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The rise and fall of an Internet sensation 

Wednesday, May 12 2010
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Being Epic Beard Man had long ago lost its thrill: "I just feel like everyone wants a piece of me," he says. "I'm just so tired of it all. I wish the phone would stop ringing. All the guys I do know now, I don't know who's who when they call."

Bruso mulled his options. He said he didn't want to move back to Wisconsin to live with his sister. Actually, at his age, he didn't really want to be uprooted at all.

Pinky sat up on his seat, wagging her tail. "I know you're goin' crazy, too," he told the dog. He even thought he might have to get rid of her, because taking her out seemed an insurmountable hassle.

He looked away from the TV, where the news was playing in the background, and apologized for being so down. "This story is starting to get bad now, huh?"

Internet stars often can cash in on their fame. Tay Zonday, the singer behind the "Chocolate Rain" video, went on to star in a Dr. Pepper commercial and record an album. Obama Girl appeared on Saturday Night Live. Yet people who never intended to be famous, unwittingly plucked from anonymity and thrown into the limelight by the Internet masses, tend to fare worse. A stoned-looking Oakland guy who called himself Bubb Rubb became famous for a clip in which he told a KRON-4 reporter he was getting whistle tips installed on his exhaust pipes that would make a "Woo wooo!" sound. Though people made a documentary about him and sold Bubb Rubb thongs and mousepads online, he says he never made squat.

"We like to see people melting down," says B. Remy Cross, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Irvine who studies social media movements. "It's like America's Funniest Home Videos for the Internet generation."

"Most people are doing this in their free time when they want to be entertained," says Chris Menning, who helped write the extensive entry on Epic Beard Man for the Know Your Meme Web site. "Most users are less concerned with getting to the bottom of it than perpetuating the myth of it."

Yet in Bruso's case, the same mental problems that incited him to kick a dude's ass on a bus in the first place have made it hard for him to handle fame.

In early March, King hired Nathan Maas, an S.F. State film school grad who had made an online documentary about Bruso, and his coproducer, Aaron Curry, to return to Bruso's apartment to ask him some questions on camera for a screen test. They lobbed softball questions — What's your favorite kind of pot? Do you have any girlfriends? It was soon after Bruso had missed his mom's funeral, and he mostly gave one-word answers.

"His whole demeanor had changed; he was a completely different guy," Curry says.

But in the week after Bruso got his eviction notice, King and Moss flew up from L.A. unannounced to pitch him some good news. They wanted him to come to Southern California for three weeks to film an Internet movie in which Bruso avenges the murder of a black family member. During the meeting, Bruso seemed worried about his eviction, Curry recalls, and was fearful of talking to them without his managers present.

After King and Moss headed back to the airport, the three managers filed into Bruso's room and sat down. The place was immaculate. No weed. No cigarette smoke. Bruso said he had quit cold turkey two days earlier.

Bruso paced the room. He turned down their offer to go to Giant Burger; he could still hardly eat. "You're losin' weight, bro," Burton said. Bruso got out a tape measure to size up his quickly vanishing paunch: "Holy fuck! It's down to 39 and a half," he said. "I've lost 8 and a half inches since October. It's not because of trying; it's because of the stress."

Burton told Bruso he needed to stop worrying, and promised to help him find a new place (and in the following weeks, his managers did, indeed, scout out housing and visit Bruso regularly to try to pull him out of his funk). "They want you in L.A. in two weeks if we can get your mind right. They want you there next week if we can get your mind right. It happens when you want it to happen."

Yet there's a paradox here: Epic Beard Man is a character that happens only when Bruso's mind is not right, and Bruso is no actor. His depression must be coaxed to the right level of madness. And this may be his last chance: Views of the fight video have plateaued at four million, and Google searches for "Epic Beard Man" have flatlined. Producers have rejected as too incendiary the fight video Washington's agent was trying to sell. Turino grew tired of the managers bickering over the control of the donation Web site and shut it down.

"How are your prescriptions, Tommy?" Loughran asks.

"I'm not taking anything," Bruso answers. "I don't have a doctor right now. I don't want to take any medications."

"Are you better without it?" Loughran asks.

"Yeah, I'm better without it. If I take medication, I'm going to be like a fucking zombie. I'm not going to be able to do anything. I'm not going to have no action, no anything in me. ... That psychiatric medication is no good."

"The highs are the highs and the lows are low; that's manic depression, you know," Loughran says.

"You know, the best medication is some good weed."

"I'm not saying no," Loughran chuckles.

Bruso continues, "But I don't want to depend on that because that can get you superdepressed if you smoke too much of that, too."

Bruso says he's sick of all the prank phone calls. "These little kids telling me I'm their hero — I'm not a hero, man! You look at my prison record, I'm not nobody's hero, you know."

About The Author

Lauren Smiley

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