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A Brief History of ‘Arthur’ Meme-dom

How an animated aardvark became non-kid-friendly internet shorthand

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Last week, WGBH, a Boston-based public broadcast network that airs shows like America’s Ballroom Challenge and High School Quiz Show, expressed disappointment in the internet.

“We certainly are lucky to have a fan base that is so engaged with Arthur, especially those millennials who grew up with him,’’ station spokesperson Ellen London told the Associated Press. “Our hope is that Arthur and his friends will be depicted in a way that is respectful and appropriate for all audiences, including young Arthur fans and their families.”

In as subtle a way possible, London was referring to the recent uptick of memes on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr that pairs screen grabs from the long-running animated children’s series with captions that depict rather, ahem, adult scenarios that include, but are not limited to: smoking weed, casual (and sometimes incestual) sex, Harambe’s unjust death, paternity tests, waiting for Frank Ocean’s next album, being abandoned by your father, and many more topics that would make good premises for Maury Show episodes. Suffice it to say that these are all scenarios in which you would not expect to find an 8-year-old aardvark and his fellow anthropomorphic friends. In sum, WGBH would prefer that older Arthur fans not corrupt the young ones, thankyouverymuch.

For anyone who has contributed to this canon — which recently reached a fever pitch with an image of Arthur’s clenched fist — WGBH’s scolding is a satisfying sign that the Arthur meme-ment has grown big enough to fluster The Olds. But the fact that a public TV station had to emerge from layers of Antiques Roadshow dust to tsk-tsk the millennials for their tomfoolery tells us a lot about how the internet has learned to communicate with itself. Alongside shows like Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and SpongeBob SquarePants, Arthur has the accessibility, nostalgia, and sheer material volume to make it a perfect model for longstanding meme-dom, a type of image-based online language that’s vast and versatile enough to frame conversations about everything from misandry to grime music. Or, as one Reddit user explaining the phenomenon to another simply put it, Arthur memes are just super “easy to recognize and produce.”

Arthur earned his pop culture ubiquity like any respectable cartoon animal: via years of reruns on channels that pretty much any family with a television got for free. Based on a book series by illustrator Marc Brown, the show revolves around Arthur, his young and sassy sister D.W., and a wide cast of other woodland characters who represent different races and social classes and often deal with legitimate problems, like bed-wetting, dyslexia, and diabetes. The show began airing on local public television in 1996 and eventually earned a consistent spot on PBS — becoming as important a mainstay in kids’ after-school routines as PB&J. And because the late ’90s also happened to be the dawn of consumer-friendly internet, the show’s fan base consisted of the same kids who were then learning to be proficient online users. Fast-forward to today: Those dedicated Arthur watchers are now 18-to-30-year-olds who are still online, and, in some ways, looking to repurpose childhood memories and relate them to their current life experiences.

At least that’s the case with Jacob Spiwak and Anthony Hanahan, two 20-year-olds who decided to start a Facebook page dedicated to Arthur memes in late 2012, while they were sophomores at an Illinois high school. The fodder in its feed is exactly what you’d expect from college-age students: scenarios that allude to Arthur and his crew as major stoners, or the deceptive quality of a girl’s Instagram photos. Though their page just recently doubled in likes over the past month, the pair said the reason they chose Arthur as a medium is because they just know the show so well.

“The show started in 1996,” Spiwak said. “I was born in 1996. I literally grew up with it. Over time I’ve seen every episode the show had probably multiple times. For me, I don’t really think it was anything Arthur did specifically. It was kind of the knowledge I had of the show itself.”

Netflix’s original content catalog is more proof that if a generation grows up with a show, it will likely be nostalgic enough to rally behind (or even Kickstart) a reboot of it. But Arthur has been on television for so long that it never got a chance to have a comeback. Twenty years after its premiere and 225 episodes later, a show about a bespectacled aardvark is now the longest-running animated children’s series in television history. Not only does its longevity cast a wide net in terms of the number of people who might immediately recognize an Arthur reference, but also for meme makers it guarantees a Library of Congress–size cache of screen grabs to caption. Finding old episodes isn’t very difficult, either. “I’ve downloaded seasons 1 to 17; you can easily find torrents lying around,” writes the owner of Arthur Out of Context, a popular Arthur meme repository. “If you don’t want to download them, though, there are some episodes on Netflix and plenty on YouTube.”

“People oftentimes forget that Arthur has been around for 20 years now,” Hanahan added. “It had 19 seasons on TV now and they’re still making more to this day. So there’s so much material out there that you can use to make jokes and memes with.”

It’s for this reason that the origins of Arthur scenes as internet shorthand are much more scattered than, say, the easily traceable conspiracy theory that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer. The Arthur proliferation started with the Arthur Comic Creator, an interactive tool launched by PBS in 2010 that allowed users to create their own story lines using characters from the show — the closest thing fans had to a quote-and-scene generator like The Simpsons’ archive website Frinkiac. (It was, quite obviously, a bad tool to give the internet.) Tumblrs like a-a-r-d-v-a-r-k began as early as 2011, just before Spiwak and Hanahan launched their Facebook page. In 2013, 4chan users began using screen shots of Mr. Morris, Arthur’s elementary school janitor, alongside the caption “He Does It For Free” to mock moderators on the online forum. After that, the meme began splintering to various subcommunities. It made a star out of the boisterous D.W. among feminist communities and caught on with Black Twitter, with the help of a Chance the Rapper remake of the show’s theme song and Arthur’s clenched fist.

Spiwak and Hanahan say the meme is now so widespread that it was even how they each separately found out that North Korean leaders had accused the United States of declaring war against their country.

“It was the one where Arthur clenches his fist,” Spiwak said. “That’s from the episode where he punches D.W. Somehow that one still shot became the shot that was synonymous with North Korea being angry at us.”

You can bet that it’ll become synonymous with much, much more.