Who gets credit for starting a meme? Usually... nobody — they're made too quickly and organically. In the case of one of the most famous bait-and-switch memes of all time, the "Rick Roll," we may be looking at something experts call convergent evolution. Did the Rick Roll originate with a piece of code on the message board 4Chan, or with a prank call to a local sports show in Michigan? And why does the Rick Roll have such staying power? Is it codified in the DNA of the song itself?
We explore the meme’s origin, the history of the song, "Never Gonna Give You Up," and its impact on both internet users during COVID-19 and on the performer himself.
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: Erik should be famous. But he’s not. Really.
Erik Helwig: I'm Erik Helwig. My internet persona is Hot Dad, and I make what I describe as emotional comedy music.
Amory Sivertson: Not famous. Should be famous? Maybe. His creative output on youtube is impressive in its own special way. And Erik is kind of a special guy.
[(sings) "CHILDREN LOVE THE MEAT TANK. CHILDREN LOVE THE MEAT TANK. OOOO"]
Erik: I have these songs that are, you know, I feel like pretty heartfelt about like really stupid topics. And, you know, like like I just like extremes ultimately.
Ben: But none of this–which is great!–is why Erik should maybe be famous. He should maybe be famous because he may have had a role in creating something that is one of the primordial parts of the viral internet as we know it. And when we say primordial, we mean like, without this thing… the idea of things going viral online would be fundamentally different. And Erik was there at the beginning.
Amory: We think. Look. It’s hard to tell. There are other theories of how this slice of the internet came about and who invented it. But Erik has a story, and he has a record of what happened, and the timing is intriguing. That’s all he’s saying.
Erik: I didn't claim to create it. I just claim that I have documented evidence of me doing it as a prank, you know, months before it became a thing, which which to me felt like a obviously a bizarre coincidence.
Ben: A bizarre coincidence. Or the beginning of something. 15 years ago. When Erik was a bored college kid in Michigan.
Erik: I'm living at home with my parents and I all my friends were like grades below me by that point. I don't know, we were just like a bunch of obviously kids in late teens and stuff just hanging out and coming up with funny things to say and do and stuff like that.
Amory: One of those funny things to say or do, for Erik and his friends at least, was to make prank calls.
Erik: I mean, it was kind of the classic, you know, I hate the jocks thing. And so we all just kind of grew up in that mindset. And there was this call-in show called the postgame show.
Erik: Every Friday night, after all the games, people would just call in and just be like, "my son Trevor did great tonight, you know, thank you, Trevor." And then and then they'd say, "thank you for your call." Like, just nobody said anything. They'd call in and, you know, like a bunch of girls would cheer together, you know, they'd say, go, you know, go USA.
Erik: There's this school, this consolidated school district called the Unionville Sebring area, and it was called the USA. So that was like our original prank call was to call in and say, you know, “go Soviet Union.” Uh, my brother did a call where he was complaining about a pair of khakis that he bought at Kohl's. It was stuff like that.
Ben: Erik wasn’t usually the prank call antagonist though.
Erik: I guess I'm too timid to do those kinds of things and that kind of stuff.
Amory: But one night, Erik and his buddies are at his house, and he’s up.
Ben: And he has this idea. He’s been listening to a song on repeat recently. As a musician himself, he’s been kinda obsessed with it.
Erik: I was just super fixated on that song at the time. It's like maximum '80s in a way that, like a lot of things are, you know, '80s. But that is just like turgid '80s. Like it couldn't be more '80s than that. But I just remember I had Winamp open up and immediately, you know, hoisting the phone up to the speaker.
Ben: If you don’t know Winamp, think of it as Spotify in 2006 or something: playing music from your computer. And Erik had this one song that had been on repeat, cued up to what he thought was the key moment.
Erik: So, I mean it’s “gonna make you understand!” And then that's when it kicks in.
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson.
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson. And you’re listening to Endless Thread.
Amory: Coming to you from WBUR. Boston’s NPR Station.
Amory: I mean Erik is a prank caller turned emotional musical comedian. He might not be above claiming falsely to be the inventor of one of the internet’s most famous moves. And there are other origin stories.
Ben: But this bait and switch move, where you expect something else and you get the booming voice of Rick Astley, became more than a local Michigan sports radio call in show prank. It became the Rick Roll. Ubiquitous, hilarious, extremely difficult to avoid if you are, as they say, extremely online. And Erik Helwig may the first Rick Roller of all time.
Amory: Erik’s version was audio only. But of course, it’s now much more than that. It’s a full on meme, a classic one, usually video edited together. You think you’re watching something else then… bam: Rick Rolled, with the original music video for Rick Astley’s "Never Gonna Give You Up." It pops up in new places and new ways all the time. Imagine for instance, a friend sends you an email or a text or a chat with a hyperlink to something: an invite to a birthday party, or some other thing you want to click on. You click on the link expecting info on said birthday party, and instead you see Rick Astley jogging his arms and singing about how he’s not going to desert you.
Ben: It feels almost dumb to even have to define this. The Rick Roll crosses continents. Cultures. Generations. But there are people maybe somewhere in the universe who have not been Rick Rolled? Total dorks obviously.
Amory: You don't know if I've been Rick Rolled.
Ben: Depends a lot on the pollster also. You've definitely been Rick Rolled.
Amory: No, I haven't.
Ben: I’m pretty sure you’ve been Rick Rolled.
Amory: No, I’ve never been Rick Rolled. No, I confessed to Frank, one of our producers on this show last week that I discovered what the Rick Roll was like last week.
Ben: Well, I guess you're about to get, I guess you’re about to be Rick Rolled then. Give me I guess you're about to be recalled that there's only two types of people in this world, people who have been Rick Rolled and people who don't know they're about to be Rick Rolled.
Ben: 23-year-old Newport Rhode Island resident Harrison Renshaw, who we’re now talking to, has definitely been Rick Rolled. Even though the math suggests he was about 8 years old when the Rick Roll started trending.
Ben: Did you get Rick Rolled? Is that how you learned.
Harrison Renshaw: I'm sure I got Rick Rolled and didn't understand what it was at the time. That's definitely your first Rick Roll. You don't know that you've been Rick Rolled. Right. It's confusing, who is this? Why is this man in this abandoned house singing this strange song? It was confusing more than anything, I imagine.
Amory: Harrison is also a bit of a YouTuber, albeit much younger than our supposed Rick Roll inventor Erik.
Harrison: Pfff. I am a child of the Internet, growing up with YouTube basically.
Ben: Harrison is great at going down the rabbit hole on specific topics. Like, how the chorus bookends of Old Town Road by Lil Nas X are PERFECTLY designed to convince you to play the song again.
Amory: But one of Harrison’s BIGGEST obsessions, and one of his biggest videos ever traces the history and origins of the Rick Roll. It's called "The Story of the Best Meme Ever," and it includes what he calls the four key events that made the Rick Roll blow up.
Harrison: Number one. In 2005, there was an episode of It's Always Sunny called "Charlie Has Cancer," and in that, "Never Gonna Give You Up" plays... and the song grew online because of it. Number two, in 2006, a Michigan man named Erik Helwig called on to his local radio station and it was like a sports talk show.
Ben: That one we know already.
Harrison: And so number three, in 2006, six, the creator of the Internet forum 4chan, Christopher Poole, who is also known as MOOT, created a word filter that replaced the word egg with the word duck.
Amory: This 4chan word filter thing was a silly joke with what in retrospect has been a HUGE impact. Basically, people were talking about egg rolls. And somebody modified the way language appeared on the site to replace the word EGG, with the word DUCK. Just a curious little silly piece of software. After the WORD filter was made, someone made an image of a duck on wheels.
Harrison: And then that image became like a popular gag on the site. People would do the whole hyperlink bait and switch where, oh, you think you're going to click something super interesting, but then you just get the picture of the duck roll.
Ben: Ah Ha. So there was a roll before the Rick Roll and that was the duck roll.
Harrison: That was the duck roll, the often duplicated, somewhat imitated duck on wheels.
Harrison: And so the final sort of piecing together, the perfect storm: In March of 2007 with the first trailer for Grand Theft Auto four being released, there was so much traffic on the site that it crashed. Someone on 4chan used that same method of the duck roll by saying, "oh, here's the link to the trailer." But it was Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up."
Amory: Now, we grant you that at the outset, this is just weird niche internet joke stuff. But these things tend to bubble up. Grand Theft Auto Four is one of the best selling games of all time — 23 million copies.
Ben: And if that game’s popularity gets turned into a bait and switch joke online by a bunch of people searching for the game trailer, and Rick Astley is where they land, Rick Astley himself is going to have a little spike in popularity, too.
Harrison: 2008, that is like the year of the Rick Roll. That's when it was...well it's always been a thing since its inception, whether it's had ups and downs and whatnot. But 2008 was prime Rick Rolling.
Ben: And when Harrison says “prime Rick Rolling.” He means like, the Rick Roll was basically present in every single big event of the year.
Harrison: There was some sort of survey that was conducted that said that 18 million Americans had been Rick Rolled.
Ben: And when you look back at 2008, this is not surprising. Hacktivist group Anonymous was blasting the song out of loudspeakers in front of the Church of Scientology. People at basketball games during March Madness were dressing up as Astley and singing in the audience. Someone made a fake video of then-presidential candidate Senator John McCain getting Rick Rolled at a 2008 presidential campaign event.
Amory: And Rick himself popped up in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Companies got in on it too. YouTube the company had the entire homepage do a bait and switch with every video linking back to the video.
Amory: And then, maybe the ultimate troll of 2008. The MTV European Music Awards had a ridiculous award that year for Best Act Ever. U2, Green Day, Britney Spears were nominees, but you could also write in a candidate. And of course, the internet delivered.
Ben: So it’s easy to get a sense from Harrison about how it happened 13 years ago. But why is it still happening? The video just passed a billion views on YouTube and is within the top several hundred videos of all time. For just a simple music video that was made over thirty years ago. Kids who are just kids are Rickrolling each other all the time. Still! Like, in middle school google docs, and university links to online coursework. A Rick Roll was one of the top posts on Reddit practically last week. In fact, there’s a new version among the top posts almost every week.
Amory: In meme years this should basically be an antiquity. But it’s still very much around. How did this grandaddy of internet memes get such staying power?
Ben: It can’t just be Internet chaos theory, right? There has to be more there. There’s something irresistible about the song.
Amory: The video too, with it’s happy dude dancing his butt off in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse...church...bar...thing? Staring deeply into your eyes. Can you really deny him?
Ben: And in this regard, Harrison is kind of like Erik.
Ben: Are you a fan?
Harrison: Of Rick Astley?
Ben: Yeah, have you become a fan?
Harrison: That’s an incredible song. That song is wonderful. I'm a huge fan of the song.
Harrison: I mean, I'm a big 80s pop music guy anyway. I think the drama and theatrics of it. It's infectious. You want to sing along to it. It makes you feel kind of silly. But that's the charm of it at the same time.
Ben: So where did that charm come from? We’ll tell you in a minute.
Amory: In our journey to understand not just how the Rick Roll came to be, but also why it came to be, Ben and I are now talking to someone who was there when it came to be. Songwriter Mike Stock is telling us about just how good he was in the beginning. As a 20-something working musician in the 1970s.
Mike Stock: I was awful. I mean people would ask me to play songs which I should have known. I remember making a very bad attempt at something. And feeling highly embarrassed.
Amory: So Mike Stock realized relatively quickly that he might not make it as a performing musician. But he was actually a good songwriter. So he started a business with a few of his favorite collaborators: Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman. They became known as Stock Aitken Waterman. And since it was the '70s, they dabbled in dance music.
Mike: The genre was Boys Town.
Ben: How would you define Boys Town?
Mike: Well, essentially, gay orientated gay clubs were using the they were normally using cheap, cheaply made records as long as they were set at around 130 beats per minute, got the handclaps and the cowbells on them, which used to set off the sound to lights in all the clubs. So that made it more exciting. And there was a thing called Northern Soul, which came from North of England, which the same thing... people were starting to dance. I mean, one of the songs, the opening lines of one of our number one songs in the U.K. by Mel and Kim is, "It's our occupation. We're a dancing nation."
Ben: Stock Aitken Waterman were getting work in the Boys Town genre. But they weren’t getting it on the radio yet, really. The way to popularity, and more work with more artists was to have one of your records go big in the dance clubs.
Amory: Which started happening with Stock and his partners in the early 1980s. Starting with a band called Dead or Alive.
Ben: And then they were off to the races, right? Straight to the top from there on out?
Mike: Well, obviously, having your first number one was a great – yeah, that was a big thrill. But the main thing that happened, was that the phone stopped ringing.
Amory: There are a lot of ways to explain this, but Mike kind of boils it down to one theory. More underground artists they’d been working with thought they’d gone fully mainstream. And the mainstream thought...
Mike: All they can do is that dastardly high energy gay music. You know, that's that's the way it is.
Amory: So the recently-supposedly-wildly-successful songwriting trio Stock Aitken Waterman got a little concerned.
Mike: There's me, Matt and Pete sitting in our studio saying, well, what we're going to do next, we're No. One. Well, let's invent something. Let's do something now.
Ben: What they did is start to work with unknowns. Backup singers. And a kid who had started... interning at their working studio? Apprenticing? Was it a fellowship? Mike had a specific phrase…
Mike: Tea boy. He got the sandwiches, you know, I know he doesn't like that, but we were waiting. Yeah, we were waiting for the opportunity to work with him. So – Oh, do you not know what that is? Sorry. Two nations separated by a common tongue. That's us, isn't it?
Amory: The kid was from northern England. He was a kid still just a teenager. And he looked way younger than he even was. Like, a minimum of five years younger.
Ben: Mike’s songwriting partner Pete had seen the kid perform in a band. Didn’t like the band, liked the kid, invited him down to be a studio assistant. And one day they said, “Hey, let’s give the Tea Boy a chance at doing a song.” They were planning on having him just do a cover of "Ain’t Too Proud to Beg." But then the tea boy, whose name was Rick, stepped up to the musical plate.
Mike: I got him on the mic and started to listen to what he was and who he was. I thought, "This guy's too good for this." I was I was absolutely amazed. I mean, the voice that came out of him didn't sort of match his look. And and it is a strong, powerful voice he's got.
Ben: It is a little hard to overstate this incongruence. If you have been Rick Rolled, you know what we’re talking about. Whatever you think the owner of this voice looks like?
Amory: He doesn’t. He looks like a svelte 14-year old still wet behind the ears. So the voice, which is already kinda magic, is extra magic.
Mike: At that point I say to Matt and Pete, look, "we should write him a song."
Amory: So they did. Mike Stock wrote the music, Waterman suggested the title, and all three of them built the lyrics around the music. They recorded it.
Ben: But Rick didn’t have a label to put it out. And in the interim, it got briefly sidelined by other projects. Including at least one more song you have definitely heard before…
Amory: Things got busy for the songwriting trio. Months went by, then one day…
Mike: I tell you how it worked, we we I came into the studio as was my sort of routine, eleven o'clock one morning, and one of the guys in the office and our promotions office was playing the song because it been given to the officer on a cassette or something. And I came upstairs and I thought, "Bloody hell, that sounds good. Crikey!" I think I listened to it for two months. I thought, gee, I sound great as an he's playing it loud, this guy in the office. And as I'm coming out up the stairs, Pete Waterman is coming down the stairs and we both stop and look at each other. We both go, "Blimey, what are we doing with this record? Why haven't we got this thing out?" So that was the kicker for us. We suddenly heard it, as it were, out of the blue without being deeply involved with it.
Ben: If you were to identify the key distinctive genetic code of the song, like the thing that makes the song. What is the thing?
Mike: Well, I mean, in a simple sense, the sentiment is understandable. We always made the vocals proud, proud of the track, you know, loud enough to hear every single word. But on a musical level because the chorus were indeed. But the chorus goes into G. And if you were to play this goes down the piano, you'll get the gist of it. You hold the chord G and then you hold the base of G, but you move the try it up a tone to A. So you get that tension and that creates a real musical tension that you have to resolve somehow, in our case by going to the F sharp minor and then to the B minor and then we will resolve a second time round, not to the B minor, but to the D major. So it's a it's a structure of chords which incidentally, subsequent to us writing it, I've heard on half a dozen hit songs.
Ben: It may be true that "Never Gonna Give You Up" does have a particular formula that makes it work musically. Or that the surprising nature of Astley’s voice, coupled with his baby face in the mid-1980s, has given the song mysterious properties that have kept it in the ether this long. Loved by people like Erik and Harrison, who were born full decades after the song was a hit.
Amory: The music video definitely has something to do with it. Rick’s casual shimmy-ing seemingly made up on the spot, the weird empty warehouse he’s in, the outfits – double breasted jacket over a small collared sweater, trench coat, black jeans, black turtleneck, a full on Canadian tuxedo.
Ben: But the singer himself even with a number one hit in the US of A did not stick around at the top. Here’s Rick Roll YouTube historian Harrison again.
Harrison: So this is where it gets a little strange. Rick would make or he would sell millions of records, he had a Grammy nomination, he collaborated with Elton John and he was like rich and famous by twenty four. But then around that time, or a little bit after, he got really sick of the industry and didn't want all the fame, everything was sort of too much for him. He was having this existential crisis. He wanted to raise his family and so he called it quits.
Ben: The "Never Gonna Give You Up" guy...gave it up. He seems to have been the rarest of rarities: a purposeful one-hit-wonder.
Amory: Lies! He had more than one hit.
Ben: OK, two-hit wonder? Still, he made his mark, and then he kind of tapped out.
Ben: And the rest is internet history. Or rather, music history. Which eventually became internet history. Because of a kid doing prank calls in Michigan.
Amory: Or a bunch of s***-posters on 4chan.
Ben: Or an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Amory: Or all of these things?
Don Caldwell: It reminds me of this thing in evolution called convergent evolution.
Amory: This guy gets it. He’s part of our meme chorus. Remember our meme chorus?
Don: My name is Don Caldwell, I'm the editor in chief of Know Your Meme, which is the world's largest Internet culture encyclopedia and database.
Ben: Don has looked really closely at the origin of the Rick Roll meme since its inception. Which is how he got the convergent evolution thing in his head.
Don: They’re like these like green tree snakes, for example, around the world. They aren't related to each other at all, but they look like the exact same animal. They got the same characteristics, the same coloration, same morphology. And it's just really interesting to me that that that might have happened here with with the Rick Roll: It might have evolved independently twice. It might have been born two separate times without being connected to each other, which is just wild.
Amory: The song is just that good. It's just that special.
Don: It really is.
Amory: Don says there’s something extra special about this grandaddy meme. It connects back to Erik Helwig’s prank call in Michigan.
Ben: He says the Rick Roll is really the first truly mainstream version of this specific genre of meme.
Don: A bait and switch, you know, tricking someone into clicking a link or viewing something that they didn't intend to, is a characteristic that is just a winner when it comes to memes, and we've seen it time and time again. It's probably one of the most tried and true types of memes that continue to appear every year.
Ben: It’s not just the bait and switch though. It’s what you’re getting when the switch happens, which Harrison talked a bit about too.
Harrison: I think the thing that makes it so universal and beloved is that it's very, very harmless. It's something that is purely fun. Nobody ever gets hurt. It’s –
Ben: It's a prank, but it's not a mean prank, really.
Harrison: I completely agree, that's what I'm getting at, is that, nobody, I don't think, has ever had extreme amounts of malice Rick Rolling, somebody. it's always from love.
Ben: Right, or felt it getting Rick rolled right? Because it's like, "oh, I'm going to pull a prank on you and make you kind of want to dance a little bit and be happy."
Harrison: Exactly. What a nice, beautiful thing that we can do to one another.
Amory: Really the question is, how does Rick feel about it? What does it feel like to be maybe not the butt of the joke. But the punchline?
Rick Astley: I mean, I'll be honest, I find it difficult sometimes because I am the Rick in Rick Rolling, so that is a bit weird if I'm honest when I see it in print or see it, whatever you think. Yeah.
Ben: Yes we did. You know we had to. We had to get Rick. He still looks youthful. A little more craggy here and there, sure. You might say he’s grown into that voice. But he’s a true gem of a guy.
Amory: Even if he does have some mixed feelings about his resurgence.
Rick: Yeah. It's weird that I listen. I'm not making it into a bigger thing than it is. I'm just saying it comes up in conversation a lot in my life, obviously, and therefore it's just a bit weird.
Ben: What motivated you to get into music?
Rick: I'm not particularly, well, I am sort of from a musical family in a way. My mom always played the piano. I didn't actually live with my mom. My mum and dad divorced. I'm the youngest of – they had five kids, but one passed away before I was born. And my dad had a great voice, but he never did anything with it. He used to sing around the house and the streets of the little town I'm from. But I don't think that was my introduction to music at all. My introduction to music, to be honest, if I'm going to be really honest about it. I was getting out of the home that I lived in. I was brought up by my dad and I don't think my dad was a very happy camper, to be honest. And they'd been through a lot. Obviously, losing a child is the most devastating thing. I think anybody can go through his parents. And I think, you know, I just I just don't think there was a lot of sunshine, really. And I think music caught me really early where I just thought this is a joyful place to be. And I think from that moment that was it, really. I just wanted to I kind of wanted to get out of the small town that I was from, but it wasn't the town. I think it was my home upbringing. If I'm really honest, I just wanted to find some light somewhere else.
Amory: One good thing about Rick’s hometown, though, is that – according to Rick – Pete Waterman was dating a woman there. And on one of his visits to see her, he ended up in a club where Rick Astley’s band was playing. And as we said before, he liked what he heard. Not the band, just Rick.
Ben: No, we heard it. We did hear a rumor. Maybe it's not a rumor, but we did talk to Mike and he –
Rick: Oh, to Mike Stock, you mean.
Ben: Yes, sir.
Rick: Oh, wow. Fantastic.
Ben: And he actually described you and he his words, not ours. He described you as being a tea boy in the in the studio. Is that is that accurate?
Rick: It is accurate and there's truth to that. And I ended up living in his flat, which is pretty, pretty bizarre because I'm kind of living in the boss's flat. But I'm also making tea for Dead or Alive while I'm making the album that's got spinning around on.
Amory: Rick of course would soon get his own hit.
Ben: Did you like the song immediately?
Rick: Yeah, yeah, yeah, because I can say that with with all modesty, because I didn't write it. So I'm not saying, "Hey, it's a great song." I think sort of slips people by sometimes because of the whole internet side of what's happening with that song. I don't think sometimes people realize how great it actually is as a crafted pop song. I mean, it's and I can say that, like I said, because I didn't write, I didn't produce it. I just sang the God damn thing.
Ben: Well, we have some good news for you, I think, which is that like a lot of the people that we have talked and we have talked to a lot of people about the song. Yeah. And some of them are people who are very much of the Internet generation, they're digital natives. There are people who never would have discovered it, probably except for the Internet. I think they agree with you. They think that this song is special beyond the sort of virality that it's found online, at least in their eyes, in the way that they're imagining it.
Rick: Well, that's very nice to hear. Very nice to hear. I mean, we're lucky enough now that I've sort of moved into this area, I guess, where I'm allowed to play festivals. I don't usually close one, but I get to play in the afternoon, you know, and that's that's I just think I got lucky, really. And I think it's a lucky turn of events. And my wife and I have sat on balconies, in hotel rooms and sat on beaches. With a glass of rosé and looked at a sunset and said, "how did we get here?" And we never stopped doing that.
Amory: What do you remember about the making of the music video, because the music video is a big part of the ongoing Internet admiration?
Rick: To be honest, without the video, it wouldn't have become what it's become, if you like, in that little small pocket it's got on the Internet, because obviously that's the world that we live in and have lived in for 20 odd years. Everything is every sort of music that you can think of is kind of visual as well. So the shooting of the video was like I mean, is the first video I ever did. I had no idea what was going on. So when we come to do the video, I turned up with a bag of clothes. Yes, a raincoat that was mine, you know, like a striped shirt, chinos and a blazer. Baby, that's me. The double denim, it's all me, baby. No stylist was involved.
Amory: The dance moves as well?
Rick: Yeah, the dance moves that I've said this before. Many times it's actually fear if you look at me most of most of my little sort of moments through that four or five years, if you actually look at me carefully, I'm just terrified.
Rick: And ironically, all these years later, that sort of still kind of sits right with people. It's just in that context, you know, the whole thing. It's like if I was super sort of suave and this, that and the other unlooked, you know, I don't know, like a sex symbol style thing in that video, it just wouldn't work. I just you know, it's like I'm just like this 20-year-old, whatever, I was 21-year-old dude who looks 12 years old, who came to a video shoot with his own clothes in a bag.
Ben: Can you tell us a little bit more? How you really feel about the role.
Rick: I'm sort of detached from it, and I think it's the only way to be about it. Our daughter, when it first started to kick off and things were happening and there was a thing about MTV wanted me to accept an award for some whatever it was –
Amory: Best act ever.
Rick: Which is ludicrous. And I think what they thought I thought they I think they thought they were being ironic and funny, putting me in that category with U2 and Christina Aguilera and whoever else was in that category. So you can imagine I said, "no thanks, I'm not coming. You can keep your award. It's OK." But the point being our daughter, who, as I say, was a teenager, said, look, you do realize it hasn't really got anything to do with you. And the way she said it just hit me like a ton of bricks, but in a really great way. And that was like it was like just going just just seeing it in a different way and saying she's absolutely right. It could have been Dave roll, Brian roll, you know, Mary roll, any roll you like. Somebody just chose my video and that song, it could have been anybody's. So I think from that moment, I've always just viewed it and said, you know what? Anything positive towards, you know, my little world coming out of it, I’ll take.
Ben: And that makes sense. And I also want to say again, like, I think that one of the things that's interesting to me is you described where you came from and looking for fundamentally a happy place to be. And I think that what's interesting about the Rick Roll to me is that the Internet is a dark and toxic place many days of the week. But the Rick Roll really like shines as a light in a really dark place because it is this thing that has that edge to it that the Internet has, of like pulling a prank or hacking somebody or tricking somebody, et cetera. But the end of it is, is you singing this great song that everybody loves, you know.
Amory: It’s creating that joy that you talked about.
Rick: Well, well, you know what? You've kind of you've kind of sort of put a good spin on on the thought process that I guess in the sense that when I was a kid, like you say, there was a black cloud in our house, there just was. And I've been searching to kind of, you know, I'm going down metaphors now, but, you know, just get rid of it and just do so. And I kind of think as cheesy as that video is, and it's kind of like cheesy and sometimes the 80s can be, and also if you can just get past that kind of like what's cool, what's not cool, then you just see it for just being fun. You mean and kind of like and I think that's I think I've always searched for that.
Ben: Thank you, Rick.
Amory: Thank you so much.
Ben: Really appreciate your time. It's been it's been lovely. Thank you.
Rick: Pleasure. Absolute pleasure.
Ben: It might be that Rick would bristle a bit at the idea that he, like Erik, our prank caller at the beginning, has simply put, created emotional comedy music.
Amory: But having his song turned into a meme has brought joy into the world in a way it never would have otherwise right? And virality itself online at least would probably look different if not for the OG bait and switch of the Rick Roll. And as Harrison puts it…
Harrison: I mean, I feel like, not to try to get overly pretentious about some of the dumbest jokes that you can find online, but memes are the future.
Amory: Harrison means the future of communication online. And the Rick Roll is a great example. It’s still morphing. In 2020, while everyone was in lockdown, a whole new generation of people started flipping the script on the meme. They started Rick Rolling themselves. For reaction videos. The Rick Roll... rolls on.
Ben: Maybe you were one of these people. Searching in a terrible time for something funny on the internet. Or maybe you, like me, already know the Rick Roll as this part of the internet you tip your hat to when you come across it as a sign of respect or something. "Hello old friend. Glad you’re still around to give me a chuckle considering... you know... everything."
Amory: But whatever it is, it’s great. And Rick’s great. And someday you can Rick Roll your grandkids. Maybe. Maybe they’ll Rick Roll you first.
YOUTUBER: You know in this video we gonna be reacting to Rick Astley? Forgive me if I say his name wrong. "Never Gonna Give Up." "Never Gonna Give YOU Up." That’s the name of this video. So without further ado, let’s get into it.
Ben: Next up...more Rick!
Amory: Yes. We have some BONUS content for you in the series already, because we had a lot of extra conversations with meme people while reporting this series, and some of them were too good to NOT share with you. Our first bonus episode is popping into your feed in a few days. A longer conversation with the Rick in Rick Roll.
Ben: After that, we’ll hear about a bizzaro meme involving a cat eating a salad that brought a lot of people mirth online. But to the human featured in the meme, the moment was much more serious.
Guest: This could get me killed. This is not just reality TV drama. This is my real life.
Ben: We’ll tell that story and much more in the coming weeks so stay tuned.
Amory: ENDLESS THREAD is a production of WBUR in Boston.
Ben: You should 100 percent be joining our email list if you want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content, pictures of Amory’s keyboard or Ben’s keyboard cat. Do that by going to wbur.org/endlessthread.
Amory: ALSO. We really really really really want to know your nomination for the best, most real, or most underrated meme. CALL us! 857-244-0338. Or better yet, record a voice memo and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We might just dive into the meme you tell us about, and we might use your voicemail in the show!
Our meme series would be very “hello fellow kids” without the help of our meme chorus. Singers in that chorus?
Joan Donovan is Research Director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Sarah Laiola teaches about digital culture and design at Coastal Carolina University. Gianluca Stringhini studies online security disinformation and hate speech at Boston University. Amanda Brennan has the extremely cool title of Internet Librarian. Kenyatta Cheese co-founded the site Know Your Meme, and Don Caldwell is Editor in Chief.
PLEASE go and find their work and benefit from their meme genius.
Our series and our show is made by producers Nora Saks and Dean Russell.
We are co-hosted by us: Amory Sivertson and Ben Brock Johnson.
This episode was edited by Maureen McMurray.
Mixing and Sound Design by Matt Reed.
The Music Box cover of "Never Gonna Give You Up" is from the YouTube Channel R3 MusicBox.
Original music for this episode that is NOT DENENENENUHNUHNUH was composed by Matt Reed.
Special thanks to, and additional production work from Josh Crane, Frank Hernandez, Kristin Torres, Sofie Kodner, and Rachel Carlson.