It’s a pristine summer afternoon in New York City, and I’m watching a woman in white climb into a giant cupcake.
It’s the most exciting thing going down in the Webster Hall press room at BuzzFeed’s Internet Live event, which BuzzFeed is promoting as a variety show that brings the best of the internet to the stage. It’s serving memes, and social media stars, and viral moments that stopped being viral a long time ago, and presenting it all as “talent” with just the taste buds of their tongues in cheek. It’s invite-only, and from the low murmurs I catch wind of, most of the invitees are BuzzFeed employees. The public will get to see an edited version of the event online on August 4. It’s not even streaming anywhere. After tonight, there will really be nothing live about it.
The woman in white stands up, lifting what I now realize is a puffy costume over her head, and is resurrected as a cupcake with Bambi eyes, a goofy grin, and pink frosting on top. Another woman in a skull-clad T-shirt gently guides the cupcake to the press line by the hand like a gentleman escorting a debutante to some kind of perverted ball. They sashay past an inflatable alien by the entrance. He is tonight’s doorman.
I hear someone across the room shout, “It’s the Good Advice Cupcake!” which is apparently a thing on the internet. It gets in front of the BuzzFeed step-and-repeat and starts to dance. A woman screams, “Yas Cupcake! Yaaas!” and it triggers something in all of us. Phones are whipped out and videos are shot. This confection is causing a frenzy. Predictably, though, the room’s attention span is short. They ignore the thing as swiftly as they pounced. But the cupcake doesn’t take it to heart. Minutes later, it’s still gently dancing like no one’s watching—which they aren’t. I make eye contact with it. I’m embarrassed. I have to look away.
That’s when I notice that all other members of the press are wearing yellow wristbands, and I’m not. I wander around the room in search of one, nearing a table arranged like a sacrificial offering with Pringles, Nutter Butters, and Oreos. It stands before the bar, which is stocked with Tito’s and Bacardi.
The staffers are friendly, and soon one of them is handing me my wristband with happy confusion, wondering how I even got in without one. “It’s only slightly concerning,” she laughs, before heading off to take on other small concerns.
The cupcake has now retreated back to the darker corners of the room, and the stage talent is making the press rounds. I meet the guys from the “Damn, Daniel!” videos (you remember 2016), and I feel more like an intruder eavesdropping as two old friends reconnect than a reporter.
“This is our first time we’ve gotten flown out in a pretty long time,” says Josh Holz, the one who shot the videos.
“Yeah, it’s been a while,” says Daniel Lara, the one who starred in them. He just graduated from high school in the spring, and he sounds tired. I ask if they think people will remind them of the videos forever.
“I think people will always remember it,” Lara says, looking to his buddy.
“But like, us?” Holz asks, searching Lara’s eyes. He’s grown his blond surfer hair just past his shoulders, and the baby face everyone saw on Ellen back in the day is scruffy now. He’s unrecognizable, but they’ve stayed on brand by wearing Vans. Lara’s are still white.
Throughout the hour-long press line, I talk to many kind people who I’m not familiar with. A PR person gives me snappy lowdowns on who each person is and what they’re here to promote before bringing them over. A Broadway star. A teen climate activist. An Instagram sensation. Jojo Siwa yells at me from her 5’9″ height about how performing is her destiny. The Minnie Mouse bow in her hair trembles.
I ask Ben Kaufman, BuzzFeed’s CMO, how he cultivated such an eclectic group of people and how he plans to make such a scatterbrained event seem cohesive.
“Just like we do on BuzzFeed,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t make sense.”
Sensical or not, he seems confident that future events like these could actually bring in money. He proposes selling tickets, integrating branded content, and selling the footage as shows to TV networks.
Fifteen minutes before the end of the press line, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, Jenni “Jwoww” Farley, Deena Cortese, and Angelina Pivarnick, the stars of Jersey Shore, walk in with their MTV posse. The noise in the room reaches an uncharted decibel level as they chatter about this being their “moms night out.” I introduce myself to Polizzi, and taking my small hand in hers, she says, “Do you have wine, Claire?”
I look into her eyes and wish I could tell her, “Yes.”
The interviews are done, and I try not to feel special when a press wrangler tells me, “You can head straight up to VIP.” I climb cavernous stairwells up to the balcony. From here, I can see down onto the dance floor, where thirtysomethings are eating turtle- and unicorn-shaped cotton candy. There are mild looks of displeasure on many faces.
The show kicks off at long last, and the crowd reluctantly braces for the unknown. A comedian and a BuzzFeed personality are the hosts, and they try to raise the energy by name-dropping the biggest talent of the night.
“Lil Nas X!”
The crowd cheers.
“The cast of Jersey Shore!”
“Mayor Bill de Blasio!”
Suddenly, Lil Nas X is on stage, and it feels altogether too soon. We’re not ready for it, but already starved for any kind of actual entertainment, we’re happy he’s there. He goes right into “Panini,” his second-most popular hit. The crowd undulates to his sick beats, and it almost feels like a real concert for a moment. But we are fools, lulled into a false sense of security. It is over in exactly one minute and 53 seconds. He stands smiling out at us, and then, in a moment reminiscent of the great Oscars screwup of 2017, a man with a headset hurries onstage and whispers in Lil Nas’s ear. Something dawns on Nas. “We didn’t plan this right,” Nas says into the mic, before turning to make a break for it. He runs.
The one-hit wonder disappears backstage in a flash. Throughout the hall, I can hear echoes of bemused audience members asking, “What?”
But the apparently accidental set is swiftly swept aside as they bring up the climate activist and then a comedian. Stand-up comedy has never been a crowd favorite as an opener to a musical act. It’s even worse when it has to follow one. This brave soul is walking into a no-win situation, completely set up to fail. I can’t hear one word the poor woman is saying over the restless crowd, but I can hear the person behind me say, “This event is trash.”
Thankfully, the women of Jersey Shore soon come to save us all, and the sense of relief is palpable. They are onstage for a clever sandwich-making contest. The challenge: Make a sandwich. But they’re on the clock, and things are getting tense. Ingredients fall off the counter. Peppers fly. Cheese flies. The crowd is loving it.
Time’s up, and they present their creations. JWoww has produced an Italian and lists her ingredients of choice. “No garlic,” she pronounces, and the ladies in the crowd give knowing nods of solidarity. Snooki has also made an Italian. “Extra meat! Extra meat!” she proclaims. The ladies cheer. In a smooth transition to the next segment, a host says, “Let’s fist pump it out!” and about 10 meek hands punch feebly into the air.
Up next is Sam Primack from Dear Evan Hansen, belting out a song from the show as a giant disco ball sends the room spinning in light. It’s actually quite nice, and people have been smiling for a while now. They’re even singing along. Then a fun dancer brings total audience plants on stage for some “choreography lessons,” but he at least gives us a hint of playful interaction.
What better way to follow all that up than with Mayor de Blasio. He and his wife play a couple’s game, and it’s sort of sweet, but mostly, having a politician in the room is harshing an already volatile vibe.
Many minutes and another comedian later, I’m eating a soft pretzel that is without a doubt the most satisfying thing of the night while a person sings a somber ode to the Florida Man meme. I finally feel a desperate need to leave. Then Jojo Siwa pours milk and blue paint over her own head, and the feeling grows roots in the deepest part of my soul.
I take a walk just a few paces along the balcony to try to feel better, and a woman I’ve never met looks at me and says, “That’s so funny! Everybody just left!” She chuckles and goes back to eating her cotton-candy unicorn. Our interaction is over just like that, and so are most people’s nights. Her acute observation is pretty much true: People are filing out of every available exit.
A 46-year-old YouTube comedian comes onstage to introduce the “BuzzFeed Internet Hall of Fame,” and after dropping a few f-bombs and making a pedophile joke that makes people visibly wince, he brings on the Damn Daniel boys, the Disaster girl, and eight-year-old YouTuber Ava Ryan. The segment feels less like a hall of fame and more like an inappropriate time capsule that nobody asked for.
We are then pushed down another memory lane as Soshana Bean and a children’s choir sing “Amazing Grace” to a slideshow of all the viral moments that are no longer with us—an in-memoriam for things that never should have been, like the Tide Pod challenge. Their voices are great, and this segment actually hits the right notes. People are smiling again. Granted, that could just be a side effect of the open bar. As the song builds to a crescendo, a woman stumbles up to her friends next to me, and, with the kind of deep passion that only comes from the stomach, yells, “I got popcorn, bitch!” She’s having a grand old time, and honestly, so am I. I’m letting this wonderful train wreck take me for a ride.
I look down at the crowd remaining on the dance floor, and wranglers are passing out cowboy hats to the people below. “It’s almost over,” I think. “He is coming.” Sure enough, I blink and Lil Nas X is back onstage and performing “Old Town Road” like he never left. Everyone’s singing along. I’m smiling big. The wranglers are chucking those hats into the air now. Confetti explodes.
In this moment, there is nothing in the world that I want more than for them to throw me a cowboy hat too. I am having real, live fun, and just after Nas finishes his one-song set and runs offstage for the second time of the night, I realize I don’t want to leave anymore. As Kaufman said, it doesn’t make sense. But that’s okay by me.
Downstairs, BuzzFeed staffers are line dancing, girls are taking tomorrow’s Instagram photos, and two people in love are slow dancing to Prince. There is a strange joy here. It’s kicked up by those of us still standing, like the confetti that whispers across the floor.