Internet Cats: Behind the Memes

A new documentary shows forces us to confront the meaning of famous felines

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Matthew Caron / Vice

Lil Bub in 'Lil Bub & Friendz'

You know their names. Their strange habits. Their little, whiskered—sometimes grumpy—faces. They, of course, are Internet-famous cats. The new documentary Lil Bub & Friendz, premiering April 18 at the Tribeca Film Festival (and available to watch at home as part of the festival’s online component), sheds some light—and fur—on the phenomenon and, in doing so, uncovers the sometimes-uncomfortable truth behind the famous felines.

Lil Bub is one of those cats. Rescued as a kitten by music producer Mike Bridavsky of Bloomington, Ind., she is—due to genetic mutations—a so-called “permakitten.” Her eyes will always look disproportionately large, her limbs will always be short, the smallness of her lower jaw means her tongue will always stick out and she will never have any teeth—all characteristics that, while mostly benign in terms of her quality of life, give her the special something elicits feelings of affection. Bub’s website states clearly that she’s “a real animal,” but Bridavsky thinks she has something more than normal animal cuteness going for her. “It sounds crazy to say it, but there’s this magical feeling,” he says. “People really respond to it, even with the photos. The vibe she gives off—I have a lot of cats and I love all of them, but there’s something about her.”

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Bub’s special “something” is why she’s now on the big screen. Lil Bub & Friendz—the latest in Vice’s line of outside-the-box documentariesstarted as a short video piece about the first Internet Cat Video Festival at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis last August, says co-director Juliette Eisner. “We thought it was ridiculous and it would be interesting to go to something like that at such an acclaimed art institution,” she says. “We brought Lil Bub along, and realized from being at the festival with the cat that we had tapped into something bigger. We couldn’t not make her our star.” Besides, as Eisner points out, Bub has a social-media following any B-list rapper would envy.

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Image: Grumpy Cat

Daniel Petty / Denver Post / Getty Images

Tardar Sauce, better known by her viral Internet meme name “Grumpy Cat,” appears during a press event during the 2013 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival on March 7, 2013, in Austin.

Not that Lil Bub is the only internet cat in the movie. There are also the Friendz, kitties like Keyboard Cat and Grumpy Cat and Nyan Cat — not actual friends of Bub’s, but part of the same world. Those three—or, rather, their owners—share a manager, Ben Lashes, who is (as far as he knows) the world’s first meme manager. Lashes uses his music-world background to make sure that the cat-human teams make the most of their instant coolness, without losing their momentum. “When I first told people that I manage a cat that wears a shirt and plays keyboard,” he recalls, “it was kind of split on who thought I was out of my mind, and who was like, ‘Oh yeah, I love Keyboard Cat!’”

Bridavsky and his friends manage Lil Bub’s career themselves—a job that includes controlling images of the cat, preventing her from becoming the subject of brand-devaluing Lolcat-style memes. But, regardless of who’s pulling the strings, these celebrity cats are big business for their owners. The movie takes viewers to a Nyan Cat pop-up shop that opened in New York last December, and Bub has allowed Mike Bridavsky to provide both work for his friends and donations for animal shelters.

“My life has changed quite a bit,” he acknowledges. “Especially these days, it’s so much work.” Internet fame often seems to spring unbidden from the deepest wells of the web, skipping the striving part and going straight to success—but, while that might be the case at first, the continuation of that status is often carefully orchestrated. “The hardest thing in the world is getting people to pay attention to something that you do,” says Ben Lashes, who also appears in the movie, “but memes start out already cool, so they have to not lose it.”

Questions about the financial aspects of Internet cats are a reality for their owners, who are sometimes accused of exploiting their pets, says Eisner. “In the end, it’s not really exploiting because it is an animal,” she says. “If [Bub] were able to say that she didn’t want to have her picture taken, that would be different.”

But the business side of Internet fun isn’t the real darkness that lurks behind the LOL. The thing is, these cats aren’t just peoples’ livelihoods—they’re peoples’ pets. It may be hard to remember for fans who rarely get to see litter boxes or vet visits but, with the exception of Nyan Cat (an animated creation), Internet cats are living creatures.

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That fact becomes startlingly clear in Lil Bub & Friendz, when what at first seems like a look at a silly Internet fad takes a serious turn. In the middle of the movie, Bub gets sick. It’s not entirely clear what’s wrong with her, but something about her congenital condition starts to cause her pain. She can’t play or walk—and the vets don’t think they can help. There’s a terrifying moment when Bridavsky comes home and Bub is not in her usual spot; the camera finds her elsewhere in his home, alive, but it’s clear those present feared the worst. Having seen the movie, Bridavsky doesn’t even think that worry comes across as strongly as he felt it. “There was a very scary week there. It was horrible,” he remembers. “I actually thought it might be the end of Bub. We saw a specialist and everything. They said it would only get worse.”

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Bub’s health has since improved—Bridavsky attributes that change to Reiki healing and says that she’s better than she has been in months—but it can be hard to reconcile the pet in pain with the creature whose big eyes are all over the Internet. It’s hard for Bridavsky too, but it a different way.

“A lot of what was going through my mind was how much she means to so many people,” he says. “I’ve gotten myself into a situation where even if I do have to put her down I’m going to get blamed for it. It’s hard enough having to put down your pet, but then having to deal with being accused of doing a bad job of caring for her just because someone thinks that’s what happened, arbitrarily—it’s definitely something I’m going to have to deal with at some point.”

It’s only been about four years since Ben Lashes picked up Keyboard Cat as a client, but that’s been long enough for many to fall in love with these cats from a distance. And it’s also been long enough for a whole community for those cat-lovers to take shape. Lashes likes to remind people that cats have always served that social-center purpose, from the sphinx to Garfield. “It’s like when reality television got big. The real cats out there that are extraordinary are the next logical step,” he says. “I think crazy, cool, funny, weird cats will always be loved by people. Who knows the different ways that we will enjoy them in the future?”

But, as Lil Bub & Friendz reminds us, those future cats won’t be Grumpy or Bub or the absent-from-the-movie Maru. Every famous Internet cat that is a living being will, like all of us, even celebrities, die one day. Nobody knows that better than Mike Bridavsky. “I never intended for any of this to happen,” he says. “She’s my cat, still.”