‘LOLwork’: Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh stars in new Bravo reality series

Sam Freedman, Reporter

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During his years at Northwestern, Ben Huh never suspected he’d end up the CEO of a company whose first claim to fame was a series of cat memes.

“I thought I’d go for journalism,” Huh said. “I thought I’d do layout design and things like that. I never thought I’d be on the other side of the interviewing table.”

A Korean immigrant and the first of his family to attend college, Huh graduated from the Medill School of Journalism in 1999 and formed his company Cheezburger in 2007. The goal of the company was to purchase and run humor websites. It took its name from its first acquisition, the now iconic “I Can Has Cheezburger?” — a website that specializes in LOLcats, or pictures of felines with amusing, grammatically incorrect captions.

Five years later, Cheezburger has evolved into a vast network of humor sites that collectively average 500 million page views per month.

Huh’s story caught the eye of producer Jay Blumenfield and his associates, who saw comedic potential not just in the nature of Cheezburger’s work, but in the staff that actually provides it to the online public.

“The site itself is really funny,” Blumenfield said. “And then when we realized that there’s a lot of interesting people taking this goofy thing seriously, that felt like comedy to us.”

The notion of a Cheezburger-based television series was not entirely novel, though.

“We’d been pitching ideas for a TV show for almost three years — mainly based around the content of our site,” Huh said.

But once Blumenfield visited their offices and met the people behind the content, the basis of the potential Cheezburger-inspired show began to take a different turn. Soon producers had filmed a sample version of the show that revolved around Huh and his staff rather than the material they published.

“It was one of those shows that we wouldn’t have expected to pitch to Bravo,” Blumenfield said. “It was kind of like, ‘You’re not gonna want to buy this, but check it out — we think it’s funny.’”

“They loved it,” he added with satisfaction.

What followed was the production of Bravo’s “LOLwork,” a reality TV series documenting the operations of the Cheezburger office in Seattle and the interactions of its staff. The show, which premiered Nov. 7, is filmed in a style somewhat akin to that of NBC’s “The Office” — the staff are candidly recorded as they work, conspire, attend meetings and react to Huh’s unpredictable requests. The activities of the officemates are interspersed with talking head interviews, in which they reveal or expound on their opinions regarding co-workers or the unfolding events.

“It shows us as real people at a real company,” explained Emily Huh, editor-in-chief at Cheezburger and cast regular on the series. “This is more or less how we really are, and we’re very proud of that.”

Emily’s role within the company and the show is perhaps the most complicated of anyone’s: She’s also Ben’s wife.

“There are always going to be pros and cons,” she said. “Ben treats me like any other employee and there can be a little tension at home, as with any situation where you’re married to your co-worker. But Cheezburger is something that we both love doing and it’s great that we can share that every day.”

The complexity of office relationships is not overlooked on “LOLwork.” Rather, it’s an essential component of its fabric.

“The show’s very relatable,” said Blumenfield, one of the executive producers of the Bravo show. “I think anyone who’s ever had to work with other human beings on anything can relate to the personalities at Cheezburger. Even more so than a scripted workplace comedy, this is the real deal.”

Though the show presents a mostly accurate — if comedic — representation of his staff, Huh acknowledges that filming can somewhat alter the office dynamic.

“Things always change when you put the camera in people’s faces,” he said. “Obviously the editors have to tell the story that they see.”

Indeed, awkward silences are emphasized, and cast members are often shown rolling their eyes or grimacing at the declarations of their peers.

Emily’s experiences as a television subject, she said, were strange at first: “Doing your routine job can be a little awkward when there are cameras all around you.” Nonetheless, she said that over time, the staff has become acclimated to the presence of the cameramen, even growing to welcome them.

“When we’re not filming,” she said, “someone will say something interesting and we’ll look around and go, ‘Oh, where’d the camera go?’”

Huh also said there are certain perks to having one’s staff recorded in action. The same voyeurism that makes reality television such a pleasure for viewers allows him to observe the workings of his own office.

“I get to see what happens when I’m not there,” he said with a laugh, “and it’s kind of interesting.”

Despite Cheezburger’s extraordinary success, Huh refuses to settle, working constantly toward the improvement and expansion of the network. Rather than controlling what visitors see on the site, he explained, “We want it to be more platform-driven, meaning people will help each other find funny stuff and create memes.” He’s aiming to turn Cheezburger into a full-fledged Internet community.

Emily, meanwhile, said Cheezburger’s unique brand of success is due in large part to the collective attitude that already defines it.

“We have a really strong community,” she said. “A lot of people have been with us for years. … You find trolls on the Internet, people who are mean to each other. But at Cheezburger, we just want to make everyone laugh.”

At the heart of this philosophy is Huh, whose enterprising spirit, colorful outlook and creative approaches to innovation are as integral to the tone and success of his company as they are to the appeal of “LOLwork.”

“(Ben) is smart, but he’s got a great sense of humor,” Blumenfield said. “I hope he sets an example for corporate America.”

Lofty hopes indeed, but Huh’s are simpler: “Our mission is to make the world happy for five minutes a day.”