The story of how a promo video filmed in 2011 by a local theater troupe for its new show ended up on The Shade Room in 2016 is the story of so many viral videos: Created with intention, it eventually finds an audience through circuitous means, slowly and increasingly obscuring the original. "Crazy Chick Flips Out in Barnes & Noble" was shot to go viral, but even its creators cannot have expected its success: To date it has accumulated tens of millions of views across a variety of sites, each restarting the debate:
"Is this real?"
"Who's Paul Sheldon?"
"A character from that movie Misery."
"Yeah, but is this real?"
It's a testament to the director, who specifically shot it to ape cell-phone videos, and the actress, who plays the part of lunatic customer so well that viewers hope and believe it's not a performance. After it was posted on The Shade Room, I was so taken by the woman that I needed to hear her story.
First, I contacted the Generic Theater in Norfolk, Virginia, whose YouTube page first posted the video to promote a run of an adaptation of Stephen King's Misery. They directed me to Jon Bremner, the show's director, who first had the idea to shoot the video, and Celia Burnett, the star of the short, who at the time was the theater's costume designer and, unsurprisingly, one of the actresses set to play Annie Wilkes in the show. This past weekend, we spoke on the phone about how the shoot went down, how it first went viral, what it's like to have people still debate whether it's real, and exactly who was in on it. But, first, here is the clip one last cockadoodie time:
How did this all start?
Jon Bremner: I was sitting at a production meeting for the show and said, "I have a good relationship with the Barnes & Noble engagement manager, and they've given us full access to do whatever we want for a day." We had just done a zombie flash-mob there and it was wildly successful. And when I was in charge of putting my own show together, I really wanted to activate that connection. When I met with the community engagement manager, I said, "Would you mind if we had someone flipping out screaming at your counter?" She asked what was happening, and after I explained the concept of the video she was like, "That's awesome." As far as approvals was concerned, that was it.
That worked out. Celia, how did you react when asked?
Celia Burnett: I thought it was a good idea. What's interesting is that Jonathan double cast the show: There were two Pauls and two Annies. And I remember people talking about how I was the only one who had improv experience, so I should be the person who does it. Katy, who was the other Annie, said to me, "Wow. You can improv? That's amazing. I can't wait to take an improv class and learn how to do it." And if I had been on my toes that day, I would've been like, "Katy, for $1,000 I'll teach you how to improv." But I didn't. A great regret of my life.
How did you prepare for the shoot?
JB: We wanted it to look candid, so we didn't plan on having any lights, and we didn't want a fancy camera. The only thing we did was put a microphone behind the counter. Then we talked to Celia for maybe like five minutes.
CB: All the staff knew that it was going to happen. I met the clerk I was going to be talking to, but that was just saying hello. It was like, “Go be Annie asking for a book. When they don't have it, freak out.”
The guy behind the counter was in on it?
JB: Absolutely. He volunteered. He was ecstatic to do it. We ran it once where there was no screaming. Then we talked for like a minute to go through good things for him to say. I asked if we could use a computer, knowing that sometimes at Barnes & Noble, if they don't have a book, they'll ask to get it at another store.
Were there other plants?
JB: Right before we shot, I grabbed people who were on the crew and had them standing in line. If you pause at a certain point, you can see I'm standing behind Celia.
CB: At the very end you can see the whole cast trying not to giggle and break out laughing.
JB: The girl with a stroller, that wasn't planned at all. It was about 60–40, planted actors vs. actual customers.
Celia, what was going through your head as you were doing it?
CB: All I thought at the beginning was I hope I don't get arrested. Because when we did the zombie one there were calls to security about people walking around in zombie makeup because there was some rule about not being able to walk around the mall in disguise. So I hoped no one would freak out. But when I was doing it, I wasn't worried about anything. I was just doing it. I was in it.
Was the big scream and pause planned?
CB: That was me. I was doing it and thought, I gotta ramp it up. What should I do? It was funny when I was doing the pause, the clerk was just so normal: "Ma'am ma'am ma'am."
JB: That was something actually in the script for the play Misery — Annie has these moments where she just blacks out.
What was it like afterward?
CB: Everybody applauded. Not that many people came up to me, though.
Then what happened after you put it online?
JB: While the show was running, we only had a couple hundred views. Everyone thought it was a trip, but it didn't quite have that viral switch yet. That came when the drag queen Mimi Imfurst in New York shared the video.
JB: She just happened to find it on YouTube. That’s when it started with, "Hey y'all, there's something here that you don't get." That’s how Mimi framed it, and she had enough of a following that the rule of powers took effect. I have a friend who knew her, so I was able to reach out and thank her for sharing it.
Did you expect people to not understand what's going on?
CB: I realized not too long after the play was over and saw the comments. Some people were familiar with the character, saying, "Oh yeah, that's fake." And there are some people who think it's completely real, which is so freaky. People putting comments like "Who the hell is Paul Sheldon?" The weirdest thing to me are the people who think that I just decided to pretend to be Annie Wilkes and go into this bookstore and bother these people while they're working.
JB: From my end, it was totally intentional, from the camera choices to how we held the camera to the type of lens we used. Everything was chosen to make it look like a cell phone in someone's hand. And the title was very intentionally misleading to give it that viral punch. "Crazy chick flips out in Barnes & Noble," because that's what a cell-phone passerby would've labeled the video, as opposed to a production team that had thrown this together intentionally.
CB: Every four or six months someone will say something like, "My cousin in Michigan sent me this video that she said was hilarious, but it was you." Or I just saw something that was like “the five craziest customers” and there's my freaking face.
JB: I've been trying to track the total number of views, and it's become impossible at this point. The only confirmed number I can actually give is 25 million between Facebook unique shares and the original YouTube video. At this point, it's got to be somewhere around 40 or 50 million.
It recently went viral again because The Shade Room posted it. What’s interesting, though, is that the clip is edited down.
JB: Well, out of context any single moment from that video sells itself. There are people who do that thing where you have the photo of Celia standing there in the darkness and the cashier leaning over her shoulder and they just zoomed in on his face, being like, "This guy, though." He was their favorite part of the video.
Do people recognize you, Celia?
CB: Every once in a while. Sometimes people will go, “You look familiar to me.” And I'll say, "Well, I'm an actress, you might've seen me in something." And I'll do the whole, you know, “I worked at this theater, did murder mysteries here, was a member of this group.” Then I'll say, "You ever watch 'Crazy Chick Flips Out in Barnes and Noble'?"
I will say the main reason it doesn't happen too often is I don't look much like Annie Wilkes. In my real life I wear makeup and big jewelry, and I dress quite a bit more colorfully than her. Sometimes I think it's a bummer that I've become somewhat known for a video in which I present myself at my most plain.
JB: Every once in a while I can't sleep and I'll troll the internet about it. I love posting a comment and saying, "No, this is completely what's going on." I'll always get a couple people who fire back and go, "Oh, how do you know?" And it's so satisfying to be like, "Well, I directed it.”
CB: It's always funny when a new person starts where I work. Someone in the office will say "Celia does theater and stuff." And I'm like,"Hey, let me show you a video."