29 January 2022 |

The greatest meme template ever

By Trung Phan

Meet Juan Joya Borja aka “Spanish Laughing Guy”.

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Today, we’ll talk about the greatest meme template ever (“Spanish Laughing Guy”).

Also:

  • How Kapwing mastered meme content marketing

  • Why McDonald’s is a real estate company

Meet Juan Joya Borja

Many know him as “Spanish Laughing Guy”. In the popular meme format, Borja tells a story in an interview that is captioned in English to tell a completely different — but guaranteed hilarious — tale.

And if you’ve seen the meme, the most memorable takeaway is his signature wheezing laugh which The Guardian says sounds like a “dolphin with a [20-cigarette-a-day] habit”.

The template has taken over finance and tech Twitter in recent months, used to explain: Jack Dorsey leaving Twitter, oil prices, bubbly stock markets, Peloton, the Stripe brothers and more.

Based on how much laughter he has brought the world, let’s get to know the Spanish comedian behind the meme.

Say it with me: Juan Joya Borja, also known by the very appropriate nickname El Risitas (which means “Giggles”).

Sadly, he passed away last year but his laughter lives on and we’ll walk through his story:

  • Who is Juan Joya Borja?

  • How did he go viral?

  • The universal appeal of El Risitas

  • The greatest meme template ever

Who is Juan Joya Borja?

Borja was born in Seville, Spain in 1956.

He had a modest upbringing, living in the less prosperous areas of Seville. A spotty professional life included stints doing construction, working restaurants and selling wares on the street.

Acquaintances blessed Borja with the El Risitas nickname in his teen years and his comedic touch was honed in Sevillian taverns.

The interview that launched Borja to fame took place in 2001 on a leading Spanish variety show called Ratones Coloraos (Red Mice). At the time, Borja was 45-years old and living off of insurance money he received as a victim in an auto accident.

The show was hosted by Spanish journalist and TV presenter Jesús Quintero. While not a comedian in the traditional sense, Borja was a masterful storyteller and his personality made the most mundane stories into content gold.

The interview begins with Quintero needling Borja about his work experience:

Jesus: Could you please tell me how many days you have worked [in your life]?

Risitas: I burned down all my pay sheets.

Jesus: But how many days total? Approximately?

Risitas: 7 years, no more than that.

Jesus: In 45 years, [you worked] 7 years?

Risitas: Yes.

Jesus: With rest days?

Risitas: Of course.

The meme fodder we know today comes from the next part when Quintero asks Risitas about the “hardest job” he ever did:

  • Borja talks about his time working as a kitchen helper for a beachside restaurant. He wasn’t particularly skilled labor, so was tasked with cleaning dishes.

    One night, his job was to clean 20 paella pans (aka paelleras). It was 2am and the pans were very moldy. Already exhausted, Borja tried to shortcut the clean by putting the pans in the ocean and letting saltwater work its magic.

    The next morning, he returned to the restaurant and all the pans were washed away (except for one). His wages were deducted to buy replacement pans.

    (SIDE NOTE: I f**king love paella. Oh, you’re gonna mix rice, chicken, lime, butter, squid, shrimp, saffron, mussels and turmeric in a giant cast iron pan? And the uncooked rice is going to crust onto the pan? Yeah, sign up me fam)

The story itself isn’t LOL funny. But Borja’s mannerisms, toothless grin and dolphin laugh take it to the next level. Over the next decade, Borja would continue to serenade Quintero (and Spain) with his wild stories, becoming a celebrity including a brief film career.

However, his global internet fame wouldn’t take off for more than a decade (see next section).

In 2020, Borja had his leg amputated after dealing with severe diabetes. To help pay for his hospital bills and a motorized wheelchair, a French video site (Jeux Video) raised €14k for El Risitas.

Sadly, he died from related health complications in April 2021.

How did he go viral?

The go-to source for any meme etymology is Know Your Meme. Here is the website’s breakdown of the El Risitas story, which has a rather unlikely origin:

  • 2007: About 6 years after the original segment aired, a clip of the interview was uploaded to Quintero’s Ratones Coloraos YouTube channel

  • March 2014: The Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian Islamist movement created a video of Borja, re-captioned with commentary on Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

  • September 2014: Another version was released by Egyptian students, with “captions mocking the private security used to contain protests at Egyptian universities”.

  • 2015: Redditors began to make versions of the video to mock various tech-related trends like graphics chips (NVIDIA), games (Team Fortress) and Apple products (new MacBook release).

These Reddit examples set the template that continues to this day: Borja re-captioned as a corporate employee or expert who mocks products, customers or related industry topics.

The universal appeal of El Risitas

The El Risitas meme is built on 2 universals: the laugh and the story arc.

The laugh

To better understand the appeal of El Risitas, I asked Spanish-speaking Twitter users if they found the dubbed videos funny.

Those that didn’t like the dubs thought the text and audio overlap was distracting. Those that did like it touched on something we covered earlier: the real magic is in El Risitas’ legendary language-agnostic laugh and body language, regardless of the content.

Why is a hearty laugh so universal?

Laughter seems to be an evolutionarily-ingrained mechanism for social bonding. And — like yawning — it’s often an uncontrollable behaviour, which suggests it is hardwired into us.

Recent neuro-scientific research set out to answer “why is laughter contagious?”. There are a few pieces to the puzzle, per Psychology Today:

  • Laughter releases endorphins leading to “pleasurable and calming effects” that “might signal safety and promote feelings of togetherness.”

  • Laughter engages areas of the brain that “facilitate social reciprocity and emotional resonance, consistent with its established role in promoting affiliation and social cohesion.”

Translation: laughter is a helluva of a drug. And El Risitas’ cackle is one of the most potent doses around.

To wit: he is the most popular emoticon on the video streaming service Twitch, with people using his face to indicate — you guessed it — laughter.

The story arc

While not as important as the laugh, the structure of El Risitas’ story adds to the meme’s appeal.

American author Kurt Vonnegut — wrote legendary books like Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions — can help explain.

However, Vonnegut says that his “prettiest” contribution to writing culture was a Master’s thesis he wrote as an anthropology student at the University of Chicago. He studied thousands of narratives and found that there are only a handful of story shapes where a character’s fortune shifts between ill and good:

Here’s the crazy part: the thesis was REJECTED! Why? Per Mic, Vonnegut’s professor said “it was so simple and looked like too much fun.” FML.

Anyways, Borja’s paelleras story follows the Kafka story shape, in which a character starts in a bad situation and it keeps getting worse.

In 2004, Vonnegut walked through his story shapes during a lecture at Case Western University. Here’s his description of the Kafka shape:

Now there’s a Franz Kafka story [begins line D toward bottom of Good-Ill axis]. A young man is rather unattractive and not very personable. He has disagreeable relatives and has had a lot of jobs with no chance of promotion. He doesn’t get paid enough to take his girl dancing or to go to the beer hall to have a beer with a friend. One morning he wakes up, it’s time to go to work again, and he has turned into a cockroach [draws line downward and then infinity symbol]. It’s a pessimistic story.

The whole video is glorious:

The El Risitas meme is a version of Kafka that you’ll recognize with these beats:

1) El Risitas has a crappy job as kitchen help

2) He puts 20 paella pans in the ocean and they wash away (except for one)

3) The restaurant makes him pay for the pans

The best El Risitas parodies present a situation and make it worse and worse for some party in the story.

Watch them again and you’ll notice it.

The greatest meme template ever

In the annals of video meme templates, there is only one competitor. It is the scene from the 2004 film Downfall, which shows Hitler losing his shit — speaking German — in a Berlin bunker during the last days of WWII.

Like Spanish Laughing Guy”, the Downfall format also follows the Kafka shape and uses English subtitles to parody literally any random event: Facebook IPO, Michael Jackson, Disney buying Marvel, Bitcoin.

While the Downfall parodies are hysterical, the El Risitas meme obviously takes the cake because…

American psychologist William James famously said “we don’t laugh because we are happy, we are happy because we laugh”.

In the case of El Risitas, we are all happy because he giggled.

RIP Juan Joya Borja.

How Kapwing mastered meme marketing

Many of the El Risitas videos on Twitter are made with Kapwing, the meme-making software.

The company is great at content marketing and its logo watermarks are everywhere.

When you Google “make the laughing Spanish guy meme” — or a similar search — the first result is the Kapwing video editor.

As highlighted by Harry Dry’s Marketing Examples, Kapwing’s content search strategy extends to YouTube…and it’s pretty genius:

BONUS: McDonald’s edition

If you’ve made it all the way here and are thinking: “Did Trung ever make an El Risitas meme?”

I got you (and, yes, I used Kapwing).

On a related note: the Not Investment Advice (NIA) podcast did a whole segment on how much earned media McDonald’s is receiving from these “Bitcoin bros going to work at McDonald’s” memes.

And one more McDonald’s thing:

See y’all next week.