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I Can Has Reality Show?

Thanks to "LOLWork," a mini-documentary airing on Bravo next month, viewers will get a chance to meet the people who make I Can Has Cheezburger the Internet powerhouse that it is.

Ben Huh Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

For years, those in the know have flocked to one site to get their daily fix of funny pictures of cats.

There's plenty of contenders for the crown, but the king of such sites, I Can Has Cheezburger, has long since left its rivals in the dust in the rarefied field of LOLCats, bringing in countless thousands of people every day who stop by to see images like one of a cat grabbing hold of its human and saying, "You have a pulse. You're well enough to get up and feed me."

The company behind I Can Has Cheezburger, Cheezburger Inc., employs more than 90 people who run dozens of blogs. And over the years, as they've built an audience in the millions, they've spawned two best-selling books. But they've never had a TV show. Until now.

On November 7, Bravo TV will premiere LOLWork, a mini-documentary about life at Cheezburger Inc. focusing on a small group of people who run the planet's flagship LOLCats blog.

The driving force behind the company, and a star of the show, is Ben Huh. Known for his trademark white-framed glasses and his stewardship of one of the world's leading user-generated content companies, Huh has long had his finger on the pulse of what makes the Internet laugh. CNET spoke with him recently about the new show.

Q: How did this show come about?
Ben Huh: We've been talking about doing a TV show for a while. I Can Has Cheezburger has two bestsellers, and the way Hollywood works is that if prove you have pop culture relevance, some agent comes up and wants to represent you. So we worked on that for a couple of years. Mostly, we were shopping the idea of Fail Blog as a show. But Bravo approached us and said they wanted to get to know us because we're unusual and quirky.

How does the humor of I Can Has Cheezburger come across in the show?
Huh: The show's about a subset of the crew that works on I Can Has Cheezburger. The producers insisted that what we do here is funny and that the way we think about the world is funny. When we talk about material that should not be available on the site, we're so used to this stuff, we don't quite understand how the rest of the world will see it. We live this stuff everyday, and it's just a normal day for us. Once you start putting on a lens of television, and saying what these people do is different, it actually is pretty funny.

What will the audience come away thinking is particularly funny?
Huh: I think that part of it will be an obsession with the content and our audience and our way of looking at Internet culture. Like, the whole dead cat thing is about what is appropriate and inappropriate on the Internet. The average Internet user would never consider this question. Like, is that OK with some people, or is it not. It's like, Wow, these people are really obsessed about it. This isn't just something that happens off the cuff. They have to sit there and think about what it is they want to present to their audience.

So that's a typical conversation?
Huh: Yeah, like what are we creating? What are we curating? If we're doing original video content, What can we do that isn't $50,000 worth of production, that we can do in a day or two, that is somewhat absurd, but kind of funny. What is different or unique? And what can we do on the cheap, because we don't have a full video production company in-house.

Do people send in dead-cat pictures?
Huh: We don't usually get a lot of dead cats, but there are some philosophical questions that come up. Or a cat will look sick, and it's like, do we talk about that. Or, how much cleavage is too much cleavage on the Internet. Have you ever written down a description or policy that says, This is too much cleavage, and this is not. What words would you use that wouldn't get flagged by human resources?

That's something your editors have to talk about every day?
Huh: Yeah, and so if someone writes "buttocks" in the comments, is that more offensive than "butt?" Because there's ad technology that scans for words like "butt," and they give you a score, and sometimes those words get reported to advertisers. There are a lot of bizarre nuances to running a user-generated content company, and especially on I Can Has Cheezburger, because the expectation is cute cats.

What was the funniest thing that made it into the show?
Huh: This is really hard. Part of the challenge of that is, we just live our life, we just do our thing. I mean, we do ridiculous stuff. We do what's called the Cheese Olympics. It's an annual game, and we get outside, and we do challenges and stunts, like game show style, and it's a way to have people get to know one another, and do teamwork.

So something from the Cheese Olympics made the show?
Huh: Yes, the Olympics were during the summer, and they scheduled it so we would be able to do that.

Is there any sort of narrative arc to the show?
Huh: Narrative arc is as funny way (of putting it). Funny things happened during the six weeks they were here, where, like, there's a story. Our lives all go on. So, because it's not scripted, I don't want to call it a narrative arc. But there's clearly a rhythm and a cycle to the things we do.

Did you have any kind of editorial control?
Huh: We thought about that when we were negotiating the contract for the show. It was like, look, these people are going to live in our offices for several weeks. They're going to see all our dirty laundry, what do we do. The only thing I insisted was, Don't make fun of our users. I know we're a strange part of the Internet, but there's millions of users. And it's not that strange, so don't make fun of our users. And then we left everything else up to the producers to figure out. We realized that creating a TV show and editing things and making it entertaining to the public is a lot of work, and it's an art form. We didn't want to restrict the editors and the production company from doing what they do best. So, as long as you don't make fun of our users, you are free to make fun of us.

Was that a tough sell?
Huh: it was not. Apparently, I should have negotiated harder.

If you had to create your own LOLCat about this experience, what would it be like?
Huh: If you asked a standup comedian that question, it would be a hell of a lot better answer.

I have a walking treadmill desk, so I walk and type because I have a FitBit. So it's weird, all of a sudden you'll be at your desk working, and you'll look up and there's a cameraman, microphone, and crew members. It was surreal. You'd look down and look up, and they've moved somewhere else. It was hard to get used to the first week, and then by week two, we were like, no problem, old hat. It is so mundane working with a TV crew. It is not like glamor and fame. It is like working in any office, except there's 15 additional people who are living here and working here, and how do you integrate them into the office culture, and play nice, since they don't know who these people are.

Are people going to walk away knowing like they understand LOLCats, I Can Has Cheezburger?
Huh: I think it's more about the people who work here. It's about us, the people. It's about that team, rather than the content of the site. The quirkiness of what we do here really comes across well, and so does the quirkiness of the people who work here.