By now, Epic Beard Man has gained so much currency in pop culture, he has become a veritable household name. The video of his February 15 bus brawl on AC Transit garnered well over five million YouTube views thus far, beating out Tilikum the killer whale and the ever-popular Muni bus fight from last October. And it generated scads of imitators: Mortal Combat Epic Beard Man, Pokemon Epic Beard Man, Epic Beard Man music videos, Epic Beard Man the remix, slow-motion Epic Beard Man, Street Fighter Epic Beard Man, “Hitler Reacts to Epic Beard Man,” and even “Epic Beard Man Meets Three-Year-Old Crying Over Justin Bieber.” In fact, it didn’t just become the fastest-spreading fist-fight meme on the Internet. It spawned a whole cottage industry.
For those who don’t know the story, here’s the nit and grit: Sixty-seven-year-old Tom Brusso — the now-infamous Epic Beard Man — was riding in the back of an AC Transit bus. When the video starts, he was asking a black guy — Michael — for a shoe shine. Naturally, Michael takes umbrage, and instigates a fight. They exchange words. Onlookers weigh in. An older woman tries to calm both men down, while someone else urges Michael on. A girl with purple tights and oversized headphones sits nearby, looking bemused. Brusso moves to the front of the bus. Michael follows, and throws the first punch. Brusso proceeds to beats the crap out of him. Michael emerges with a bloody nose and bruises. He calls for an “amber lance.”
Thus, three minutes and twenty-one seconds of taut, unscripted drama, caught on camera by local college student Lyanna Washington, disseminated all over the world. “It’s the perfect storm of viral videos,” said Nate Maas, a 26-year-old couch surfer who made a documentary about the incident. “It’s an old man beating up a younger man — even though the younger man is pretty old himself.” (Michael says he’s fifty, though many viewers took him for thirty years younger.) “The racial element awakens some sort of racial undercurrent that hasn’t disappeared in our society, even people like to think it has,” Maas continued. “Then you have the girl sitting there who doesn’t look like she’s paying attention to any of it. It’s a very rich video. You can’t get bored watching it.”
Maas saw the video on Wednesday, the day after it first appeared. At the time, he was surfing the web from his parent’s home in Sacramento. After watching it two or three times, he called up a film-editor friend in San Francisco, with designs on a sequel. On Thursday, the two of them tracked Brusso down. (It turned out he’s the same “disruptive fan” who was tased at an A’s game last year, in what became another viral video sensation.) They went to his residence, a retirement facility in Oakland. Maas said Brusso’s room was easy to find — it was the one with heavy metal and cigarette smoke wafting from the front door, and people constantly shuffling in and out. Brusso is, apparently, an extremely popular guy.
He’s also hardwired to star in YouTube videos. All animated versions of Brusso — aka Epic Beard Man, aka Vietnam Tom — depict him as a kind of hulking, bearded Popeye. He has piercing blue eyes and huge bearish arms covered with tattoos. In the AC Transit bus video, he wears a fanny pack and a light-blue T-shirt bearing the slogan “I Am a Motherfucker.” It became the title of Maas’ documentary. He’s become a working-class folk hero for white supremacists, many of whom commented on the AC Transit video and its various spinoffs. “Racists initially accepted Brusso as kind of a God,” said Maas. Yet, as gods go, he’s rather improbable. Brusso lives in the ‘hood, has an apparently fairly hefty arrest record (in the documentary he talks about an early prison stint, during which he supposedly met the famed murderer Ed Gein), and surrounds himself with a mixed group of friends (also shown in the documentary). His claims about being a Vietnam vet are widely disputed. He also caused an uproar when he accused Michael of murder during a post-bus-fight interview with KRON 4 News. Nonetheless, Brusso does have one folk-hero-ish quality that seems to surpass all his foibles: He loves to fight. “Epic Beard Man” is defined on UrbanDictionary.com as “a 67-year-old motherfucker who slaps the shit out of tough guys.”
The other characters from “Epic Beard Man” have their own cults of fandom. About a week after the fight, Michael the Black Guy agreed to an interview with hip-hop radio station Wild 94.9. Though he confessed to being “a little intoxicated” at the time of the fight, Michael ultimately came off as the cool, collected one. He apologized to AC Transit, Brusso, and all Vietnam veterans. He said he’s normally a law-abiding citizen (except when he’s drunk, apparently). In a now-ubiquitous cartoon spoof (posted by YouTube animator “Nowyouknoww”), he calls Brusso an “old ass diaper wrinkly ass old man old pile of organs.”
Perhaps the oddest result of “Epic Beard Man” is Amber Lamps, the chick with the purple tights whose name derives from Michael’s garbled pronunciation of the word “ambulance.” In the last two weeks, Amber Lamps got her major star turn in the form of a fan site and a whole spate of music video tributes. Delaware-based T-shirt maker Drew Fioravanti — who knows nothing about Oakland, and initially thought the “AC” in “AC Transit” stood for “Atlantic City” — Photoshopped a still from the YouTube video and made an “I Love Amber Lamps” T-shirt graphic. He now has three iterations of the Amber Lamps T-shirt, which he’s sold to customers as far away as Australia and the UK. He’s sold more than fifty thus far at $14.99 a pop. (Zazzle also sells a line of “Epic Beard Man” T-shirts with the slogan, “Mess with the Epic Beard Man… Go Home in an Amber Lamps!”) “I thought the ‘Amber Lamps’ angle was quite funny,” said Fioravanti. “I think that’s more interesting than the video itself.”
It’s weird to think of these three people walking around Oakland, since they’ve become indelible in our pop-culture memory. Brusso clearly likes being a caricature — or, at the very least, he can’t help but be one. Yet Michael the Black Guy and Amber Lamps were unknown before they got caught in the fray. Now they’ve become mass-produced cartoon characters with commodifiable images. With all that taken in consideration, some of us can’t tell if Epic Beard Man is the most exploitive thing we’ve ever seen, or the most revelatory thing we’ve ever seen. Or maybe a little of both.