Louis Vs. Rick is History
This is just a little something I need to get out of my system. While I knew I was done with Louis Vs. Rick in 2015, and wrapped it up in a way that satisfied me (and I hope satisfied fans as well), I found that for some time after, I didn’t feel like I was done with the character. And who knows, maybe I’m still not. But, maybe five years ago, I decided to more or less let go, because all I had was a bunch of old notes and a lack of motivation weighing on me. Nobody needs that. So I’ve already long since said my goodbye, but I would like to, if you’ll have me, share a little something about the journey.
And that’s what it was—Louis Vs. Rick’s relatively brief but significant flash of fame and the things that followed it made for a bit of an adventure. One that deserves a slightly better public send-off than I’ve given it to date. This is for me. If you enjoy it, cool. If not, I would like to think we can still be friends. Distant friends, who do not speak and who harbor anger that could only be worked out through extensive therapy, first independently and then in a steel cage.
First of all: Louis is a real cat. To the disappointment of some readers who found out one way or another, his name is pronounced with a hard ‘s’. His full name is Louis Lewis Cyr, and we mostly call him Lou or LouLew, except when he’s being bad. He’s 17 years old now, based on the professional best guess that he was 2 when we adopted him. When the comic named for him was born, he was but a whippersnapper of 3 years or so, quite new to my family. He’s nothing like the character Louis, or at least he is no more like that than any other cat. He is sweet, gentle, and my best friend.
The best research I’ve managed to do puts the original episodes of Louis Vs. Rick at about 2008, and I’m uncertain of that because it changed hosting more than once, so it may go back a touch further, but it’s the best I’ve got. I have very little memory of writing them, but the first eight episodes probably came out very quickly, maybe even in the span of just a few days. It was abandoned just as quickly, and doesn’t go very far toward establishing characters or any notion of story. None of it is careful or suggests an intent to make something bigger, and that’s probably why I didn’t. But there was a nugget in episode 8 that someone, somewhere latched on to and from about August of 2011 through the better part of 2012, a viral wave centered on “CAPS LOCK IS HOW I FEEL INSIDE” took hold.
Among notable things that caught my attention (and these are all in notes, at this point it is a non-trivial task to find proof they ever happened, but): Adult Swim featured it at the top of their “Internet Treasures” page. Jeri Ryan called it “how you do the Internet,” bless her little Borg heart. NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour mentioned it. People I knew in real life stumbled upon it, saw my name, and wanted to know if it was really me. The “caps lock” line was getting quoted everywhere. People were making t-shirts, writing graffiti on walls, drawing fan art. I’d made a thing!
I decided to write again, partly because it had become clear from the way people talked about Louis that they saw something that resonated with them. In most cases it was just that they felt like caps lock inside, whatever that means, but some people also either felt they understood him, or that the relationship between cat and owner (we don’t use that word) was really captured by LvR. I believed I could expand on that, and more importantly I believed I could do so much better. I didn’t even remember writing the first eight episodes, and wasn’t really a fan of what I found upon looking back.
It took some time to fix up the site and get down to writing, but when I got started, it flowed. I began imagining who Louis really was, what he was into, how he would behave, what his relationship with Rick was really like and how to capture that with what was proving to be a rather limiting toolset. Episode 9 sort of ended up as Louis’s wailing guitar solo, an exercise in expressing comedic timing in a chat interface that doesn’t play out live. To this day it’s one of my favorites, because at least to me, it makes big strides toward generating real personality and laying some honest groundwork for getting something special out of the format. It was the first of a new generation of episodes, “Season 2” if you will, and it felt great.
Starting with episode 10, I began introducing other characters and attempting to establish a pace. I was going to try to get an episode out every couple of weeks. Naturally, there were opportunities in there to theme them around the calendar.
Around this same time, LvR caught the attention of a couple of different book publishers. I had no idea whether I could actually produce LvR at any reasonable pace, nor whether I had enough idea of story to make something book-like practical, and I certainly had no idea how to take advantage of that sort of opportunity and still don’t. The timing was such that a) publishers were looking for cheap properties during an explosive “everything can and must be a book” period in the life of the Internet, and b) they were looking to spend as little as possible and just crank out some stuff, so I was also terrified of being dragged into a commitment I would ultimately resent. In short, I was not a ‘writer’ in any proven sense, I was afraid of being bowled over by an industry I didn’t understand, and all of this resulted in a huge amount of anxiety.
I fortunately had some help from amazing friends and acquaintances who could tell me something about who I was dealing with and what it meant to be responsible for delivering something like that. They were in some cases encouraging, in other cases not so much. Two people in particular had 180-degree opposite arguments that both ended with “DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE I MADE.” What it really boiled down to was that I needed to make a call about whether I wanted to commit myself to something I really didn’t know if I even could do, let alone wanted to do. And I was already showing myself that I couldn’t work quickly enough to answer that question before answers were demanded.
One publisher walked away from me upon realizing how much stress he was causing me (and presumably, without saying it out loud, taking the signal that I was not a great bet). I walked away from the other when I caught a bad vibe about the role they ultimately wanted me to play. I will of course always wonder what may have been, but am fairly confident that if it turned out well at all it wouldn’t have had anything to do with me, because I was a mess.
The one medium I thought might be a decent fit, in terms of pace, was something like a Sunday comic strip. I still think that’s kind of interesting, but I would ultimately prove my thoughts on what I wanted to write to be a bad fit for that anyway.
Meanwhile, the wave continued to roll. Tons of blogs and internet curators picked it up. MORE Magazine included it in an online feature about their Editors’ favorite blogs, which was neat. They even asked for an image to go with it. My friend Patrick Evans made a beautiful and clever design to send to them, featuring Sgt. McFuzzies. He’s a very skilled designer and kind person who has always supported me and has somehow been, despite all of that, a huge disappointment.
I continued to work on the site. I jumped through insane hoops working with Tumblr’s oppressive API to style the conversation into an actual chat window. I spent a bunch of time developing and integrating an actual “chat player” and updating chat documents to include invisible timing directives I figured out how to sneak in, then ultimately pulling it all out because trying to write with timing that natively felt “right” was simply way more fun. I don’t think it would have been especially effective in the end anyway.
My friend Jon made a logo for me, at my request, and it was lovely. He’s a very skilled designer and kind person who, as someone who works at Apple and consistently ignores my complaints about the things they make, has also always been a huge disappointment.
And that’s about when I realized how unsustainable my pace was. The content was suffering and so was I. I wanted very badly to make it all good, but somehow that also translated into each episode being better and longer and more meaningful in my mind, and in the rush I made mistakes, letting a couple of episodes out the door that I wouldn’t have if I’d been more patient. The first draft of episode 14 featured a bloody rabbit, and the release of that episode was followed by a real come-to-Jesus moment regarding what I actually wanted from this thing, and a promise to never again click the button on something I knew was a flop. That meant accepting much slower production, and in turn the wrath of those who expected a web comic to move very quickly (and damn, there are a lot of those people) as well as a steady stream of offers to take over and write it for me. A little tip to anyone who likes things people create: don’t do that. If you think about what you’re suggesting, you’ll see why from the other end it’s harder than you think to see the gesture as well-meaning.
Around this same time was when I received a vague and mysterious private message through Tumblr (where LvR was hosted at the time) with a phone number, claiming to be someone from DreamWorks Animation who wanted to speak with me. It became suddenly clear I hadn’t previously understood what anxiety was.
What followed were a handful of phone calls with assistants, middle-tier producers, and ultimately a development executive, all of whom were feeling me out for my thoughts on optioning LvR as a property for development in what was eventually revealed to be some kind of web-only animation studio spinoff they were considering. I don’t know if anything ever came of that; after a while I stopped hearing back from DWA directly. But someone involved in working with me, who had left DWA, kept in touch and continued working on the project with me, a producer, and a designer to develop a “show bible” as they apparently call it in the industry, complete with concept art, character profiles, and episode concepts to shop around. I was sent sample scripts from other tv shows. I was on regular phone calls about development. I got connected with an entertainment lawyer.
They kept working on it, and shopping it around, or at least they told me some good stories about having shopped it around, naming a couple of people in particular who had seen the bible and the site that made me really happy. I have no way of knowing how true any of it is — these producers had an interest in keeping me interested, and knew what I liked — but thinking a couple of those people may have seen my work was, and is, really cool.
Over time, all of that faded into background, and eventually radio silence, which was fine — it became clear that unless I was going to learn the industry well enough to drive the whole boat myself that I would continue to have to speak with far too many lawyers for one reason or another, would not be maintaining any kind of real creative control, and in fact even the show bible had stuff in it that I was very much not on board with. A couple other industry points of interest: according to the front page of said bible, “created by” may not mean what you think it means. And, those ridiculous pitch ideas like “think ‘Doogie Howser’ meets ‘Family Guy’” are totally real.
In 2012 Disney launched “Dog With a Blog”. Still bitter.
The good news is, during this time I learned to relax and slow down and treat LvR for what it was: a thing about a character I really loved, that I enjoyed writing for people who enjoyed reading it. The last several episodes took years to come out. They waited for ideas that I liked, and each idea was allowed to bake for weeks before I spent still more weeks putting fingers to keys, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Here are some inspirations, incidents of outright theft on my part, and bits of trivia about the LvR universe from my old draft notes.
- The Larry Sanders Show taught me everything I know about animus between characters who very much love and need one another. I can’t say enough about it, or about my truest hero Garry Shandling, may he rest in peace.
- “I thought you were being street” is lifted from John Moltz, a good friend and very old man.
- Bodega Ray’s shop is called “Ray’s 24/7”. It’s open 10–6, Monday through Saturday.
- Ray is named for a man I once worked with who was from New Jersey. He would always begin his many wild conjectures with “I’ll tell ya this right now,” and he said “whatever ya” instead of “what have you.” Maybe it was a Jersey thing.
- The vacant lot behind the bodega is based on the lot behind my childhood home. It was full of boobytrapped bike trails.
- The elk head in Ray’s store is missing an eye. The socket is caved in from when Ray tried to replace the eye with a 7-ball.
- In LvR’s most dramatic instance of someone not getting the joke, I was once lectured by email on the poor understanding of electricity I exposed in episode 18.
- While not really similar to the way she was presented in episode 10, I came to visualize Grandma, Rick’s mom, as the old woman from Courage The Cowardly Dog. At least this is how she would be seen in Louis’s mind.
- Rick’s middle name is in tribute to game show host Monty Hall, who is among those Lou spoofs in episode 9.
- Lou’s vet, Dr. Plotkin, is named for a woman my wife used to nanny for.
- Rufus, neighbor cat that Lou finds hilarious, is based on and named for a cat some very dear old friends had, who would sprint the perimeter of their home every time he pooped. He was very dumb and very mean, but incredibly entertaining and a good companion to fall asleep with while watching ER, Thursday nights, NBC. His mom, Kristi, made neckties for him. I have a history of creating voices for, and speaking for, my pets, but I think Rufus was the first animal that inspired me to do that. Every time Rufus “spoke”, his sentence would start with “I’m Rufus, and…” Somehow everyone involved tolerated me. (I acknowledge that this habit is probably bad, actually like kind of not cool, though I have tried to be careful about putting words in their mouths that would actually impact their lives. It’s a tricky space, I guess.)
- “You’re just saying words” is from my friend JT, and despite my losing the context at this point, it’s still something I use all the time. It’s devastating and retort-proof. I know, because at the time it was said to me and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do.
- Heike, Lou’s catsitter, is named for a German woman I once worked with, in fact at the same place as Ray. She was very tiny and capable of being very mean. I once saw her tear into one of our camera department salesmen (who had it coming) so bad that he went home. Weirdly enough, I think that guy’s name may have been Rick.
- The idea of “taking back things I said about you” is pretty much stolen from Ghostbusters, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I guess I added the concept of essentially using it as currency.
- As a symptom of a moderate persecution complex, nothing makes Louis angrier than the popularity of other cats (see the Garfield costume bit from Episode 17, and the below):
- In 4th grade I got in trouble for tracing pictures of Garfield and selling them. I was allowed to keep the money, which is only fair because producing a variety of tracings with sizes priced at 5, 10, and 25 cents to fulfill the $5 order Billy gave me ended up being a lot of damn work. His grandmother gave him this $5 and that’s what he wanted to do with it. It took me years to realize he probably knew it was going to be difficult and wanted to harass me. Anyway, I’ve been paranoid about copyright ever since.
- After LvR as we know it ended, I entertained for some time the idea of keeping Lou around as a character, but in a less formal way. It was an ambitious but difficult-to-control concept that I never quite figured out how to develop (or, if I’m being honest, really tried to figure out how to develop) in a way I was sure that people would see it without it being prohibitively expensive. The idea was essentially that Louis faked his death and went underground to pursue his supervillain lifestyle, and maintained communication with Rick through new, secret means like To Whom It May Concern letters on Facebook that mindlessly and repeatedly mention Rick by name, a “Phase Zero” plan peppered into existence through social media posts, commissioned profiles in mens magazines, and a Facebook ad for hiring henchmen that targets Rick because he fits a profile for bored people not living up to their potential. It features a picture of a smiling woman eating a salad.
- Here are a few elements from the show bible. I regret that I cannot find details on the designer who was looped in to come up with some visual ideas, and will add her name if and when I figure it out. I may have only heard it over the phone.
All told, LvR was a great experience. I loved playing with the musicality and flow of text conversation, the development of a personality through delivery and “timing”. The short messages spoke to Lou’s impulsiveness and confidence and I loved watching his character take shape around that sense of immediate commitment to any idea. I often find myself adopting this mode in text, probably to the annoyance of those on the receiving end (sorry).
It did feel like there was this character, a sort of universal cat personality that cat owners (again, we do not use that word) understood and it was just sort of waiting to be exposed. I got a huge amount of joy from learning what it means to focus on a thing and create a world, and from the adrenaline shot that came from making it work, from people latching on to something and getting the love and respect between Lou and Rick the way I meant it, despite such thin stories and very limited real character development. In later episodes when that became more tangible, I was really playing off of what readers had established for me. For it to work, the reader had to bring a lot to LvR, and many of them totally did. It’s just cool to be on the same wavelength with someone, and the audience gave that to me many times.
Some readers made annual traditions of holiday readings. People did live and recorded readings of LvR at parties and events. They were inspired to write their own chat-based comics. Three times, people told me they and their families adopted a cat because of the fun they had reading LvR together. That’s a level of impact that I just barely feel I can own even the slightest responsibility for, but I’ll always carry it with me as a beautiful and important connection I made with someone. I mean, does it matter how it happened?
A lot of people helped me throughout all of this and I want to thank them:
- Molly, for putting up with me being a little bit one-track-minded for a while there.
- My kids, for sometimes reading, or feeding back, or wearing a t-shirt of their own volition (what a weird feeling that is).
- Kim, for being so incredibly helpful, experienced and supportive when things got to be kind of a lot.
- Patrick, for being a smart sounding board and for offering time to help with things when he didn’t have to. If anyone probably saw the panic first-hand, it would be Patrick.
- Jon, for the logo I still love.
- Kristi, for supplying cat neckties.
- Pat and Aaron, hometown heroes at BuyOlympia.com. Aaron for holding my hand through provision of a full stack t-shirt service, and Pat for being just a really sweet dude when he reached out to ask for an address so he could send me leftover t-shirts that hadn’t moved for years and which he intended to delist. (I think I still have some.) I’m pretty sure I owed him money, but he declined to admit that.
- Moltz, for listening, for advising, and for letting me disappoint him without making a whole thing about it.
- All of the ’mangers, for just being really good people and all helpful in some way during that time, except for Paul.
- Patti, for first alerting me that MetaFilter had somehow picked up this thing I wrote, which didn’t even carry my name at the time, let alone any way of contacting me— a moment without which I may have never known what was happening.
- Patti (again), Ben, and Kyle for being early believers.
- Katie, for making me feel like maybe I was actually a legit “writer”? Maybe?
- Merlin, for a long phone call that brought some comforting facts into focus.
- The Purina Cat Chow Twitter account lady, for being a buddy and honestly one of the best readers I could have asked for, an example of someone who really thought about cats the way I did, and met me far more than half way. Still Instagram friends :)
- and Paul. (Who was and always has been very generous with his thoughts and resources, and who will get the joke.)
There are surely others I’m forgetting—forgive me, it’s been a while.
If you care to see what I’m up to now, I have a couple of other things published on this here platform, and am hoping—feeling kind of inspired, even—to do more. A couple of things are in the hopper.
My heartfelt thanks to everybody who ever shared the thing, promoted the thing, loved the thing. I am humbled by the generosity, kindness, and patience of many. Plunger the bear.