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.
“We had no idea about the plot or the characters when we gave them the copyright,” said Ben Huh, the chief executive officer of I Can Has Cheezburger. (Yes, the site has a CEO. You cannot imagine how surreal it was to hear that job title in an answering machine message.) “We essentially went into it blind.”
That decision may not seem very business-savvy for a site that rakes in millions of views and must make a mint in ad revenue, but Huh brushed off the possibility that the play could come back to haunt him.
“We weren’t worried that it would be embarrassing to us; people make fun of us all the time. I mean, we’re pictures of cats with misspelled captions. We don’t take ourselves that seriously,” he said, echoing a theme I would hear repeatedly.
Huh added that, “the thing about memes is you have to let people own it. If people want to take it a certain way, we have to let it go that way… We’re trying to capture the world’s imagination in user-generated content.”
Does this make the show just like any other of the 5,000+ entries on the site, just more ambitious and with more work put into it? Possibly, but despite Huh’s mission statement, and the support he showed in giving the duo the copyright (“Once we reached out to him, he was all ‘ZOMG HOW CAN I HELP?” Pomranz reflected.), he initially backed away from advertising the play on the website.
“I don’t know how marketing it would fit with the site’s audience,” Huh said. “They come to the site to get their five minutes of daily play, to get away from work, and a long-format play may not tie in with what people like about the site. When you take one format and turn it into a musical it may not resonate.” (The play has since been advertised on the site.)
To help it resonate with those who aren’t fans of the site, K&K rewrote the script “to make it a bit more accessible to people outside the ICHC cult,” but acknowledged the limitations of their source.
“LOLCats has a niche audience,” Steinberg said. Pomranz added, “It’s a meme. I mean, it’s a super-epic meme, but it’s a meme. It will die.” The two’s next project, which they have been commissioned to write by Beyond the Wall, will have a more “evergreen” story, they said, declining to provide details.
Part of me wants to think that because the play is cleverly written and has catchy songs, it could survive without the site’s popularity fueling interest. But who knows. Certainly I’m not concerned for K&K’s prospects. Having a show at the Fringe Festival, and being commissioned to write another one, represents a level of success that many playwrights will never reach. For first-time playwrights it is astonishing, and even more remarkable when you learn how little technical musical experience the pair has, an obstacle that would seem insurmountable.
Mike Gilliespie, an arranger who shares a mutual friend with Pomranz, helped construct the score though a process that involved the pair singing melodies to him, which he then translated into notes.
“Kristyn and Kate, in spite of not having much technical musical training, have very sharp musical ears,” Gilliespie said. “I remember one song in which I was listening to the recording and heard what I assumed was a mistake in the melody line, so I smoothed it out in the arrangement. K&K picked up on it right away — the original was indeed what they’d intended. It was a slight chromatic difference, and when I looked at it again, I saw that it made the song a little more interesting and complex.”
Hearing him talk, a question kept coming to mind. It returned when I spoke to Liz Ervey, who played the accountant “Sumz” in the show’s Beyond the Wall incarnation, and to Nicole Born Crow, that version’s director and producer. “This is about LOLCats,” I would think. “How can they possibly be taking it this seriously?” The only person who seemed to view the site with the same skepticism as me was Ben Huh, the CEO.
But then I reflected that if Huh was right that you couldn’t regulate memes, here was an example of people owning one by giving it artistic merit and relative depth. In my eyes it stands as a rebuttal to the fact that memes are given more attention than more serious works of art, as well as to the idea of memes being shallow.
“I hear from a lot of people who say, ‘I didn’t realize I was funny until I started posting on LOLCats.’” Huh told me. “People say they make new friends online because they share a sense of humor this way.”
This is another rebuttal. It may be a shame that memes have so saturated our culture, but they can be fun, people get to be creative, and sometimes they can lead to things like “The MusicLOL,” which convinced me that user-generated content can be worthy of critical appraisal. Plus, those pictures are ridiculous.
For details on the show, including ticket information, visit: http://icanhascheezburgerthemusiclol.wordpress.com/