Sex, Drugs & Memes: Rolling Thick with Ben Lashes, Scumbag Steve, and the Bad Boys of ROFLCon

Credit: Ariel Shearer

There's a jovial shit-mouthed wise-ass standing in an outdoor foyer at MIT, chain-smoking Newports and hitting on every girl who walks by. He's the 22-year-old whiteboy from Massachusetts whose actual birth name is Blake Boston, but who became widely known as Scumbag Steve after a pic of him sporting a backwards hat, gold chain, and fur G-Unit hoodie was poached off the MySpace page for his suburban rap crew – the Beantown Mafia – and re-appropriated as a universal symbol for degeneracy.

He's here for the third biennial ROFLCon, where trend-setting engineers of web mirth ingenuity spent Friday and Saturday geeking out in the company of real-life memes like Steve. In addition to him, other headliners include Antoine Dodson, whose synthesized memetic banger, “Bedroom Intruder,” has been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube. While more than 50 million people flocked to The Avengers this past weekend, the 1000 nerds at ROFLCon cheered on a far more eclectic band of superheroes – not to mention ones who you could interact with. I was there less than 10 minutes before getting stoned with Paul Vasquez, the California native who became known as Double Rainbow Guy in 2010, when a video he captured at his Yosemite-side farm went viral.

Hovering around this motley scrum is Ben Lashes, a pacific northwest punk rock vet who looks like one of the Lost Boys. Lashes stands out from most other ROFLCon-goers; with his crisp Air Jordans, crooked black fitted hat, and matching shades, he's easily the nerd gathering's coolest-looking attendee (besides the leotarded Tron Guy). It's a fitting image; according to social media authority Mashable, Lashes is the world's first and only agent for memes, with a roster that includes such marquee names as Nyan Cat, Rebecca Black, and Scumbag Steve.

Credit: Ariel Shearer  

Lashes entered the meme scene in 2009, when he put his music career on hold to work full-time with Charlie Schmidt, a longtime family friend whose “Keyboard Cat” video took off in April of that year. Schmidt had a range of business opportunities, and tapped Ben to handle phone calls, merchandise, and rigmarole so he could get back to his lifelong passions – painting, making videos, and pursuing any number of artistic adventures. Two years later, Lashes now has a growing client list of new millennium stars with a common power for winning hearts online.

At the last ROFLCon in 2010, I broke bread with Schmidt and Lashes. We partied, drank heavily, and even hung with the Gregory Brothers of Auto-Tune the News fame. It was a surreal offline experience among creatures from every absurd nook on the net, and I won't soon forget it. Still that romp didn't ready me for what they had on deck this time around.


Charlie Schmidt didn't have enough dough to crank his furnace in 1986. So he spent the winter of that year quarantined in one small corner of his Spokane, Washington home, which reeked as if his kerosine space heater was barbecuing the cardboard that he sealed the living room off with. Unemployed after quitting a nine-to-five with a graphic design firm – Schmidt says he “just needed to make art,” and his art only – he also didn't have the means to purchase painting supplies. Luckily, the year before his wife Joanne had gifted him a Beta movie camera, giving Schmidt an affordable expressive avenue.

Schmidt still has the first work of art that he ever created. It's a ballpoint illustration of a guy peeing, scribbled in a pocket-sized spiral notebook. To this day it gives the 61-year-old as many laughs as he guesses it did when he drew it 50 years ago. Even back then he was exploring various mediums, and used to make clothes on his family's sewing machine for Figaro, a skinny orange cat that Schmidt adored as a child. That artistic gusto never dulled, and by the mid-80s he found himself shooting dozens of short sketches every week – many of which featured a chubby white-chinned feline named Fatso.

Schmidt struck some success in 1985, when he won a local television station's funniest home video contest for some forgettable tomfoolery. That submission earned him a meeting with a Hollywood agent, which led to a series of commercial gigs overseas. Before those paychecks came, though, in 1986 Schmidt was struggling to stay warm – spending days making art in his pajamas, and nights praying that his toilet didn't freeze. On the frigid morning that he propped Fatso up to his Ensoniq synthesizer, Schmidt had no clue that he was recording a classic. More like he was trying to get the shoot finished quickly, so as to avoid catching the wrong end of Fatso's irritable bowel syndrome.

A trained drummer, Schmidt effortlessly wrote and recorded a ditty for the bit, then loaded a “meow” sample in the keyboard. From there he mounted his camera on a tripod, and in just two takes was able to convincingly move Fatso like a marionette, making it appear as if the cat was a smooth-operating piano man. The spot didn't garner immediate attention, though another video that Schmidt shot the same week – of a silly trick involving him pressing plexiglass against his nose – landed him on national talk shows, as well as work on a London-based variety hour. “Cool Cat,” as he called the Fatso clip back then, did however become a Schmidt family favorite.

After sitting on the tape for 20 years, Schmidt uploaded the 55 second-long “Cool Cat” video to YouTube in June of 2007. It had been more than a decade since Fatso joined Mozart and the Big Bopper above us – and Schmidt had sold his synth for $50 in the late-'80's – but he still had faith in the old tabby, as did New York blogger and meme aficionado Brad O'Farrell, who interpolated a spin-off in which Keyboard Cat turns up at the end of clips to stroke an encore for epic fail scenes. Within weeks of O'Farrell's “Play him off, Keyboard Cat” getting posted in early 2009, countless users were mixing and re-mixing their own versions, many of which clocked millions of plays.

Having done creative deals before, Schmidt knew that he needed help negotiating with the vultures who were sniffing around. The artist is best friends with Lashes's father, a newspaper columnist in Spokane, and Schmidt had even designed an album cover for Ben's first band, a garage punk outfit called the Stoics that dressed like an army of Pee Wee Herman clones. So soon after the call for assistance came, Lashes quit his job at a music distributor, and began working full-time with Schmidt, handling everything from getting buttons made to securing YouTube royalties. “I couldn't be happier with all of this,” says Schmidt, “Keyboard Cat really is the voice of the people.” Adds Lashes: “I like to say that he's the Elvis of internet cats.”


I'm standing with Schmidt and Lashes outside of the ROFLCon entrance. They've been out here for most of the first day, playing hookey from the panel talks like convention delinquents. Scumbag Steve is with them, posing for pics with giggling co-eds. In between requests, Lashes offers some branding advice: “You're supposed to look down girls' shirts when taking pictures with them.” To which Steve replies, “Don't worry about me – I just got her number. I'm getting laid tonight.”

NOTE: Woman above was NOT Scumbag Steve's date

By the time I get back up with Steve, he and his hype man – an old kindergarten friend from Wellesley who goes by Naked Dave – are cheers-ing cocktails at the ROFLCon party, chilling with two girls who they met earlier. I overhear Steve tell his date, “People always told me I'd be famous with a name like Blake Boston.” He's not exactly an archetypal mall hood; for one, he wears a championship ring from his days as a Medfield lacrosse goalie. But suddenly I realize that there actually are similarities between the Blake before me and the scumbag who we've come to know as Steve. In addition to his nonchalantly foul vocabulary, he's also wearing the same gold-patterned hat from the original picture.

Apparently I look like a scumbag,” says Steve, who embraced the meme soon after discovering its wide resonance last year. He was an out of work chef at the time, and figured there was little to lose. “At first it was kind of difficult, because who wants to be best friends or family members with a scumbag? You can't beat the internet though, and now I'm having the best time of my life. I didn't know anything about memes before I became one, but this is all awesome, and I owe it all to the internet. I guess I just got lucky.”


Despite the rumors running through the conference halls, Scumbag Steve did not get laid following the Friday night festivities. It wasn't for a lack of trying, or because he couldn't seal the deal, but rather because him and Naked Dave had no place to take their dates, since ROFLCon dropped the ball on booking them a room. So after they got dirty with their girls outside the bar, the degenerate duo crashed the hotel room of Brad Kim, an editor from the website Know Your Meme who Steve was scheduled to present with on Saturday.

NOTE: This was not Scumbag Steve's date either

The next afternoon, Steve and Kim are sitting in front of nearly 200 people in an MIT auditorium. The former is wearing the same clothes as the day before, and is visibly exhausted from sleeping poorly on the floor in Kim's room, and from doing interviews all morning. Still he wins over the crowd, which is glued to an overhead projector flashing a medley of Scumbag Steve memes. When asked how he identified before his face became ubiquitous with poor behavior, he deadpans: “Back then I was just Bitch-Ass Blake.”

The lulz continue through more serious issues, like how the Scumbag Steve meme was used during the Arab Spring uprisings to mock Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek. But the discussion turns a bit more serious when the topic of ownership comes up. Last month, Pepsi posted a Scumbag Steve promo ad on YouTube. Only the company didn't bother to contact Lashes, and instead hired an actor to dress like Steve and spout off lines inspired by the meme. The results were disastrous, with a pathetic number of page views and a litany of comments from outraged fans demanding the real Scumbag Steve.

“People want to take advantage of us because we're so underground,” says Steve, who told the audience at his panel that his fraudulent doppelganger “gets no ass.” After the poor response and a torrent of angry tweets from Steve and his fans, Pepsi offered to fly him to Los Angeles, where he'd get an opportunity to confront the imposter on camera. But the company refused to pay for his time, and so Steve told them to go screw. According to Lashes: “The internet's not stupid, and a lot of these companies still have yet to realize that. People who know about this stuff and who love these characters aren't going to be mad if a cool meme is in a cool commercial – but that's only so long as it plays to their intelligence and to the rules of the meme."

Lashes spends most of his time helping clients synthesize with paying outlets. In 2010 he landed Keyboard Cat a commercial deal with Wonderful pistachios. Last year he helped Chris Torres, the 26-year-old Dallas-based illustrator behind the Nyan Cat meme, secure a video game deal with 21st Street Games in Manhattan. What started as a joke sketch – of his cat, Marty McFly, floating on a rainbow-powered toaster – turned into the boost that Torres wasn't getting from his long-time livejournal site, lol-comics. With Lashes by his side, he's now hoping to get Nyan Cat a line of Pop Tarts with rainbow frosting. “I have no idea why it has 70 million views,” says Torres, “but right now Nyan Cat is soaring high above the universe spreading joy and happiness.”

I'm not the first one to say this, but having a meme happen is like hitting the lottery,” says Lashes, who sees it as his job to guard the winnings. To protect the legal rights of his clients, last year the meme manager enlisted Los Angeles attorney Kia Kamran, who is currently helping Schmidt sue a company that sold Keyboard Cat shirts without compensating Fatso. Kamran has represented acts ranging from Don Ho to Evan Dando, and joined Team Lashes on this year's ROFLCon voyage. Lashes continues: “There's way more shit on the table for us now than there ever was before. In one sense, a lot of [companies] still think they can screw us. In another sense, though, people who wouldn't answer my calls a year-and-a-half ago are calling me now.”


With little difficulty, on Saturday night Lashes convinces meme stalwart and real-life California taxidermist Chuck Testa to join the clique for their final ROFLCon dinner. Over apps and beers, they all discuss the possibilities in front of them – Keyboard Cat dolls; Scumbag Steve's plan to drop a new rap song every week, and eventually a proper album. Then, after a few rounds it's time to head over to the nearby Middlesex lounge, where Steve is scheduled to perform his debut single, “Scumbag Steve Overture,” which was just released on YouTube. His mother, an interior decorator who drove in from the 'burbs for her son's panel, is in tow along with Naked Dave and Testa. “You're cock-blocking me,” Steve barks at her, only half-jokingly. “Don't you know that nobody wants to fuck you while your mom's around?”

Steve is visibly nervous for the show – that despite support from some passing college girls who chant his name as he turns a corner near the venue. Though he's been rapping in basements for years, nobody cared much until last week, when his "overture" wracked up more than a million views in its first two days online. The tension loosens though when Steve gets on stage, and as the packed room erupts with approval at the sight of him and Naked Dave jamming with Testa, who's singing back-up in his trademark hunting gear.

Once Steve finishes, Antoine Dodson steps in to tear shit up. The flamboyant YouTube hero also has a record dropping soon, and Lashes has been courting him all weekend, telling Dodson to call if he needs management. The rocker-turned-agent of anomalies hopes to build a memetic Def Jam or Sub Pop, and tonight his dream is fast-manifesting, as Dodson is joined by Steve, Dave, and Testa for a raucous encore. By the time that Double Rainbow Guy and the redheaded CopperCab of “Gingers Do Have Souls” renown jump in, the whole crowd is elated – but especially Lashes, who grins and gushes: “This is just the beginning.”

Twenty minutes later, all the nerds and memes clear out, and the regular Middlesex crowd files in. Most of them have no clue that their favorite guilty pleasures just serenaded the joint en masse, though a few people do take pics outside with Double Rainbow Guy and other stragglers. While things are winding down, a bouncer tells Steve to remove his hat before re-entering, and says that Naked Dave has to keep his shirt on. Looking somewhat pissed, with a Newport wedged in the corner of his mouth, Steve looks at a cluster of ROFLCon peeps, raises his arms, and yells, “Does anyone out here think Scumbag Steve should have to take his fucking hat off?” Without hesitation, they give him a unanimous thumbs up as he walks off waving both middle fingers in the air.

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