In Tales of the Early Internet, Mashable explores online life through 2007 — back before social media and the smartphone changed everything.
Charlie Schmidt is lucky, and he knows it.
What else could explain it? Millions of people have cats. Millions more have cameras. And yet in one remarkable, silly, charming, captivating moment those two things came together in a way that would change the world wide web forever.
“I expected somehow that somebody like you would call me,” the creator of the iconic Keyboard Cat muses in a conversation had over a decade since his viral hit. “What do you want to know?”
Here, told step-by-step, is how Charlie and his Keyboard Cat won the internet lottery.
Step 1: Be yourself.
Charlie has lived in Spokane, Washington most of his life.
It’s not the kind of place popular people on the internet typically live, the 69-year-old artist says: “You can’t be ‘cool’ in Spokane. You just can’t. They will kill you.”
Innately creative, diagnosed with , and “unusually short,” Charlie was an energetic and artistic kid born to immigrant parents. His Polish father was a trucker and his Italian mother ran a beauty salon out of the family’s basement.
“You can’t be ‘cool’ in Spokane. You just can’t. They will kill you.”
“I went to a really poor Catholic school with like the poorest parish on the planet, and they couldn’t afford anything except for construction paper and paste. There was nothing there. My parents had dreams for me to be like a scientist or a doctor or a lawyer or something — and that was all fine and good. But there was no art.”
Charlie made what he could with what he had. His mom helped.
“Whenever she’d get a new package of nylon stockings — they were stretched over a piece of real thin cardboard that was white and it was rounded on the corners so it was kind of nice paper — my mother would give me that and I would draw on it each time, both sides. I wish I still had those drawings. I’ll bet they were really weird.”
When it came time for college, Charlie moved roughly 75 miles south to pursue a dual degree in architecture and chemistry at Washington State University: architecture because the “arch” bit sounded almost like “art,” and chemistry for reasons unknown.
Both areas of academic study were, as Charlie puts it, “boring” and “terrible.”
“One day I was walking home to my dorm late in the afternoon and it was kind of cold out, getting dark, and I passed by this building and it said ‘Fine Arts’ on it,” Charlie recalls.” It was a whole building just for art. And I thought, ‘Nobody told me about this. What the hell is this?’”
Step 2: Struggle, be cold, get a cat, hit record.
Art school was good for Charlie. Almost too good.
“I proceeded to just indulge myself in art, day and night,” the alumnus recalls. “My professors actually criticized me for making ‘too many’ paintings.”
When WSU began looking for art students to participate in a Tokyo-based study abroad opportunity, Charlie jumped in. Jumping back home was harder.
“Returning home to the States, the culture shock was devastating,” he says. “I’m still dealing with it, honestly. When I went over there, in ‘71 or ‘72, I had really long hair down to my butt and I looked a little like — the front panels of my pants were just covered in paint because I wiped my brush on them so much, and I wore Army boots with a biker jacket. I was a real oddity over there, sort of famous. Everybody wanted to hang out with the American hippy art guy.”
And yet, when he returned to Spokane, Charlie was in for a surprise. His hometown had undergone a transformation and was now “rife with weirdos.” Even donning girlish pigtails on his trips to the local K-Mart, Charlie says, he wasn’t noticed by anyone.
Dispirited, Charlie landed an unfulfilling job at an ad agency, and promptly quit. Then he worked at a TV station, took graphic design commissions, and paid his bills with the spotty spoils. Over a decade passed that way, until 1984, when Charlie stumbled on the idea that would change his life.
It was a cold afternoon in Charlie’s apartment — so cold he remembers a thin layer of ice floating in his toilet bowl. With the heater off to save money and nothing else to do, Charlie and two of his friends began making quirky videos “just because they could.”
It was Charlie’s turn to use the camera and there was Fatso, Charlie’s beloved orange cat asleep by the keyboard. In his new self-published book, titled Charlie Schmidt’s: Anatomy of a Meme, Charlie recounts the moment inspiration struck:
“A little teal JCPenney baby shirt was laying next to the keyboard. I hastily put it on her […] She was starting to wake up. Still I needed a song for her to play. So I got on my memory keyboard which would store anything you play […] I remembered that someone told me if you stay on just the black keys, it will sound good. They were right! I banged out a simple tune, which had to be random because I am not a musician. Then I recorded it. I had the tripod, aimed at the keyboard and recording. I grabbed Fatso, held her up to the keyboard, and hit ‘play’ […] The drum intro played and when the song started, the magic happened.’”
They just needed two takes. (Fatso “knew she nailed it” the first time, Charlie writes.)
And with the day’s work done, the orange cat went back to snoozing and her debut performance settled into Charlie’s video archive, where it too would sleep for many years.
Step 3: Save your work.
Fast-forward to 1998. Charlie is married. He and his wife have a daughter, Sydney. As a father and a husband, Charlie has a lot more responsibilities. Still, he remembers those videos.
“[Around two-years-old] Sydney started getting old enough to be able to watch videos and appreciate their strangeness,” Charlie recalls of his now adult daughter. “So I thought, ‘It’s time to show her all my really cracked up videos. This is what I made them for, now I know!’”
“I panicked, which was a good thing.”
By that point, however, Charlie had made hundreds of zany, unique, artistic videos and stored them on a collection of tapes just as eclectic — some VHS, some Betamax, some cassettes, all kept in large plastic bins. To make matters worse, many of the tapes were in bad enough shape that playing them once, let alone repeatedly for a toddler, meant risking their contents’ survival. One wrong move and Keyboard Cat could be lost forever.
“I panicked, which was a good thing,” Charlie says with a warm laugh, the kind characteristic of narrowly avoiding catastrophe. “I bought a bunch of computer equipment and digital transfer equipment, and spent two months off from my graphic design work to digitize all my videos. I had a feeling, just a feeling of ‘Maybe there’s something there.’”
Sydney, of course, loved them. And when Charlie learned about the new video sharing platform YouTube, he thought others might enjoy them too. On June 7, 2007, Charlie uploaded the original Keyboard Cat under the unassuming title “Cool Cat,” and it was, in his modest view of the internet, a winner.
“It started getting like 30 hits a day,” Charlie recalls. “To me, 30 hits a year would have been a big deal. So I was happy. I felt rich and famous.”
But Charlie wasn’t rich and famous — and neither was Keyboard Cat. Not yet.
Step 4: Get a call from a guy named Brad.
In 2009, Charlie got a phone call from a guy in New York. Brad O’Farrell, 35 years Charlie’s junior, worked for (now Omnivision Entertainment) and understood internet culture in ways Charlie — and much of the planet — didn’t yet.
“It was doing 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 hits a day. I was counting on not getting that many in my whole life.”
“I had never even heard the word ‘meme.’ But Brad said, ‘I think I could make your video famous.'” So, the pair struck a deal and “Play Him Off, Keyboard Cat!” was born.
Brad used Charlie’s “Cool Cat” as a kind of stinger for “fail” videos, a genre already ludicrously popular on YouTube. Keyboard Cat accompanied bad falls, surprise fires, Miss South Carolina , and more in a kind of Vaudevillian homage-turned-meme. Brad’s videos started raking in views, and Charlie’s Keyboard Cat was riding the wave.
“Within three days, my YouTube channel went absolutely bonkers. It was doing 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 hits a day. I was counting on not getting that many in my whole life.”
Keyboard Cat started getting attention from brands, celebrities, and news outlets. tweeted about him, parodied him, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart referenced him, it just kept going. Of course, the concept of something “going viral” was still new, and Charlie was overwhelmed.
“It just started spiraling. It was in the millions. And I didn’t know my butt from third base about how to negotiate any of this stuff or protect myself legally. [My video] was on the internet, so everybody thought it was free.”
Step 5: Get a call from a guy named Ben.
Then Charlie got a phone call from a guy in Portland. Ben Lashes, coincidentally the son of one of Charlie’s closest friends in Spokane, was reaching out on behalf of indie music distributor CD Baby. Charlie had recently contacted the company about making a Keyboard Cat album.
“He goes, ‘Remember me? Ben? I got your autograph from you when I was in third grade.’ I was doing weird stuff on local TV back [when Ben was a kid.] So of course, I said, ‘Ben! It’s great to hear your voice!’ and he just goes, ‘Are you making any money on this cat thing?’”
Charlie accepted, Ben quit his job at CD Baby, and their partnership began.
Soon, Keyboard Cat was a world-wide hit — around the globe, internet surfers could hardly boot up without Fatso’s stiff little arms banging away at the keys. Not that she was around to enjoy it. In one of the enduring oddities of internet history, Charlie’s feline friend had died over 20 years earlier.
News of Keyboard Cat’s death hit the internet hard. (Charlie credits CNN’s Jeanne Moos with breaking the news to the nation in a hilarious report you can still watch today.) Charlie had grieved the loss of Fatso in 1987, but millions of strangers just meeting Keyboard Cat struggled to accept the demise of someone so young in internet years.
At Ben’s urging, Charlie visited animal shelters in search of another orange tabby to play the keys. He came home with a boy named Bento. Within a week, Charlie got an offer from Wonderful Pistachios.
“He said, ‘I’ve been talking to them and they offered $800,’ and I said, ‘Wow, let’s do it!’ And he said, ‘Are you kidding?’”
“I sent Ben [the offer] and said, ‘Look, they said that I could be in their commercial for free, and then I’ll be famous!’ And Ben said, ‘No, we’re going to do better than that.’ So he called me back the next day and said, ‘I’ve been talking to them and they offered $800,’ and I said, ‘Wow, let’s do it!’ And he said, ‘Are you kidding?’”
By the time negotiations were finished, Charlie, Bento, Sydney, Joanne, and Ben were on an all expenses paid trip to Hollywood to shoot Keyboard Cat’s Wonderful Pistachios commercial in the same studio once used to film “I Love Lucy.”
Charlie and Bento made an additional $25,000 for their trouble that day, and they weren’t done yet. Wonderful Pistachios used that commercial for five years, while Charlie and Bento did additional work for their website: “I ended up making another $120,000 from this nut company.”
In the years that followed, Bento did promotional work for , Starburst, the Shelter Pet Project, and more. He was written about in People, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and more. He appeared with Green Day, John Oliver, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and, yes, more. Bento even played of Animal Planet’s 2014 Puppy Bowl.
Meanwhile, Fatso’s iconic performance continued — and continues — to make the rounds as an artifact of early internet excellence. At the time of writing, the original Keyboard Cat video on Charlie’s channel is closing in on 60 million views and merchandise continues to sell.
Put plainly, Keyboard Cat was, and still is, a huge asset. When Warner Bros. used a Keyboard Cat image without permission in the 2009 video game Scribblenauts, Charlie sued the entertainment giant for copyright and trademark infringement. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, but underscores Charlie’s right to compensation for his work.
“I mean, I still work the cat thing like crazy. We’re making money on YouTube, licensing, a whole myriad of things.” Just last month, Elon Musk announced the Keyboard Cat song would be . Charlie can’t share how much that deal made him.
Step 6: Repeat.
Still, the legend of the Keyboard Cat lives on. Charlie now posts videos of Keyboard Cat 3.0, a beautiful little boy named Skinny, to his YouTube channel and routinely revisits the work of Fatso and Bento. His content doesn’t garner the attention it once did, but that doesn’t bother him.
“People ask me all the time, ‘How do you make a meme?’ And I think a lot of times they’re thinking, ‘Oh, I can get this dumb shit to tell me how to do this, and we can get rich off our dog!’ But I tell them, ‘You know, it’s just like the lottery. If you want to win the lottery, just buy a ticket.'”
But, don’t forget, the odds of winning big in the lottery are 1 in roughly 300 million. So, once again, it must be said: Play ’em off, Keyboard Cat.