March 12, 2013 at 6:49 PM ET
Elephants, giraffes, lions — that's what tourists used to want to see when they visited South Africa. Recently, however, more are seeking a distinctly C-list beast, a tenacious but endangered predator. The old world mustelid everyone is asking for is … the honey badger. The YouTube-inspired interest has safari guides scratching their heads.
Half a world away, Randall — just "Randall" — is thrilled. After all, he just single-handedly upended the ecotourism industry.
"That's cah-razy!" he exclaims upon hearing about his impact, sounding as you'd expect if you've caught one of the nearly 58 million YouTube viewings of "The Crazy Nastya** Honey Badger (original narration by 'Randall.')"
Before January 2011, when the video hit the Internet, you'd be hard-pressed to find any Americans who could ID a honey badger if it broke into the house and made off with their pet cobra. Now — thanks to Randall's flamboyant (and foul-mouthed) narration dubbed over an obscure National Geographic segment — millions are now hep to the "bada**" world of the honey badger. But honey badgerites are learning that all is not bada**, however. The real actual critter and its furry associates around the globe are in trouble, and they need help from fans.
"I'm on a mission to remind people we are not alone on this Earth," says Randall.
Of course, like "Gangnam Style" and other Internet sensations, you've just got to see the "Honey Badger" video to get it. (Here's a link and a spoiler alert: There are swear words!) You'll learn of the honey badger's long body and loose skin, and its desire to go "right into a house of bees to eat larvae." And you'll hear Randall's trademarked catchphrase — "Honey badger don't care!" Randall's recitation of honey badger "fun facts" mixed with "Ew! Gross!" and other interjections are key to the video's charm.
(How can an animal so "nastya**" it shrugs off cobra bites be endangered? "These days because they love going to the house full of bees, a lot of bee keepers in Africa shoot them point blank in the head," says Randall.)
Indeed, it was the dryness of the original honey badger voiceover that inspired him. "The narration was as dry as toast on a hot summer day in Austin," Randall said Monday, entertaining a packed room at South by Southwest in Austin.
"You actually react to what's happening," an audience member enthused. "You don't hear narrators being emotional."
Like the honey badger, Randall is an enigma. At 6-foot 4-inches, he towers over his adult fans at SXSW, embracing one after another as they swarm like giddy, giggling children. Wearing enormous sunglasses that once belonged to his grandmother, Randall finds it's his voice that usually identifies him. More than once he's ordered french fries at a drive through, only to encounter a pick-up window full of Carl's Jr. employees shouting, "Honey badger don't care!"
Meanwhile, the phenomenon is making inroads offline, including a reference by hardnosed coach Sue Sylvester on "Glee." Recently, a Manhattan lawyer was overheard shouting into his cellphone, "You know why they call me the honey badger?"
Randall's voice can be heard on commercials for products such as Wonderful Pistachios, and you can buy three different talking honey badger stuffed toys, one that's G-rated for the kids. A portion of the proceeds for the stuffed toys go to Animals Asia, an organization committed to rescuing bears. He's even got a book: "Honey Badger Don't Care: Randall's Guide to Crazy, Nastya** Animals."
(YouTube doesn't give Randall — or National Geographic — a dime of ad revenue generated by the many views on YouTube, by the way.)
As an actor and a comedian, Randall wants to turn this honey badger thing into a career. But he's also happy to get the word out about animals. "It's education through comedy," Randall says. "I can't tell you how many kids are reaching out to me, 'Oh Randall I wish you were my science teacher.'"
That said, even science educators are thrilled with the honey badger.
A wildlife photographer in the audience shows off a gorgeous close-up of a honey badger she snapped in Botswana, and tells Randall about tour guides and scientists she works with, all thrilled with the honey badger's rising profile. Even Keith and Colleen Begg, the documentarians who shot the original honey badger video, rave about his impact.
"I'm just so happy I can do something to bring attention to these animals," Randall told NBC News. You can hear Randall's voice in a video introducing the honey badgers at the Naples Zoo in Florida, one of the few zoos in the United States you can see these animals. Randall even got the chance to play with a real honey badger. "Oh, he scratched me," Randall admitted. "But it was the thrill of my life."
The phenomenon is not without controversy, however. Someone in the SXSW hierarchy worried Randall might smuggle his endangered predator friend into central Texas for the conference. He was duly warned that this wasn't allowed.