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Yes, You Could Totally Meet Grumpy Cat at SXSW

And here's an interview with the people behind the varmint

By Wayne Alan Brenner, 10:05AM, Fri. Mar. 8, 2013

Two varmints: Brenner and Grumpy Cat
Two varmints: Brenner and Grumpy Cat
PHOTO BY SHELLEY HIAM

Yeah, I met Grumpy Cat.

Because the cat – again, yes, the actual, bona fide Grumpy Cat AKA Tardar Sauce – is in Austin this week to 1) star in some videos for Friskies, and 2) amplify her meme cred with a visit to SXSW Interactive.

Amplify her meme cred, yeah. Leverage the synergy. Whatever the hell entrepreneurial gobbledygook applies.

But never mind that, because (except, maybe, for the transcript of the interview with Grumpy Cat's owners and the Friskies representative) the most important thing is:

How do you get to meet Grumpy Cat?

Well.

The little cream-colored frown-factory of a varmint is going to be accepting visitors on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, March 8-10, from 11am to 5pm. At the Mashable House at the corner of Cesar Chavez & Trinity, deep in the heart of SXSW.

(Yes: SXSW. And I don't know if you need to have some kind of badge or wristband or what for this particular meeting. Word to the wise.)

But, right now, let me tell you about Grumpy Cat and her people.

[But first note that my phrase "entrepreneurial gobbledygook" as used above? Was a jab at the gung-ho suits who flood the SXSW streets like so many glad-handing drops of rain in a can-do-attitude storm. The brother-and-sister duo of Bryan and Tabatha Bundesen, Grumpy Cat's owners, are much more affable, seemed not at all infected with the Ayn Rand flu, and were totally-cool-to-chill-with people. As was Shawn Brain, the Friskies brand manager. And even – though he lurked at the threshold of action, as if he were some Lovecraftian godling in a clever pork-pie hat – Ben Lashes, Grumpy Cat's manager.]

The first thing you notice, even before the shock of recognition has worn off: This cat is waaaaay fucking small.

(The cat I'm most accustomed to – my own cat, Fanghead Kibbens – is an average-sized cat. And the Chronicle's office cat – Eric – is an average-sized cat. So it's not like I'm making a comparison with a Maine Coon Cat or anything huge like that. Grumpy Cat is just waaaaay fucking small, yo.)

Kind of like a furry croissant.

And – you know how the days get in summer, when it's near the solstice and the sun seems to take forever to sink from the sky of a triple-digit scorcher? Those are days of a length when you can say "Truth be told, Grumpy Cat is as sweet as the day is long."

Although, yeah, she was more tired than anything else. By the time Chronicle photographer Shelley Hiam and I met her yesterday afternoon, the dear feline had been working it like a pro for hours, starring in a new series of "Will Kitty Play With It?" spots for Friskies, doing her Grumpy Cat thing under the bright lights of a soundstage, meeting and greeting a trickle of journos and fans. So – sweet but tired, tired but sweet. And small. Which made her, yeah: That much more adorable.

There's a lot to be said about Internet memes and the cycles of their popularity, the velocity of their rises and falls. There's a lot to be said about entertainment and distraction and the difference between a person who's a celebrity and a non-human animal who's a celebrity. But this is not the place in which I'm going to build or even frame any of those theses. It'll have to do, here in this blogpost, to just go ahead and print the transcript … and let your weary reporter (neither as small nor as cute as Grumpy Cat) get a couple hours of sleep before throwing himself into the roiling pit of information and camaraderie (and entertainment and distraction and celebrity) called SXSW.

Wayne Alan Brenner: So much activity, so many people throughout a day, how does Tardar Sauce deal with all the attention?

Bryan Bundesen: Well, she's very calm. She likes confined spaces, so when she's in her carrier she's super-calm and just goes to sleep. She travels well.

Shelley Hiam: When was the first time she traveled?

Bryan: When she was around eight months old. She's only eleven months now, a few days ago.

Brenner: Do you find a lot of people assuming, because of the frowning face, like she's H.L. Mencken or something, that people confuse the gender and call her him?

Bryan: Oh yeah, a lot of people think she's a him. It's funny, because on Facebook there are people, the older fans, who will come back and correct everybody else. "Grumpy Cat is a her."

Brenner: How is it that a cat with that face exists? Because I've seen, like, millions of cat faces by now, and nothing else that looks like Grumpy Cat.

Tabatha Bundesen: I say she's a genetic miracle.

Bryan: Yeah, it's definitely genetics, whether it's miracle or defects –

Tabatha: Miracle.

Bryan: [laughs] We go with miracle.

Brenner: Y'all ever consider selling her DNA?

Bryan: People have asked for that.

Brenner: Like for cloning?

Bryan: Well, yeah, a lot of people joke about cloning. They also want us to get her DNA tested, to find out exactly what her breed is. But we don't want to be invasive. We treat her like a family pet.

Tabatha: I don't want her to end up like some science experiment. Because, you know, every microbiologist, anyone into cloning or anything like that, they'd be like "Hmmmm … just one moment, a look …" No, that's not happening.

Brenner: Where did Tardar Sauce come from? Not the meme, but this actual cat.

Tabatha: We own the mama.

Bryan: Callie is the mother cat. And there's another cat, Pokey, from the same litter. He's a black-and-white cat, about the same size as Grumpy.

Tabatha: But he's grumpier.

Bryan: He really is. His personality, he's actually grumpy.

Tabatha: Far grumpier. So much rotten personality from him.

Brenner: And what breed?

Bryan: We just say domestic shorthair. Her mom's a domestic shorthair calico, the dad was – we think – a regular, gray-striped housecat.

Tabatha: The guy that I got the mama cat from? Still lives up the road. And he has lots of cats.

Brenner: Does he have any idea about this whole meme thing?

Tabatha: Yeah, he's this longhaired old hippie guy – one time he told me that he's still tripping from the Sixties. And he told me, "Cool, I hope you get some free cat food."

Brenner: Speaking of cat food … Shawn, are you the person who was looking at the Internet, watching memes go by, and thought, "Okay, let me get this cat hooked up with Friskies?"

Shawn Brain: We did it as a collective group, it was something we had talked about. We were all aware of Grumpy Cat's rise to Internet celebritydom, and I think it was one of those ideas where we saw that our three contestants – Dixie, Rosie, and Digger – were able to find the fun in these everyday household items, and we thought, "Okay, this could be a challenge: Despite her reputation, let's see if Grumpy Cat can also find the fun in these everyday items." It seemed like a good extension of our current series.

Brenner: And do you have ideas for more videos in the future. I mean, of course you do – but, ah, what could possibly follow Grumpy Cat?

Shawn: Well, gosh, that's a good question. We do have some ideas. I don't know that I'm going to divulge them at the moment, but I think there's … probably opportunities in thinking about how we might extend "Will Kitty Play With It?" to other cat-owners' households.

Brenner: And are there more opportunities, whether with Friskies or with other companies, lined up for Grumpy Cat?

Bryan: We hope so. We're talking to a few different places about different deals. Nothing signed yet, but there's definitely more coming. This whole thing started with a bang and it's still moving along pretty well.

Brenner: And is it taking up your whole life by this point? And what did you do up until this time? Are you a software engineer? Or a bartender? Or … ?

Bryan: I work for a cable company, I'm a full-time maintenance technician. So this is definitely time-consuming, it takes a lot of my evening time up, working on the website and maintaining the social-media aspects.

Tabatha: I'm a waitress at Red Lobster.

Brenner: Oh, awesome. Tardar Sauce would be great for Red Lobster.

Bryan: That's where the name came from, by the way. When she was little, she was all white, and she had a few white specks. And my niece said she looked like Tartar Sauce and wrote the name down – and she spelled it wrong, spelled it like it sounds.

Tabatha: On her paperwork, though, from the vet? It's spelled right, with a "T" – for the record.

Brenner: Shawn, okay, what I know from Wikipedia is this: When Friskies started out decades ago, it was Carnation. And Carnation needed to diversity from doing just milk, so they got into pet food. Dog food, cat food. And the dog food kind of tanks, and the cat food's taking off, so they decide to do the cat food full-time, to hell with the canines. So, um, analogously, why do you think some people prefer cats over dogs? What's the difference between a cat person and a dog person?

Shawn: Well, I'll have to speak not on behalf of the brand … but I can answer that personally. I actually don't have a cat at home – I have a dog, a little Labrador-mix rescue. And I think both animals have amazing qualities, and it's more kind of what you're looking for when you think about the qualities of cats versus dogs. Cats tend to be more independent than dogs. Dogs, it's been joked, they'll run to greet you when you come home, as soon as you get to the door. And cats are not exactly the same, right? You have to win over a cat's affection more than you have to win over a dog. And so it's about feeling some of those private, special moments with a cat – that are sometimes more difficult to get than with a dog. And I don't know if there's necessarily a person who's more drawn to dogs or cats, but I think there are qualities that make owning each one of those pets unique.

Brenner: Ah, nice answer. So – okay, Bryan, Tabatha: Grumpy Cat is eleven months old. And maybe sixteen, seventeen years from now … Grumpy Cat, ah, passes out of our realm. At that point, is there going to be a funeral with a regular burial – like in a pet cemetery? Or would you guys consider taxidermy?

Tabatha: Well, being that my daughter would probably be in charge of that … When she was about three, she asked if we could stuff Gramma when she dies. So taxidermy is probably a great idea. If my daughter's in charge of it, that might be the case. Hopefully it's not for a long, long time …

Brenner: Well, yeah, not for a long time. But to move from there into the even more philosophical and abstract … I was thinking about your cat on the way here. And I have a cat at home – it's got about fifty different names – but I'm coming to meet Grumpy Cat and I'm all excited. And I don't know Grumpy Cat, it's just another varmint. There's varmints all over, and this is just another one. And yet, here I am: Excited. And if I were going to meet, say, George Clooney or somebody like that, a celebrity – Felicia Day, let's say – I'd be kind of excited, because here's a celebrity. And that person themselves, being a sentient human being, is aware of that, too, of course. They're thinking, on some level, "I'm a celebrity" – and they either deal with that well or badly or maybe sometimes they don't even think of it at all. But here's this cat, Tardar Sauce, in the middle of a total media maelstrom of publicity and fuss all around her, and she's not aware of a thing. It means nothing to her. She's just a cat, hanging out like my cat. Does that seem weird to you, the human people of this creature?

Bryan: Definitely. The attention is overwhelming sometimes. In the beginning, I tried to respond to everybody's comments, you know, and I can't do it anymore. I try to respond here and there, but, yeah, it's overwhelming, there's no way to [laughs] … but, even though I can't respond to all of them, I still read all of them. I got a Facebook message from some old lady a couple of months ago, she said "I'm 86, and I don't know if I'm doing this right, but I love Grumpy Cat. This is my daughter's Facebook account." That was the whole message.

Tabatha: And the comparison with meeting a human celebrity and a pet celebrity … Once you see Grumpy Cat, you're going to be like, "Oh my gosh, she's so much cooler in real life." Compared to when you meet a celebrity in real life and you're like, "They're so much better-looking on television, I never thought their breath would stink, oh-my-gosh-they're-human." You know?

Bryan: Probably the biggest similarity is that Tardar Sauce is gonna give you the same amount of attention that a celebrity would: She doesn't care that you're there. She doesn't care that we take pictures of her. She just kind of wanders off and goes to sleep.

Brenner: Now, if this thing gets big enough, and you guys are devoting more and more time to it and making substantial income – would you ditch your day jobs and be like, "Okay, this is what we're gonna do, for as long as it may last" …?

Bryan: Definitely. Tabatha already put in for a leave of absence. And my job, I'm using up my vacation for this stuff, but – if it gets bigger, absolutely. Who wants to do the nine-to-five when you can run your own thing?

Shelley: Is there a chance that Grumpy Cat and Maru will ever meet?

Tabatha: Definitely there's a chance.

Ben Lashes: Grumpy Cat is a star in the Lil Bub documentary that VICE is coming out with. It'll premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival next month. And Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, and Keyboard Cat will all be there at the same time. And the creator of Nyan Cat – which is not a real cat.

Brenner: So here you have this furry goldmine. Have y'all clamped down the IP rights, the trademarks, and all that stuff?

Bryan: We have. We have several trademark applications pending for both the name and the mark. Policing your intellectual property rights is kind of hard on the Internet, so there are a lot of products that've popped up that are unofficial. And we try to clean up some of it, but it's a big battle.

Brenner: But, since you have that protection in place, eventually the highest bidder – or whoever's your favorite people – well, somebody's going to make, like, stuffed … plush …Grumpy Cat, uh, things. Dolls? That you can buy.

Bryan: Yeah, plush toys are something that we're hoping to get out soon. And we have some other licensing deals for t-shirts and other collectible stuff – mugs, keychains, magnets.

Ben: Belts, accessories …

Bryan: Yeah, that's one of the newer ones. We have stuff in Hot Topic now.

Brenner: You have Grumpy Cat stuff in Hot Topic?

Bryan: Yeah.

Brenner: Holy cow.

Tabatha: Holy cat.

Bryan: And other bricks-and-mortar stores in the very near future.

Ben: And the plush toys, there are multiple people we're talking to about those – so it's definitely gonna happen.

Brenner: Oh, that's great, that – wait a minute! [points to Ben Lashes] I didn't meet this man in the hat! Everybody else was introduced, but – who is this person?

Ben: I'm the secret guy behind the chair.

Brenner: You've been lurking over there.

Ben: I'm Ben, and I manage Grumpy Cat.

Brenner: Ahhhh, the manager. And so then, another question here for all of you – especially Tabatha, because you seem to have, like, The Onion's A.V. Club wit about you – might there be Grumpy Cat cartoons someday? For Adult Swim or something like that? Something narrative?

Bryan: On our New York trip, we met with some people who are well-known for the animated, cartoon-series type of stuff. And we'd really like to see that happen. We think Grumpy Cat would be the perfect character, especially for Adult Swim stuff. But I think it could go in any category, could just as easily be a children's cartoon.

Brenner: Ah, that'd be great! And Grumpy Cat herself wouldn't have to be involved in any of it, really – except maybe media promos like this. That'd be an easier life for her.

Bryan: Yeah, we get a lot of messages about how we're exploiting her, you know? Or from people concerned that we're doing something to make her grumpy. But that's just how she looks. Ninety-nine percent of the time she's just a house pet. She's very well taken care of, and we love her.


[Note: Those "Will Kitty Play With It?" webisodes featuring Grumpy Cat will go live on the Friskies website and YouTube channel sometime after SXSW.]

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