Incredibly lifelike, this Chuck Testa guy. He may present a flat affect, sure, his voice a droning monotone, his steps small and deliberate, his face almost flaccid. But it’s not as if you need to check for a pulse; he has, inexplicably, a certain presence, an undeniable animal magnetism. That animal may resemble a stuffed mole, but so be it.
Isn’t that his whole act, right? Isn’t that the very emotionally stunted persona that this humble taxidermist in the Ojai Valley has nurtured and cultivated into a measure of fame? Internet fame, granted, the star of mercurial memes that briefly infatuate the cool kids on social media, but fame nonetheless?
Or perhaps – to quote his patented catchphrase – nope! That really could be the genuine Chuck Testa you encountered as you stepped over scraps of deer skin and duck feathers at his workshop behind his modest ranch house just west of Ojai, telling you in a strangely doe-eyed, blank-faced friendliness, “Come on in.”
Spend any time at all with Chuck Testa, watch him at work manipulating the snout of a five-pointed buck now nothing more than a bust and a freezer full of venison, or kick back with him on the living room couch noshing cheese and salami, and you’ll soon find that … well, even then you aren’t totally sure his public face is not also his true self.
This much is certain: Chuck Testa is living the life, man. As he matter-of-factly points out: “You hear about the 15 minutes of fame? It’s been five years and I’m still here.” Far from fading into obscurity alongside so many other memesters (what ever happened to that “Leave Britney Alone” dude?), Chuck Testa has endured. And if you’ve watched him on his YouTube channel giving taxidermy tips, or caught him on a TV spot for Keystone Light beer, or seen his cameos on other cable TV programs, you’ll know that he’s always referred to by his lugubrious, three-beat full name: Chuck Testa.
It all started with a (perhaps) unintentionally funny 2011 TV commercial in which a troll-like Chuck Testa lurks behind stuffed animals in odd places – an antelope “driving” an SUV, a leopard lounging on a back patio. Then, while astonished “real people” exhort dialogue such as “Oh no, there’s a bear in my bed!” the mild-mannered taxidermist pops up and says, “Nope! It’s Chuck Testa, Ojai Valley Taxidermy.”
It was silly, slapstick and safe for work. Initially made for a cable TV show that never got past the pilot stage, the ad was uploaded to YouTube in 2011. There it languished for a couple of months before, in that mysterious way of social media, it “blew up the Internet” and became a sensation. “Nope! It’s Chuck Testa” shot up to meme status, with people all over this diverse land, hunters and vegans alike, chuckling at this short, hunch-shouldered guy with a gray goatee and green cap with turned-up bill dead-panning into the camera: “I specialize in the most lifelike dead animals anywhere, period.”
No one’s laughing at Chuck Testa now. Or, rather, people still are. And that’s why his taxidermy business is booming even though now, at 59, he works only part time, his YouTube channel generating income via advertising (kind of meta, that) and he gets flown around the country to shoot commercials, appear at outdoor shows and even give a few talks. He now has “people,” in the Hollywood sense, the same YouTube “channel manager” that handles Paula Abdul and fitness guru Billy Blanks.
And no one is more flummoxed by Chuck Testa’s sustained popularity than Chuck Testa.
“It hasn’t made me rich or anything, but it’s made me rich in experiences and doing things I never thought I’d do,” he said. “It’s better than money. Money would be nice. Don’t get me wrong. But I’ve been all over the country. I’ve been to MIT. Did a panel discussion thing. I wish my dad were alive. I’d say, ‘Hey, you thought I’d never make it. Well, look, I’m at MIT, invited to …’ ”
He stopped short. Something out the front window distracted him. Another car was cruising by, almost with funeral-procession slowness, and he shook his head.
“They stop and take pictures of the sign on the shed for the taxidermy (business),” he said. “They don’t realize my business is out of my home.”
This happens a lot. People stroll up uninvited. Chuck Testa used to be nonplussed by these interruptions, but he’s learned to roll with it and even enjoy the attention. Sometimes, though, it can get a bit much. These days, the stream of visitors isn’t as strong as 2011 or 2012, but significant, says his partner, Wendy Burr.
“It was like nonstop drive-bys,” Burr said. “All sorts of people call, and he’s so friendly, he’ll say, ‘Yeah, sure, come on over.’ He’s very accessible.”
Out in the shed, Jeff Davis, a fellow taxidermist, snorted a laugh when his boss was asked if any stuffed-animal groupies drop by.
“Tell him about the hipster lady,” Davis offered.
“Right,” Chuck Testa said with a curt nod. “All of a sudden, (taxidermy) has become trendy with people who put nuts and bolts in their heads (piercings). We were filming a thing for ‘World of Tanks’ (on CarbonTV), and out of nowhere comes these people with a lady who wanted to take a (stuffed) skunk to dinner. I can’t put it in words. We filmed it. Come inside and I’ll show you on the computer.”
After wading through an impressive number of messages on his Facebook page – we’re talking hundreds – he finally found the video snippet. It shows three 20-somethings, two guys dressed in skinny jeans and thin, 1980s ties, and a woman dolled up like a ’20s flapper, asking Chuck Testa if they could rent a skunk for an evening. The young woman strokes the skunk’s pelt, says, “I just want to show it a good time.”
He shook his head in the mock-confused way only he can.
“You get all types of nutty things,” he said, pointing to Davis. “Help me out, Jeff.”
Davis: “Laughing ducks, man.”
Davis: “It was rival duck clubs, and one wanted ducks laughing with GI Joe hats on and cigarettes in their mouth. They sent us the wood (for the mount) with their rival club logo on it. It now hangs in a whorehouse.”
Chuck Testa’s bushy brows furrow. His voice actually rises a bit; there’s inflection in it.
“I don’t want to be, like, snobby,” he said, “but we usually do more serious work. What Jeff said, that’s called ‘rogue taxidermy.’ That’s all the rage. All of a sudden, everyone’s a taxidermist.”
Suggest that his YouTube notoriety might have something to do with the profession’s apparent resurgence, and Chuck Testa didn’t flinch. In fact, his face barely moved a muscle. He looked his visitor in the eye.
“I don’t know if I did,” he said. “But my fan base – I don’t know if I’m comfortable calling it a fan base – but it’s all age categories. Surprisingly not just men.”
Last fall, when Miller Brewing executives flew him to New York to do the Keystone ads, he was stopped on the street by random people exclaiming, “Nope!” One person, he said, told him he was crazy to wear shorts in New York, that no one does it. Nope, he responded, Chuck Testa does.
In fact, the gag in the Keystone ad is that Chuck Testa is “bat s--- crazy,” talking to stuffed animals, making deadpanned non sequiturs and not following the exasperated director’s instructions.
Was it acting? Chuck Testa shrugged, as if letting people make their own assessments.
“They had me wired on this shoot so they could see me in this ‘video village,’ where all the executives are watching,” he said. “I said into (the mike), ‘You know I’m not an actor, right?’ They didn’t seem to care.”
Nope! It’s just Chuck Testa.
Ojai Valley Taxidermy
Where: 318 N. Arnaz St., Ojai
More info: 805-646-7482; www.ojaitaxidermy.com