I have mixed feelings about Internet memes. I think they’re funny but shallow, harmless but pointless. There’s something charming about how they’re generated by passionate users rather than being the calculated product of corporate focus groups, but I roll my eyes when I consider how much time is spent creating or viewing them. Should we be concerned that those passionate users aren’t putting their passion into something more constructive? Should we fear that someday all our entertainment will be this shallow? That eventually things will only be enjoyed ironically?
These considerations were why I was interested to learn about I Can Has Cheeseburger: The MusicLOL, an original musical that previewed at the Beyond the Wall theater company and is playing at the New York Fringe Festival. As the name implies, the show is based on the popular I Can Has Cheezburger site, the poster child for both how popular and pointless memes can be.
It stuck me as an inspired choice to use the site as the basis for a play. Though I doubt it was the intention of the creators, I was amused by the reverse nature of the idea. If the dozens of books about memes cheapen literature, here is a case of a meme legitimatized by an established form of art like the stage.
The play was developed by Katherine Steinberg and Kristyn Pomranz (K&K), two first-time playwrights who wrote it together in their spare time, essentially on a whim.
“I’d always written joke musicals,” Pomranz said. “I’d see a funny ad on the subway and I’d start singing some goofy song about it. I’d be like, ‘I’m going to write a musical about subway safety regulations!’ So, in that vein, I had written a few jokey songs about my favorite macros from I Can Has Cheezburger.”
Pomranz mentioned this to Steinberg, who had experience writing sketches and latched onto the idea. “I felt like the site could provide the framework for a great story,” she said.
The story, as you might expect, follows the adventures of LOLCat as he searches for the titular meal. Along the way he meets a variety of colorful characters, including “Epic Fail” and “Orly Owl,” all of which are based on some of the site’s best-known macros. (I found the story to be somewhat predictable, but then, I had read the book.)
Throughout the show, images from the site are projected onto the back of the stage, commenting on the action. When getting directions, our hero is told, “Take the monorail cat,” and we see one of the site’s most popular characters. It gets a laugh because it adds something the site lacks: context.
What I liked about the play was how it built on the unambitious goofiness of the site, adding characters and a story to what was just a collection of photos. This probably makes the show itself decidedly un-meme, though it was done with the site’s laissez-faire support.