Sunday, October 08, 2006

Dude, That Is So Not Funny

Wired Issue 14.10 - October 2006

Eric Bauman made big bucks posting other people's homemade grossout videos to his Web site. Now the geeks whose clips he swiped on the way up are trying to knock him down.
By David Kushner

CLICK. AN OBESE NERD burps a tune into a soda bottle. Click. A gawky teen puts fireworks into his mouth and lights them. Click. A deer suckles a horse. Like millions of young drones, Kelli Rinaudo is spending the afternoon surfing dumb videos on her PC at work. With her next click, Rinaudo uncovers a shot of a dude passed out on a couch, his entire face covered in black Magic Marker by some prankster. "Hey, Eric," Rinaudo hollers, "check out this marker job!"

Over from another cube ambles Eric Bauman. A diminutive, unshaven 26-year-old in a T-shirt and khakis, Bauman has short, dark hair, bushy eyebrows, and a passing resemblance to a Baldwin brother. He expertly assesses the photo. It's original, way more interesting than the usual cock-and-balls and "bitch" scrawls that typically end up decorating the faces of people who pass out on a fraternity couch. It's clear, crisp, well lit. Heck, it's just flat-out hilarious; the dude looks like he crawled out of Bigfoot's ass, Bauman thinks. He pivots and gives Rinaudo the thumbs-up sign. The shot will be posted on eBaum's World, the insanely popular – and profitable – Web site for goofy home-brewed media that has made Bauman the king of dot-comedy.

A lot of people think the stuff on his site is sophomoric, tasteless, offensive, and just plain dumb. And it is. But everyone loves a good sideshow, and Bauman is the master carny of the online world. Every day, Rinaudo, Bauman's content manager (and girlfriend), sifts through thousands of online videos, animations, jokes, photos, and games. She looks for the crème de la crème of DIY lunacy – or, as she puts it, "idiots doing stupid things." Each week, Bauman carefully selects eight links to add to the site. Then he turns the idiocy into gold.

Viral media is all the rage these days, and Bauman runs one of the few viral sites actually making money. Without spending a penny on direct advertising, he's turned the high school hobby he ran out of his bedroom into one of the Internet's top-ranked humor sites, getting 1.2 million hits a day. There's a television pilot in the can, a book deal in negotiation, and a potential pact to bring eBaum content to cell phones. Annual ad revenue has doubled over the past year to $10 million, and the only overhead is bandwidth and salaries: Bauman is becoming a rich man. He has 30 employees who handle the coding, marketing, financial affairs, and assorted office details. He drives a shiny black Porsche Carrera. Besides gobbling up real estate around town and gas wells in Kentucky, he sponsors heavyweight boxing champ Hasim "the Rock" Rahman.

But Bauman's success hasn't just brought him riches and trips to Vegas. It has also gotten him mired in a messy brawl. His site has been hacked, his office vandalized, and his mug distorted on numerous online sites dedicated to attacking him. "Maybe Zeus and Thor will smite that whore," goes the theme song for the animated site EbaumsWorldSucks. "Oh, eBaum's World is going dowwwwwwn!" Bauman is not laughing. "We get death threats all the time," he says.

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