming.” A few moments later, he concedes that maybe it isn’t exciting after all: “It almost feels like the tides are changing, and that people are going to be on TV to get on the Internet.”
In the sense that Hulu and Netflix and Amazon Originals all boast critically acclaimed TV shows, yes, showing up on someone’s actual television screen doesn’t seem like a particularly relevant mark of prestige anymore. It’s also true that in a YouTube/Vine/Periscope-specific context, it can be perilous to abandon hordes of loyal social media followers for putative big-screen riches. The early viral YouTube star Fred, who did little more than make himself sound like he had sucked down copious amounts of helium, unsurprisingly failed to translate his online success to Fred: The Movie and has since faded into obscurity.
Our next 30 minutes in the park pass fairly uneventfully, considering that among the three of us, we’re armed with a motorized skateboard, a GoPro camera, two mountain bikes and a joint. Groping for conversation, I ask Wellens and Bassmaster what they like to do when they come to the city. As usual, Wellens answers, while Bassmaster stares at passersby and mimics them at barely audible volume.
“Kill robots.” Wellens grins. “We hope to come out here to be productive and creative, but it just turns into us riding bikes around here and not getting much done.”
Still groping, I ask what he’s been working on lately. “Oh, I did some silly prank with a fake baby,” he says. “I was throwing it up in the air” (3,969,879 views). But he doesn’t want to talk about that. “I’m so over the pranks. I want to make short films now. That’s what I need to do. Transition to
Ed Bassmaster, former cell-phone salesman, says he’s not sure having a television show is a good career move. Jesse Wellens, professional prankster/vlogger, just shot a lucrative sponsored video for Jack Links beef jerky that won’t appear anywhere but YouTube and will net him — he says — six figures. And yet both occasionally seem to feel the need for some imprimatur of legitimacy beyond page views and up-votes.
After we bail on the admittedly lame skateboard trick and make a pit stop at Di Bruno’s, we bike up to Paine’s Park, off the banks of the Schuylkill. After Wellens and Bassmaster get over the thrill of watching a shirtless blond guy do bike flips, they head over to a bench and light up another J. It’s that time of the evening, I guess, when you start telling stories about M. Night Shyamalan.
“I don’t know if I should blast him with this story,” Bassmaster says, before proceeding. “I used to deliver flowers locally when I was starting my YouTube. We got an order that was going to an office around the Main Line, and it was addressed to M. Night Shyamalan. So I was like, ‘Let me take this one.’ I put a note on it with my YouTube channel on there, like, I’m a local comedian, just check it out, if you want to cast me. Whoever got it called the flower shop and said, ‘This is unprofessional.’” His voice quivers a little. “Who does that? It’s a guy delivering flowers trying to make it in comedy? And you fuckin’ do that? I’ll never forget that, man.”
The beauty of the story, though, is that Ed Bassmaster has made it. And next time he churns out a Shyamalan-like flop on his YouTube channel, it won’t cost $130 million to make. It will cost about zero dollars. And it’ll still get 1.3 million views.
Published as “2,000,558 Ed Bassmaster Fans Can’t Be Wrong” in the December 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.