Chatroulette Piano Improv‘s Merton on YouTube Takedowns, Ben Folds and What’s Under That Hoodie

The man only known as Merton quickly shot to the top of the YouTube (s GOOG) charts in March thanks to his slightly profane but charming musical interactions with Chatroulette users.

So I talked with the creator of Chat Roulette Funny Piano Improv via Skype about the deals he’s been offered, his reaction to Ben Folds’ video response, and his negotiations with YouTube (or lack thereof). An edited transcript follows.

NewTeeVee: So, how long have you been using Chatroulette, prior to making the first video?

Merton: Prior to making the first video, about two days.

NewTeeVee: How long does the typical session last? I imagine you edit these down quite a bit.

Merton: Very, very, very edited. I do it late at night. It’s almost like a party on Friday or Saturday. I’ll do it from 10 p.m. on, often until 3:30 a.m.

NewTeeVee: How long did it take for you to start getting recognized?

Merton: I waited almost a week and a half after the first video before going back on, and by that point most people knew who I was. And then I did it a couple nights ago, about two and a half weeks later, and everybody knew who I was.

NewTeeVee: I know you’re working under a fake identity. Why are you doing so?

Merton: I didn’t plan to make YouTube videos. I was just going on Chatroulette for my own enjoyment. And I think anonymity is really enticing in a situation like that. You know, like on Halloween you’ll do a bunch of stuff you would never otherwise. So I knew I would be less self-conscious and more creatively free if I was in disguise.

NewTeeVee: Where does the name Merton come from?

Merton: I looked at the pictures of my character and it just immediately came into my head. There was no competition whatsoever. That had to be it.

Screen shot from this morning's Skype chat.

NewTeeVee: I can’t tell what makes your hoodie look so large. Do you have really big hair?

Merton: I’m wearing enormous headphones because once you start doing music on webcam, you have to be able to hear the other person really well and not have your computer speakers blaring sound out, because it really complicates the sound situation. Most of my guise is strictly utilitarian.

NewTeeVee: Is this your first experience creating a character this way?

Merton: Definitely. I have no public presence otherwise.

NewTeeVee: Have you been approached with offers or potential deals that come from being viral?

Merton: Yeah, I’ve gotten tons of offers — a lot of daytime and nighttime talk show offers and some product endorsements. It’s hard to say if I’m really interested in doing an ad for some shoe company whose product I don’t wear or some soft drink that I don’t really agree that people should put in their bodies. So I don’t really know about any of that.

NewTeeVee: So it hasn’t been musically related stuff? It’s just been random brands?

Merton: Disappointingly, Steinway Pianos has yet to contact me. But yes, I did get something that I believe was from the actual Golden Grahams cereal. For some reason they thought I’d be a good role model for their people.

NewTeeVee: It’s interesting you’ve never had any interaction with Chatroulette as an company.

Merton: They’re kind of a faceless organization. I can’t contact YouTube either. I’ve had an impossible time having any kind of dialogue with YouTube — they are impenetrable. For good reason. I mean, they deal with millions of people and they don’t want everyone calling and saying, “Yeah, my video’s not playing. What’s the problem?”

NewTeeVee: When you saw that your first video had been taken down, how did you work out what had happened?

Merton: I don’t want to air my dirty laundry with YouTube publicly, but basically they just deleted the video with no explanation. When we put it up again, we took the opportunity to blur out a couple of people who seemed to be underage, because we felt like that might be one of the issues and so that’s why when we put it up again there were a couple of blurry people.

NewTeeVee: Other YouTube virals have been approached for partnership. Were you?

Merton: If this was a human, I wouldn’t talk about them behind their back like this, but since they’re a big, faceless corporation…They’ve approached me for each of my videos. I replied saying, “I’m responding to your request for partnership. My videos are like this. I’m concerned that maybe this might be an issue, this might be an issue.” And rather than address any of those concerns, they just said, “Your videos are not eligible.” And that was all.

NewTeeVee: So your videos went viral, YouTube approached you about a partnership agreement, you said, “I would like to communicate about these issues,” and YouTube’s response was “Your videos are no longer eligible”?

Merton: Exactly. No dialogue whatsoever. I know some of the higher-up viral video people are in direct contact with YouTube, but I haven’t been allowed behind the curtain yet.

NewTeeVee: How do you now go about the process of getting people’s permission to use them for videos?

Merton: What I do is as soon as they come on the screen, I very quickly paste a little message into the text area that says “I may be recording this. If I have your permission to possibly post this video online, please say yes and give me a thumbs up.” We consulted an attorney about how to word it.

And if people say no, I assure them that I’m not going to put them on YouTube and we then both relax and I still play music for them. That’s some of the purest interactions I have because we’re both off stage all of a sudden and we just relax and have a really nice time with it.

NewTeeVee: How much more life do you feel this idea has? Like how many more videos can you put out before people are just done?

Merton: It’s a really good question. And the question is, “Which people need to be done in order for me to stop doing it?”

I know the trendsetters think it’s a onetime concept and it’s not going to be fresh again. But a lot of people still laugh on the other end of my camera and a lot of people still laugh when they watch the videos and I enjoy doing it, so I’m not sure if I would stop if all those factors are still in place.

NewTeeVee: With that in mind, do you have plans to evolve what you’re doing?

Merton: I have ideas. I wouldn’t call them plans. I haven’t decided if Merton needs to always stay in this little box, and that’s the comfortable context for us to see him or if it would be fun to see Merton on the swing set in the park or in the grocery store singing at random strangers.

NewTeeVee: What was your reaction to the Ben Folds video that came out after yours?

Merton: I love it. I think it’s great. He looks like he’s having so much fun. He’s a person I admire a lot musically and he’s a great comedian. He has a really good mind for that kind of stuff. And you know, his version is different. He can’t be as subtly nuanced because he has a screaming audience behind him, but he can do this whole other very powerful thing because he does have a screaming audience behind him.

NewTeeVee: Does Chatroulette have value beyond novelty as a communications device?

Merton: I think it does. It’s always going to be a strange communications device because you can’t choose with whom you’re going to communicate. But I think they should keep that format because I think that’s what makes it special. It’s inconvenient that there’s a bunch of naked dudes on there, but the fact that they can do that allows me to do what I do, in a certain sense, because there’s freedom all around. If that’s what has to stay in order for it to stay a free speech situation, that’s fine with me.

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