Internet Nostalgia

Let’s Revisit Keyboard Cat

Remember when people felt enough shame to be walked off by a cat?

Welcome to part seven of our Internet Nostalgia series, which looks back at phenomena that captured the imagination and attention of the internet for a fleeting moment and then vanished as everyone moved on to something else. This series looks back at those olden times, and what they told us about the internet and ourselves. If you have a suggested topic, email me at williamfleitch@yahoo.com. Last week, we looked at Peanut Butter Jelly Time. This week: Keyboard Cat.

Date: 2009

The story: The cat in the original Keyboard Cat video was captured by a camcorder in 1984. The cat’s owner was a man named Charlie Schmidt, who thought he was being just hilarious. But it was 23 years later, in 2007, when Schmidt first posted the video to YouTube, and two years after that when video website (remember the term “video website?”) My Damn Channel began, with Schmidt’s permission, to begin putting the cat at the end of “FAIL” videos. The idea: The cat was playing the person off stage, like in an old vaudeville video. The cat was not the star of the video. His appearance simply let the person in the FAIL video that he (or she, but mostly he) had failed and that it was now time for them to go. Play ’em off, Keyboard Cat.

That last one has my favorite wrinkle of the meme, which has Keyboard Cat preparing to play as he sees the inevitable FAIL coming. Been there, friend. Been there.

Pop culture crossover: This was a time when the FAIL was the central principle of the internet: When I think back to 2008 and 2009, I mostly remember watching videos of skateboarders landing on stairway railings groin-first. We were all looking for fails and pwnage. Even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. “It’s a cat with a keyboard who just waits for you to screw up so he can mock you.” Yep, that’s the idea.

What we’ve learned: Keyboard Cat got so big that Schmidt actually wrote a (self-published) book about it. And that’s maybe the most amazing thing about it. I would argue that it represents the final time in human history, probably the only time, that an individual online meme would become large enough for someone to pen a whole book about it. Though I will also accept “the Donald Trump Presidency” as a potential counter here.

What’s really noteworthy, though, is how the idea of FAILs, which were the driving inspiration of Keyboard Cat, have changed. The idea that the internet would collectively decide, with certainty, that someone not only clearly had failed, but would then cede the stage to music, now seems absurd. In 2009, if you had a FAIL, the idea is that you would be embarrassed and want to hide, preferably to the dulcet tones of Keyboard Cat. But in 2021, no one ever gets embarrassed, and certainly, no one ever leaves the stage. I mean, in a sane world, Matt Gaetz would be so humiliated and publicly shamed that he’d slink away and never want to show his face again. But in this world of 2021, he smirks and just goes back on television. 2009 was a time of FAILs. 2021 is all about tweeting through it.

Keyboard Cat may try to play you off. But it is now clear and obvious: No matter how often you FAIL, you’re not going anywhere.

Got a suggestion for Internet Nostalgia? Send it to me at williamfleitch@yahoo.com.

Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel How Lucky, released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store