Even if the video clips are somewhat disquieting, they're irresistibly funny. A guy in a yellow T-shirt cries loudly over a newspaper, his plaintive sobs stifled only when he fills his mouth with whipped cream from an aerosol can. A woman seated at a kitchen table throws her head back and wails like a wounded animal, then pops a Tater Tot into her mouth. A lanky fellow, his face contorted in pain, sobs as half-chewed potato chips fall from his mouth.
These ridiculous vignettes, along with 38 others, appear on Crying While Eating (cryingwhileeating.com), a website that has prompted 15 million hits since late May to become one of the Internet's most popular. It spent about two weeks as No. 1 on Google for a search of the word "crying," according to the site's creators.
The site's success, no doubt, lies in its absurdity. The episodes, all faked, are each labeled with an incident that supposedly inspired the emotion. "Afshin" weeps over his chocolate-covered eclair because there are "not enough positive news stories." "Demian" groans with a mouthful of mustard sandwich because he "feels like a fraud." "Nate" and "Sean" cry over coriander lobster bisque and beer because "they haven't lived up to each other's expectations." "Aaron," the man with the mouthful of potato chips, sobs because "his girlfriend is making him go to therapy."
Yet the site's appeal is rooted in something deeper than the absurd; the effect of the clips is actually visceral. The scenes evoke the kind of unself-conscious, shame-free expressions of psychic pain that few have indulged since childhood. They capture people at their most vulnerable, taking childlike refuge in another primal experience: eating. Yet the food fails to comfort, creating a wacky incongruity. Put simply, it's at once funny and disturbing to watch someone sob uncontrollably, break for a mouthful of eclair and resume sobbing.
"It's a very private thing," says site co-creator Casimir Nozkowski, a Brooklyn-based writer-producer with the AMC cable network. "Sobbing. Sobbing. Letting it all out. And then, 'Oh, this beer is really tasty!' "
Despite the site's homegrown appeal, its design and concept were actually quite strategically thought out. Nozkowski, 28, and his high school chum Dan Engber, 29, a freelance writer with the online magazine Slate, created the site to compete in a contest sponsored by the New York-based Eyebeam Art and Technology Center. The goal of the Contagious Media Showdown was to create the Internet's most infectious website.
Nozkowski and Engber attended the center's how-to "Mass Hoax" seminar, learning the essential ingredients for perpetrating a Web hoax with maximum appeal -- humor, entertainment and slight discomfort. Then there's "dirt style," the aesthetic that Jonah Peretti, director of research and development at Eyebeam, says gives a site that do-it-yourself look.
Nozkowski and Engber searched the Web for ideas, stumbling upon oldmencrying.com, which features real clips of just that. They also found references to an early 20th century crying-while-eating vaudeville routine by actor Bert Wheeler, who later starred in films of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. But Nozkowski says their idea was most influenced by a childhood game.
"A friend of mine and I, when we were young, had pretended to cry while we ate as a joke," says Nozkowski. "It was funny to eat ice cream and sob. You have to use a certain amount of manual dexterity, but your body's totally out of control."
Within three days, they had filmed 12 friends, some performers, some convincing crier-while-eaters, and launched the site on May 19.
Bloggers picked up the link almost immediately, and it quickly made its way around the Internet. Soon, dozens of crying-while-eating video clips came flooding in from as far away as Australia. Nozkowski and Engber have posted about 26 of them with about 100 more to consider.
Days later, VH1 aired clips from Crying While Eating. Then Kevin and Bean of KROQ (106.7-FM) featured the site on their morning show. Britain's Guardian ran an item about the Contagious Media Showdown, with a mention of Crying While Eating; mentions followed in the Boston Globe, the Toronto Star and the Ottawa Citizen. Last week, "CBS Evening News" aired clips, and Entertainment Weekly included the site in its weekly "Must List," which was posted on CNN.com.
Marketing executives started calling, hoping to persuade Nozkowski and Engber to sell products on the site. A gallery expressed interest in showing clips.
Visitors to the site have voted three amateurs as their favorites: "Ryan," the whipped cream-eater, crying because he "missed a great opportunity," followed by "Spencer," who's eating ribs and grieving because "his conjoined twin didn't make it," and "Aaron," the overwrought fellow munching potato chips.
As for the Contagious Media contest, Nozkowski and Engber won prizes totaling $2,000 -- the Alexa Prize, named for the Internet's version of Nielsen ratings, for most popular site, and the Creative Commons Prize, awarded for clips made available to the public for "re-mix."
The $2,000 grand prize, however, went to Forget-Me-Not Panties (forgetmenotpanties.com), a hoax site offering GPS-enabled panties to track wayward girlfriends and wives.
"We're just sort of excited to have won," says Engber. "I had no idea it would be this popular."