Internet Famous: Sad Kermit
The millions of people who have enjoyed Sad Kermit can thank a remarkable bit of happenstance in Columbus in the mid-2000s.
Guitarist Daniel Hagquist was fooling around before a rehearsal with his band Phantods and sang a few bars of Elliott Smith's "Twilight." Phantods singer Gretchen King told him he should try singing it in a Kermit the Frog voice. So he did.
Filmmaker Max Groah had been approached by Phantods to direct a video for their song "Lone Highway." Before a meeting with Hagquist and King, Groah and friend Darell Day were, quite randomly, listening to some music on the internet.
"We were just listening to a MySpace page. Sad Kermit," said Groah. "Some dude in California, and there were about five covers of horrible songs."
Unbeknownst to Groah at the time, Hagquist had listed California as Sad Kermit's home city to cover his digital tracks, a fact that was soon revealed when Day mentioned what they had been listening to prior to the meeting.
"I remember Gretchen kind of flipped out. 'I'm telling!'" recalled Groah. "So Gretchen is, like, Dan is Sad Kermit. That is Dan. And we were blown away right then. We randomly found Sad Kermit. Randomly brought him up at the meeting for another project. And then immediately right then we were like, we gotta make a music video for Sad Kermit."
A weekend of filming spitballed ideas yielded the video for Sad Kermit's version of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," a short masterpiece of hilarious juxtaposition that found the beloved Muppet in a downward spiral of drugs, depression and prostitution.
The filming was a hodgepodge of ideas and random props: a kid's guitar, fake vomit made from oatmeal and plastic crickets, hypodermic needles acquired by sending a friend to a Target pharmacy ("Yeah, I have a friend who's a diabetic, and I need to pick up the smallest hypodermic needles you have.").
"Even the doll we used was this nasty from-the-'70s worn-out Kermit doll," said Groah. "He just looks blah."
Groah edited and posted the video soon after the shoot. "We put it up on YouTube," said Groah. "Not a lot of shit was going viral back then. It was kind of before the heyday of Reddit. Stuff didn't trend." The video got a few hundred views, mostly among friends. Then, virtually overnight, it had spiked to around 400,000.
Sad Kermit actually went viral in 2007 in a decidedly old-school way: over-the-air radio play. "I started getting all these messages from radio stations, like, is it cool if we play your music on the radio station," said Hagquist. DJs were also imploring listeners to check out the video.
More fuel for the viral fire was a comment debate on the YouTube post. "All the comments were basically a debate about whether Johnny Cash did the song first or Trent Reznor," said Hagquist. "Almost all of them."
In a couple weeks, "Hurt" was pushing 2 million views - until it got taken down by Disney, which had bought the rights to the Muppets from the Jim Henson Company a couple of years earlier. (An early fan had uploaded the copy that is now the most-viewed version on YouTube, topping 3 million.)
A collective of lawyers doing pro bono work to protect parody and other YouTube takedowns called the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) offered to take the Sad Kermit case. Hagquist recalled a conversation where he was told, "We can take on Disney if you want us to." (They declined.)
"They mentioned 'childhood icon," said Groah, "Which means there was a meeting at Disney with a bunch of older people around a table, and they all sat there and watched our video. And I guarantee you half the room tried not to laugh."
At the height of Sad Kermit's internet fame, there were interview requests from everyone from the Associated Press to Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, who had Sad Kermit on his early webshow, via an edited clip.
A second video was made for Elliott Smith's "Needle in the Hay," a double parody on the famous suicide attempt scene from "The Royal Tenenbaums." That clip didn't have quite the same viral impact, although it did get the approval of "Tenenbaums" cinematographer Robert Yeoman.
The Sad Kermit team also may have had an ironic impact in the resurrection of the iconic characters. "When that first Muppet movie came out?" joked Groah. "I know Jason Segal watched Sad Kermit and was, like, Kermit downward spiral ... interesting take. Let's make a movie about that."
Apart from some (mostly anonymous) internet notoriety, the Sad Kermit team largely broke even, at least financially. A friend of Hagquist who hosted the Sad Kermit website (sadkermit.com) was hit with $600 in bandwidth overage charges for a spike in downloads of the video, so Hagquist tried to offset that loss by selling T-shirts online. He sold a little more than half of a run of 300 shirts before finally donating them to a charity. "There's [probably] some fucking softball team in, like, Galena that has all Sad Kermit shirts," laughed Groah.
Despite the impermanence of viral fame, Sad Kermit is forever.
"We made zero money. Got a little recognition. But it's always ours now," said Groah. "Like, we made that. You made that? Yeah, that's us."