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Reality Show Goes Inside the Place Memes Are Made

I Can Has Cheezburger and FAILBlog are (in)famous for making memes. Now they have a new reality series. Founder Ben Huh talks about letting Bravo's cameras inside his company.
Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger Inc.
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As cable network Bravo tells it, there's a modern-day magical land not so very far away. It's a place you'd like to be--a place where memes are made.

It's "the office where all they do is stare at screens of cats."

According to Ben Huh, one of the stars of the new reality show LOLwork, that description is not so far off. "Yeah. That's pretty much what we do," he says.

Huh is the founder and CEO of Cheezburger, the company behind 50 online comedy sites (which garner 20 million monthly page views), including the hyper-popular I Can Has Cheezburger and FAIL Blog. Now, with the premiere of his new show Wednesday at 11 p.m., Huh is letting viewers inside the company's Seattle-based headquarters to show America, as Huh tells Inc.com, "how the Internet is made."

Originally, Huh's agent pitched producers a show based on FAIL Blog, a site his company runs that's comprised of crowdsourced pictures and videos of people "failing" at stuff. But Bravo's producers, it seems, found the Cheezburger staff to be much more entertaining--and watching the show, it's pretty clear why.

LOLwork follows the company's employees as they discuss such pressing matters as what breeds of cats they ought to feature and the ethics of publishing a photo of a cat that appears to be dead. The decision? "Sleeping cat: cute. Dead cat: not cute," as content moderator Will Sharick deadpans in the series premiere.

"Since we live it everyday, we don't see that some of the things we do and some of the things we say are really funny," says Huh. "We certainly didn't pitch a reality show, but we were like, 'Why not?'"

The 10 employees featured in the show, including Huh's wife, Emily, each volunteered to be on camera. They're part of the team working on ICanHas.Cheezburger.com, and just a small subset of the company's 90 total employees.

Huh says he carefully considered the downside of leaving himself and his staff vulnerable to Bravo, a television network most famous for staging cat fights between "real housewives." He also worried that employees might act differently when cameras are on and wondered how that would influence productivity. In the end, Huh says, he decided that Cheezburger's staff is in the business of entertaining, and that aside from the Internet, there's no better outlet for entertainment than television.

"I think that's the essence of Cheezburger," Huh says. "We want to make people laugh, and I'm OK with it if they laugh at us. As a company, we don't take ourselves that seriously."

While Huh may not mind the assumption that all he does is look at cat pictures all day, he says the Bravo contract did come with a caveat.

"I said, 'There's one rule. You can make fun of me, you can make fun of my staff. I don't care if we come off as doofuses. The only rule we have is don't make fun of our users,'" Huh says. "That was us saying to the producers, the editors, and everyone on the staff, 'We trust you.'"

The show is filmed in a style reminiscent of NBC's fictional reality-show The Office, complete with an abundance of awkward silences, sidelong glances across the workplace, and interviews shot in front of an office window and set of blinds. And watching the show, you get the sense that the employees were, as Huh puts it, "required to follow the producers' cadence." In other words, as with most reality TV these days, the term "reality" may not really apply. Yes, it's all very meta.

"Do I feel like it's reflective of what really goes on? Yes and no," Huh says. "There are editors involved, and they capture the essence of the quirkiness and strangeness of what we do, but it's not average day-to-day life."

Huh says this is not a show specifically about life as an entrepreneur (for that, viewers will have to tune into Bravo's other new series, Start-ups: Silicon Valley), but he understands why entrepreneurship is an alluring subject matter for reality TV producers these days.

"Entrepreneurs go through real problems and come up with real solutions. It's not fake," he says. "You can do all the right things and still lose. You can do all the wrong things and still will. Therein lies the beauty for television."

As for Huh's role in the show, he likens himself to the rarely-seen, but always-involved Charlie in Charlie's Angels.

"My presence and instructions are there, but I'm not visible all the time," Huh says. "I have a company to run."

Forget Going Viral: The LOLcats Approach to Growing a Lasting Audience

I can has success? With nearly 58 humor websites and millions of viewers in his media empire (including the famous I Can Has Cheezburger cat blog), Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh says user loyalty has less to do with funny cats, and more with learning from data and strategy.

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Nov 7, 2012




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