How Did Keyboard Cat Become Famous (And What Happened To Him)?

Ah, the internet — what's it good for? Ask many, and they'll tell you cat videos. One could perhaps trace the prevalence of online cat videos to the Keyboard Cat. Whatever happened to him, you might ask? Unfortunately, the rotund orange tabby named Fatso died in 1987. That, however, only marks the end of the first chapter in Keyboard Cat history. 

It all started in 1984 when Fatso's owner Charlie Schmidt taped a video of his orange tabby seeming to play a jaunty keyboard tune dressed in an eggshell blue T-shirt. "I wasn't aiming for anything except relieving my boredom," Schmidt told The Washington Post in 2018. Years later, in 2007, he uploaded that old footage to YouTube. Then, in 2009, with Schmidt's permission, Brad O'Farrell of My Damn Channel — now Omnivision Entertainment — spliced someone tripping and falling down an escalator with the original Fatso footage, as if to say, "Play them off!" With that, a viral hit was born. In an interview with Mashable, O'Farrell said, "Within three days, my YouTube channel went absolutely bonkers. It was doing 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 hits a day. I was counting on not getting that many in my whole life."

Capitalizing on that success, Fatso's comical piano playing footage got added to still more video clips, typically consisting of the internet's second most popular online meme topic: "fail videos," or people slipping, falling, or generally making fools of themselves. With stars like Ashton Kutcher and outlets like The Daily Show on board, the Keyboard Cat phenomenon seemed unstoppable.

Keyboard Cat 2.0

Shortly after Brad O'Farrell married Mike Schmidt's old footage with comically awkward clips of people making mistakes, hundreds of Keyboard Cat videos were made and viewed by millions on social media, the Los Angeles Times reported. Schmidt built a team of meme-makers around him to produce more cat videos, but there was only one problem: Fatso had long since died.

Around 2010, Schmidt picked up the second cat actor to play Keyboard Cat — another orange tabby named Bento. Schmidt made a new Keyboard Cat video — "Keyboard Cat REINCARNATED!" — but the concept remained much the same: Higher-res footage of Bento playing a new song with added rhythm and cutaways of his feet dancing. It was also around that same time that the Keyboard Cat brand diversified, adding merchandise and appearing in a Wonderful Pistachios TV ad, among other brand endorsements. 

All combined, Bento, Schmidt, and his team earned around $145,000 from Wonderful Pistachios alone, and the work didn't stop there. With money involved, Schmidt protected his Keyboard Cat IP. When Keyboard Cat showed up in the video game "Scribblenauts," he sued its publisher, Warner Bros., for copyright and trademark infringement. Representatives for Schmidt said settled "amicably," New York Magazine reported.

But alas, Bento the Keyboard Cat 2.0 died from cancer in 2018. Schmidt paid tribute to Bento's life in — what else? — a YouTube video.  That year, another web-based cat celebrity, Grumpy Cat, shared their condolences for Schmidt's on X, formerly Twitter. "Rest In Peace Keyboard Cat Bento," Grumpy Cat said.

Keyboard Cat 3.0

On the possibility that Keyboard Cat might reemerge in a third incarnation, Mike Schmidt told The Washington Post in 2018, "I'm not doing any dating right now with cats, but it can happen." As it turned out, Schmidt had already adopted Bento's replacement — another orange tabby named Skinny. One year later, Schmidt told The Spokesman-Review, "[Skinny's] been patient all these years and watched Bento be famous and get all the attention and now he's really stepping up to the plate." Schmidt even spoke of the training process, saying, "It's on another level of cuteness or excitement or surprise because it's a cat not a dog, because we're used to dogs repeating behavior. But we all know that cats are nuts. They're smarter than us, that much is for sure."

Keyboard Cat's third feline actor premiered in a 2019 YouTube clip called "Keyboard Cat 3.0, meet 'Skinny.'" In the comments, brian9670 wrote, "Keyboard Cat is not simply one cat, but a spirit that inhabits only the most worthy to carry on the honor." In 2023, the folks behind the Keyboard Cat YouTube channel seemed to introduce yet another orange tabby named Arlo in a video featuring retro 1980s-style Keyboard Cat music. According to the video, Arlo is Skinny's cousin and was taking piano lessons. Skinny's whereabouts were unclear, nor was it clear if Arlo might tickle the ivories in Keyboard Cat videos going forward.

As of 2023, Schmidt's original Keyboard Cat video had clocked around 73 million views on YouTube, and the brand's online store remained chock-full of related merchandise.