Will Braden knows how to say “cat,” “funny cat,” “cat fall,” and “cat fail” in more than 20 different languages. It’s a skill he acquired while plumbing the depths of YouTube to create reels for CatVideoFest, a touring event to celebrate cat videos and raise money for local animal shelters.
“It is a bit nebulous to use ‘cat videos’ as a term,” Braden says. “It’s a bit like defining every movie that takes place in Chicago as the same genre. I mean, yeah, they all have something in common, but they’re not all the same thing.” At the CatVideoFest, Braden highlights more artful and obscure cat videos alongside the traditional funny clips.
It took Braden a while to understand the appeal of cat videos—even the fan base that exploded around his own Henri, le Chat Noir, the webseries, about an existential tuxedo cat, that he created in 2012. But once he saw crowds coming together to enjoy them firsthand at the first Internet Cat Video Festival back in 2012 (Henri, le Chat Noir won the Golden Kitty award), he ended up dedicating his life to running a new iteration of the festival: he took over as president in 2015 and has been working on it full-time ever since. Each year he sorts through tens of thousands of videos—some submitted by fans, some he’s discovered on his own—to provide even the most dedicated fans of cat videos with something they’ve never seen before.
The family-friendly festival, currently in the middle of a 14-city tour, comes to the Music Box Theatre this Sunday, September 9, for two screenings. A portion of ticket sales will go to Harmony House for Cats and Grassroots Animal Rescue. Staff from the shelters will also be at the event to collect donations, sign up volunteers, and show off cats who are up for adoption. In years past a few furry friends looking for homes have made an appearance at the theater—and last year two cats went home with CatVideoFest viewers that same day.
Braden attributes the popularity and profitability of the festival to its charitable aspect. Cat people, he says, are inherently very generous and will come out to any event that supports a worthy cause. But that doesn’t mean the screenings are just for cat people. The festival is designed to be enjoyable for almost everyone, especially in these divisive times.
“One of the real benefits to CatVideoFest is it’s G-rated, it’s politically neutral, it’s politically correct, it doesn’t offend anybody, and yet it still really appeals to a lot of demographics,” Braden says. “There will be crazy cat ladies, and then there will be lots of families and kids and lots of hipsters in ugly cat sweaters watching it all under a layer of irony, [and] that’s fine, too.”
As for those who are too cool to admit that they’ve chuckled while watching footage of a cat falling into a bathtub, the CatVideoFest just might be the place to embrace the joy. “Once you get around hundreds of people who are enjoying something as much as you,” Braden says, “it’s literally impossible to feel embarrassed anymore.”