Meme Studies

Meme Me: How Funny or Die Convinces Celebs to Make Fun of Themselves

A few of Funny or Die's meme experts dish to Betabeat.
dawson crying Meme Me: How Funny or Die Convinces Celebs to Make Fun of Themselves

(Photo: Reddit)

Though he is known as the hunky boy next door that made certain girls weak in the knees in the early aughts, James van der Beek, the titular star of the popular teen drama Dawson’s Creek, is an embarrassingly ugly crier.

In season three, episode 23 of the earnest, soap opera-like show, Dawson is so gobsmacked by being broken up with that he begins to cry. An animated GIF of that tender moment was soon splashed across websites from Reddit to Funny or Die. The meme is so prevalent that when you Google “James van der Beek,” the search engine even offers a correction: “James van der Beek crying,” it humbly suggests you search instead.

Following the end of Dawson’s Creek in 2003, Mr. van der Beek acted in off-Broadway plays and landed a spate of brief guest spots on shows like How I Met Your Mother and Medium, but none packed the same cultural punch he’d had with Dawson’s. It wasn’t until January 2011 when Mr. van der Beek reappeared on the scene, eschewing the traditional vehicles for stardom and embracing that notorious crying GIF.

“If you’re under the age of 20, odds are good you know me best from a five second clip of me crying that’s circulating the Internet,” begins a Funny or Die video where Mr. van der Beek pokes fun at his own memedom. The short was accompanied by a Tumblr, which–until last July–posted GIFs of Mr. van der Beek “emoting.”

“When I pitched him the idea, I was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you’re aware of this phenomenon on the Internet about you…,” Lauren Palmigiano, the writer and director of the James van der Meme video, told Betabeat by phone. “And he was like, ‘Oh, certainly I’m aware.’ So I guess people tweet it to him all the time and he gets sent the image. He knew about it and was totally game to make fun of himself.”

“It’s the largest reaction face out there—Dawson’s crying face,” said Darryl Gudmundson, a “Gatekeeper” at Funny or Die who helped come up with the idea for James van der Memes. “We shot a bunch of GIFs the first day and he came back again and we shot another 300. We just made a repository of all these James van der Beek GIFs that we could release for six months.”

Funny or Die was launched in 2007 by Gary Sanchez Productions, a production company helmed by comedians Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, and frequently features celebrities in its sketches. As an April Fool’s Joke in 2010, Funny or Die collaborated with Justin Bieber, staging a “Bieber” takeover of the site. John HammZach Galifianakis, Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones have all participated in Funny or Die sketches. More recently, the site has traveled down the food chain a bit, tossing the limelight onto stars like Alan ThickeRenee Zellweger and a rapping Rachel Bilson.

Funny or Die has established itself as a savvy peddler of memes, listicles and videos that are coated in a thick layer of ’90s nostalgia and sprinkled with absurdity. The site’s viral videos have performed so well that they’ve been parlayed into a late-night HBO show entitled Funny or Die Presents, now in its second season.

“I think there are a lot of celebrities who don’t realize they have a presence on the Internet,” offered Dan Abramson, an editor for Funny or Die’s pictures and words section. “Like, I’m pretty sure Nicolas Cage has no clue.”

The emotive Mr. Cage would have to actively avoid the Internet to be unaware of the myriad memes that trail his Hollywood persona. There is “Nic Cage as Everyone,” a popular Tumblr where users Photoshop Mr. Cage’s face onto the bodies of other celebrities like Donald Trump, Amy Winehouse and Richard Simmons; “Nicolas Cage is a Vampire,” which spawned from an 1870 portrait of a man with an eerie resemblance to Mr. Cage that was auctioned on eBay; and a YouTube video–our personal fav–that mashes up the weirdest scenes from his 2006 film Wicker Man, most notable for the bizarre line: “Not the bees!!!”

So who’s next to emerge from the Funny or Die pipeline, flanked by Internet glory? Turns out it’s not something you can really predict.

“That kind of fame happens overnight,” explained Dashiell Driscoll, another Funny or Die employee who helped usher James van der Memes into fruition. “I also don’t think we’re in the business of making people like widely disliked celebrities. If everybody thinks you suck, it’s probably because you suck. To try and change that with an Internet video is an uphill fool’s errand with temporary results.”

Still, we wondered: If you could pick any celebrity to appear in a Funny or Die sketch, who would it be?

“Personally, I’d say Rick Moranis,” Mr. Gudmundson replied, without missing a beat.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com