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Originally published January 29, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified April 3, 2011 at 3:48 PM

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The Cheezburger Network brings humor to the Web masses

Ben Huh's job is fun, as founder of the Cheezburger Network of Internet humor sites. The Seattleite's mission is to keep dreaming up ways to make people LOL.

BEN HUH views the world through googly-eyed glasses.

As founder of the Cheezburger Network of Internet humor sites, his mission in life is to keep dreaming up ways to make people LOL, or if he's really good, ROFL, roll on the floor laughing.

It's a strange job at a pivotal time in the evolution of the Internet. But if online humor has a patron saint, it's Huh, a 33-year-old who zips around Seattle in a teeny white Smart car convertible.

More than 16 million people visit the network each month, making it one of the most heavily trafficked entertainment destinations on the Web.

His most famous site, I Can Has Cheezburger?, is devoted to funny pictures of cats with witty captions submitted by users. Going on the site is like taking an expedition to a parallel world. Here, cats rule and every adorable thing they do reduces their human admirers, known as LOLcats, to baby-talking fools.

The captions are written in an inside-baseball shorthand. Whenever possible, words are spelled the way a kindergartener would spell them, or to be more precise, the way an adult pretending to be a kindergartener would do it.

"Evil" is "ebil," "wonderful" is "wunnerful," "bellyrubs" is "bellywubs," "cute" is "kyoot" and "treats" are "treetz." For effective LOLspeak, kyootness is the key.

Nouns and verbs seldom agree. "I am" usually translates as "I r" or "I iz." "Can I have?" becomes "I can has?" Hence the caption that started it all, "I can has cheezburger?"

Like a lot of Internet culture, humor especially, you either get it or you don't. But Huh's media company, Pet Holdings, is built around the idea that there's something in the network for everyone.

With backing by a team of angel investors and revenues from advertising and merchandise sales, the network Huh started just three years ago now spans some four dozen humor websites covering everything from geeky diagrams and graphs about life's lesser concerns, Graph Jam, to snapshots of life's fiascos and doubletake-inducing mishaps on the popular site Fail Blog, where you find lots of hilariously worded signs, inappropriately dressed people and stunts gone cartoonishly wrong.

Huh operates the network out of a nondescript office building in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood, where his team of 50 works in a room full of computers but little else. .

A row of clocks hangs on one wall, each showing the time in a different city; this design touch is a nod to Huh's passion for old-school newsrooms and his training as a journalist. His wife, Emily Huh, is editor-in-chief of the network, and some of the staff have journalism backgrounds as well.

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The Cheezburger Network, however, is thoroughly new school, both an of-the-moment phenomenon and a harbinger of a more fundamental shift in pop culture and the way people use the Internet.

The Cheezburger Network's success relies on three fundamental and related bits of conventional wisdom. One: People with office jobs like to surf the Web at work. Two: Taking a five-minute comedy break in the middle of a busy work day can make people more creative and productive. At least, "That's what I like to tell people," Huh quips. And three: There's a wry humorist in all of us itching for an outlet.

Huh uses two words a lot when describing what he offers on the websites: Playground and canvas.

It's true that you can't help but regress when touring his sites. The graphics are basic but in a kitschy sort of way. The humor is the kind of stuff you used to snicker about with classmates in algebra when you should have been listening to the teacher.

As for Huh's use of the word "canvas," each of his sites is a deceptively simple tool whose possibilities are limited only by a user's imagination.

"What culture needs is a place to get together and share ideas," Huh says.

The Cheezburger Network feeds a very peculiar sort of culture, though, one where as soon as you post something clever online, thousands of people come out of the woodwork to superimpose their own take on it. It's like curating a graffiti wall when everybody walking down the street has a can of spray paint. Things are bound to get interesting.

As Huh puts it, "A lot of Internet culture right now is a counter-cultural reaction to popular culture."

In this brave new world, original material and "responses" are equally authentic, the latter necessary to keep the former relevant. So a picture that strikes a chord with users on I Can Has Cheezburger? might have many more nutty captions submitted by users who click the Recaption This! button.

One recent picture shows a kitten holding a heart-shaped toy in its paws. The featured caption reads: "Dis too big to wear on sleeve . . . I better jus holdz onta it."

Other captions kick up the kyootness factor: "ai stoled ur hart." "I hope dat my level of 'cute' doesn't mess up your camera." "ya, dats wite. im breaking your hart."

It goes on. For seven pages.

"It's like cats being a canvas for human emotions," Huh says, breaking it all down. "The rabbit hole goes very deep."

I KEEP DIGGING for those deeper meanings but can't avoid the possibility that the Cheezburger Network is not much more than a duty-free zone of cultural empty calories, mindless diversions and cheap laughs.

"It's just like pushing a button and getting a cookie — it's so easy," says Alex Larson, a 26-year-old from Seattle who often spends free time browsing I Can Has Cheezburger? with his girlfriend.

Maybe Huh's right. Maybe all he's doing is tapping into our shared desire, rooted in childhood and never really suppressed, to stand on top of the desk and yell Recess! before scrambling to the jungle gym.

"When people are busy and stressed out, because they're working so hard, that's when they need us," Huh says one day at his office. Or maybe what he's selling is what we risk losing as we grow older and more serious, as the weight of the world bears down on our inner school kid — an unself-conscious joy, and the freedom to pass it on.

The Internet makes it easy to disconnect from real people and real life. But sites like I Can Has Cheezburger? wind up having the opposite effect.

"Somebody asked me this question the other day: Why cats on the Internet? Why are people captioning cats and why not dogs?" says Huh, who owns a dog. "The answer I gave was dog owners have a place to go. They can walk the dog and engage in social discourse (with fellow dog owners), whereas with cat owners, they don't do that. So the Internet's kind of proven to be the playground for people who have cats."

Ironically, Huh says, "it's going back to a more authentic type of connection" — people sharing an interest and experience across vast distances and time.

Goofing off on I Can Has Cheezburger? is liberating in a way that acting silly in a public place can't be.

Nobody will consider it weird because everyone else is in on the fun.

Says Huh: "It's a safe way to laugh at ourselves with low stakes, no stigma or repercussions."

I FOLLOW Huh to Powell's City of Books in Portland, where he's signing copies of his newly released opus, "Teh Itteh Bitteh Book of Kittehs."

It's the latest volume in a popular series of compilations featuring captioned cat pictures submitted by I Can Has Cheezburger? users.

One page shows a white kitten with its eyes closed tight and a caption that reads, "i haz happee dreem."

Another shows a kitten lying in a laundry basket. Caption: "Mak shur u uze da delicat cycle."

About 100 people show up to the signing, where, naturally, cheeseburgers and plush toy cats are for sale. The LOLcats who turn out are young and old, mostly white and predominantly female. Watching star-struck fans sidle up to Huh hoping for a picture with him or to get his autograph, it becomes clear that he is as much of a star as the cats.

What's also clear is that these people operate on a different wavelength when it comes to cat humor.

One woman, Tess Mattos, says she has a photo in Huh's book. It's a picture of a frightened-looking kitten hiding in a corner. The caption says, "I noez what V-E-T spelz!"

"It's not sitcom funny," Mattos says of LOLcat humor. "It has a kind of cleverness. There's puns. There's inside jokes. There's creative spellings."

Mattos says she discovered I Can Has Cheezburger? when her father-in-law forwarded a LOLcat picture nearly three years ago.

" 'Oh my God, I have found my tribe!' " she recalls thinking at the time.

Through the I Can Has Cheezburger? site, she's become friends with people all over the world. Two years ago during a trip to New Zealand, she spent New Year's Eve with a fellow LOLcat she'd never met in person.

"That's what's different about this site," Mattos says. Many LOLcats don't mind developing virtual relationships into real ones.

When I Can Has Cheezburger? hosted a fan party at a Seattle Mariners game this past summer, about 1,200 people showed up from all over the country, some dressed in LOLcat attire like kitty ears.

To be sure, LOLcat culture is no longer confined to the cat site or even to fan gatherings and book signings.

Spotted recently in the Ballard neighborhood: A Mini Cooper painted in bright yellow on the body and black-and-white check on the roof. License plate: LOLCAB.

BORN IN Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Hong Kong and Sacramento, Calif., Huh is the embodiment of the Cheezburger Network's self-mocking sensibility.

Among the official photos from his wedding day is one of him and his new wife grinning like they just won the lottery. She's holding a bouquet of white roses, quite fitting given the occasion. Huh, on the other hand, is holding their pooch Nemo, whose tongue wags in apparent glee.

Barely 30 a few years ago, Huh left his job as director of product management at the touch-screen technology firm Intava in search of a "bigger risk, bigger reward."

The thought then was, "Am I really gonna leave a six-figure salary to run a cat site?"

He'd already tried his hand at entrepreneurship in the early 2000s when he started an Internet analytic-software firm. But he lacked adequate capital and, he acknowledges now, experience in running a company.

To borrow the parlance of one of his most popular sites, that first venture was an epic fail.

I Can Has Cheezburger? offered him a chance to prove he could be his own boss and succeed at it.

When Huh bought I Can Has Cheezburger? in September 2007, the site already had a loyal following. Huh's main challenge was to figure out how to grow it and win over investors.

"More people said no than yes," venture capitalist and early Cheezburger Network investor Geoff Entress says.

Many said they just didn't get the site. Others dissed it as a fad that would soon pass.

"It quickly became apparent it wasn't just a fad," Entress says. "It doesn't matter if I understand it. What matters is people are loving it, so we give them what they want."

Huh insists his company has no grand ambitions ("We're here to make you happy for a few minutes, nothing more.") As he tells it on his personal website, www.benhuh!com, Cheezburger is all about chasing what its users want each month, "our vision be damned," then reinventing the network on a dime to cater to those inevitably fleeting desires.

The implications are huge, though.

"We're forming a whole new context about the world, about what is considered 'entertainment,' " Huh says. "Disney produces movies and animations at a cost of tens of millions of dollars with merchandise and distribution networks. We ask our users to make funny things."

This business model, if you can call it that, is exciting and scary at the same time. So far it has worked and even proved recession-proof. Huh won't give exact figures but says revenues have doubled year over year since the company's founding.

Is he surprised?

"Yeah, let's be honest," he says with a smile.

Huh hasn't hit the financial jackpot yet.

Among the unfulfilled goals he lists on his personal site: Sell a company for profit, own a home outright, have a net worth of $1 million, give $1 million to charity and learn to fly.

Presumably, he means fly an airplane, not fly like Superman.

On the other hand, if Huh can actually fulfill his other dream of making a million dollars with websites about funny cats and people falling off of things, the sky's the limit.

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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