Why Cats Are Funny

Comedian Julie Klausner demystifies our obsession with feline videos.

Julie Klausner
Photos by Mindy Tucker

Last summer, the Walker Art Center discovered that a program of YouTube videos showing cats getting stuck in boxes can draw more people than any combination of Jean Cocteau movies, Merce Cunningham recitals, and John Cage concerts ever will. This year the museum moved the second annual Internet Cat Video Festival to the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand and booked big-time Manhattan-based comedian, author, and podcaster Julie Klausner to host. We got her on the horn to talk about feline-ism and feminism.

Your 2011 essay “Don’t Fear the Dowager” was a brilliant argument against the infantilization of women. Now you’re hosting a cat video festival. OK, what does one thing have to do with the other?

I was wondering if cat videos are part of our culture’s obsession with cute things. No, no, no, that’s not what that essay was about at all. That has nothing to do with cat videos. I’m a comedian. I have a cat. I’m a cat lover. The essay that I wrote about women acting like little girls has nothing to do with the cat video festival.

So why are cute kitties so popular on the Internet? I don’t think it has to do with cats being cute; I think it has to do with cats being funny.

How are cats funny? Cats are funny because they act like high-status characters when in actuality they have half the intelligence of dogs. They’re really stupid and they act like they’re really smart. There’s nothing funnier than that.

They are incredibly poised. Yes. They have a lot of dignity that comes from absolutely nowhere. They shit in boxes. They have incredibly short memories.

Do you think either gender finds cat videos funnier? No, I don’t really see cats as necessarily being a woman thing. I think we’re past the idea that cats are women and dogs are men. There are just cat people. And I know as many men who are cat people as I do women.

You wrote a book, I Don’t Care About Your Band, about being a single lady in New York. You talk about how pop music knowledge has become a weirdly competitive form of acquiring cultural capital. Do cat videos have any potential for this? Does the fact that I like Henri le Chat Noir videos say anything about me? I think there are different kinds of cat videos and you can tell whether or not somebody really likes animals or really gets animals based on things that they send you. Sometimes you’ll get an article or a link to something that’s really mean and that’s not coming from someone that appreciates what’s great about animals. But I think when it comes to people who like cats and cat videos, you’re pretty much going to like all of them.

Do you have favorites? I think Henri is amazing. I really like the Sad Cat Diary that Ze Frank did. It completely captured the essence of a cat owner. I’m partial to the “Thriller” cat video—it’s like two seconds with the cat standing on its hind legs. It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen.

You have one cat of your own? Yes.

What’s he like? Jimmy Jazz is sort of soft-spoken and very sweet. And he wouldn’t bite or scratch you for a million dollars because he doesn’t know how. And he’s a little bit shy, but he’s a tuxedo cat and when he’s feeling particularly cuddly he will get on his back and “show you his whites.” So he’s open to being petted. We’ve had about a year together. So in the last year we’ve slowly gotten to know each other and trust each other. We’re in a better place than we were when we first met—he was very skittish. But before him, I only had one cat and that was Smiley Muffin, and she was the love of my life, and when she died I never thought I could love another cat.

How long did you have her? I had Smiley for about 12 years. Yeah. After she died I had no idea if I would ever love another animal. I didn’t wait very long between her passing and getting Jimmy because I didn’t want to live alone. I think having a pet really makes a house a home. I didn’t like coming home to my apartment and not having an animal to greet and spend that very particular time with. I got Jimmy right away and it was tough to adjust because he’s very different than Smiley. But now that we’ve known each other for a while I think he’s a very special young man.

Smiley was a female and Jimmy is a male. Do they have different energy? Absolutely. No question. Jimmy is definitely a mischievous little boy. He likes knocking things over and he’s more curious. Smiley was sort of a diva. She was like Delta Burke or Della Reese or Nell Carter.

A formidable cat. She was voluptuous, and she sort of just liked to lounge, and she didn’t like who she didn’t like. She tried to kill at least four veterinarians.

How is your young adult novel Art Girls Are Easy doing? I’m really happy with it. I think there’s some elements of satire in it that people will pick up on, and people who get the references will like it and people who don’t get the references will like it. It’s definitely juicy. It’s something I’m proud of; it’s really good for young girls.

Is it important for a comedian to be a role model? I’ve definitely had experiences where I’ve felt like I’ve been assigned to the role of big sister to young women. And I’m really flattered with that. I think Amy Poehler is probably a better role model than I am. But I’m always happy to have people look up to me as a strong woman. And to give my version of feminism lessons is not something that I take lightly as an honor, however dubiously accredited.