Electroshock therapy “sounds a lot worse than it is,” Tumblr phenomenon The Frogman assures me over Skype.
That’s because when the shocks hit you, you’re already deep in artificial sleep. You never feel the seizures, the electricity coursing through your brain. The worst thing that happens? You forget some things. Maybe a lot of things, actually—you can’t actually know what’s been wiped from your memory, after all.
“Honestly, it’s like taking a nap,” The Frogman says. ”You wake up and it’s done.”
The Frogman is Benjamin Grelle, a serial Web humorist whose office, studio, and home is the basement of his parents’ four-bedroom home in St. Louis, Missouri. From there, Grelle has built a Tumblr empire of sorts, based on Photoshop mash-ups and animated GIFs of kittens, corgis, and, more often than not, Grelle himself, adorned in his trademark bear hat and chinchilla-sized beard.
Seen the GIF of a guy stabbing himself in the eye with Men In Black-style sunglasses? That’s The Frogman.
Grelle admits he’s almost a living stereotype of the Internet famous. He describes himself as “overweight.” He’s 30 years old and single; he dropped out of college at 18, and he can’t hold a regular job. Yet he’s amassed a Tumblr following of 70,000, quite literally from that bed in his parent’s basement.
Grelle’s living arrangements and employment troubles are almost entirely out of his control, however. He suffers from a poorly-understood disease with no known cure. Chronic fatigue syndrome traps Grelle in a prison of inertia.
“It’s like trying to power a house on a car battery,” Grelle says of his condition. “You have to be really selective on how you use your energy and how you conserve it.”
It wasn’t always that way. The fatigue didn’t hit until Grelle was around 18. Before then, he had just as much energy as any other teenager.
By the eighth grade, in fact, he’d already created his first comedy publishing empire. Using his family’s bubble jet printer as a kind of toy printing press, Grelle produced a popular newsletter he passed around school. It was called “Bob’s Commentary.” The name came from a comedic alter ego he’d invented, Bob the Frog. The name, and the comedic identity, stuck.
During Grelle’s senior year of high school, however, the fatigue started to creep into his muscles, bones, and mind. But he kept going. He enrolled in the University of Missouri–Kansas City and began studying theater. Three months into his freshman year, he abruptly dropped out.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he recalls telling his parents. “I’m just so tired.”
No one knew what was wrong with him, and most doctors wrongly assumed he suffered from depression. For about half a decade they experimented on him, asking him to try over 30 types of depression medications. None worked. Then, they tried shock therapy. That didn’t work, either.
Forced out of school Grelle still tried to pursue his stand-up comedy dream, performing at open mic nights at various bars and coffee shops around St. Louis. In 2002, just when he felt like he was “getting the hang of it,” he says it became harder and harder to perform. He had to stop.
“That was my dream all along,” he says, “to be a famous stand up comedian.”
That’s when what he calls the “real depression” set in. “For a long time I crawled up into a ball and did nothing,” he says.
In 2005, his doctor finally concluded he suffered from chronic fatigue. According to the National Institute of Health, patients’ prognoses varies widely, with some people recovering in months and others suffering their whole lives.
For Grelle, there was little to alleviate the fatigue–and the accompanying mental anguish.
Then, in 2009, Grelle started playing around on Tumblr. The blogging service was a great place to experiment with his unique brand of humor and to develop what would later become his signatures—splicing himself into animated GIFs or creating Internet-meme mash-ups.
It took him three months to reach 300 followers. “If I had 30 people visiting my site it was a good day,” Grelle says. “I started this as from scratch as you can get.” His mother was his first and biggest fan. She created her own account on Tumblr just to reblog and “heart” his posts.
“They’re my best friends and amazing roommates and awesome parents,” Grelle says of his parents.
The Frogman’s first traffic spike came from a link from The Daily What in December, 2009. Other links from big sites followed. The momentum started to build. Soon social news site Reddit’s r/funny section took a liking to his work, and starting sending him massive amounts of traffic.
Earlier this month, BuzzFeed called Grelle “one of the most charming people on Tumblr” and named The Frogman one of the top 90 Tumblr blogs of 2011.
Grelle now averages about 30,000 page views a day; 200,000 when one of his posts goes viral. This month, he hit 1 million page views for the time. He’s still a little short of his ultimate goal, however: turning the The Frogman into his full-time job. If things keep going the way they have been, he thinks he’ll reach that goal in a year or two.
From the cushion of his bed in his parents basement, Grelle has realized his dream of working as a stand-up comedian—albeit through the filter of a computer screen and a little imagination.
“I want it to seem like it’s me performing to the audience,” Grelle says, “[Tumblr] notes and pageviews are kind of like laughs.”
He never required shock treatment or those 30 types of depression drugs. All Grelle needed to feel better was a bear hat, sunglasses, corgis—and Tumblr.
“The response I’ve gotten from this,” Grelle says, pausing mid-sentence to conserve energy, “the love from all the people it’s changed my life. I was a depressed lump before this. Everyday I get dozens of messages of people saying wonderful things. It gets you through the days.”