Meet The Philosopher-King of Cat Videos

Inside The World of Henri, Le Chat Noir

Henri is in a world-weary mood. He stares bleakly into the camera before muttering (in French) something depressed and existential about the meaninglessness of life. Then he checks his food dish. Tuna again. Merde alors. Sigh.

Henri Le Chat Noir is the philosopher king of cat videos – a black and white cat who speaks fractured French over moody French music in a series of wildly popular YouTube shorts. Imagine Jean Paul Sartre as a disillusioned, angst-ridden cat, filmed by Truffaut — or in this case, by Seattle filmmaker Will Braden.

Braden was a film student when he made his first Henri short for a school assignment. Then In 2012, when cat videos morphed into a super-meme, curators at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis staged an experimental Internet Cat Video Festival on the lawn outside the museum. Ten thousand people showed up, including Braden. He and Henri won the Festival’s first Golden Kitty (People’s Choice) Award. Today, Braden not only manages Henri’s YouTube channel and book sales, he also curates the annual Cat Video Festival, which travels internationally.

What’s it like to be the creator of the world’s first feline philosopher and celebricat? Charles Monroe-Kane posed a few questions:

In the world of cat videos, would you say that you’re kind of a rock star?

I would say Henri is. I’m more like the manager of a rock star.

But you go to cat events. Are you treated like a celebrity?  Do people ask for your autograph?

Well, Henri has a book out, but he doesn’t travel. I’ve been at events honoring Henri, but no one has any idea who I am. People sometimes get a photo with me and I always wonder why. It’s sort of like, “oh, there’s Denzel Washington’s dentist, let me get a photo with him.”  I’m happy to be in the background and let the cat be famous.

This isn’t even your cat, right?

Well, it feels like he’s my cat, but he actually lives with a close family member, just a few minutes away. I was there when we got him as a kitten, but I live in a tiny condo and he wouldn’t have enough room to roam around.

Yeah, he seems like an “I’m on my own” kind of cat.

That’s part of what makes the character work. He has this really imperious stare, and once you do the French and the music and the black and white, you buy him as the character. Whereas if you saw the raw footage, it’s just a cat looking off into the distance. As they do.

Do you do this for a living?  Does making cat videos pay the rent?

Yeah, it actually does. Before all this started, I was doing wedding videos and local commercials, as a camera for hire. And I just gradually did less and less of that work. There wasn’t one big dramatic moment when I went in to my cubicle drone job and slapped my resignation down on the table.

“Take this job and shove it, I’m a cat video man now”.

Or, “I’ve got cat money now, I’m out!”   No, it wasn’t like that. But yes, it’s a living.

Do your friends ever tease you about making cat videos for a living? 

They were dubious at first. What’s harder is when I meet people I don’t know. If I say I’m an author and a filmmaker, they’re like “oh, have I seen anything you’ve done?” And I have to go, “well let me ask you this:  do you watch cats on the internet?”   I actually have a business card that lists all my information on one side and on other it just says "I make cat videos” and nothing else.

You curate the Walker Art Center’s annual Internet Cat Video Festival, so you must watch thousands of cat videos. How about some advice –  what makes a good cat video?

There are some guidelines I’ve found that help. The biggest one is, it can’t be too long. If you have a 15- minute opus with a long Martin Scorsese tracking shot of your cat, no matter how good it is, it’s not going to make the cut. Another thing is, try not to force your cat into something just because you think you have a great idea. I see a lot of forced, this cat doesn’t want to be doing this, kind of stuff. And the last thing – and this is advice for anyone who wants to go viral –  try to keep the biggest reveal or the biggest laugh, the slip and fall, right at the end of the video. Because that’s when people think “I’ve got to send this to so-and-so, they’ll love this.”

What’s it like at these Cat Video Festivals?

13,000 people showed up for the first one. They were spilling out into the streets and blocking traffic – it was insane. The atmosphere is very fun and joyous. I mean, when was the last time you saw a movie or went to a concert and thought, this will appeal to my 6-year-old daughter and my 60-year-old father?   We really encourage people to enjoy it, and not in an ironic, detached kind of way. It’s hard to stand next to 10,000 other people all laughing and enjoying the same thing and feel embarrassed by it.

How do you feel about the fact that your career success is all thanks to a cat?

There have been times when I’ve had the opportunity to do something really cool, like a couple of big shows in L.A., but I turned them down because I would have had to travel with Henri. He would just hate it. I’d be sitting on the plane and he’d be freaking out. I have to remind myself sometimes that  he’s not enjoying being a cat celebrity. He doesn’t know what a cat celebrity is. Plus, what if he got up on stage and whizzed on the carpet in front of 10 million people?  It would ruin the mystique of the character. So I have to remind myself that he’s just a cat.

Henri does, however, have a Twitter feed.

It’s a little challenging, because Twitter is very bright and social and “we’re all in this together,” and Henri is the opposite of all that. For example, he posted on Valentine’s Day, “Today in the 13th century, St. Valentine was beaten and beheaded, dying a virgin. Happy Valentine’s Day.”  And he got 700 retweets!    

Is there anything Henri would like to add?

Henri’s message is probably, “Rise up against your imperialist dictators. Free your minds.”  He’s definitely for cat’s rights over human rights.