I’m getting ready for bed when I get a text. Several texts. Plus a few Facebook messages. “Come to Domenic’s in Cuyahoga Falls. / Right Now. / We are doing the interview now.” I’ve got my toothbrush in my hand, but I sense that this moment should not be passed up. I jot down some questions and pull up KnowYourMeme.com on my phone as I start the car. I’m about halfway there when I get an unexpected jolt of excitement. I’m about to meet an internet icon.
Unless you’ve somehow avoided the internet in the past few years, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Kyle Craven’s face. His awkward high school yearbook portrait is unforgettable: The non-hairstyle dome of blond hair. The squint and the contorted smile. The bottom lip possibly caught on braces. The shining fleet of top-tier braces. The cosmic purple background that costs parents a few extra bucks. The powder blue polo under the generic red plaid sweater vest. You know…Bad Luck Brian.
In 2012, the kid in that photo became internet-famous when a friend turned him into a meme. The initial Reddit post read, “Bad Luck Brian: TAKES DRIVING TEST…GETS FIRST DUI.” But like a hit song that almost wasn’t, it needed something extra. A few hours later, an inspired author gave it another go: “TRIES TO STEALTHILY FART IN CLASS…SHITS.” That version appealed to a wider audience. More remixes followed, and they were then liked, shared, re-tweeted, and seen by millions of people.
In the corner of the bar, I recognize Kyle immediately, but only because I’ve studied a recent photo. His boxy frame fills out a fantastic Hawaiian shirt and his hair is cut close. He’s hamming it up with some randoms before I walk up to introduce myself. It’s karaoke night and I can barely hear him through the din.
“I’ve done a lot of interviews,” he yells. “Let’s hang out tonight.”
Kyle’s vision for the night is to have some drinks. So many, that I’ll have to Uber home, which he’ll gladly pay for. Or better yet, I can just crash at his place, right around the corner. I buffer his excitement when I tell him I have to pick up a friend from the airport in the morning. Kyle shrugs this off and insists on picking up the first round. While he’s away, I take in a slam poetry version of “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”
Kyle’s back with Miller Lites. I ask how often he’s recognized in public. He says that other than frequent Redditors, not too often. A more common interaction is a sort of deja vu. He acts it out. Someone will look at him, their face twisting from confused to focused, then back to confused. They know his face, but aren’t sure from where. This can happen up to three times a week.
“Do you fuck with people?” I ask. “All the time,” he says.
For Kyle, it’s a good thing he doesn’t look exactly like the meme. He gets to live comfortably in Cuyahoga Falls with his wife and his dog while co-running a lucrative church building business. He’s good at his job, he loves it, and he wants to keep it that way. If the skinny, brace-faced meme was walking around a construction site, people might start asking questions. Especially if they saw his picture online with a caption like, “GOES TO A STRIP CLUB… MOM WORKS THERE.”
It could be worse. He could be the Scumbag Steve meme, who looks pretty much the same in real life. Kyle’s had the chance to meet him.
“Is he an actual scumbag?” I ask.
“He is exactly what he is. He’s a scumbag.” Kyle says. “I’ve been trying to set up a boxing event with that kid. I said I’d knock his ass out. He’s actually a nice guy.” Kyle’s just trying to drum up some beef, but he’s got another point. There’s a risk of becoming your own joke.
The Bad Luck Brian photo was staged, by the way. “I was a prankster in high school,” he says. “I loved doing jokes. This was one of them.” He bought the vest at a thrift shop. He rubbed his eyes and cheeks to make his face red. His friends were behind the photographer, making faces so he would crack up.
Next thing he knew, he’s getting pulled out of class by the principal. He would have to turn in the photo and take a new one. But Kyle had worked too hard to be censored. So he scanned it before he turned it in. The photo sat on his Facebook profile for four years before his friend, Ian Davies, called Kyle up to confess his deed. The rest was out of their hands. Bad Luck Brian was now a meme.
When evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, he was seeking to explain how ideas proliferate in human culture. A meme is an idea that behaves like a gene and self-replicates like a virus. In this case, the idea was a naïve, virginal boy who somehow turns every scenario into the worst case scenario.
It’s hard to tell why Bad Luck Brian caught on, but it did. Maybe it was the schadenfreude and catharsis he provided. He became a lightning rod for social awkwardness and embarrassment. The worst thing that could happen didn’t happen to you—it happened to Brian.
According to Google Trends, search interest for Bad Luck Brian peaked in June 2012. Since then, it’s flatlined to around seven percent, but Bad Luck Brian is still a sought after commodity. He’s been referenced in a Volkswagen Super Bowl commercial, and he’s met Snoop Dogg and Seth Rogen.
He even makes appearances at conventions like VidCon and Indy Pop Con. Sometimes he’ll bring along Brian’s maker, Ian, as his plus one. He dons a polo and vest then stands in front of a giant Bad Luck Brian banner to shake hands and take pictures. “I don’t think I’m famous at all,” he says, “but when I make somebody feel good about themselves, it makes me feel good about myself. So I love doing that.”
Out in LA, Kyle has been to baroque mansion parties with nude mermaids and famous YouTubers. He tries to show me some evidence on his phone. “Damn it,” he says,”I can’t find the Oompa Loompas.”
As our night out progresses, Kyle wants to change venues to show me some weird local culture. We move to another bar, where the crowd seems to be seventy percent older black guys with pork pie hats. The DJ’s getting into it, singing along with “The Electric Slide” while the video plays on a projection screen. It’s fascinating. We don’t stay long, but Kyle manages to cut loose on the dance floor, unbutton his shirt, and annoy a few dancers by backing into them.
We make it back to Kyle’s. We haven’t had the big night he envisioned, and I’m sober enough to drive home. Before I go, Kyle shows me his office, which is littered with Bad Luck Brian swag. There’s Bad Luck Brian T-shirts, cartoons, and a disturbing 3D printed, red-lipped figurine. He’s has a Playboy signed by the model on the front, with whom he shot a funny video. He holds it sideways and the centerfold flops out.
When I get home, I look up Kyle’s “Ask Me Anything” Reddit session from 2012 and find this exchange: A user, iMaffy, asked, “Has becoming this meme affected everyday life for you?”
“Not yet,” Kyle replied.