Almost Famous

A skater kid grapples with his sudden rise to worldwide renown.
Almost Famous
THE DUDE ABIDES: Jacob Isom, unintentional YouTube celebrity, in downtown Amarillo on October 18, 2010.
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

Sometime in the middle of the night of September 11, while Jacob Isom slept, the 23-year-old Amarillo skateboarder began a rapid, unintentional ascent to worldwide fame. Earlier in the day, he had been a face in the crowd, one of a hundred-some people who had gathered at Amarillo’s Sam Houston Park to protest a proposed Quran burning by David Grisham, the leader of a radical Christian group called Repent Amarillo. Grisham hadn’t come up with the idea himself. A Florida pastor named Terry Jones had already made international headlines for planning to do the same thing to approximately two hundred copies of the Quran on the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States.

As it turned out, neither conflagration came to pass. On September 9, Jones suspended his provocation, under somewhat murky circumstances. But Grisham was undone in a more cinematic fashion. Protesters sang, waved signs, and shouted; a few of them placed their hands next to Grisham’s lighter-fluid-doused Quran on a park grill, daring him to set them on fire as well. Amid this drama, Isom, disguised as a member of Repent Amarillo, sneaked up, swiped Grisham’s Quran, and ran away while the crowd clapped and whistled. Minutes later, he gave an interview to a crew from local CBS affiliate KFDA about his feat of derring-do. And that, he thought, was that.

Two days later, he woke up at eleven to a ringing phone. His friend Jordan was on the other end of the line with news that took a few seconds to register: “Dude, you’re all over the Internet!” Earlier that morning someone had uploaded his KFDA interview to YouTube, where it had already received a few thousand hits. Isom, who doesn’t own a computer, skated over to a friend’s office to see what all the fuss was about. In the clip, Isom, giddy and shirtless, with a bowl haircut, rattail, and big seventies-style glasses, offered a colorful version of Saturday’s events. “He said something about burning a Quran,” Isom told the reporter. “I was like, ‘Dude, you have no Quran!’ and ran off.” Hilarious, he thought, as he scrolled through the effusive comments.

Had the clip run on a local newscast in, say, 1987, the story might have become a topic of discussion in Amarillo’s offices and classrooms for a day or two and then faded from memory. But since this is the age of the Internet, the clip was disseminated to an attentive global audience. In short order, entrepreneurial admirers were selling T-shirts and hats bearing the rallying cry “Dude, you have no Quran!” The Daily Show and MSNBC hailed the conquering hero. Only two days after its YouTube debut, Isom’s interview was set to music using an audio process called Auto-Tune. Google hits for “Dude, you have no Quran!” grew from hundreds to thousands to nearly a million.

Reporters from CNN and Gawker wanted interviews, and Isom was happy to accommodate. When I called to set up a meeting, he said that Stanley Marsh 3, the Amarillo philanthropist and prankster best known for the Cadillac Ranch, had become a fan. The three of us could meet at Marsh’s office, he said. Sounded perfect.

But when I called back three days later to confirm our plans, Isom’s mood had shifted. Everyone was portraying him as a nice guy or a hero, he complained. But he wasn’t either, not really. In fact, he said, he was a jerk. Oh, and he hated the media. After a moment’s hesitation, I gathered all the enthusiasm I could muster and said, “Great! See you Wednesday!”

Any fears that Isom would throw a chair at me were put to rest when I arrived at his apartment and discovered that he had no furniture. An attempt to haul a sofa up to the second-story digs he shares with his girlfriend, Angel, had gone badly; the couch had been tossed over the railing, where it remained, upended. Seven rust-colored cushions retrieved from the wreckage now served as the seating area in the middle of Isom’s living room, near a FedEx box recently delivered from the drug culture magazine High Times bearing gifts in appreciation for his “courageous act.”

Isom apologized for the mess, explaining that the past few weeks had been a little crazy. “Radio shows have been calling at eight o’clock in the morning,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Dude, I work at a pizza place five to midnight, not nine to five.’” While he talked, Angel wove bracelets, smiling slyly every once in a while at his jokes.

What has this been like for you, Angel?” I asked.

Shitty,” she said, and laughed. “I haven’t seen him in, like, two weeks. He’s been busy out doing interviews.”

People want me to talk about stuff that’s, like, beyond me,” Isom said. “I’m not there to talk politics to people. I just don’t want to be around a bunch of hate. This event was going to take place right down the street, so we tried to do something.”

It wasn’t just the relentless schedule or the probing questions that got under Isom’s skin. For better or worse, the prank had become his defining moment. Isom was now recognized around town as the stoner-skater-hero; people would spot him on the street and shout, “Dude, you have no Quran!” “It was fun right after it happened,” he said, “and then I was, like, Whaaat?” The notoriety had its benefits. His workplace, La Bella Pizza, appreciated the free publicity it received every time he mentioned it in interviews. (“They’re not caring if I’m late to work right now,” he said.) It was only a matter of time, however, before “Dude, you have no Quran!” seemed as funny to him as “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” was to Gary Coleman for the last three decades of his life.

Man, people keep playing me that Auto-Tune,” he whined. “You don’t like hearing yourself sounding like a dork a thousand times over.”

Angel thought the musical rendering of Isom’s moment of fame was catchy. “I hear

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