Philly’s Biggest Star
Simon Van Zuylen-Wood | Philadelphia Magazine | November 2015
There isn’t much that grates on Philadelphians more than having their city defined by a tired canard about a Santa Claus who got booed in 1968. (Or by a bell. Or a sandwich.) Which explains the citywide stomach-drop when news broke in August that a defenseless globe-trotting robot had been annihilated here. Every hard-fought reputational victory, every hint of burgeoning cosmopolitanism — put on hold for the foreseeable future. “Somebody put a lot of work into that robot,” ashamed resident Cathie McMullin told 6 ABC. “It’s been all over the world, and ‘Welcome to Philly! Let’s kill you.’”
HitchBOT, constructed by Canadian engineers, was a science experiment in human compassion. A white plastic bucket equipped with GPS plus blue pool floaties for limbs, the robot was to hitchhike across the world, relying on random humans to transport it from one city to the next. It made it across Europe but couldn’t make it from Massachusetts to San Francisco; on the morning of August 1st, hitchBOT was found, wasted and inert, on the streets of Old City. A few days later, grainy video footage emerged of a man in a throwback Randall Cunningham jersey appearing to assault poor hitchBOT.
The hitchBOT murder mystery was a case study in virality, a news item that managed to combine the Internet’s two favorite things: a heartwarming parable about generosity/resilience/gumption, and outrage at whatever the inverse of that is. It’s fitting, then, that the guy in the Eagles gear wasn’t actually a robot-beater, but a YouTube star from Northeast Philadelphia named Ed Bassmaster. And he wasn’t murdering a robot, just pretending to — as his character “Always Teste” a perennially unemployed goon with an aggro streak.
Bassmaster, 42, has two million YouTube subscribers. They watch him trot out a number of different bizarre personalities, most of which basically go out into the world and make people feel uncomfortable. This is lowbrow stuff — imagine the Jackass crew trying their hand at the Candid Camera genre. (“Farting in the Library” is one of his more popular videos.) But Bassmaster is also a talented mimic and character actor; his bits share DNA with Da Ali G Show and Comedy Central’s The Kroll Show.
After nearly a decade of glamourless toil, he’s begun to taste aboveground success, shooting bits featuring James Franco, Aaron Eckhart and Tony Hawk. Next year he’s getting a television show, on CMT, and there are discussions about a potential movie project, though on that front he remains coy.
And yet it’s hitchBOT that made him a household name in Philadelphia. “I still get called ‘robot-killer,’” Bassmaster says, bemused, sitting on his couch one morning this fall. “My stepdad, he works for SEPTA, he texted me, ‘What did you do? Everybody here is mad at you for destroying some robot.’”
Writer bio: Simon Van Zuylen-Wood is a staff writer at Philadelphia Magazine and a contributing writer at National Journal magazine. He’s also written for The New Republic and Newsweek.