The Meme Illuminati: Behind Instagram's Comedy Empire
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The Meme Illuminati: Behind Instagram's Comedy Empire

by Molly Beauchemin

In 2020, he who rules the memes, it seems, rules the world — or at least the world as we see it online.

Memes are no longer just jokes on the internet. As the 2010s saw random image macros and Impact font get overtaken in relevancy by square white boxes with photos and cartoons captioned with Arial or Montserrat text, the decade also witnessed the meme-ification of everyone and everything vital in politics, pop culture and the arts.

Suddenly the measure of a moment's cultural importance often hinged on the number of memes it generated. (Remember Nancy Pelosi's State of the Union clap, Baby Yoda or Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's extremely close Oscars performance?) In some cases, memes went from being a reflection of culture to the driving force behind it. (See: The contingent who believe Pepe the Frog and "meme magic" helped Donald Trump win the 2016 election.)

We're living in a time when attention spans are rapidly shrinking and if "the medium is the message," memes are uniquely well-suited for our age. And there's a massive amount of influence to be found for those making them. Not surprisingly, there's now a glut of meme accounts across multiple social media platforms but amidst all of the noise, one growing Instagram meme empire stands out: Doing Things Media.

Makers of viral meme accounts @MiddleClassFancy, @NeatDad, and @AnimalsDoingThings, among many others, DTM has garnered over 50 million collective followers, many of whom flock to their accounts for a particular kind of suburban Boomer humor. While much of the internet is screaming about politics and issues, DTM's accounts have bucked the trend in favor of a simpler, more inane kind of comedy that resonates for a wide cross-section of followers who span backgrounds, identities and partisan views.

Founded in 2017 by Reid Hailey, 30, and Derek Lucas, also 30, the company is headquartered in Atlanta and currently has 20 people on staff working behind-the-scenes across 20 brands.

"I started making memes in 2015 around the time Fat Jewish and Fuck Jerry had, like, 100,000 followers," Reid explains of Doing Things Media's origins. At the time, @TheFatJewish and @FuckJerry were popular "meme curators" publishing memes made by other people, rather than true meme makers. As the accounts grew more popular, a number of media outlets ran stories criticizing those accounts for not doing enough attribution, repurposing memes that were not their own, and in some cases, flat-out plagiarizing jokes. "No one was really making original content in that space at the time," Reid reflects. "So I started making memes. I found Derek through that process — we basically met in a chat."

Reid grew up in Atlanta and had always run his own businesses on the side — a chauffeur service here, booking bands there. In 2014, however, he got sick with Lyme Disease and was unable to work a "normal job," and it was then that he started making memes.

Derek — who was then living in the Bay Area while running a clothing company that eventually became a social-first marijuana delivery service — had also started a meme page where he posted original content.

"Like Reid, I got into making memes after seeing @FuckJerry and @TheFatJewish," Derek explains. "I knew they didn't really make the memes, but the more I dug into it, the more I realized it was the same [handful of] creators creating them instead... so I became a fan of a couple different pages. Reid's page was one, Lee's" — more on him later — "was another. We all created this group together and started cranking out 10 or 15 memes a day each, which is kind of the origin."

The group chat was called "The Meme illuminati," which Reid says was comprised of "me (@shitheadsteve/@trashcanpaul), Derek (@champagneemojis, before he started @drunkpeopledoingthings AKA @nochaser today), Lee (founder of @middleclassfancy) and Kenny (who created the meme account @drgrayfang)." They created the chat group over Instagram DM "to collaborate on original memes together for our pages and would credit each other on those collabs. It helped us grow the pages."

Soon, some of the best memes on the internet started coming from this small group of people, which at one point included John Mayer (yes, the musician) and comedian Chris D'Elia. "We added John Mayer, Chris D'Elia and a few others on a whim one day since they followed some of our pages at the time. When they joined they immediately responded and started making memes with us. We were really surprised they even responded," Reid explains. "BJ Novak was in there at one point, and we were making memes with him. He was really good at it and hilarious, which is what you'd expect."

He continues, "The chat is still there, but not as active today since Derek and myself are not running any pages." (Doing Things Media has a team for the actual posting now, though the two are still involved in the collaborative process of making memes. They also now accept user generated content submissions that they vet internally and reshare — always with credit to the original creator.)

Thus, in an internet culture where memes can feel like they come out of nowhere, Reid, Derek and others brought intentionality to the process. Their method worked — the accounts started growing hand over fist — and eventually "Reid and I started working together officially and started Doing Things [Media]," Derek reflects.

A prominent pillar of this nascent meme conglomerate is @MiddleClassFancy, a suburban humor account that winkingly makes fun of white people — especially white Boomer culture — with laser-like cheekiness. (As of publish date, the account has 2.1 million followers.)

"@MiddleClassFancy was created by Lee Ayers, who is a partner at Doing Things," Derek explains. "When me and Lee and Reid and a couple of other meme creators all started working together in 2015, we had a collective of maybe 10,000 followers when we first linked up. We would collaborate on memes together and Lee ended up going on to create @MiddleClassFancy about a year into our collaborating. When Reid and I created Doing Things Media, we brought Lee on shortly after and acquired @MiddleClassFancy."

Part of the appeal of @MiddleClassFancy has to do with the fact that the account rarely takes a stance in an internet culture where the loudest voices usually feel compelled to take one. When @MiddleClassFancy describes a certain type of person — like "Tammy, 41," who "gets a French tip manicure every Thursday, owns every Pandora charm, just switched from a Coach to a Michael Kors bag, husband is a construction contractor, has a toe ring, drives a Tahoe" (words accompanied by a picture of a tanning bed) — they aren't necessarily saying this person is good or bad. Much like the "starter pack" meme trend of a couple years ago, MCF has merely perfected the art of exposing a character we all know, succinctly enumerating her attributes and confirming that she is indeed "a type."

Because of these archetypes' relative ubiquity throughout American culture and their bland innocuousness, the humor and impact of these memes comes from that jolt of recognition we all get when someone shares a spot-on description of something — or someone — that we'd stopped actively paying attention to. Suddenly realizing how easy it is to break down a type of person you've taken for granted — like a suburban Boomer parent or white bro-y office colleague — often results in a sort of contact high. Everyone knows, or knows of, a Tammy but unlike a "Karen" or a "Becky," Tammy isn't saddled with negative connotations. Instead, whether you interpret her as friend, foe, or fable is a matter of perspective.

"Nance" — who loves her margaritas to-go — and Rand — a lawn maintenance aficionado — have become recurring fan favorites. Everyone that follows the @MiddleClassFancy account knows the "Nance" trope, just like how everyone who's seen Friends knows the Phoebe one. ("Lee created Rand and Nance," Derek explains. "He's from a town that has less than 2,000 people or something crazy like that. He always describes MCF as people who were in his town growing up.")

Doing Things Media's other accounts repeatedly use the same motifs and stock images with different jokes, which has built a sort of insider culture of anticipatory humor. @NeatDad, for example, has a recurring theme of dads not wanting anyone else to touch the thermostat. They also regularly share this stock image dad discussing everything from the weather to lawn care. Meanwhile, this goofy smiling white guy has been lampooned as everything from an attention-seeking millennial to a prank-loving co-worker who's behaving like a "little stinker." In a way, the awkward deadpan of these memes has the same appeal as the kind of humor that made people love The Office.

When I was talking to a friend about Doing Things' comedy brands, she noted that she loves @MiddleClassFancy and @NeatDad because she thinks the characters are funny — i.e., she loves laughing at them. However, this friend also lives in the suburbs, and she was quick to note that her colleagues and neighbors love MCF, too — because they see themselves and their family members in the characters. Nance might be easy to laugh at, but depending on how you are socially conditioned, she may also be relatable. As a result, MCF attracts a more diverse following than many social media fandoms — not in spite of the fact that so many of their jokes poke fun at white suburban Boomer culture, but because of it.

Doing Things' animal-themed meme accounts and MCF in particular appeal to a wide cross section of people. Part of this comes from the universal appeal of animals — their @AnimalsDoingThings account is exactly what it sounds like, but "a lot of it stems from what we know does well from a content perspective," says Reid. "For example, we have tried content that is funny but clearly leans a certain way politically, and it just doesn't do as well. The stuff that does the best is content that is just funny no matter what your political standing is."

"I was initially tagged in an old post and was hooked," says a follower named Travis (@tankwilliams_jr on Instagram). The self-described "conservative (moderate on social issues), suburban father and trophy bass hunter" said over DM that "growing up upper middle class, all these memes hit home for me and they're hilarious."

"I found them on my explore page and decided to follow," says Christine Trefalt (@christinetrefalt), a self-identified mixed-race woman who "gravitat[es] towards liberal" viewpoints but is "not into politics at all."

"Isolation made me be on my phone longer," she explains over DM, in reference to the COVID-19 quarantine. "And funny posts help ease through these tough times."

"I honestly don't know how I found @MiddleClassFancy. Maybe it found me, to be honest," says another follower, Drew Shipman (@drewshipman), a self-described liberal white man. "I love them though because I often describe myself in dating profiles as a middle aged white wine mom in a 21-year-old gay man's body, so their content is on brand as hell," he shares over DMs.

"I love their memes whenever they mention TJ Maxx," he continues. "I grew up in a small town in Washington and sometimes the only thing to do was to go smell candles at TJ on a random Tuesday afternoon. I love the absurdity of some of the memes, as well as the general critique of some of the social quirks that uniquely define Boomers."

The unifying sentiment between random followers that we polled, moreover, seems to be that @MiddleClassFancy, in particular, offers an escape that is uniquely welcome given the present, muddied state of the world.

"There is nothing more captivating than content that can relate to the common person, and in this case, @MiddleClassFancy embodies just that in its purest form by way of memes," says a self-identified independent named Cole Pittman (@coleeeworldd). "I am from Salem, Oregon and for those who know of my city, it is riddled with Applebee's-loving, 'live, laugh, love' decorated home interiors, Levi jeans and New Balance sneakers-wearing good ole middle class 'Karens' and 'Rands'."

With this level of reach comes a certain amount of diplomacy, which, for many, is also part of the appeal of Doing Things' meme accounts. If culture is constantly buoying between narratives driven by "coastal elites" and opposing "rural" perspectives, then Doing Things' suburban humor occupies a sweet spot in the middle — literally and metaphorically.

The overall theme of what makes it onto any of their meme pages seems to be "nostalgic wholesomeness" — humor that somehow doesn't offend anyone because the stereotypes they joke about are so deeply benign. When everything else in the world seems so fragile and chaotic, it's weirdly comforting. "Almost every meme is something I see and think, 'Yep, that's my parents,'" says Pete Freeman (@peteyfreeinthisb) a self-identified white male who is "liberal for sure."

"I grew up in Ohio and now live in NYC. I think my upbringing in the Midwest is why I love the page," he says. "I'm more than convinced most of these memes are poking fun at Ohio."

"We try to steer clear of politics," Derek explains of the accounts, which generally avoid overt hot button social or political issues, even if the characters behave in a way that some would associate with certain political or class-based predilections. "It's all about making fun of people and not having a strong opinion about one thing or the other; it's more about bringing humor to whatever is topical at the moment."

Reid adds that "Lee describes himself as the epitome of @MiddleClassFancy, so it's all self-deprecating in a positive way — but it's relatable. Everyone can relate to their dad mowing the lawn at 6 AM. We just want to make people laugh without alienating anyone, because (our following) is definitely split down the middle in terms of political views."

When I ask a few followers about the predominant Doing Things aesthetic, and how it's decidedly white, it's clear that the appeal lies in the fact that the memes touch on broadly relatable – or, at least, recognizable – tropes, regardless of the person in the stock photo or the one clicking the "like" button. "It's just super relatable," says Freeman. "A lot of human traits and habits are funny regardless of political beliefs, geography or race, and that's what appeals to me," echoes Trefalt.

Plus, of course, there's the element of escaping from headlines. "I think a lot of people are tired of seeing politically fueled stuff on the internet, especially with the news," Reid adds.

Doing Things Media did, however, deviate from their typically apolitical approach in early 2020 when they accepted money from Mike Bloomberg's presidential campaign to post sponcon about Bloomberg across several of their channels. The nod made a huge splash, and the next day Doing Things was on calls with 15 different media outlets, including the New York Times, Reuters, ABC News, CNBC, CNN, Forbes and Buzzfeed. If you didn't believe in the potential political power of memes before, the interest from major television news networks and publications should obviate it.

The Doing Things team now recognizes the implications of breaking with their politics-free M.O., but they didn't see the Bloomberg sponsorship as taking a stance in any way. "The opportunity came across our plate," Reid explains, "and we were really debating whether to do it or not. Eventually we realized that, at least from the creative perspective, there was a lot of room to poke fun and make people laugh, so we felt like as long as we weren't overtly endorsing him there was a lot of room to do something that hasn't really been done before — especially in the meme space."

Derek adds, "We didn't consider it an endorsement. But if anybody wants to pay us to poke fun at them, we will do that. It wasn't like we were saying outright, 'Go vote for Bloomberg.' It was kind of a name recognition thing, sure, but it wasn't like any of our brands said, 'This is who we're voting for,' or, 'Go vote for him.' It was more just a unique opportunity and we got to make fun of him, so we did it."

The sponsorship was particularly prescient given the new role that social media is playing in politics. Facebook ads, for example, are not regulated like TV ads, which means politicians can basically pay to put up fake news and disinformation. In this climate, meme sponcon can easily be misconstrued as an endorsement even though it is, in fact, technically an ad. When people see a Bloomberg digital banner ad on the New York Times homepage (or on a TV spot on NBC), no one assumes the New York Times is endorsing Bloomberg. But when we see a politician mentioned or sponcon posted on someone's Instagram, including a meme account, it somehow feels murkier — if only because there wasn't really a precedent for it until now. Memes are also different because traditional ads are produced by campaigns in-house and shared in a purchased media time slot or ad space. In the case of a collaborative meme campaign, the creators actually put their own spin and humor into the project. This, in turn, changes the look and feel of the information.

Working with "Meme 2020", a large meme-meets-politics group led by Jerry Media Executive Mick Purzycki (the company and leadership behind @fuckjerry), Doing Things Media was given free reign from the campaign, so they followed the same model they've used for the Tammys, Rands and Nances of the world, and posted about Bloomberg on 10 of their meme accounts, including @NeatDad and @GamersDoingThings.

Most of the sponsored content — like the post on @NeatDad — was just "fake" conversations between the Bloomberg account and the Doing Things account, in which Bloomberg asked, "If I follow you, will you follow back?" Other posts were a little more overt, but followed the same pattern of the candidate shamelessly asking for a shout-out: "Can you post this viral video of me playing solitaire for iPhone," fake Bloomberg asked @GamersDoingThings, "to let young people know I'm the cool candidate?"

If indeed it's true that "there's no such thing as bad press," then the Bloomberg campaign got what they hoped for.

Still, DTM and the rest of the Meme 2020 group who participated in the project were hit with backlash. Fuck Jerry seemed to be the hardest hit, since they were the ones who coordinated the participating meme accounts, including those run by Doing Things Media.

"Bloomberg using FuckJerry to promote is actually on brand bc they both exploit people and take all the money," wrote one Twitter user.

"Imagine being so fundamentally loathsome that you have to pay fuckjerry to make memes about you," said another.

But it's unclear whether the ire directed at the meme campaign was more a function of preexisting anger surrounding @fuckjerry's meme-stealing past, Bloomberg's divisiveness, or both.

"[The Bloomberg collaboration] was also kind of an educational experience for us," Derek shares. "Some accounts took it worse than others. I didn't know a ton about Bloomberg before this, but I was reading the backlash and I guess he's been pretty adamant about being against weed, so we learned that from the community on our @fourtwenty account" (a meme account whose post on May 5 was a picture of a cannabis plant wearing a sombrero with the inscription, "Let's get Cinco de High, yo!").

"We could have looked into him more, but I'm happy we didn't," he concludes. "It was an interesting experience, for sure." But there were, in Reid's words, "about 1 million 13-year-olds calling me a sellout. But that's because they don't know how the world works yet. If you have a meme page, you're gonna place ads — and if you don't, what are you doing?"

Today, Doing Things Media has a diversified business with five distinct revenue streams: Consumer products, brand partnerships, subscription/platform (including passive FB/YT revenue from videos and Patreon, where it's $5 a month to view exclusive content for DTM's show All Gas No Brakes), as well as video licensing and traditional media (including TV and books). Doing Things Media's TV show, "Animals Doing Things" — a spin off of their @AnimalsDoingThings account, which is narrated by Howie Mandel — is now in it's second season on Nat Geo Wild. The company's first book, Doggos Doing Things — based off of their @DoggosDoingThings account — is out now.

According to Reid, Doing Things Media is self-funded (they don't have any VC Capital or private investment) and revenue has doubled every year they've been in existence. In the span of 2 years, they've built a library of 100,000+ viral videos, and they now receive 7,000+ submissions a month, which they use to create native advertisements out of user generated videos. (Learning from past mistakes made by Fuck Jerry, The Fat Jewis, and, more recently, Barstool Sports, Doing Things Media makes it clear upon submission that by doing so, users are waiving their rights to the videos. This way, DTM can avoid legal disputes while keeping copyright trolls at bay.)

This is particularly important given that Doing Things Media's accounts have become increasingly influential. According to a public post on Doing Things Media's LinkedIn page, for example, @MiddleClassFancy once grew a random Instagram account called @JustAConstructionGuy to over 60,000 followers in less than 2 hours with one mention. (This was an account run by someone that the DTM team didn't know. As of publish date, the account has more than 440K followers.)

This kind of influence and built-in audience is naturally appealing to people in power. But if Doing Things Media and other memers in the space start regularly taking money from politicians, what does that change about this influence, if anything?

We don't have a culture of paying actors, musicians or stand-up comedians for political endorsements — at least not yet. But what Bloomberg's paid ad proved — and likely why it sent such a ripple through the Internet — is that memes and meme makers are different. We still live in the Wild West of meme accounts and influencers-as-brands, so most of us don't really know what it means when an account gets paid to do political sponcon. Since it's in their voice and with their own creative spin, should it really be considered an endorsement — along the lines of a campaign paying, say, Katy Perry to endorse a candidate, which campaigns cannot do — or is it more analogous to a banner ad on or a TV ad on NBC News? The type of sponcon or native content that traditional print and digital media produce for brands often feels murky enough but things feel exponentially fuzzier when you add meme accounts and politics into the mix.

When I ask Reid and Derek if they would accept money to do something like the Bloomberg sponcon again — if another political campaign approached them — they give a hesitant, diplomatic answer: "It all depends."

"It would have to be a case by case basis," says Derek. "We would just look at the situation at hand and decide from there. But we have a lot more information going into this now because of the Bloomberg thing," which the two still seem to regard as a kind of humor experiment more than anything else.

Doing Things Media may have 20 brands and over 50 million followers to their accounts, but they are still learning and the process is still evolving. That much is clear. But if you want to build a new kind of comedy empire, this kind of self-aware risk taking — and a lighthearted celebration of TJ Maxx — is a good place to start.