Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Why are cats funnier than dogs?

Walking past one of the cubicles in our office building the other afternoon, I noticed a photo of a cat pinned to a board. On it were the words: “You cannot imagine the immensity of the fuck I do not give.” It struck me that this statement — which has become something of a meme and is the subject of a Facebook group with just under a million members — would not be funny if the photo had been of a dog. Or, for that matter, pretty much any other creature I can think of.

This is an example of a lolcat — a photo of a cat with a caption, usually in pidgin English — and the internet is crammed with them. Icanhascheezburger, the 800 pound gorilla of lolcat sites, gets over a billion hits a year; as the entrepreneur who owns it as well as other hugely popular meme-based blogs knows very well, there is big money in silly cat pictures. Besides the lolcat sites, there are countless sites devoted to the entertainment value of Felis catus: lolcats, cute videos of kittens, pictures of cats doing funny things, cats with stuff on them … the list goes on.

There are countless lolcat memes. There’s Monorail Cat and the Invisible series. The lolcat Bible (yes, really) was prompted by Ceiling Cat vs Basement Cat and now, of course, there’s even a vuvuzela lolcat. For an overview, you can click here (I don’t entirely agree with the author’s assertion that lolcats have a limited lifespan because they are a form of entertainment; lolcats are simply in the mature phase of the demand cycle.)

The Japanese do cute better than anyone, so naturally the most popular cat online is a fat tabby called Maru, some of whose videos have scored over a million hits. (I highly recommend Maru. He likes jumping into and out of boxes.)

Which brings me to the crux of the matter: why are cats so funny? What is it about cats that makes them funnier than any other animal, to the point where cat-free days have been proposed to make space for their fellow four-legged denizens of this planet? More specifically, why are cats funnier than their great rival for the affection of human beings, the dog?

(Oh, tarsiers can be funny, as can lemurs, owls, sloths, even walruses. But they are completely and utterly outnumbered by cats.)

No doubt there are many possible answers. Theories of humour have been around since the time of Aristotle, and are usually classified as either incongruity, superiority, relief or play theories. I have a hunch that there are a number of basic reasons for the popularity of lolcats. It’s highly likely that the basis of the appeal of cats in the first place is neoteny or paedomorphosis: the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. This is the science behind cuteness; the theory is that humans have such a strong nurturing response to infant features in order to ensure the survival of the species, and this instinct is transferred to the young of other species. Adult animals that retain these features — big eyes, large foreheads and small noses — are kept as pets, thus ensuring the continuation of their genes.

Importantly, cats have features and proportions that are very similar to the human face, so the expressions they project are analogous to our own, and, like us, they try to maintain their dignity. George Orwell wrote in his essay on English humour: “Whatever destroys dignity, and brings down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny.”

Zapiro knows the truth of this only too well.

While the loss of dignity in lolcats is funny because cats, as a species, attempt to maintain their dignity, many lolcats are based — like the example I cited in my opening paragraph — on the superiority of cats to humans. In many lolcats the self-possession of cats is what is emphasised (clearly this eliminates most images of kittens, since these rely on more conventional notions of cuteness). The judgement inherent in this kind of humour just can’t work with dogs, because dogs always look to a pack leader to tell them what to do. Dogs are obedient; cats are usually indifferent to the exhortations of the humans they rule over. They cannot be controlled. Would this image work as well if the animal in question was not a rather fies-looking kitten?

Can you imagine a site called dogsthatlooklikehitler.com?

Then there are the lolcats that don’t rely on either the loss of dignity or the judgment of human fallibility, but rather a quirky and unexpected analogy with machinery: the Monorail Cat meme mentioned above, which expresses, in a literal way, Henri Bergson’s notion of humour as “the mechanical encrusted upon the living”. Perhaps my favourite of all the lolcat memes is the delightfully incongruous — and often very witty — invisible series (Invisible Tango Partner being my favourite).

Sadly, standards at cheezburger have declined as it has grown, and the dry humour at which it excelled initially has become for the most part twee and cutesy. They’re unfunny because, as Orwell wrote, they are “too kind-hearted and too consciously lowbrow”, as concise a description of the problem with a lot of mainstream comedy as I have come across.

There the problem is that the humour is based too much upon the physical appeal of the animals themselves. The function of lolcats after all, is not to make us laugh at pictures of cute animals doing funny things, but to comment on the tragicomic nature of the human condition. As Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of the New Yorker, observes in this piece by Jay Dixit of Salon.com, “The animals aren’t animals at all, they’re stand-ins. They’re hybrids we use as devices to talk about the feelings we can’t name in other ways.” Dixit argues that the best lolcats are the saddest ones.

The irony, of course, is that the best lolcats aren’t cats at all: they’re us. And we never do get the cheezburger.

  • Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for Thought Leader » Sarah Britten » Why are cats funnier than dogs? [thoughtleader.co.za] on Topsy.com()

  • Atlas Reader

    Cats with wet paws are even funnier.

  • Andrew Slaughter

    Your blog is really interesting and I agree with your analysis. Part of the answer may in addition be something much more simple then the reasons you offer. Many countries (mostly developed countries like the UK) have in recent years experienced a major shift in pet preference from cats to dogs. One could hypothesize that a major part of this trend is due to the way society is changing in the way we choose to live, with many single people, couples and families living in built up urban areas where keeping a cat is logistically easier than keeping a dog. The fact that cats are becoming very popular as pets, would naturally lead to cats being over-represented in popular culture like the websites you mention.

  • Mark R

    Cats are the supra- ideology of all discourse in life. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this – – the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials- – all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. “…. Dogs are also different different because it encompasses all forms of discourse. No one goes to a movie to find out about government policy or the latest scientific advances for that matter. Enough said!!!

  • D.

    Cat’s aren’t really that funny. It’s just that cat lovers, like horse lovers, worship the ground on which the animal of their choice walks, and applaud everything they do with “Aren’t they clever? Aren’t they cute?”

    Actually, cats are generally psychotic, demanding, disagreeable little schmucks.

  • tottie

    The fat ones are funnier.

  • Panchetta

    I wake up some mornings with muffin all over my face. Lucky for me, my cocker spaniel Stanley just likes to watch.

  • Carla Bauer

    I tend to think we superimpose funniness on the animals of our choice. Being a dog and horse fan, I prefer them to cats and find my Bulldogs outrageously funny. I’m a dog-lover, not a cat-lover, but still I think funniness from any source can only be a blessing in this difficult world of ours, so whatever makes you laugh, enjoy it!