An oral history of the Super Troopers enduring Cat Game joke

Published April 20, 2018

PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX SEARCHLIGHT

In 2001, an unknown comedy group released Super Troopers, a movie about a group of Vermont highway patrolmen who fought their boredom by pulling over unsuspecting speeders and messing with them for their own amusement. The premise was as an excuse for the group, who called themselves Broken Lizard, to act out a bunch of the jokey bits they created while trying to launch their comedy careers. One of those bits was known as the Cat Game, a joke in which the basic premise is replacing the word “now” with “meow.”

In the movie, two of the patrolmen, Mac and Foster, played by Steve Lemme and Paul Soter respectively, pull over a driver (played by an unknown Jim Gaffigan), and decide to break the Cat Game record of fitting in 10 meows during a routine traffic stop. The scene was a highlight in a movie stacked to the brim with one-liners, fratty slapstick, and stoner humor.

Super Troopers came and went at the box office, but became an unlikely cult hit when college students discovered the movie on DVD. Broken Lizard, which is made up of Kevin Heffernan, Jay Chandrasekhar, Erik Stolhanske, Soter, and Lemme, went on to make three more movies, before inevitably coming back to the movie that launched their careers. Today, on 4/20, Super Troopers 2 is released, a sequel the group funded themselves on Indiegogo. The movie’s tagline is “The time is meow,” a testament to the Cat Game’s enduring and unexpected place in pop culture. Here, Broken Lizard looks back on how five stoned friends riffing in a motel room created comedy gold.

All five members of Broken Lizard agree on where and when the seeds of the Cat Game joke were planted. It was around 1999, and they were a relatively unknown New York-based comedy group, visiting Los Angeles in the hopes of breaking into Hollywood. They had already come up with the basic premise of Super Troopers, but weren’t sure if it would be a movie or TV show. After that, things get murkier.

KEVIN HEFFERNAN: We were in the Travelodge on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, out there for meetings. Our first movie was out, we had a TV deal, and were trying to get things going. We lived in New York, and we’d go out there and stay five guys in a motel room.

PAUL SOTER: I think we all agree on the time and place. We were all living in New York but trying to get something set up in Los Angeles. It was the quintessential version of five guys in a hotel room stoned, riffing. That was our life for so many years—going on the road, trying to get something set up, or doing live shows, and you’d have all of us crammed into one hotel room.

ERIK STOLHANSKE: It was a long day of pitching, so we were just kind of decompressing at the end of the night.

HEFFERNAN: At this point, we knew we wanted to do a movie about cops pulling people over, and we had sketches of ideas that we hadn’t quite put together. Anyway, we were hanging out late at night, smoking, drinking, and laughing.

SOTER: Although I think Jay has a version where he’s deaf in one ear and he was mishearing the word “meow” for “now,” but that is not accurate.

JAY CHANDRASEKHAR: I have a bad left ear, so I mishear things. I think I misheard someone say “meow” instead of “now,” and then we riffed on that, and it turned into the idea of what would happen if a wizard changed your tongue into a cat’s tongue, and in addition to it being rough like a cat’s tongue, the one thing that changed is that you’d insert “meow” for “now.” We probably riffed on that joke for an hour, and were making so much noise, and it was so late, so we transitioned into a game where you would shush each other, and we wanted to see if we could shush so loud that the people at the front desk would tell us to be quiet.

SOTER: The first riff I can remember from the night was we were trying to see who could shush the loudest, to see if we could get somebody to make a noise complaint. That was a classic, absurdist, dumb-shit stoner moment. My recollection is the talk turned to a wizard or a warlock, or a clown—a man with powers.

STEVE LEMME: That night I told a story about a guy at my school who had a huge nose. His last name was Espinoza, which was bad for him. So this guy went missing from school for a few weeks, and people wondered what happened to him. Then one night, we were all at a bar, and he showed up, and it turned out he had gotten a nose job, and suddenly he was great looking. Girls were all over him and it went to his head, and when he got drunk, he picked a fight with somebody. The guy said, “Let’s step outside.” So he goes outside with the guy, and when he turns his head, the guy’s fist was right there, and he shatters his nose. He had to get a new nose job where they had to remove stuff, so he wound up with a little cat nose. We started riffing on this notion.

SOTER: If a dude got a cat nose, then he can also get a cat tongue, and what would it be like if your tongue became a sandpaper-y, rough tongue?

STOLHANSKE: With Super Troopers, we’d think of funny memories that would make us laugh, and we would write these vignettes, which we would try and string together into a plot.

LEMME: An additional memory I have is that Cirque du Soleil had also put out a video that had a clown who would bring people up from the audience, and so we were talking about this guy with magical powers who would change someone’s tongue into a cat tongue in front of everybody, and they would say “meow” instead of “now.” At some point that evening we said, “Holy shit! what a great game for the Super Troopers to play if they would just sneak this in during a pullover and the person wouldn’t understand what they were saying.” That’s really where it came from.

E: We fell asleep and kind of forgot about it.

CHANDRASEKHAR: Someone wrote on a napkin, which is usually how we recorded our stuff back then: “Meow = Now.” Three or four weeks later, we’re in a writing meeting, thinking, what could the troopers do when they pull someone over? And someone pulls out the napkin and says, “Remember this joke?”

Once the Super Troopers script was finished, the group began shopping it around town, only to find that potential financiers singled out the Cat Game as problematic.

CHANDRASEKHAR: When you read it on the page it was weird, and people couldn’t understand what was going on. We’d be going around to studios trying to raise money, and executives would read the script and say, “It’s pretty good, but what the fuck is this scene?” People kept trying to cut it out of the script.

SOTER: We would send the script around, and it became very emblematic of why people passed on the project. They’d say, “For example, let’s go to page 40. You’ve got this scene on paper and it’s these guys saying meow.” It was was basically Hollywood across the board telling us, “Shit like this doesn’t make sense. It isn’t funny.” For some reason it seemed to really embolden us to say, “Guess what, assholes? that’s exactly what’s going to go in the movie when we eventually get it made.”

STOLHANSKE: We’d send it around to studios, and they’d say, “What’s this? There’s three pages of ‘meow.’ Obviously scripts are double spaced, and there are characters’ names, so when you see it on paper, that short scene was three pages of meows. So we were like, “Well, you kind of have to be there.” That happened a lot. It was hard to get on a paper what we had experienced in a hotel room or a car.

In the scene, the driver who gets pulled over is played by Jim Gaffigan, who at the time was an actor and comedian. Today, he is one of the biggest names in comedy.

CHANDRASEKHAR: Casting Jim Gaffigan is something we call a “fart catcher.” Jim was originally going to play one of the local cops, but we ran out of spaces. He was not a famous stand-up at the time. Thank God he did it, because he became massive.

JIM GAFFIGAN: I had auditioned for a larger part but didn’t get it. Jay and the other guys were nice enough to offer me the “meow” scene. I read it and thought, “Okay, this is strange-funny, but if it doesn’t work they’ll probably cut it from the film.”

LEMME: Everyone wanted to put Jim in the movie except for Heffernan, because at the time he hated Jim, because they would go up against each other in commercial auditions, and Gaffigan would get every part.

SOTER: For every fat, regular guy part, it always came down to those two. Heffernan would say, “Hey guys, I got a callback for this Rolling Rock spot!” And then a week later he’d be like, “They gave it to Gaffigan.”

LEMME: Cut to many years later, and Gaffigan is doing shows down in Boston, and for the sequel flew himself to set on his own private jet, shot for six hours, then flew himself back outta there to go and make his gig that night.

SOTER: The delta between who Gaffigan was in the first movie and who he was in the second movie is vast.

HEFFERNAN: He credits some of his success to that Super Troopers scene, because it puts him in a place where college kids knew who he was.

CHANDRASEKHAR: People were yelling “meow” at him, and he couldn’t believe people had seen the movie.

GAFFIGAN: There was a stretch when it felt like everyone who approached me after a stand up show would do the “meow” thing to me. “Great show, meow. How you doing meow?” Mostly guys in their twenties that were either drunk or stoned or both.

After Super Troopers became a cult hit, the Cat Game emerged as one of the movie’s most popular jokes, with professional athletes like Washington Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez and Atlanta Falcons free safety Thomas DeCoud playing it during interviews, and even U.S. soldiers playing it at checkpoints in Iraq. 

CHANDRASEKHAR: It was waiters who first did it. You would catch it and think, it can’t be. It happens now on planes.

SOTER: I was boarding a plane last year and the gate agent was making the announcements, and said, “We’d like to invite people with children to board right meow, and then we’ll ask Zone 1 to come up. And then I did the thing that I do, which is acknowledge them. And then it’s my turn to board, and then the gate agent flips out when she saw me. She had no idea I was on the plane.

HEFFERNAN: People send us videos of the game all the time. The Iraqi checkpoint one is unbelievable. It doesn’t quite work because the people they’re doing it to don’t speak English, but it’s surreal that the soldiers are doing it.

SOTER: I’ve seen tape of professional athletes do it during interviews. It’s so weird that this is very likely our most lingering cultural contribution, that made sense to nobody at the time other than the five of us.

CHANDRASEKHAR: Athletes make up a huge part of our fanbase. They’re flying around the country, playing movies on the plane or the bus. That’s a real meaty center of our fanbase, not just on the teams, but in the stands. We’re way more famous at Dodger Stadium than at Whole Foods.

HEFFERNAN: There’s this pressure to do the same thing over again, so we thought of it from a different angle.

CHANDRASEKHAR: We came across it yesterday and the day before. It’ll happen today. There are posters with it for sale in college bookstores on posters. It’ll be a picture of a cat with something written underneath. We have nothing to do with that, but I tell my kids, “We wrote that joke.”

SOTER: I feel like the child actor in the sitcom who has a catchphrase, and can’t go out without hearing someone say, “Cowabunga!” As the guy who is the face of that gag in the movie, it is my cross to bear in life.

LEMME: We had no idea that scene would become what it became. We had no idea Super Troopers would become what it became. Our goal at that time was just to get a movie into a theater.