Once a villainous meme, Stefán Karl Stefánsson became the internet’s wholesome hero.
August 21st, 2018 is a day that will go down in history for denizens of the internet, but it’s not one they’ll be happy to remember. It’s the day that Stefán Karl Stefánsson, known for playing Robbie Rotten on the show LazyTown, passed away.
Normally, Celebrity Inventory is a column I write to talk about the hidden hobbies of celebrities. And while there is one piece of memorabilia I’ll talk about, today’s subject will be a change of pace. Some of you may have never even heard of Stefán Karl Stefánsson before, but to many of us, he was a man near and dear to our hearts. His death is the culmination of a two year battle with bile duct cancer. Yet despite becoming synonymous with internet memes and jokes, his life demonstrated the power an internet community holds when united for a singular purpose greater than the sum of its parts.
To honor Stefán in this time of mourning, this is the story of how this underdog actor became the father that everyone on the internet wished they had.
How LazyTown became a meme.
LazyTown is an educational children’s show from Iceland about the importance of healthy living and a balanced diet. Stefán Karl played the antagonist Robbie Rotten, who tries to thwart the protagonist’s efforts to encourage healthy living by tricking the citizens of the titular town into being lazy. The show features numerous musical numbers, which played an integral role in Stefán’s rise to memehood.
As one of three characters live-acted on the show, Robbie Rotten has the charisma and mannerisms of a cartoon character. Stefán leaned fully in to making Robbie Rotten as ridiculous as possible, with crazy facial expressions and arms that dangle wildly when he moved. Stefán actually says he was inspired by Wile E Coyote, which is immediately evident in his acting. Robbie Rotten can arguably be compared to Waluigi, another character the internet has grown to love in recent years.
Funny enough, the first time LazyTown got meme’d had nothing to do with Stefán Karl at all. The song Cooking by the Book, which premiered in the show’s first season in 2004, became a full blown internet inside joke by 2005. Sites like ytmnd remixed and parodied the song extensively, often under the moniker “the cake song.” Cooking by the Book got a second wind of fame in 2010 when it was mashed up with an explicit Lil’ Jon tune, which I’m not going to link here because this is a family friendly site. Needless to say, the video has over 33 million views to date.
Three years later, Stefán Karl had his turn in the spotlight with the premiere of the song You Are A Pirate in 2007. The jaunty pirate tune, combined with Stefan’s perfectly gruff and fun vocals, quickly became popular with fans and animators. The song’s most notable appearance is this short looping flash video, known to most as “lol limewire.” Remember, this was from an era when short, looping flash animations were insanely popular. The popularity of content like this is seems weird now, but was perfectly consistent with the time it was made in.
You Are A Pirate continued to grow in popularity after being covered by Alestorm, a self proclaimed pirate metal band.
The internet catches Robbie Rotten fever.
Though LazyTown never faded away from pop culture, it stayed dormant for a while as far as the internet was concerned. Yet almost a decade after You Are A Pirate pillaged our homes, the new king of LazyTown memes finally arrived.
We Are Number One is a song that originally aired in 2014, but the internet didn’t pick up on it until 2016. In the song, Robbie Rotten tries to teach a group of look-alike co-conspirators to be villains like him… to often inadequate results. Like all LazyTown songs, it’s an upbeat tune that even full grown adults can easily bop their heads to after a few seconds. But unlike other LazyTown songs, this was arguably the magnum opus tune for both Robbie as a character and Stefán Karl as a vocalist.
It’s always hard to tell why some things get popular on the internet over… well, literally anything else. Regardless, I’ll do my best to make this particular meme make sense. We Are Number One memes began in earnest thanks to SiIvagunner, a YouTube channel that uploads comical remixes of video game music that’s disguised to look like official soundtracks. We Are Number One snuck into a number of their “high quality video game rips,” and the song itself was remixed on the channel numerous times. This wouldn’t be the first time SiIvagunner made a meme out of a seemingly random song, but it may be the hardest a meme started by the channel ever caught on. Of the channels 10,000 + uploads, its most popular upload is a heavily memed remix of We Are Number One.
From there, Robbie Rotten grew from “the guy in the meme song” to a genuinely loved character on his own merits. On one hand, Robbie Rotten was an immediately nostalgic character. Kids who grew up with LazyTown are now in their late teens or early 20s, and older internet users would remember the character from the You Are A Pirate flash animations. On the other hand, much to the show’s chagrin, Robbie Rotten is the most relatable character on LazyTown. Everyone knows what its like to feel lazy and want to eat sweets. Robbie Rotten is a cartoony personification of that emotion, especially when he’s trying to nap as much as he can or find just the right spot in his comfy chair.
Again, this was aided by how hard Stefán went into making Robbie as hyperbolic as possible. Lines and situations that would be mundane otherwise were made comical and surreal thanks to Stefán.
Even Robbie Rotten’s signature jumpsuit became a popular costume among amateur cosplayers. Though the costume itself isn’t expensive to replicate, fans found out the real costume is a lot more ornate than it looks. According to Stefán Karl himself, the outfit was custom made and worth $15,000. If there’s one holy grail of LazyTown memorabilia, it’s without a doubt those costumes.
The battle to save Stefán .
You can never tell how someone will react to being the center of a joke. On one end, you have Nicolas Cage embracing his “you don’t say!?” face. On the other end, you have Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Half Time face that her publicist really, really wanted to erase from the internet. Well, not only did Stefán Karl embrace his memes, he went above and beyond to encourage everyone having fun with his likeness.
In the wake of his internet fame, Stefán hosted an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit and helped make raw sound files from We Are Number One free to use for all aspiring memers. He even hosted an interview with the LazyTown composer and performed the song live with his cohorts from the show. Though he never said what his favorite memes were, he strongly indicated that he loved the absurdist work fans did with the part of the song where Robbie gets a net thrown on him. You would think a family man in his 40s would be perplexed by the internet’s sense of humor in this situation, but Stefán clearly loved how much joy he was bringing to people all around the world.
However, the internet had to reconcile their laughs with some tough news. 2016 was also the year Stefán was diagnosed with cancer, and his prospects looked grim. Bile Duct Cancer is infamous for its low survival rate, especially since it is often not diagnosed until it has already grown too prominent to treat. Faced with losing a man who became so beloved to the internet, the Robbie Rotten memes started serving a second purpose. The most popular videos and images began accompanying links to a GoFundMe campaign to support Stefán, effectively becoming forms of outreach. The campaign had a goal of $100,000, which would enable Stefán to cover medical expenses and rest with his family during his battle. In the end, $169,670 was raised for Stefán.
In 2017, Stefán was actually free from cancer, even if only for a short while. This resulted in many claims about how memes saved a man’s life, and… well, it’s not like it was incorrect at the time. Internet jokes and comedy was the form of activism to save him, and fans hoped this remission would be the happily ever after everyone always wanted. But because fate is sometimes cruel and cancer is the absolute worst, Stefán’s condition returned in early 2018. Stefán’s social media began to shut down during this time period, as he was bracing for the worst and wanted to spend his last days with his family. But regardless, he made it abundantly clear that he was deeply grateful for all the support that rallied around him during his final days.
Stefán Karl brought out the best in us.
In our modern culture, it can be hard to see the good in the internet sometimes. Stories of trolls are rampant and often dominate news headlines, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We Are Number One memes were born of the same, often perplexing internet subculture of inside jokes, but in this case, the end result was so much different than what we’re used to seeing. Not only did online jokers avoid trying to hurt anyone, they utilized their art for good once they realized the potential their content held.
It’s hard to say how Stefán will be remembered. In Switzerland, a performing arts center is being built in his name to fulfill a lifelong dream of his. But otherwise, his name isn’t one that most people in pop culture are familiar with. But for those who do remember him, he left a lasting impact of happiness and optimism in the face of desolate odds. Though we often say it about many people who’ve passed on, Stefán truly did improve the lives of everyone who knew him and interacted with him – even by proxy.
Before his death, Stefán Karl wanted to make sure his final messages were filled with hope to everyone they reached. In his own words, “Time is the most valuable thing in life because it never comes back. And whether you spend it in the arms of a loved one or alone in a prison cell, life is what you make of it. Dream big.”
To the man who collected memes, memories, and the happiness of countless kids and young adults, may you forever rest in peace in the most perfectly comfortable position possible.