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Cards Against Humanity’s co-founders on the struggle to find humor in the age of Trump

How the company’s guerrilla war against consumerism led to that bizarro Super Bowl potato ad.

A sample set from Card Against Humanity’s special Trump edition.
Maxistentialism/Tumblr

The masterminds behind Cards Against Humanity (CAH) — the blackly comedic, risqué, and politically tinged version of Apples to Apples that’s become a staple at game nights — threw everyone for a loop earlier this week when they bought a 30-second Super Bowl ad. Shown locally in Chicago, home to the game’s founders, the ad featured a potato with the word “advertisement” written on it in black marker. That’s right, a potato.

The ad featured no branding of any kind, and sparked a lot of confusion among viewers, tech types, and CAH fans. Since the ad only aired locally, not everyone was sure reports of it were even real.

But as it turns out, the joke only started with the potato ad. The real laugh came the day after Super Bowl Sunday, when CAH offered up this sober Medium post titled, “Why Our Super Bowl Ad Failed.”

Somberly announcing that the company had gone bankrupt from showing the ad, the post launched into a straight-faced skewering of countless similar posts from failed startup CEOs and handwringing Kickstarter campaign leaders:

We forgot to mention our product. There’s no getting around it. We should have included Cards Against Humanity’s name or logo in the ad. Was this our fault? Absolutely. Do we have regrets? Of course. If we could do it all over again, mentioning the name of our product would probably be our first change. Hindsight is 20/20.

Though the Medium post was clearly satirical, the joke created even more confusion, with a thread on tech business hub Y Combinator questioning whether it was serious or not, and members of the public lamenting that the business — which currently has game packs for sale in retailers across the country — had really gone under.

But the stunt is just the latest prank from the company, which frequently skewers both capitalism and self-importance; previous CAH hits include a now-annual Black Friday tradition of asking people to pay the company money for nothing in return; a 2016 crowdfunding campaign that raised $100,000 in order to dig a giant hole in the middle of nowhere; and a loving, highly specific Craigslist job posting for a very special new CEO.

Cards Against Humanity has never fit into the regular startup model, and it shows. The game was created by eight friends who all went to high school together in a North Chicago suburb; after inventing the concept, they first made their cards available for free online as a downloadable PDF. (You can still download it from the game website today). In 2011 the founders hosted a Kickstarter to print the game, and finally incorporated as a real business a year later in order to handle their customer service needs.

But the CAH founders have always been wary of the game’s for-profit status, which is why they’re willing to invest in stunts like the $100,000 hole and the latest Super Bowl ad — which they essentially created on a whim.

We talked to two of the co-founders, Ben Hantoot and Max Temkin, about how Cards Against Humanity navigates this odd line between laughing at the establishment and being part of it — and how the 2016 election has affected their business plans.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Aja Romano

Thanks for taking the time — I know you’re very busy with bankruptcy proceedings.

Ben Hantoot

Those bankruptcy proceedings are very complicated.

Aja Romano

And there was no way you could have seen it coming.

Ben Hantoot

No, no, we were really blindsided by it. We were expecting to make hundreds of millions of dollars from that ad.

Max Temkin

The good news is that that post was satire and we’re not actually bankrupt. The response to this has been really interesting. I thought it was fairly clear what we were doing — we did the stupid commercial and then we wrote a satirical “how we failed” Medium post, which is practically its own genre that we were making fun of. But almost nobody understands it.

Ben Hantoot

We layered the satire on too thick, too much sarcasm.

Aja Romano

That brings up an interesting question about your “brand identity”: You’re so immersed in internet culture that it can be hard to translate that into the real world. How do you navigate that?

Max Temkin

We generally don’t tend to get very meta in our creative conversations, and just purely from a comedy point of view, being super post-modern and meta, when we do a joke that we’re super happy with, it always starts with something real that’s not a meta-commentary.

Going back to the early days of us working on [Cards Against Humanity], we never anticipated this would be a product people would pay money for. We put the whole game online because we just wanted people to play it and laugh.

Ben Hantoot

We never set out to be a startup and have a business and an office and employees. It started with our 2012 holiday pack, when we had too much customer service load to handle ourselves. The holiday hole — that was our backup idea for years and years for when we didn’t have any ideas left.

Max Temkin

And the Super Bowl ad, I wish we could take credit for it being a brilliant plot that we thought up. This one actually started when a news station emailed us an advertising rate sheet like two weeks before the Super Bowl, and we were like, oh, shit, we can afford this. If we can think of a good joke, we can do this. So we had a lot of emergency brainstorming meetings.

Max Temkin

I think I said something to the effect of, “If we can’t think of anything funnier to do, we’ll just show a video of a potato.”

Ben Hantoot

Just so perfectly dumb.

Max Temkin

The worst idea. And you had the idea to do the “why it failed” post.

Ben Hantoot

All the partners sat down together and worked on that Medium post. It was a lot of fun.

Max Temkin

And that’s like a real, real-world thing, and then we start thinking about: What’s funny with that? What can we do with it? That’s where it starts to get kind of weird and layered and internet-y.

I think there’s an initial commitment to the joke that will make us laugh that is the starting point for a lot of this stuff. So there’s not really a master plan. We just wait for the right opportunity and come up with something funny around it.

Ben Hantoot

We’ve made the best of our luck, doing things we think are funny and effective.

Aja Romano

I think there’s an underlying assumption that people will get the joke, which doesn’t always translate to the audience outside your target demographic.

Max Temkin

It’s so random. People will sometimes have a charitable or a funny interpretation of what you’re doing, but anytime you do anything that is putting yourself out there, or authentic in any way, you’re leaving yourself open to be made fun of or being misunderstood.

Aja Romano

I was recently discussing the role of Medium in our current political climate, and I had a hard time articulating why “the Medium post” had become its own thing. What were you going for apart from the brand parody?

Ben Hantoot

The post-Kickstarter “We’ve failed to produce our thing that you paid us a million dollars to do” Medium piece — I want to stab those people when I read those things. That’s what I was trying to skewer, these Kickstarter post-mortems from these incompetent people.

Max Temkin

Things on Medium are pretty self-important, and not in a self-aware way. The funny things about “Why My Startup Failed” posts on Medium are that this is someone who failed. And they learned so little and their confidence has been shaken so little that they immediately presume to tell everyone else what to do and give prescriptive advice. They don’t even pause. They’re just like, “We failed spectacularly and all our assumptions were wrong, but I have no self-awareness so here’s all my new advice and you should follow this uncritically.”

Ben Hantoot

The magic of Medium is that it has no more integrity than a tweet, but it’s presented in this beautiful way that just befuddles the simple-minded into thinking that it’s news. I’ve been seeing a lot of conspiracy-theory Medium posts coming from the left that are spreading like wildfire right now.

Max Temkin

The whole time during the Obama administration I had such condescension for the people on the right who had these crazy conspiracy theories. But now I wake up in the morning and I go on Twitter and I read eight conspiracy theories on Medium where it’s like, “The coup has already started!”

Ben Hantoot

I know, I swallow them all, I believe I have to pack up my family and move to Japan.

Max Temkin

It’s very tempting to believe, because it feels so good to believe these crazy evil stories about Trump, and some of them are true. And it’s hard — I don’t exactly know how panicked I should be, because everything is dialed up to 11.

I truly don’t know how worried to be right now, because to me, the historical analogy to Hitler is — it’s there if you want it, in a very substantive way. It’s right there. I really can’t tell if we’re in a constitutional crisis, and things are hanging by a thread, or if I’m just consuming a lot of news that’s too panicked and it’s just stuff I disagree with happening. I have a hard time telling.

Aja Romano

Have you guys been rethinking any of your political humor since the election?

Max Temkin

We started working on CAH at the end of the Bush administration. So we were coming out of eight years of the government lying, and it felt like society had gone crazy, we had the war in Iraq, truth didn’t matter, language didn’t matter. The Bush administration used to say things like “everybody else is in a reality-based community, but we’re out here making the decisions,” and it was maddening. I felt like there was a total breakdown of meaning and language and authority.

At that time it was really subversive and shocking to take CAH and twist language around and break language. We were taking the language of authority and officialese and press lingo, and all of these bullshit advertising phrases and inserting really inappropriate things into it. It was really dumb, but it was so subversive.

Then we went through eight years of Obama where our side was very much culturally in power, and things went our way, and I felt like there was a restoration of trust in public space. The whole national dialogue changed, and Cards became less cool and edgy, especially among the left. We weren’t as mad at the establishment. So it lost some of the juice that it had.

It’ll be interesting to see under Trump — it’s already happening. This distrust of polling and reasoning and rationality and language and conversation and dialogue. Maybe there’s a place again for something like Cards to feel more sharp as a satire as people try to figure out how we dig out from this.

To some degree Trump would be a real gift to people who write comedy, but everyone I know who writes comedy professionally is really dismayed about Trump. It’s very hard to make fun of Trump. Because there’s no way to make fun of him where it’s not a part of his brand and the attention isn’t somehow feeding him. What could you possibly posit about Trump that’s unrealistic, that he won’t do? Because he has no shame he’s a uniquely difficult character to satirize.

Aja Romano

And yet in times like these we always hear that satire and subversion are so important.

Max Temkin

If satire was so great, then why is Trump president?

Ben Hantoot

Satire elected Donald Trump. The sort of media that Trump voters consumed could be categorized as satire in a sense.

Max Temkin

He’s the satire candidate. If you’re a Trump supporter, you’re supposed to be in on the joke, you’re not supposed to take what he says literally.

Ben Hantoot

Right, that was such a theme, listen to what he means, not what he says literally.

Aja Romano

Which is interesting to me, because the neo-Nazis who are at the center of the alt-right were very open about using satire and meme culture to obfuscate the white supremacy and racism and fascism behind their agenda.

Max Temkin

But it’s the same tool that we had with CAH, which is that we found a way to take the language and the establishment and the opposition and we were like, “We can make a joke out of you and use your own language against you.” Just like it was funny for CAH to do it, it was powerful for the alt-right to do it.

Aja Romano

Recently Michael Moore said something about forming an army of comedy, because he feels like the only way to defeat Trump is by ridiculing his insecurities. I’m curious about whether that’s a strategy you would work into your games.

Max Temkin

In terms of political organizing, we started a Super PAC during the election so we could be a little more serious about it. And it obviously didn’t work. But I’m very skeptical at the moment of any sort of clever political solution — the idea that there’s any sort of opposition or protest that can be accomplished in a comfortable way. Like, oh, you can do this on Twitter from your phone, or you can do this through comedy, or through selling art or through commerce or music.

Maybe it will have some effect, maybe not. What I see getting results are back-to-basics material engagement with politics, like showing up at a Congress member’s office, calling, going to a protest. I think that’s more valuable than all of our clever liberal comedy right now.

Aja Romano

In terms of your own branding — I know that’s a dirty word — I wonder if this will have an impact on how you do your Black Friday stunts and so forth. Is this a time for stunts?

Ben Hantoot

We don’t know the answer to that yet. That Obama CEO post — that stunt was supposed to exist in a world where Hillary Clinton was president. And it was really weird to still execute that in a world where Trump was president. Something about it felt so light and frivolous and out of the tone of what was happening with the world. It was still funny, but we actually scaled it down from what we were going to do.

Aja Romano

I saw people responding to that ad as though it made them really emotional, in a “this is what could have been” way. I think there’s value in that, too.

Max Temkin

I think there’s some merit in making people laugh. One of the positive effects that I think CAH has in the world is that it gives reason for people to come together in a physical space. It’s an excuse for people to get together in real life and not be on their phones.

I also think there’s a role of critique of capitalism that these stunts play. It’s really hard for people to think about capitalism and to understand the role it plays in their life as a political system.

There’s this idea in critical theory that there’s no heresy in capitalism — there’s nothing you can say that capitalism will not subsume and sell back to you. There’s only a few places where capitalism gets really confused. One of them is priceless objects, like art, for example, because how can something be priceless in capitalism? And the other one is waste, and wasting money.

To me there’s something really provocative and humorous in the way we do our stunts, like our Black Friday stuff and digging the hole and our Super Bowl ad. To me it’s a parody of the dumb shit you can do if you’re rich. That’s a pretty funny position for CAH to take.

Aja Romano

You’re a company that is skewering brand marketing and consumerist economy while also benefiting from consumerist economy. Do you ever feel like you’re becoming the thing you hate?

Max Temkin

Constantly.

Ben Hantoot

All the time.

Max Temkin

We go out for fancy dinners and talk about how bad we feel.

We’re fairly honest with people, our motives of, “Please give us your money,” so I don’t think it’s disingenuous. The whole success of CAH feels very random and absurd to me. Personally, I’m very comfortable spending money on funny gags. We give a ton away to charity and the causes we like. We never felt like it was our money to begin with.