Irony alert: Ben Huh, CEO of the company behind humor sites FAIL Blog, The Daily What, and the feline-focused I Can Has Cheezburger, among others, is allergic to cats. Luckily, his wife Emily doesn’t share Ben’s affliction – “I’m proud to say I am a crazy cat lady,” she told EW when she and Ben paid a visit to our office a few weeks ago. “I’m from a town called Los Gatos, which means ‘the cats’ [in Spanish].” No wonder Emily loves working as I Can Has Cheezburger’s editor-in-chief.
If you’re reading this on a computer screen or a smartphone, chances are you’re familiar with Ben and Emily’s work. But just in case: In 2007, blogger Erik Nakagawa founded a humor site devoted to “lolcats” – funny pictures of cats superimposed with creatively-spelled, silly captions. He named it after one of the meme’s original images, a photo of a chubby gray cat smiling beneath four words written in all caps: “I can has cheezburger?” Eight months later, Ben Huh bought the site and slowly began turning it into an Internet empire. Cheezburger Inc. gradually morphed into one of the web’s largest humor publishers, a network of sites that has launched thousands of memes including Rebecca Black’s “Friday” – “We apologize on behalf of planet Earth,” says Ben – and the subject of a new Bravo reality series called LOLwork.
Before their show’s Nov. 7 premiere, Ben and Emily stopped by for an IRL chat – that’s “in real life” – about kitties, cameras, and the rise of Internet culture. U can has the condensed transcriptz here:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this show come about?
BEN: Our first two I Can Has Cheezburger books were New York Times bestsellers. When you have a New York Times bestseller – a book of captions you didn’t write and photos you didn’t take – you get a Hollywood agent. I know, it’s kind of strange. We ended up looking for a TV show idea. [Then] Bravo approached us and said, “Can we just put cameras in your office and make it a reality show? We’d love to see what [it’s] like behind the scenes.” We said, “Okay, you have free reign. There’s only one rule, which is don’t make fun of our users.”
EMILY: This is something new for Bravo. It’s a reality comedy, so it’s a departure from what they normally do.
BEN: Our motto here is “cats, not catfights.”
LOLwork is definitely different from the rest of Bravo’s programming. Why do you think it makes sense for the series to be shown on this network?
BEN: It keeps its focus on the people behind the scenes. I think that’s what really sets Bravo apart – they’re able to pick interesting people to watch.
EMILY: Also, a lot of their series are aspirational. True, we aren’t drenched in diamonds and really fancy things –
BEN: I have to say, there have been plenty of “I want a job working for you” tweets.
EMILY: And that’s the thing – people want to have a fun job they’re excited to go to every day. A lot of people, when we talk to them about our jobs, they ask, “Is this a real job? Do you actually get paid to do this?” And yes, there’s a real company. We have about 90 people that actually do this.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about your workplace?
BEN: A lot of people think it’s a ton of fun to work at a place like ours – like, you’re laughing all the time. We talked to the producers and said, “I want you to understand that our workday consists of us sitting in front of a computer. Are you okay with that?” And they said, “Look, most people’s offices are people sitting in front of a computer. However, the stuff you talk about is actually pretty hilarious. Like, you have discussions about how much butt is too much [to show in a photo].” And a lot of the humor is how seriously we take our jobs.
EMILY: People probably expect that we have 20 different cats wandering around the office.
BEN: Like it’s some kind of a zoo.
EMILY: We don’t. We’ve had people come visit and just open a door – “Where are the cats?”
BEN: I think the biggest misconception that we’re clearing up is that yes, people really do this for a living. It’s a lot of hard work to make it seem like it’s not a lot of work.
EMILY: Some of us at Cheezburger deal a lot with the community. So that’s fun, dealing with users, seeing their creativity, dealing with their complaints. Let’s say that we get a complaint that hey, this cat is showing too much anus. This actually happens.
BEN: We call it a starfish. [The two Bravo publicists accompanying Ben and Emily laugh.] See, this is a thing! We talk about it in the office and no one laughs. You guys are like the outside world. We live in this little bubble where “starfish” is, like, a normal word.
Lolcats have been around for an eternity in Internet years. Why do you think now is a good time for a show about Cheezburger?
BEN: I think it speaks to the fact that people’s relationship with their pets is always the underlying current of the Internet. It’s something that everybody can relate to. And I think Internet culture is continuing to make inroads into pop culture. Also – you know how celebrity chefs didn’t exist 10 years ago? We’re starting to see kernels of celebrity entrepreneurship.
Why, exactly, do you think cats are so ridiculously popular online?
BEN: I think [it’s] 10,000 years of selective breeding to make cats cuter and cuter. Demographically speaking, we have pets for a longer period of time because we delay having kids and we live longer – so we fill the time before and after with cats. And if you put a camera in front of a cat, they don’t care. If you put a camera in front of a dog, they look at it.
EMILY: When you see a cat doing some humanlike things, you’re excited about it because for the most part, you can’t teach a cat how to do a trick.
BEN: I like to describe cats as teenagers and dogs as three year olds. Cats are like, “Really, you want me to do that? I’ll do the opposite.” They’re just like weird adolescents.
How do you think lolcats have influenced pop culture more generally?
BEN: It’s introduced a lot of people to Internet culture. It’s introduced a demographic who normally wouldn’t have understood how to create user-generated content. Lolcats as a meme is like training wheels for Internet culture.
Have you faced backlash from hardcore Internet users who don’t like how you’ve democratized their culture?
BEN: Of course. You’ll always have that. It’s the same reason why people love bands before they’re big.
But as memeification gets more mainstream, some of the memes that get created now seem forced.
BEN: Oh, yeah. Each [presidential] campaign tries to make forced memes. That’s okay. It’s practice. Usually, the community will pick up on that and not propagate it. Forced memes don’t make it very far because they are forced.
So what non-Internet stuff do you guys find funny?
BEN: You know we live on the Internet.
EMILY: What is ‘non-Internet?’
BEN: It’s like asking me to name something that’s popular in Albania.
LOLwork premieres on Bravo Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 11 p.m. ET.
Bravo’s ‘LOLwork’ goes behind the scenes at a meme-making factory – EXCLUSIVE CLIP
Cheezburger founder Ben Huh on SXSWi: Jumping the shark has jumped the shark
Icanhascheezburger.com CEO Ben Huh talks! (But doesn’t give us cheezburgers)