Pepe the Frog is an anthropomorphic cartoon amphibian with exaggerated features and the sarcastic smirk of someone who knows something you don’t. For years, the popular internet meme circulated on message boards like Tumblr, Reddit and 4chan.
Then the alt-right adopted him and attached him to Donald Trump when he was running for president. The Anti-Defamation League eventually classified Pepe as a hate symbol. It’s one of the odder sidebars to the story of Trump’s political rise and his brand of populist nationalism.
Filmmaker Arthur Jones’ new documentary tells the story of Pepe the Frog and cartoonist Matt Furie’s quest to reclaim his creation from the clutches of racists, trolls, and internet edgelords.
The film is called “Feels Good Man.” It’s out this Friday on demand. KCRW speaks with director Arthur Jones.
KCRW: How did Matt Furie come up with Pepe the Frog?
Arthur Jones: “Matt created Pepe in the mid 2000s. And at the time, he was working at the community thrift store in the San Francisco mission. Matt's job was to sort through all the toys that had been donated. He started drawing the ‘Boy’s Club’ comic book while sorting through all those toys. If you look at the characters that are in ‘Boy’s Club,’ they sort of feel nostalgic like an old discarded toy might. They're reminiscent of the Muppets, reminiscent of “The Neverending Story.” They look like things that are just kind of from the late 80s or early 90s. And he basically made it to entertain his friends.”
He explains the name Pepe actually comes from the word “pee pee.”
“Yes. Matt created this thing when he was in his early to mid 20s. Now when we're catching him in the film, he's 40 and he's trying to figure out how to reconcile this thing that he thought is like long forgotten and his personal history.”
Pepe’s phrase “feels good man” is also the title of your movie. Why?
“That's a very specific catchphrase. In issue two of ‘Boy’s Club,’ there's a one-page comic. And in that comic, Pepe is going to the bathroom. He's peeing standing up, but he's pulled his shorts down all the way around his feet. So they're sitting on the bathroom floor, and one of his roommates walks in on him and interrupts and is like, ‘I'm sorry.’
After Pepe comes out of the bathroom, a roommate makes fun of him for peeing with his pants pulled all the way down around his ankles, and Pepe says, ‘feels good man.’ That became a reaction image for people online probably around 2008/2009. And then people started to change it. It went from ‘feels good man,’ to ‘feels bad man,’ to ‘feels sad man.’ It really just became a very early internet emoji.”
That illustrates how innocent the early version of the internet was, but then it morphed into something completely different. How did Pepe make his way into the darker corners of the internet?
“My personal take on it is maybe a little long winded. But is this the image of the sad frog? It's not the ‘feels good man’ version of Pepe. There's a second image that was taken by the internet where Pepe is just looking sad. And that's taken from a page of Matt's comic. And in that comic, Pepe is eating a pizza flavored bagel, and [it] makes him sad. And it's a very simple thing. But it's weird because it's this moment where Pepe is feeling dissatisfied with the consumer culture that's around him. Initially, he's excited about this pizza bagel. Then he eats and it's like, ‘Oh, this is disgusting. It's filled with additives. It's kind of gross.’
Matt calls it the garbage world in the movie. There's something about Pepe that seems like he is from the consumer culture that we all feel trapped within. There's a part of that culture that does satisfy us. It gives us entertainment and junk food. But there's part of us that also just feels kind of sick to our stomach about it.”
That makes sense because the people who adopted him seem to have given up on our culture as something that can satisfy them. They've retreated into 4chan or their rooms.
“Yeah, it's a mixture of people retreating. But then those same people also feel a real sense of entitlement. They feel like that from a previous generation, they would have had a different set of options. Like an easy job out of high school that wouldn't have been hard to get, [or] get a girl pretty easily because you don't have all these women competing for attention on dating apps. People have a lot more options now.
A lot of that feeling they feel — like culture has been stolen from them — is the exact same feeling that the older generation feels that has been listening to AM radio. They've been hearing from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage that America has been stolen. There was a feeling by this group of people who had been really immersed in the internet. They'd grown up extremely online, then of a sudden, all of these people who are not on the internet were now coming to the internet and using it. And they were very protective about Pepe.
So what they tried to do initially was to make Pepe as extreme as possible so that it wouldn't be co-opted by people from the outside who might want to use it on Facebook or Tumblr. And there's always been this sort of joke within 4chan to nazify things. There are people on 4chan who identify with that sort of fascistic worldview.
But I think initially when it started, it was a joke because they just wanted to make Pepe seem edgy and repulsive to people. But then people started to take that joke seriously.
Then it became propaganda in 2015 and 2016 by people who recognized the popularity of the character and saw the edginess as a great way to obfuscate their intentions. So you had people like Richard Spencer using him. Donald Trump retweeted himself pictured as Pepe with yellow hair standing behind like a podium. So yeah, it's a long twisty journey that only could happen online.”
You do a great job capturing Matt's befuddlement at how his innocent little frog became a worldwide alt-right hate meme. How did he emotionally handle that?
“Initially when Pepe jumped out of the ‘Boy’s Club’ comics and into the internet, it was a pretty innocent meme. Matt was kind of baffled by it. But he kind of was inspired by Jerry Garcia's attitude towards people who recorded and then tape traded Grateful Dead shows. ‘Well, people like Pepe. They're going to use Pepe. They're going to remix Pepe. I have no control over it.’
He assumed that the internet was going to get sick of Pepe the way the internet gets sick of most things. But strangely enough, Pepe has stuck around now for over 10 years. It's outlasted MySpace. It's outlasted Tumblr to a certain extent. It hasn't gone away as a character. It's kind of become the mascot for the internet.”
How did Pepe get attached to Donald Trump?
“When Donald Trump became a candidate, he initially seemed like he was a troll. And they saw a like-minded person. They found him to be funny. They found him to be ridiculous. They found him to be amoral. So that became a really potent symbol as this group of people went from thinking Donald Trump was a joke candidate to actually being a viable chaos sower and presidential candidate. Pepe just became this mascot that just became more and more ingrained in that form of communication. So it jumped off of 4chan. And then it trickled out into places like Twitter, which obviously, Trump has used to get his message out from the very beginning.”
During the campaign, the Pepe alt-right meme became a thing. Even Hillary Clinton addressed it when someone in the audience shouted ‘Pepe’ during one of her speeches. What was going on there?
“The guy that did that was live streaming on Periscope. Basically, he had posted on 4chan asking people what he should yell. He's looking at his phone and seeing different people egging him on. Someone says ‘shout Pepe’ and he does. It was a real moment of satisfaction for trolls. People who are part of trolling raids on 4chan have always felt that mainstream media validation is like a gift to them. That feels like a real moment of celebration.”
This same group of people exult over Donald Trump winning the presidency, and they think that they elected him. How big a role did this group of Pepe people play?
“I mean, that's debatable. I think the thing that these memes did ultimately was really galvanized Trump's base in a very powerful way. And they feel like they're part of the fun.”
They didn’t care about the effects? They just wanted the immediate, visceral feeling of victory of triggering trolling people and owning the liberals?
“I can't speak for everyone's intentions. Especially when you're dealing with a message board where most people are anonymous. But I think owning the libs was like a huge part of it. Trump supporters are a very angry group of people. It's the politics of aggrievement. And Pepe makes that aggrievement feel like fun and light-hearted rather than diabolical or irrational.”
It's so far from Matt's original creation. Did he think it’s time to let it go, or did he want to take Pepe back?
“Matt's a smart guy. He understands that the internet is not something that he can take on its own. And there's a part of him that isn't emotionally invested in needing to control Pepe. When that stuff was happening, Matt was a new father. He was more preoccupied with providing for his family and dealing with a newborn than fighting the alt-right.
… There was a self-published kids’ book that someone had made where they used Pepe as the central figure in this Islamophobic kids’ book. Matt’s made a kids’ book, and he felt that like people making propaganda directed at children was particularly offensive. So that was the moment where he sought to enforce his copyright.”
It is really interesting that this frog has taken on such a huge life and means so much to people. Do you think that is just from a visual standpoint?
“It’s funny, we asked every single person we interviewed that question, and no one really gave us an answer that seemed correct. There's not really a good answer for it.
I think Pepe appeals to people because there's a certain sort of innocence to the character. I think it is nostalgic because it does feel like a discarded toy from the 1980s or something. I think the fact that he rides the line between cute and creepy, that has a kind of unique appeal to people.
Also, as a cartoonist, I have to say there's something really potent about Pepe. People who are not cartoonists don't necessarily think about, ‘this cartoon is well drawn and this cartoon isn't.’ There are certain cartoons — for example Betty Boop — people don't watch Betty Boop cartoons anymore. But the image of Betty Boop is still incredibly popular in clothing and in pop culture.
And I think Pepe is just a really unique, well-drawn character that's easy for people to redraw. It just has a stickiness to it that's kind of hard to describe. And so for whatever reason, it's just kind of cemented into the cultural consciousness. It is a stoned cartoon frog, but it's also a serious way in which we communicate. The stuff that initially seems easily dismissed is actually really negatively affecting our culture and kind of actively tearing us apart. I feel like if it's something we all can think about and understand in a more complete way, that we're all going to be better equipped to deal with it.”
— Written by Erin Senne and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski