The biggest thing at the State Fair on Wednesday was the smallest, grumpiest thing at the State Fair.
Her fuzzy face set in a permanent scowl, Internet sensation Grumpy Cat looked out dourly over a beaming crowd of admirers in the Agriculture Building. The little cat has racked up millions of hits on YouTube and drew thousands of people to the State Fair grandstand, as she captured first prize in the second annual Walker Internet Cat Video Festival.
Cat people let their cat flags fly as they packed the grandstand at the fairgrounds for the evening airing of the quirkiest, funniest, weirdest cat videos the Internet has to offer. Almost 10,000 people laughed, cheered and “aww-ed” in unison as video after video scrolled across the big screen.
Some lasted just seconds. A cat eats watermelon. A cat falls off a counter. A fat cat tries to squeeze into a narrow vase. Some were elaborate affairs with plots and actors and emotional payoff. Most were videos everyone had watched before, and were happy to see again.
“It’s not watching the cat videos. It’s watching the cat videos with other people,” said Mark Brown, who travels with two cats of his own as he crisscrosses the country with state fair exhibit Rock-It the Robot. “You get your nerd on. … It justifies your nerdism.”
In a world of lousy news and dreary workdays, cat fanciers find something infinitely appealing about watching a cat pop out of a box, or into a box, or just sit there scowling grumpily at the camera.
“They’re fun and they’re positive and they make people happy,” said Dr. Jane Dusek, who bought her tickets in May.
Grumpy Cat headlined the festival with fellow YouTube giant Lil Bub, along with the people who brought you Henri le Chat Noir, Nyan Cat, Keyboard Cat, An Engineer’s Guide to Cats, and three solid hours of Internet cat videos and cat-related entertainment.
What makes a winning cat video?
“We don’t know, we’ve only done it once. We have one video that’s fairly popular and 17 other videos that we’ve made that most people have never seen because we just hit that magic formula that once,” said Paul Klusman, who along with T.J. Wingard, made the Engineers Guide video.
And by “fairly popular,” they mean their video had gotten in the neighborhood of 14 million hits on YouTube.
Last year, more than 10,000 people, and their cats, turned out to participate in the first Internet Cat Video Festival at the Walker Art Center. Cat videos are big business, as Ben Lashes can tell you — he’s the agent who represents Grumpy Cat, Nyan Cat (a flying, singing animated cat that shoots out rainbows in its wake) and Keyboard Cat, who is starring in national television commercials despite having passed away years ago.
People sometimes even develop a personal connection with these cats. Kady Lone, who owns local cat video sensation Pudge the Cat has seen fans burst into tears after meeting the smush-faced tortoiseshell cat for the first time.
“They feel like they know Pudge, like they live with Pudge, like Pudge is a part of their lives,” said Lone, who estimates the cat currently has about 80,000 followers on Instagram and 10,000 followers on Facebook. One of them was taken aback when Lone warned that the cat can be shy around strangers. “ ‘I’m no stranger,’ the fan informed her. ‘I see Pudge every day.’ ”
‘I was respectful’
So it was with Brown, who travels with two cats of his own. He managed to snag a photo with Grumpy Cat and it was posted to Facebook by the time the cat left the building.
So, what was it like to meet Grumpy Cat in the fur?
“I was respectful, I did not touch Grumpy Cat. I was aware that cats have immune systems like everyone else, so I only stood close to the cat,” he said, displaying a photo of the two. Brown is smiling. Grumpy Cat is not. “I was just there to bask in Tardar Sauce’s little glory.”
Tardar Sauce is Grumpy Cat’s real name. She faced the heat and excited crowds with the calm of a Zen master. She was born with congenital defects — feline dwarfism and an underbite — that combined to launch her career as an Internet celebrity.
“She just has a really interesting face,” said Tardar Sauce’s owner, Tabatha Bundesen, trying to explain Grumpy Cat’s clickability. “She looks grumpy, she really isn’t though.”
Perhaps Grumpy Cat speaks to the grump within us all.
“Everybody has that instance every single day when they kind of feel grumpy, and this face takes away all the pain,” Bundesen said.