“Who’s that Pokémon?”
“Pikachu! … Goddammit!”
Ten years ago, a quick 14-second video captured a moment that would go on to collect more than 6.2 million views and inspire dozens of memes. It starred a young boy, Owen Karrel, responding to a popular segment that aired during weekly Pokémon episodes. Karrel’s gut-wrenching, angry “Goddammit!” after getting the answer to “Who’s that Pokémon?” wrong may seem innocent and borderline boring by today’s standards, but back in 2007, it was the beginning of something enormous.
Thomas Karrel, a 22-year-old graduate student studying international health at Tulane University in New Orleans, is Owen’s younger brother. He’s also the man who captured the video and put it on YouTube, kickstarting a cultural phenomenon. Thomas sat down with Polygon to discuss the meme he and his brother accidentally created 10 years ago, as well as the impact it’s had on his life since then.
“It feels weird to think it’s already been 10 years,” Karrel laughed, speaking to Polygon from his place in New Orleans. “The video isn’t a big part of my life anymore, but to be honest, it wasn’t a big deal to me when I first put it up, either. It’s kind of cool to see that people are still talking about it and checking it out.”
Despite creating one of the earliest and biggest Pokémon memes ever, Karrel comes across as a sincere, humble person. He doesn’t care about how infamous the video has become, and he tries to stay away from the fame that would come from being associated with it. Karrel’s the type of person who gets just as excited talking about Pokémon Go reigniting his generation’s love affair with Pokémon as he does talking about his future plans to join the Peace Corps and help underdeveloped countries in East Asia and South Africa.
When asked about how the famous video came to be, Karrel claimed that it wasn’t a big deal, and we could almost hear him shrug his shoulders over the phone. His 13-year-old self just thought it was funny to see his brother, a self-identified gamer, get upset over getting the identity of a Pokémon wrong.
“We were sitting on the couch and watching an episode of Pokémon on Saturday morning,” Karrel said. “It was on one of those retro TV channels that plays older cartoons, and he actually started yelling at the screen the way it's heard in the video. He started yelling at it, and I thought that was absolutely hilarious because it was in the moment.”
Karrel asked his brother if he would do it again so they could capture it on video, and although Owen thought the joke was dumb, he agreed. After Karrel showed it to their mom and got a reaction out of her, he decided to upload it to a site called YouTube, where he’d seen funny videos in the same vein floating around. Funnily enough, the only reason Karrel’s brother ever agreed to let him post the video on YouTube was because he didn’t think anyone would ever watch it outside of their close friends.
On Sept. 22, 2007, Karrel waited for the video to upload, added some tags and pushed publish.
“I went away for the summer, and when I got home in August, I decided to check on the video, and there were a couple of hundred thousand views,” Karrel said. “And I was shocked. Absolutely shocked. I'm still shocked. I guess a couple of people saw it and thought it was really funny, so they shared it. It wasn't long after that that the video really started blowing up.”
It became so big that it was eventually taken down after a copyright infringement notice was served to YouTube. Despite multiple videos mirroring Karrel’s original popping up, the young creator was upset about having his small contribution to the Pokémon community, a video he thought was pretty funny and he was glad to connect with other fans over, removed.
“I had to reach out to someone at YouTube to get it reinstated,” Karrel said. “It's always been this weird kind of journey in my life to have this video be associated with me.”
Although Karrel decided to go with YouTube, he admitted that the joke works much better as a shorter clip. In 2013, social media video platform Vine launched into the world, and creators realized they could use the six-second limitation to make snappier jokes. That led to this version of the “Who’s that Pokémon?” meme, which was released more than five years after the Karrel brothers’ original.
“There was definitely something about YouTube being a young site when that video came out that contributed to its success,” Thomas Karrel said. “I think that largely contributed to its success. I think if a popular Vine or Instagram person posted it [today], it would still do well because of the nostalgia factor.
“I'm not saying it's the funniest joke in the world, but it's something that people in our generation — people in their twenties and thirties — will get a kick out of because it's something we all grew up with and can relate to.”
After Karrel posted the video, his anonymity became somewhat of an obsession for people who tuned into his original gameboy659 channel — which still only has one video to date — to watch the video over and over again. Karrel recalls getting messages from people asking when the next video would come out and what he was working on next. Despite the pressure to create more videos, Karrel realized he didn’t want the life of a YouTube personality — years before that would become a viable career option.
“I thought about making more YouTube videos and maybe trying to make a channel, but I wasn't really into it,” Karrel admitted. “I realized I wasn't really trying to do it and it wasn't a life I wanted, so I kind of walked away from it. It’s the same thing as taking a video at a concert of something you thought was cool and showing your friends. That's all I did. It just so happens that millions of people thought it was pretty cool, too. I threw it on YouTube because I thought it would be a funny experiment to see what happened if it just went up, and, well, I guess I found out.”
A decade later, Karrel confessed he doesn’t think about the video much. Sometimes people will bring it up when they meet him and the conversation steers toward Pokémon, but for the most part, that’s a part of his life that is over. Karrel knows the joke and its origin have a page on Know Your Meme, a website dedicated to archiving and explaining popular internet jokes, but considering it’s never been a big part of his life before, he doesn’t think it needs to be one now.
“I was a 13-year-old kid who just saw his brother do something funny and wanted to put it on YouTube,” Karrel said. “I always really liked the joke, and I still hear from people who watch it now and really like it. The fact that people still find it funny makes me happy, but it's weird because it was never a big deal to me. It still isn't.”
It may not be a big deal to Karrel, but the joke became popular enough that the concept was used in Super Effective, a web comic from Canadian cartoonist Scott Ramsoomair which was published in April 23, 2008. In 2009, a four-panel blank template based on the joke was posted on SheezyArt, a website that became known for its prominent fan created art.
In 2015, a Twitter account dedicated to the game appeared and incorporated parts of the meme. Its legacy has continued today, with people tweeting the phrase, posting videos on Tumblr and new versions of the joke popping up all the time.
New game on my Twitter ... Who's that pokemon pic.twitter.com/m0hR4Z8txi— liam johnson (@liampokemongo) February 13, 2017
What amazes Karrel more than the endurance the meme has had is people are still discovering it for the first time. When asked if he thought it was strange that Pokémon continues to be the cultural icon it is today, Karrel pointed out that Pokémon Go proved there was an audience of players who still want to get their hands on new Pokémon games and reenergize that feeling of being a kid, wanting to be the very best.
“Pokémon was more than just a cornerstone of everyone's childhood,” Karrel said, pausing for a moment when asked about Pokémon’s continued relevancy today. “It was ubiquitous, it was like Lego. It was the biggest thing ever.”
Going forward, Karrel doesn’t think the joke will continue to be a big discovery kids make, but he acknowledged that’s not something he was looking to do. He’s okay with not having an everlasting persona online or being known as the creator behind one of the first viral videos Pokémon fans may remember circulating online.
For Karrel, if the future of his video remains something that 20- and 30-year-olds can turn to every once in a while to remember a joke they laughed at for hours when they were kids, than he’ll be happy.
“I just want people to remember the video as a stupid, funny thing that a kid who loved Pokémon thought was cool,” Karrel said. “That 13-year-old kid is so grateful he got so much positive attention and got to contribute to the internet in some way. If it's a way for people to get back into Pokémon and get a quick laugh out of it, that's a big win for me.”