Between Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings—and the media’s sloppy coverage of them—the U.S. Senate blocking the Manchin-Toomey bill calling for stricter background checks on firearms mere months after the second-deadliest mass shooting in this country’s history, and the massive explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco, Texas, it’s been a brutal week, to say the least.
The Vice documentary Lil Bub & Friendz, premiering at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, provides a welcome respite from the barrage of bad news. Directed by Vice’s Andy Capper and Juliette Eisner, the film tells the tale of the world’s cutest cat, Lil Bub, and examines our obsession with other Internet-famous cats, including Grumpy Cat, Colonel Meow, (the late) keyboard cat, and many more.
Lil Bub isn’t like other cats. The first thing you notice is her size. She’s a dwarf, so her limbs are disproportionately smaller than the rest of her body—causing mobility problems—and she’s also a “permakitten,” which means she’ll stay kitten size for life. Then there’s the alien-like gaze. Since her lower jaw is underdeveloped and her teeth never grew in, her little tongue is permanently sticking out. She’s also a polydactyl cat, boasting 22 claws. And she makes adorably weird noises, described on her Facebook page as “squonks, squeaks, gurgles, snorts, hiccups, purrs and sometimes even growls.”
“Some think she crashed onto our planet from space, because she’s so unique,” says Bub’s owner, Mike Bridavsky. “She brings joy to hundreds of thousands of people. That’s her mission. I just put pictures of her on the Internet, and people fell in love with her.”
The story of Lil Bub began a little less than two years ago, when Bub was found in a tool shed by Bridavsky’s friend’s boyfriend’s mother in his native Bloomington, Indiana. She was a feral kitten and had to be bottle-fed because she couldn’t nurse. One day, Bridavsky’s friend texted him a picture of the cat with the hope of finding it a home (he owns four other cats). He thought it was “the most adorable thing” he’d ever seen and went to meet him. He picked up the little kitty, who was 8 weeks old and weighed just six ounces, and instinctively said, “Hey, Bub!” They’ve been inseparable ever since.
You might say Lil Bub saved Bridavsky’s life.
“It was a rough point,” he says. “I own a recording studio, and it’s not a very lucrative business—it’s a labor of love. I had a whole month booked, and everyone canceled at once. I was six months behind on rent, which for my studio is a substantial amount of money. My car broke down. Someone slashed all my tires randomly. I had eBay disputes. Heartbreak. I had Bub already, but someone encouraged me to post photos of her online, because she’s so unique and special.”
The first photo of Lil Bub was posted on her Tumblr in November 2011. She was 2 months old. Within days Bridavsky started getting all kinds of positive feedback. Then, a few months later, he woke up to frantic texts and emails from friends. Lil Bub was being featured on the front page of Reddit, and like that, she was an Internet phenomenon. Her YouTube channel began collecting millions of views, and her Facebook fans skyrocketed to 116,000 (and counting). The demand for Lil Bub became so fierce that Bridavsky began printing T-shirts, calendars, tote bags, and various other swag with Lil Bub’s cute mug on them. He’s since made enough to pay off the rent he owed on the studio, as well as buy a fancy camera to take pictures of Lil Bub and a new laptop to upload them. But the bulk of the proceeds, he says, goes to animal-rescue charities and pet adoption centers.
“Her Zen aura permeates through the photos, and people just can’t get enough of Bub. I can’t either,” he says. “When I first got her I couldn’t leave her to go to work. In Gremlins, when they get Gizmo, the first time you see Gizmo, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I want Gizmo.’ And she’s better than Gizmo. She’s like Gizmo meets the Snuggle Bear.”
Work on Lil Bub & Friendz, meanwhile, began last August at the first annual Internet Cat Video Film Festival in Minneapolis. Vice director Capper, who’s known for hard-hitting docs like The Vice Guide to Liberia, teamed with Eisner, who works in Vice’s communications department, to cover the fest and invited Lil Bub along for the ride. As soon as they met Lil Bub, however, they knew she’d be the film’s focal point.
“When I heard the story behind the cat, I thought, we’re going to take this to the big screen, and nobody’s going to stop us,” says Capper.
In addition to telling the story of Bub, the documentary pulls back to explore the entire Internet cat craze and how and why these memes take off, as well as the monetization of it. They speak with Ben Lashes, the first self-described “meme manager” who manages Grumpy Cat, Nyan Cat, and the late Keyboard Cat, as well as other non-cat-related memes like Scumbag Steve and Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. Lashes has helped set up entire pop-up stores exclusively dedicated to hawking cat-meme merchandise.
And online cat videos continue to notch millions and millions of views. Whereas dog owners have the dog park, the film posits that cat owners don’t really have a similar arena to have their pets interact with others of their ilk. Instead they turn to the Internet.
“Cats are kind of the ‘mysterious house pet,’” says Eisner. “They’re more on their own, and people don’t know them as well as their dogs. People like to watch cat videos online because you see that different side of the cat that you don’t always see.”
“And you can have all these cats in your house and be that crazy cat person, but your house doesn’t stink,” adds Capper. “You just turn your computer off.”
After she takes over Tribeca, Lil Bub will release her first book, entitled Lil Bub’s Lil Book: The Extraordinary Life of the Most Amazing Cat on the Planet, which comes out September 3. There’s also talk of her starring in a Web series for Animal Planet. And hopefully, she’ll be able to find some time in her busy schedule to see Smoosh, her boyfriend back home in Bloomington.
“Bub doesn’t judge,” says Bridavksy. “She’s just there to make everyone happy, regardless of who you are.”