Two EW writers seek expert help on how to become an online phenom. The ''Chinese Backstreet Boys,'' Numa Numa Guy, and ''Star Wars'' kid paved the way, but can anyone become a viral video star?

By Scott Brown and Jason Adams
June 16, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

For all we know, we’re famous by now. Seriously, y’all. No, we weren’t famous last time we checked. More desk monkeys (by a power of 10 or two) have flocked to ”The Juggernaut Bitch”, an X-Men cartoon redubbed in hip-hop-ese; and ”Shining”, the trailer for The Shining cleverly recut as a romantic comedy; and the ”Ask a Ninja” series, where a ninja answers fan questions on ninja gift-giving and ninja musical taste.

But every moment we sit here on our increasingly famous rumps, more people watch our Web short. Perhaps you’ve seen it. Perhaps you’ve LYAO. IMHO. FYI. If so, domo arigato: We are become Viral, Waster of Time. Thanks to you, our mini-masterpiece is now moderately ubiquitous — no bird flu, to be sure, but no three-dose fungal outbreak either.

At press time, more than 7,000 Web-sumers had supped at the trough of ”Cheater!/ Whose Leg Is This?”, a video manufactured by Entertainment Weekly senior editor Jason Adams, video artist Jason Averett, and writer/buffoon Scott Brown to test the new starmaking phenomenon of online viral videos. Ours is the one with the mannequin. Yes. That one. Needless to say, our world has changed. People on the subway used to be an anonymous mass of scary strangers. Now they’re an anonymous mass of potential fans.

Here’s the wonderful thing about Web fame: It’s organic, democratic — and thus earned. We watched our numbers on YouTube and Google Video grow: First by the tens they came. Then by the hundreds. Then…back to the tens. Then we hired a marketing firm to force our genius on the world. You know…organically. ”Suck on that,” we told our 14-year-old lip-synching/backyard-wrestling competition. And though our video ”reeks of effort” and is ”not funny,” according to certain nattering Net nabobs, we’re convinced this is only the beginning. Actually, the beginning came more than a month ago, as the following diary makes clear.

May 4 Our managing editor wants an Internet story. The call goes out for ideas. Adams stops Brown in the hall, says he’s noticed how not-famous he’s been looking lately. Brown’s like, ”Yeah, what’s it to you, bub?” Adams e-mails Brown the following: ”What we’d like to do is create our own viral video, and see if we can — with the help and advice of de facto experts at places like CollegeHumor, YouTube, Google Video, MySpace — break our own viral video into the mainstream.” Brown shoots back: ”It’s on!”

May 5 A plot is hatched: Our Web video will be funny. ”Comedy is, by far, the most viral content on the Web,” explains Shawn Gold, senior VP of marketing at MySpace. ”Probably a distant second would be spiritual content.” We size up our godliness: It is next to our cleanliness, which is to say nearly nonexistent. We go with funny. This isn’t original, of course. ”People are trying really hard to be funny,” warns Miguel Monteverde Jr., executive director of AOL Video. ”Believe me, we see a lot of stuff that isn’t that funny.”

May 10 Our team consults Brown’s longtime writing partner, Upright Citizens Brigade improv comedian Anthony King, via e-mail. ”Any thoughts on how to structure it so that it hooks immediately?” King asks. The ”hook” question is critical. ”The hook of the piece has to come in the first 10 to 15 seconds or you’ve lost the viewer,” advises Ricky Van Veen, cofounder of CollegeHumor, a powerful broker of Web shorts. ”This isn’t television. Your hand is on the mouse.” He adds: ”Music always helps” and ”Shorter is better.” And this nugget: ”If you’re going to make a fake viral video that’s made to look low-budget, make it with no budget.” A quick e-mail exchange with our managing editor confirms that we have no budget. Done and done.

May 11 Our brainstorming grows more urgent. Probably not what preceded the birth of, say, ”The Juggernaut Bitch.” Effort and strategy are just two of the elements separating a genuine grassroots phenomenon and a cynical corporate simulacrum of a grassroots phenomenon. ”Most viral videos seem to have — this is a partial list — an immediate hook; humor; violence and/or sex; and pop-culture references,” says King. We had been considering a Scary Movie approach, Wayansing together a spoof pastiche of popular Web videos: the Star Wars kid, the Numa Numa guy, the Chinese Backstreet Boys, Brokeback to the Future, the Andy Samberg/Chris Parnell Saturday Night Live rap skit ”Lazy Sunday”, the Dancing Baby, etc. But Brown is having second thoughts. ”Takeoffs are pretty common — I’m thinking of all those Star Wars kid clones — and they rarely match the mojo or the Web traffic of the original.”

That’s when King and Brown pitch the idea that will become Viral Video 1.0. It involves a thrown-together song, two pop-culture icons, a dash of nostalgia, and some unlicensed clips, cunningly edited by Averett. It utilizes preexisting footage, eliminating the need for actors and sets. And it gets the CollegeHumor seal of approval. ”Nostalgia works well,” says Van Veen. ”It may sound counterintuitive, but a video targeted towards a specific group will end up having a bigger reach than something targeted towards a big group, because the people in the small group will feel more attachment to the joke and be more inclined to pass it on.” Malcolm Gladwell, eat your heart out.

May 16 The video is shown to our managing editor and select insiders. Tentative back-patting ensues. But the video doesn’t go live. It goes somewhere that most viral videos never go, unless they’re in biiiiiiig trouble. It goes to the lawyer.

May 19 Our beautiful video is dead, eaten by lawyers. Seems we have infringed on not one, but two copyrights (and one trademark). Granted, hundreds of other Web videos are infringing on them as well. But we are reminded that this is Time Inc., not a 14-year-old’s computer room. The offending short is encased in kryptonite, drowned in holy water, and shot into deep space. A bigwig at a Hollywood talent agency who’s following our project remarks over e-mail: ”Isn’t the point of the Web to forgo things like legal matters? ;-)” Desperate brainstorming begins anew.

May 21 Eye-popping visuals. Lavish Busby Berkeley-style dance numbers. Everything is on the table. Until we decide we don’t want to work that hard, especially on something that, everyone agrees, can’t be more than two and a half minutes long. Then Adams has a genius idea: Look at the competition. Roughly 5.5 million people watched two young Israeli women lip-synch the Pixies’ ”Hey”; more than 600,000 watched a young woman identified only as ”Brookers” lip-synch Chicago‘s ”Cell Block Tango”; nearly 51,000 watched a clip called ”8 minutes of absolutely NOTHING worth watching,” starring a moderately attractive woman, talking about, well, nothing. ”We’re going to make the Seinfeld of viral videos,” Adams says, ”a video about nothing at all.”

May 23 Adams purchases a mannequin over the Internet. Brown gets the distinct feeling this has nothing to do with the story. He’s wrong. The new idea is to shoot two minutes of the mannequin sitting, doing nothing. In the background, we’ll play an ambient instrumental track composed by staff writer and beatsmith Neil Drumming. And that’s it: a moderately attractive female-shaped object, doing nothing.

May 26 The mannequin arrives in a large box. Adams insists we call her ”Becca Kelly.” Adams creates a Gmail account and MySpace page for Becca. Adams points out that, in many ways, Becca is more ”real” than Brown, who possesses neither a Gmail account nor a MySpace page.