The woodchuck is crying.
So is the butterfly, and the frog too. Even the lowly earthworm is crying: big, gloppy, double-barreled tears spilling from misshapen, crudely drawn animals. You can wear these animals for a small fee; you may even see them on TV in the future. They are part of a joke gone semiserious, a "lifestyle product concept" called This Is How I Feel.
The lifestyle product concept began with a contest and a half-gallon of whiskey. Last year, Ian Christe and his friends were engaged in a competition to see who could draw the saddest koala. (Just nod; do not ask questions.) The resulting cartoons inspired Christe, a Brooklyn writer currently working on "the first history of heavy metal" for HarperCollins, to create a series of variations on the depressive characters and silk-screen them for friends onto just about anything made of cloth. He then wrote a product manifesto and paid friend Phil Wilhelm in Maker's Mark bourbon and This Is How I Feel T-shirts to create a Web site.
"Uniting the blockbuster appeal of the 1970s' Have a Nice Day yellow smiley, the Sanrio Hello Kitty face, and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, this internationally-appealing character puts the irresistible cuteness back into feeling glum," the site proclaims over a pink backdrop of cascading tears.
Hilarious? Certainly. Good gag wear or forwarding material for cynical friends? Yessir. The start of a Disney children's show? Mmmh -- what?
Christe's private joke first appeared in the skate zine Warp last year. The biggest thing to come out of that was a call from a San Bernardino, Calif., manufacturer who was interested in producing This Is How I Feel socks. "My editors at the magazine convinced [the manufacturer] it was a joke and he was on the wrong end of it," Christe says.
Still, this did not hinder demand for T-shirts in Christe's circle. He figures he has sold a modest 50, but naturally feels that "every one is a lot." There was even a buyer from Brazil "who was really sold on the idea of a This Is How I Feel Peli."
Christe noticed that kids were in on the joke too (which end, he doesn't say). "Kids seem to like the poochy-sad face innately," he notes. He offers this testimonial: "I know a 10-year-old kid in New York called Max. I made him a TIHIF Alaskan hunting vest and he wore it to Woodstock. He took pictures of himself [one of which appears on the site] playing around in the vest in front of Alanis Morissette. He wanted to become my first franchise, to license it from me and sell it to kids at school. I think probably a dozen kids have them."
See where Disney comes in? Christe and his screenwriting partner, Greg Fiering (creator of the comic "Migraine Boy"), were talking to the animation giant about some other projects when an exec asked to see a TV treatment for This Is How I Feel. The resulting proposal offered the True Feelers (representing sad, mad, glad, pitying and jealous -- from Feeladelphia, of course), emotional spirits being chased by evil tycoon Assiduous P. Cook of Glomcorp. Cook wants to capture the Feelers so that he can sell things like Happy Bars! and new, 30 percent angrier Humvees. "The plots revolve around the corporation's various plans to misuse the powers of love and so on for the nefarious purposes of achieving 100-percent market share -- i.e., taking over the world," Christe explains. The Feelers find allies in four kids who help them hide within everyday objects.
Disney is still considering the proposal. "If there's a message," Christe says of the show, "it's to cultivate your humanity, rather than memorizing how big Pikachu's breasts are and that kind of busywork." In other words, if happy little bluebirds cry, why, oh why, can't kids?
If the recent increase in Ritalin and Prozac prescriptions for young people is any indication, there are plenty of adults who might argue that expressing themselves more freely is the last thing we should be encouraging in today's kids. But Christe has a point about the prevailing element in programming for young people: This Is How I Feel sprang from "frustration with how the only emotion you see on MTV or in the youth market is hyperenthusiasm or sarcasm. This was a way of saying, admit defeat, and try and market this. Try and market depression."
Ironically, what could make TIHIF a success with kids is the exact opposite of what makes adults think it's funny. The site and its ugly T-shirts (among the offerings: yellow with brown ink, brown on gray) make a serious issue surreal, cartoonish -- a joke. If you're feeling low, somehow the idea that a really screwed-up beaver is out there crying its little beaver eyes out seems comforting. With hardly any promotion to power it, the TIHIF site garners 10,000 hits a month.
Whether or not TIHIF becomes the next Pokimon, Christe plans to keep satisfying the modest adult demand for it. He even has a friend who is working on a rubber prototype of RealTears, the adhesive drops Christe would have TIHIF aficionados stick on their faces.
Will we be able to buy RealTears anytime soon? "Most moldable rubbers are highly toxic, especially the clear stuff, so I think selling it would be kind of tricky," he answers cautiously. In the meantime, the site will continue to offer gems such as the Metallic Red Print on Soft Pumpkin Orange Tee, adult large. And don't despair, kids, there may be more on the way: "I keep thinking I should take Phil some more Maker's Mark and add a few [product] pages," Christe says.