Meme /noun; Internet slang /: a humorous image or text that is copied and shared widely. For example, a snapshot of a man on a motorcycle with a barrel of cheeseballs strapped to the passenger seat, or a ferret wearing a bathrobe, with the caption “It’s called being rich. Look it up, sweetie.” These two items recently appeared on the Instagram accounts FuckJerry and BeigeCardigan, respectively, which are to memes what the “Tonight Show” is to standup comedians. They mine the Internet for comic gems and broadcast them to their seventeen million followers. Together, the two accounts bring in millions of dollars from corporate sponsors like MTV and Burger King, and they’ve spawned an army of associated companies, including an ad agency, a production house, and a card game called What Do You Meme?
The Instagram handles belong to a married couple: Elliot and Jessica Tebele. They are the parents of Colette, who, on a recent Thursday, wriggled in a stroller parked in the dining room of the family’s Tribeca apartment. “We’re waiting for her high chair to come,” Jessica, who is twenty-eight, said. She wore baggy jeans with holes in them and a Marlboro T-shirt.
The front door opened. “What’s up?” Elliot said, coolly. “Hi, Colettey!” he added. Twenty-seven and lanky, he wore a black T-shirt, black jeans, and a black baseball cap. He and Jessica grew up near Coney Island, part of the same Syrian Jewish community, and began dating in 2011. Elliot had dropped out of Hunter College and was working at a cell-phone resale business owned by his older brother, Maurice. “I hated it, obviously,” he said.
“He was miserable,” Jessica agreed. (She was a personal shopper.) “But that’s kind of why FuckJerry existed.”
After work, Elliot would flop down on his couch and upload images to a Tumblr blog that he’d named Fuck Jerry, because he created it while half watching “Seinfeld” reruns. It was a place to collect “things that were cool: architecture, design, art, a lot of sneakers,” he said.
He noticed that Kramer quips got more likes than vintage Nikes. When Instagram launched, he moved Fuck Jerry there. “It was the same hustle, continually posting, curating content,” he said. By 2013, he had enough followers to quit the cell-phone business. The next year, Jessica started BeigeCardigan—the name comes from Urban Dictionary’s term for a bland housewife—“As a joke,” she said. “He was always on his phone.” She swiftly accrued a hundred thousand followers. “That was the beginning of this network effect,” Elliot said.
Now they’re both always on their phones. “There’s no vacation,” Elliot said. Even their babymoon, last October, begat work when they ran into Kim Kardashian and Kanye West at a Utah resort. The Wests invited them to their table to talk online marketing. “I had to go to the bathroom and scream into a towel, I was so excited,” Jessica said.
What about the hospital delivery room, during Colette’s birth? “Elliot was posting away,” Jessica recalled. “I didn’t touch my phone for, like, two months.” Now she takes at least one day off every week. “She doesn’t post on Shabbos,” Elliot said.
“There are days where he’ll be, like, ‘Jessica, you didn’t post today! I’m going to post this now,’ ” Jessica said.
“It’s stressful,” Elliot said. “It’s not like I have a bucket of content to pick from. Some days, I’ll spend hours looking for the next post.”
Jessica plucked Colette from her stroller and carried her to the living room, passing a six-by-five-foot pointillist portrait of Kim Jong Un. The painting is part of a series by Mathieu Malouf titled “Toxic Masculinity Fallout Shelter.” (Other subjects: the Grinch, Donald Trump.) “My cousin is an art consultant, so she tells me what to invest in,” Elliot explained. “But of course people walk in and say, ‘Why the fuck do you have a portrait of Kim Jong Un?’ ”
“I hate it,” Jessica said.
“I love it,” Elliot said. He offered drinks: “Tequila? Water?” He uncorked a bottle of a tequila called JAJA (pronounced “haha”), which he concocted last year with his brother, formerly of the cell-phone business, and a friend.
Jessica placed a hand over her glass. “After I put her down,” she said, jiggling Colette.
Elliot took a swig and unboxed a set of What Do You Meme? In the game, players create their own memes by pairing images with funny captions (a Botticelli goddess holding up her hand with the text “bitch please”). “My vision is to become the New Age Hasbro,” Elliot said. “Games are a great way for people to get off their phones, hang out, laugh.” Another swig. “At this point, I’m so sick of the Internet,” he went on. “It has its moments, but, gosh, I’m a slave to it.”
“Poor Elliot,” Jessica said, laughing.
“It’s given me everything that I have, so I can’t say I hate it. But it’s work.”
Jessica sighed. “I can’t wait till the day that you don’t need the Internet,” she said. She handed Colette off to her husband and went to unbag groceries. ♦