Mike Rugnetta: Ask Meme Another

Apr 11, 2013
Originally published on January 2, 2014 4:43 pm

As the host of the PBS web series Idea Channel, Mike Rugnetta believes that technology holds the power to make us happier. Or at least the version of happy in which you can order an obscure book on Amazon and receive it within two days. His inventive videos tackle some of life's most pressing questions, such as, "Does playing Dungeons and Dragons make you a more successful person?" and "What are the similarities between Santa Claus and professional wrestling?"

When Rugnetta joined host Ophira Eisenberg on the Ask Me Another stage, the conversation turned to his time spent hosting Know Your Meme, a web series devoted to documenting the Internet's most viral permutations. He explained that, much like genetic material, memes move across generations quickly... especially when they involve a cat, or someone falling down. He also described his vision for the future, which involved heads in jars hooked up to iPhones. On hover boards. With jetpacks.

As a bit of an Internet sensation himself and given his experience, Rugnetta should, in fact, know his memes. So we pitted him against a member of our listening audience for a quiz about phrases, images, and videos that have gone viral on the Internet, from Rickrolling to Keyboard Cat.

About Mike Rugnetta

Mike Rugnetta is a Boston-born, Brooklyn-based composer, programmer and performer. Mike's musical works involve trying to find a nice, happy medium between folk music, improvisational techniques and contemporary electronic composition - hoping to retain what make those things fun and exciting (assuming you already find those things fun and exciting). He is also one third of the fast paced, performative lecture trio MemeFactory which has spoken world-wide about Internet Culture. Mike is left-handed and his favorite kind of tea is lapsang souchong. He is a graduate of Bennington College.

In an episode of PBS Idea Channel, Rugnetta explains how knock-offs prove the value of a name brand.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and joining me is the host of the Idea Channel series on PBS, Mike Rugnetta. And if you're not familiar with the Idea Channel, it's a PBS web series that will make you smarter, more attractive and a better person.

MIKE RUGNETTA: I hear those things are true.


EISENBERG: Welcome, Mike.

RUGNETTA: Thank you for having me. Hello.


EISENBERG: So, you know, sometimes when I think about PBS, I think of a costumed drama. I think of "Nova." I think of Muppets.


EISENBERG: And here you are, hip, cool, young, talking about technology, culture, art, philosophy. Is this something that PBS came to you and said we need this?

RUGNETTA: They gave me a call one day. And the way that I like to tell the story, which is only partly true, but more interesting than the truth...


EISENBERG: Like all stories, frankly.

RUGNETTA: Like all stories. Is that one day I was sitting at home, working on some commission project that I had and my phone rang, and it was a D.C. number, and it was a number that I didn't have in my phone book. I have, you know, like as a freelancer, you will know, like, if you see a phone number that you don't have in your phone book, you're like, oh, who's this?


RUGNETTA: And so I answered it, and they were like, hey, this is PBS. Yes, that PBS. We were wondering...

EISENBERG: Not the other PBS.

RUGNETTA: Not the other PBS, the PBS that you're currently thinking of. We were wondering if you were interested in making a web show with us, to which they were greeted with roughly 20 seconds of silence. And I said, yes, question mark.


RUGNETTA: And then over the next three months, I worked with them and then, coincidentally, two friends of mine who work in the production company that they had been working with to develop Idea Channel.

EISENBERG: And Idea Channel, you know, we're making it sound very highbrow, PBS Idea Channel. So let's just break down some of the things that you are talking about. You know, you're talking about does playing D&D make you a more successful person? Does technology make us happier? What are the similarities between Santa Claus and wrestling?

RUGNETTA: Wrestling.

EISENBERG: Yes, very...

RUGNETTA: That one, I was really excited about that one for like six months.


RUGNETTA: I actually - I was like I really want to write an episode about wrestling. And then my producer Andrew was like, you know, we could really make that related to Santa. And then both of us looked at each other like, yeah, we can. We can.


EISENBERG: So where do you come up with these themes?

RUGNETTA: I either stare at my bookcase until something just happens, or I just read Google Reader. But I don't really read it, I just kind of like scroll through it and I just kind of like let it wash over me.

EISENBERG: So, right, you're just hanging out and you're surfing and you're playing a little Angry Birds and you're watching a YouTube video of something.

RUGNETTA: Right. I'm been playing a lot of Super Hexagon, actually has been my meditative.


EISENBERG: All right, well I want to talk to you about some of these themes. I find them very fascinating. I mean you talk - well, first of all, big question, technology, this is your thing. Is it making us happier?

RUGNETTA: I don't know if it's making us happier. It's making certain parts of life easier.


RUGNETTA: And I think that that can contribute to happiness.



RUGNETTA: You know, like I'm happy that, you know, I can order some obscure book from Amazon and get it within two days. Like that makes me a version of happy. I don't know if that's capital H happy.

EISENBERG: What is capital H happy for you, Mike?

RUGNETTA: Oh, man. That's a really hard question to answer.

EISENBERG: I guess, was it when your producer said we're going to marry Santa Claus to wrestling?

RUGNETTA: Oh, it might have been.


EISENBERG: Give me the best definition, your best definition, for those who require it, of what a meme is.

RUGNETTA: So a meme, we make a joke that a meme is just a complicated name for a much grander and simpler idea, which is an idea.


RUGNETTA: There it is.

EISENBERG: Meme's an idea.

RUGNETTA: Meme's an idea.


RUGNETTA: So like the easiest way to describe it is that it is a piece of culture that travels between people in and between generations, in that it generally moves faster than genetic data and that you can think of it as the cultural version of a gene, right, which moves through generations very slowly. A meme moves across generations very quickly.

EISENBERG: You just made double rainbow sound super intellectual.


EISENBERG: As someone who is involved in technology and culture and looking forward and philosophy and putting it all together, what's your vision of the future? Are we going - I joked about heads in jars hooked up to iPhones. But I think that's pretty accurate. What do you think?

RUGNETTA: Yeah, I'm going to go ahead and agree. Yeah, heads in jars, hooked up to iPhones. That's end of story. Hover boards. Heads in jars, hooked up to iPhones on hover boards.

EISENBERG: Hover boards.

RUGNETTA: With jetpacks.



EISENBERG: And how soon are we talking?

RUGNETTA: I don't know, like 15 years.

EISENBERG: Fifteen years?

RUGNETTA: Fifteen.

EISENBERG: That's pretty good.


EISENBERG: Okay, got a plan for that. Do people ask you for predictions all the time?





RUGNETTA: The last time that I really, I got asked for a lot of predictions was when I was working for this web show called Know Your Meme, and people would ask if I knew whether or not things would become popular on the internet.


RUGNETTA: And the answer was always no.


EISENBERG: You're just like, I don't know.

RUGNETTA: I don't know.

EISENBERG: I'm just...

RUGNETTA: Does it have a cat in it? Question number one, is there a cat?


RUGNETTA: Question number two, does someone fall down? Are people doing a silly dance?

EISENBERG: Perfect. Well here's an idea, how would you like to see how you fare in an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

RUGNETTA: I'm terrified. Terrified.

EISENBERG: It's a quiz written just for you. Does that sound better?

RUGNETTA: Slightly less terrified.

EISENBERG: Okay, good enough.


EISENBERG: All right, well stand up and take your place behind the puzzle podium because, Mike Rugnetta, we're about to test how web savvy you actually are.


EISENBERG: So we could certainly not have the former host of Know Your Meme on our show without seeing if you do, in fact, know your memes. So in this quiz, we are going to test you about phrases, images and videos that have run amuck on the internet. And you'll be playing against a fantastic contestant, opponent. This is Sean Comerfeld.


EISENBERG: Sean, you're a recent law school graduate.


EISENBERG: And you specialize in what?

COMERFELD: I studied intellectual property law.

EISENBERG: Interesting. And copyrights.


EISENBERG: When it comes to memes, that could be very interesting.

COMERFELD: Yeah. Yeah, it could be.


EISENBERG: And you're also a video gamer and he's into E Sports, not to be confused with sports.


EISENBERG: So the winner of this will win a special ASK ME ANOTHER prize and internet bragging rights for all eternity. In 2011, your Facebook feed might have been filled with photos of people lying face down in strange places, with their hands at their sides. Even celebrities like Katy Perry, Kristen Bell and Rosario Dawson were posting pictures of themselves doing it. What is this fad called?



RUGNETTA: Planking.

EISENBERG: Planking is correct.


EISENBERG: Celebrities are usually the subject of memes, like a picture of a sad Keanu Reeves or a recording of Christian Bale yelling at a cinematographer. Let's listen to another actor read aloud on MTV some quotes attributed to him.

RYAN GOSLING: This is pretty good. I'm laying on a couch and it says, hey, girl sometimes I get so sad when we can't watch "Golden Girls" together.


EISENBERG: What hunky actor is the subject of the hey girl memes?



RUGNETTA: Ryan Beefcake Gosling.

EISENBERG: That's right.


RUGNETTA: That's just a little pet name that me and him have you know, that's fine.

EISENBERG: An event at the University of Florida in 2007 turned ugly, which actually happens at every event at the University of Florida.


EISENBERG: When a belligerent student refused to give up the microphone. Things escalated after campus police dragged him away, ending with the student uttering what famous line?



RUGNETTA: Don't tase me, bro.

EISENBERG: Don't tase me, bro.


EISENBERG: All right, how about this for another point, what politician was the guest speaker at that event at the University of Florida in 2007 that turned ugly?



COMERFELD: I'm going to take a stab. Charlie Crist.

EISENBERG: Good stab. Incorrect, but a good stab. Mike?

RUGNETTA: John Kerry.

EISENBERG: John Kerry, that is correct.



EISENBERG: Yeah. Now hear this.

ISAIAH MUSTAFA: Hello, ladies. Look at your man. Now back to me. Now back at your man. Now back to me. Sadly, he isn't me.

EISENBERG: That's the voice of Isaiah Mustafa in a 2010 commercial titled "The Man your Man Could Smell Like." What product was Mustafa selling?




EISENBERG: That is correct.


RUGNETTA: I will say that they got me for that campaign. I was like, all right, I'm going to go out and I'm going to buy it. I will buy some Old Spice.

EISENBERG: Yeah, sure, you're like I want the be the man, the man that could smell like that man.

RUGNETTA: Just for one deodorant and that was enough after the first one.

EISENBERG: You were like, wait a second.

RUGNETTA: I just smell like my grandpa.

EISENBERG: I smell like an old...


EISENBERG: Right, there is old in the title.


EISENBERG: In the video game portal, players must escape from a series of increasingly dangerous rooms. As an incentive, a diabolical voice promises that at the end of the game there will be cake. But players eventually learn...


EISENBERG: They are racing for this. What difficult truth that has become its own meme?



COMERFELD: The cake is a lie.

EISENBERG: It's a lie. Some of you know this song from your high school dances. Others have been sent a web link of this 1987 hit.


EISENBERG: As we all know, that means you've been rickrolled, that bait and switch gag made Rick Astley a household name again. But this practical joke originally involved sending unsuspecting users a picture of what?




EISENBERG: I need a little bit more. A duck...

RUGNETTA: A duck on wheels.

EISENBERG: There you go.


EISENBERG: What was that called?

RUGNETTA: That's a duck roll.

EISENBERG: There you go. All right, how about this next one?


EISENBERG: The sound your hear is from Charlie Schmidt's video of his cat playing a synthesizer keyboard known as Keyboard Cat. The video was uploaded to YouTube in 2007 but only went viral after a blogger attached it to a video of a man falling down an escalator, because falling is hilarious.


EISENBERG: What was the name of Charlie's cat, who sadly passed away in 1987?







EISENBERG: I wonder what that poor cat passed away from, based on its name. Mike, congratulations, you are the winner.

RUGNETTA: Thank you.


EISENBERG: But we have prizes. Sean, such an excellent contestant. We have a ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube for you. And also, Mike, for being fantastic in every way and knowing your memes, just like you're supposed to, you also get an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube. Thank you so much. A round of applause for Sean our contestant and our VIP Mike Rugnetta. Thank you, Mike.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.