One day last year, Malcolm Ramos was on his second date with the woman who is now his girlfriend. They were watching a movie on his laptop, when a notification popped up on his screen.
“Tim Allen Grunt Every Day,” it said. They both stared at the screen. He promptly shut his laptop.
“What was that?” she asked him.
“Nothing,” he said.
A few months later, as their relationship got more and more serious, Ramos realized he would have to tell her his secret. By then, he was a year into a project that has recently reached its culmination. Every day, he had been recording a video of himself performing Tim Allen's trademark grunt from the 90s sitcom Home Improvement, and uploading it to his YouTube channel, Maximum Malcolm. The goal was to get Allen to notice, and to grunt back at him.
Fortunately, Mali thought it was hilarious. But it wasn’t until January 13th, 2020, that news finally reached Tim Allen himself. In an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, the host told him about the young man’s ongoing project. Prompted by Kimmel, Allen agreed to grunt, though not without visible reluctance. To Allen, Ramos seemed like some obsessive fan, a potential stalker. He told Kimmel "when it goes bad, you end up in court."
But Malcolm Ramos isn’t a Tim Allen fan. “I’ve never seen a single episode of Home Improvement,” Malcolm told me. “I haven’t seen any of his movies except for Toy Story. And I didn’t even know he was Buzz Lightyear until a couple of years ago.”
So why did he, without fail, upload 1,032 daily consecutive videos of him doing the Tim Allen grunt? It doesn’t really have much to do with Allen himself. Ramos had noticed the grunt as a meme, from remixes of the sound or a hacked version of Doom that replaced every audio file with it. “Me and my friends were always just making that noise to each other,” he said. Watching the videos, you’ll often come across Ramos’s family and friends in the background. They are stoically unperturbed by him breaking out into a grunt, going about their domestic tasks or carrying on conversations.
He uploaded the first grunt on March 3rd of 2017. Sitting in his car, with his hair longer than it is now, Ramos greets his audience with the universal salutation of YouTube: a cordial “hey guys.” After describing the gist of his project, he emits the noise he would go on to repeat for nearly three years.
The video quickly rose to surprising heights — at 138,000 views, it is still his most viewed upload. One early commenter wrote “I love you.” From thereon, his grunts garnered a steady audience but never reaching the view count of the first video. Most of the comments from the first year or so of videos come from people going back to the early videos, presumably binge-watching them all in rapid succession.
In spite of his posts having caused the occasional awkward moment, Ramos grew to consider the process a positive aspect of his life. “It’s like a journal,” he told me. “I can look back on and see little glimpses of my day. And since I usually take the video at an unflattering angle of my face, it has allowed me to stop caring about that kind of thing as much. It sort of forces me to be a little bit silly every day. Like if I’m in a really bad mood, I still have to do the grunt. It got me out of my head.”
All along, aware of the huge gulf between a YouTuber like him and a household name like Tim Allen, Ramos nonetheless had faith that Allen would eventually notice him. But it made for a dynamic he’d never previously had with a celebrity. Before the Kimmel episode, Malcolm said, “I’ve inadvertently given Tim Allen so much power over me, because it’s up to him if I ever finish or not. All he has to do is respond.”
Getting noticed by celebrities is a longstanding aspect of social media — even when social media was relegated to pen and paper. Take guides like Italian rhetorician Guido Faba’s Summa dictaminis, from the 13th century, which show how to best get a response from a famous favorite. Faba presents a list of about 50 greetings one ought to use in letters to one’s betters, depending on your rank and station. As medievalist Ian Cornelius recounts, “a notary or chancery clerk would find sample salutations suited to letters from a son to parents, between brothers, from a student to a teacher, a subordinate to a prelate, a subordinate to a lay lord, a king to the pope, the pope to an emperor.” There is no shortage of modern guides that purport to teach you how to do that on Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms. For hundreds of years, the general advice has been to be nice and say interesting things. But, trolling, of course, is another proven way to get a celebrity’s attention.
The flattened social landscape that social media seemingly provides us coincides with its ubiquity as a part of our daily routine. Thus, a concurrent practice exists of users logging themselves doing the same daily activity. One Japanese man has been uploading daily videos of himself feeding cats for nine years. Another YouTuber, SaladGuy12, has uploaded 677 daily videos of himself eating a salad. So a daily attempt to get a celebrity’s attention is kind of a palimpsest, a meme within a meme. While Ramos is, to my knowledge, the first person to get a celebrity’s attention through a repetitive daily behavior, he’s not the first to try.
Ramos was first inspired by Toronto comedian Noah Maloney, who almost died while unsuccessfully trying to get actor Jason Segel to notice him by eating a photo of him every day. Maloney’s streak lasted 159 days; he stopped uploading the videos in 2017. To Ramos, in spite of his admiration of the concept, Maloney’s effort seemed “unhealthy and unsustainable.” On the other hand, each of Ramos’s videos lasted only a few seconds, and most were done in one take. The videos were taken wherever he happened to be at the time, often hanging out with his friends.
Ramos and Maloney’s projects fall under the banner of what I have come to call “notice-me-senpai” art. The phrase has its origins in anime, where a (usually) female character (kohai) repeats the phrase to herself while doing ostentatious things to gain the attention of an oblivious senior student or mentor (senpai). The phrase is itself used as a meme, both by people after a celebrity’s attention and those mocking them — sometimes with all the unfortunately gendered condescension the reference implies. The character is usually a hapless one, never getting the glance back that she longs for.
In the real world, too, no matter how much some of us desire it, seeking celebrity validation is usually a futile effort — even when the reply does arrive. As new media scholar Amanda K. Kehrberg puts it in her paper “‘I love you, please notice me’: the hierarchical rhetoric of Twitter fandom,” there is a mirror image quality to the whole thing. “The occasional reply a fan may receive does not create conversation,” Kehrberg writes, “it is, in its own way, as one-sided an act of communication as most fan messages.”
In a way, notice-me-senpai art is a commentary on the power dynamic between celebrities and civilians in the fragmented landscape of the internet. Though we all can, in theory, approach celebrities online, the fact remains that you’re trying to get the attention of someone who doesn’t know you exist. This was the source of the Sisyphean absurdity of Ramos’s project, rendered all the more symbolically rich given that he was not actually an admirer of Tim Allen — he just knew who he was.
That being said, Ramos didn’t start with a prospectus. He hesitates to call himself an artist, saying that he only considers his project art because “if I saw somebody else doing this, I would feel like it was some sort of abstract art performance.” He expected to get a few laughs for the original video, but didn’t even intend to continue the project for as long as he eventually did.
What he did expect, even before appearing on national television, was to build a following online. In the clusters of temporary community that perpetually bubble up on the internet, his kind of extremely specific meme tends to find a niche. His channel has 6,500 YouTube subscribers, which he gained initially through the subreddit r/DeepIntoYouTube. A post there about him, made about one year into his project, totalled around 6,300 upvotes, remaining one of the most popular posts on the subreddit. A Dutch YouTuber, inspired by Malcolm, began his own project in parallel, doing a daily Owen Wilson “Wow!” for hundreds of days, in hopes of getting Owen Wilson to do one back at him (he hasn’t). Because a Chilean YouTube meme reviewer featured his grunts, half of Ramos’s subscribers — he estimates — are South American, and many of the comments on his videos are in Spanish.
One reason Ramos kept uploading the videos was the positivity he found in his fanbase. “Everyone is so nice, which is really uncommon, I feel, for a YouTube channel or the YouTube community.” Comments say, “this keeps me going” or “this cheered me up.”
“The other day, this guy commented and said my ‘sister died today,’” Ramos remembers. “And then he said ‘Tim Allen Every Day Challenge! Hello from Chile.’”
Not willing to put myself through what is now a tried-and-tested way to get Tim Allen’s attention, I have no way of knowing when, exactly, the comedian first noticed Malcolm Ramos. However, when Jimmy Kimmel first brought up the project, Allen responded by referring to him as “the grunt guy.” We’ll probably never know whether Allen was briefed by Kimmel’s staff, or if he had already been haunted by his grunting online doppelganger.
Kimmel has made a trademark of featuring viral videos and memes on his show, but he and Allen took a fairly derisive tone towards Ramos. "Malcolm, I hope it was everything you dreamed it would be,” said Kimmel. “You can now get on with your life. You can find a spouse, maybe have a family. And who knows, maybe even a job would be nice." Then he plugged Tim Allen’s new show and cut to commercials.
Of course, Ramos does have a job — not to mention a girlfriend, who officially knows about the whole thing — but he wasn’t offended. “I was fine with them making fun of me,” he said. “I don’t think Tim Allen got it and I don’t blame him for being a little weirded out.” It’s no surprise that men of Allen and Kimmel’s age and wealth have trouble understanding internet humor. But Kimmel, Allen, and Ramos are all — in a sense — entertainers trying to get laughs. Part of the appeal of a talk show like Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which has been on air since 2003, is the familiarity of it. Like any late night host, Kimmel has running jokes. The Home Improvement grunt itself was a running gag in the first place. In a way, meme humor is part of this tradition.
Regardless of their mockery, Kimmel and Allen helped Ramos finish his project. Now that he’s done, he is of two minds.
“Uploading a grunt and checking the comments had become a part of my daily ritual that I enjoyed more than I may have realized,” he said, “and getting used to losing that is kind of a bummer. But I also feel relieved, accomplished, and strangely like I have more free time even though the grunts only took a few minutes.”
Ramos isn’t sure what he’ll do next with his YouTube channel. But he does know he won’t be doing it every day.