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 it when I’m trying to go to bed,” she said, and she quietly sang a few bars.
Isom winced. “It’s almost as bad as when I was a bag boy at the grocery store. I’d hear the beeps of the checker haunting me in my sleep.”
Still, he admits that he enjoys a good viral video as much as the next person. “The rainbow guy,” he says. “That’s funny.”
Ah, yes, “Rainbow Guy.” Earlier this year, after California resident Paul Vasquez posted a homemade video of a double-rainbow sighting, his bizarre narration—laughter that turned into weeping and then gave way to something that sounded like a sexual climax—became an Internet sensation. Initially, Vasquez took the publicity in stride. But as his notoriety grew, so did his wariness. When a Vasquez impostor began dispatching Tweets using his name, Vasquez disseminated a splenetic rant on YouTube.
The elevation of people of rather modest accomplishment to instant worldwide fame isn’t a new phenomenon. Think of the pole sitters of yore, or Clara Peller, the “Where’s the beef?” lady. “When a certain kind of person becomes a star, it’s because they fit into a niche in the culture as it exists at that moment,” says University of Southern California English professor Leo Braudy, the author of The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History. “They complete a circuit.” Isom’s actions resonated, Braudy says, because he fulfilled a symbolic function for the audience. “Like a lightning rod, he was able to gather the electricity in the sky together and pull it into one place. After the minister in Florida announced he was going to burn the Quran, people couldn’t articulate their attitude toward the story. Then this guy acts—and does it in a comical way. People wanted to relate to it, associate themselves with it.”
But what goes up usually comes down, often just as quickly. And the Internet has only intensified and complicated this process. “The passage from viral celebrity to Trivial Pursuit answer seems pretty quick these days,” says Braudy. But given that viral videos will likely sit on YouTube’s virtual library shelf for—rough estimate—eternity, they’re likely to be rediscovered again and again.
Today’s instant celebrities vary wildly in response to their unexpected fame. One worst-case scenario was “Star Wars Kid,” a Canadian high school student whose video of himself swinging a golf ball retriever as if it were a lightsaber made it onto YouTube; he was so scarred by the public embarrassment that he didn’t finish the school year. Jack Rebney, a.k.a. Winnebago Man, a tantrum-throwing RV salesman who was recently the subject of a full-length documentary, has expressed bafflement as to why anyone would care about him. More recently, Antoine Dodson, of Huntsville, Alabama, appeared on TV describing the attempted rape of his sister and gave such a colorful sound bite to a news crew that his words were Auto-Tuned and landed on the Billboard Hot 100. He soon started a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a YouTube channel. He also got an agent.
Isom isn’t sure where he falls in this spectrum of enthusiasm. When an agent got in touch with him, Isom called the guy a dork. And when, more recently, Jon Stewart presented him with a “Medal of Reasonableness” at the Washington, D.C., Rally to Restore Sanity, Isom said, “Thank you!”—and promptly tossed the medal into the crowd.
Even so, Isom makes no bones about his desire to cash in. If you’re in the market for a “Dude, you have no Quran!” T-shirt emblazoned with Isom’s likeness and are willing to part with $15, he and some friends have set up a website, Mutumbo.tumblr.com, that can help you. These mercantile instincts have caused a stir. One woman wrote on the Amarillo Citizens Against Repent Amarillo Facebook page: “It was NOT something to make money over. It was us taking a stand to coexist!” Others didn’t think Isom deserved any credit, since the protesters who had put their hands on the grill had already persuaded Grisham to surrender his lighter, a fact that was apparently left out of the initial flurry of news reports. More damning, perhaps, the local NBC affiliate’s website posted the raw footage of the incident and noted that Isom had misquoted himself when he spoke to KFDA. Rather than “Dude, you have no Quran!” he actually said, “It’s called a stolen Quran!” as he ran away. The web headline read, “Quran Burning Hero Over Hyped?”
All the meta-analysis makes Isom defensive. “Many people in this area think I’m selfish,” Isom said. “Yeah! If you’re a nobody that sees your face all over the place and you’re not going to try to make five bucks at least?”
More galling still, the spotlight drew attention to an extremely strange three-part cooking show he and his friend Nick made a few months ago, in which Isom wears a variety of costumes and assumes a variety of accents while preparing a Philly cheesesteak.
“It went up on YouTube way before all this,” he said. “I would never have let Nick put that on if I’d known it was going to be—”
Angel interrupted. “Have you seen the episode of him wearing a dress?”
Isom groaned. “I never wanted anyone to see the cooking show.”
Nick, however, was enjoying the interest. “What?” he had asked Isom days earlier. “Everybody already knows you’re retarded.”
No one in town was better equipped to advise Isom on how to handle his suddenly elevated profile than Stanley Marsh 3. Pranks are Marsh’s art form. Thirty-five years ago he attended John Connally’s bribery trial carrying a bucket of cow manure. A decade ago he disrupted a Weather Channel broadcast with his rendition of a Native American snow dance. So when Marsh heard about Isom’s theft of the Quran, he had one of his employees deliver a modest gift: ten copies of the Amarillo Globe-News that featured a story about Isom’s exploits. Shortly thereafter, a party in his honor was held at Marsh’s home. That he knew Isom only vaguely—Isom ran in the same circles as some of Marsh’s employees—made little difference. He recognized a kindred soul when he saw one.
Soon after the party, a color photocopy of Isom’s face was posted in the lobby of Marsh Enterprises headquarters, in the tallest building in the city, the 31-story Chase Tower, where Marsh manages his philanthropic and artistic endeavors.
It was still there, prominently displayed, when we arrived. In a glassed-off area sat three twentysomething hipsters huddled around a computer watching a video of the “Eccentric Witness Lady” (a Kansas City woman who gave local reporters an extremely vivid description of a convenience store holdup). Marsh has always attracted an orbit of young hangers-on; some work for him, others are just there to eat snacks from his office kitchen and steal art supplies (an encouraged pastime). The place was littered with paint cans, Christmas tree garlands, brightly colored spheres about three feet in diameter, an inflated dolphin, and a taxidermied raccoon holding a cup with a straw in it. We were informed that a good deal of electronics had just been smashed to create raw materials for an art project.
Marsh’s assistant, LBK, the “Long Board Kid,” introduced himself, then stepped onto a skateboard and began cutting back and forth across the room while he smoked a cigarette.
“People made cartoons of your face!” he said to Isom. “So great. I love that Jon Stewart made fun of you.”
“That was awesome,” Isom said, taking a seat on a couch.
When a FedEx man delivered a pile of boxes, LBK said, “Good! The umbrellas have arrived.” He opened one box with a pocketknife and pulled out two Japanese-style parasols. “I’ll have you hold this,” he said, handing me an orange one; then he took one for himself and motioned for me to follow him into Marsh’s office. Isom stayed behind, consorting with his friends.
Marsh, who is 72, sat on a green sofa. Behind him, a painting showed him lying on the same green sofa. “Jacob is up there with Amarillo’s clan of the gods,” he told me. “He’s more famous right now than Boone Pickens or Amarillo Slim.” Marsh approved of the protest against the Quran burning; he likes protests in general. “We have two signs that say ‘Protest,’” he explained. “They’re all-purpose.” He had considered dragging them out of the closet for the Repent Amarillo demonstration but then decided to hang back and watch from afar.
In Marsh’s opinion, the media didn’t overplay the significance of Isom’s exploits. “I believe some art lives forever and some doesn’t and both are important,” he said. “Willie Nelson’s recordings are important but so are sand castles.” Echoing Braudy’s sentiment, Marsh noted that Isom brought a bit of underdog cheer to a news story—the threatened burning of Qurans by a number of preachers around the country—that had left so many observers feeling resigned and helpless. “Even if it happened in Amarillo, it happened in everyone’s backyard.”
Marsh believes that for all the angst Isom is feeling about his notoriety, he’ll likely emerge wiser and stronger from the experience. Marsh remembered watching, some decades ago, a television interview with a girl who had been plucked from obscurity and honored for her bravery. Just what she had done escapes him. (At first he thought she had foiled an assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life, but that wasn’t right. Had she killed a prison guard in self-defense? He wasn’t sure.) But however foggy his memory of her specific circumstances, Marsh, decades later, was still struck by how her moment in the spotlight triggered a candid, if awkward, self-reflection. “She wasn’t quite a college girl,” Marsh said. “She was a dropout. I remember her being on Barbara Walters. And Barbara Walters said, ‘What are you going to do next?’ and this girl said, ‘I might go back and finish high school.’”
About an hour later, Isom and a few of the guys who had been hanging out in Marsh’s office headed to the basement of a Lions Club where they make the “Dude, you have no Quran!” T-shirts. They’d made fifty shirts and sold about forty. “We’ve gotten some orders from the U.K.,” said Jojo, who works at a screen shop. “Someone from Serbia ordered one!”
A lanky artist named Tate marveled at the response the shirts have gotten online. “Some people want toddler sizes and stuff like that,” he said. “That’s crazy.”
They waited for Isom to respond. When he didn’t, Tate handed him a T-shirt with a botched reproduction of his face on the front. Isom unfolded it and held it flat against his chest, smiling wide. Then he put it down, turned his back on the group, and started skating back and forth in the room, waiting for someone to change the subject.