Bob Ross Was an Internet Celebrity Before the Internet

It's like Bob Ross knew YouTube and Twitch were coming.

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Feb 20 2016, 3:00pm

Bob Ross. Image: Wikimedia

Of all the '90s nostalgia heroes out there on the internet, none approach demi-god status quite like Bob Ross. The soft-spoken painter with an afro yields a kind of magic that is more potent today than when he was alive two decades ago.

Now, fans make and sell Bob Ross is a Lego figurines on Etsy. HGTV made a Halloween costume. He's a Google doodle, and the subject of Buzzfeed lists. More than 50 people dressed up like Bob Ross for a bar crawl in Chicago last year. He's been a Family Guy joke, or more recently, in My Little Pony. Even YouTube celebrities can't seem to get enough of him. In 2013, he faced off with Pablo Picasso in Epic Rap Battles of History, and PBS' remixed video of his famous sayings is one of their most popular videos ever.

Nowhere is Ross's internet fame more prominent than on the gameplay streaming platform Twitch, which airs Bob Ross reruns every week. Following a successful 200 hour Bob Ross marathon last October in honor of his birthday, which more than 5 million people watched, Twitch made the Ross reruns a regular event.

Bill Moorier, the Head of Twitch Creative, told me he "never knew it would be this successful." The reruns now air twice on Mondays, convenient for European audiences. "He has this global appeal," explained Moorier, of the two showings.

Surprisingly (or not), the Ross rerun channel is one of Twitch's most popular, and comparable to top pro-gamer channels, drawing in about 5,000 viewers at all times, even this Monday. A whole community and language has sprung up around these re-runs, including specific jokes like typing RUINED! or SAVED! in chat while Ross is painting, or pretending like Ross is alive and asking why he never interacts with them. There's even a Bob Ross emoji, which is used to convey chillness or smugness, usage and user depending.

As Annette Kowalski, the co-founder of Bob Ross Inc, said in a phone interview, "he's gone viral, and he would be so pleased." She thinks something like this was bound to happen, eventually.

But why?

"It definitely seems like there is a bit of a dissonance between what Twitch is as a culture and what Bob Ross represents as kind of a philosophy and attitude" said Lana Polansky, a digital arts critic. It is exactly this dissonance, though—aggressive gamer culture versus Ross's calmness—that explains the Bob Ross love. He is the yin to the internet hate machine's yang. "He's got that perm and that really soft spoken chilled out demeanor and people like to compare him to Jesus Christ as he has that sort of vibe," said Polanksy. "A lot of people want to shrug this off as some weird, irreverent sort of joke," she continued, "but I think a lot of people really need what [Ross] is, I guess, preaching."

Did Bob Ross know when he was alive a small depiction of his head would flood chat rooms, and this very act would calm some gamer rage? Probably not. But also, maybe?

"There's not one thing that Bob said or did in front of those cameras that he hadn't well thought out and planned—he knew exactly the effect he was having on people" said Kowalski.

That voice of his—which people now have called the father of ASMR videos—is just one secret to his immortality. The other, interestingly enough, is the format he followed.

"Out of all TV shows of that era, he was really talking very directly to his audience, just in the same way people do now with vlogs" said Moorier. Back then, Ross' habit of talking to the camera and his audience as if he was their friend and creating this sense of intimacy despite the very public broadcast, was just him doing another kooky thing. Bob Ross being Bob Ross, talking to his viewers about life and happy little trees again. Vloggers who film from their bedrooms or cars today don't think twice about talking into the camera and spilling their guts out. It's so commonplace, it's hardly worth mentioning. Ross though, was a pioneer.

"Everybody feels this personal connection with Bob Ross" said Moorier, "he is at the same time really relaxing and incredibly motivating."

Besides talking to his audience, Ross was interactive in a way that was very atypical of TV shows back then, but is standard today. He would share fan mail and fan art on air, dispense wisdom and advice unrelated to painting, and even answered questions and took suggestions from his viewers as to what his next video should be about, just like many YouTube celebrities do today. It makes sense then that his episodes would resonate with modern, younger viewers, who grew up watching a similar interactive format.

Ross was also very DIY—the The Joy of Painting episodes, in case you didn't know, were filmed in his basement. Beyond that, his episodes are also very reminiscinent of How-To videos, another staple of YouTube, but with a more motivating spin. "If you listen closely, you'll never hear Bob say 'I am going to teach you this,' Bob says 'let's learn this together,'" said Kowalski.

Ross would also, on occasion, bring a cute little animal he was currently nursing on as a guest, including various birds, baby deer, owls, raccoons, and many squirrels including his pocket squirrel Peapod. In other words, Bob Ross was YouTube before YouTube was even a thing. He knew all about cute animals as clickbait.

He was "very particular" about everything when it came to his show, said Kowalski, even to the point of being "stubborn." To this day, Bob Ross, Inc continues to run his company exactly as he had intended, Kowalski said. His immortality is a not a fluke—it is the result of very specific actions Ross himself took while he was alive.

Bob Ross Inc is also not aggressive with Bob's image—per his request when he was alive, Bob Ross Inc only charges money for painting lessons and paint (and now t-shirts). Bob Ross himself even did his own painting show The Joy of Painting for free.

Hence, Bob Ross Inc is lax in enforcing copyright, which is why fans are free to remix Bob Ross' image, and why he is still in our hearts today twenty years after his passing.

The content Ross made in the 1990s was created to be broadcast on television, but the more dominant aspects about his episodes seem like they were meant for an audience of the future, for people of the internet. And in many ways, we need Bob Ross more than ever—his positivity and low-fi calmness is a soothing balm on our fast-scrolling, overwhelming and often times cruel, digital world.