The Story Behind the Amazing Boardroom Baboon Memes

Talking with GK and Vikki Hart, who unknowingly created an internet sensation.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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If you're about this Twitter life for real and keep a well-curated timeline with the best Twitter-comedians, then you've undoubtedly been exposed to my personal favorite GIF-meme to hit the TL in ages: Boardroom Baboon. Seemingly out of nowhere (I first noticed @thecultureofme tweet the baboon typing image back in June) Twitter exploded with random, blatantly Getty-watermarked videos of a baboon in various office settings that were relatable to wildly, bemusing, absolutely hilarious degrees. Baboons angrily shoving a laptop; baboons taking a seemingly disturbing phone call; bespectacled baboons reading the newspaper; baboons bored in meetings with superfluous charts; baboons playing with money. The clips were endless, and endlessly applicable to our own real lives (especially the cell phone one). With the clips licensed to Getty and no explanation of where they came from or why they existed, we simply had to find out what the deal was. So we tracked down the clips' listed owners, GK and his wife Vikki Hart, and got on the phone with them to discuss how they inadvertently came up with the most fire, relatable meme of all time. Long live Boardroom Baboon.

Let's start with some background on yourselves and what you do.
GK: First of all, we are married.

Vikki: For years and years.

GK: That’s a team that goes way back. We got into photography together and have our own little studio in San Francisco. We’ve been there for about 30 years. We set [our studio] up in such a way that we can photograph people and animals and still life and do all kinds of different things. It’s evolved through the years and we enjoyed doing the baboons and did that as a project for Getty and films. 

When did this take place? 
: About 2003. 

So when Getty approached you to film these videos what kind of notes did they come with? What did they have in mind?
: Oh, these were our ideas. What we did was we worked with editors, but we have our concept ideas. We do the production, own everything, and they just license it for us. It’s all our stuff and our everything.

GK: The genesis of this really started in the spin-off of some annual reports that we were photographing. We were photographing a lot of annual reports, doing that kind of executive portraiture stuff, and we thought it would be very fun to bring in the baboons to play the roles of the executives and people working in offices. We worked with a group that was here in the Bay Area and they had connections with other people that had baboons—they had a baboon too. And so they brought together the three baboons and we talked about different behaviors we were interested in having them being trained to do. So they worked with the baboons and then they came to the studio and we introduced them to the boardroom set.

Vikki: They said if you give them a piece of paper you can’t get it back. We had a lot of props. The newspaper was a prop. The headset. They’ll just tear it up. It’s gone. You don’t get it back. One of them just picked it up and started eating it. We started laughing and of course they do it again and again and again. 

GK: The money was real money. We made the mistake of having real money and thinking, well, we’ll just take the money from the bank and then we’ll take it back to the bank. That can’t be a big deal.

Vikki: It’s so funny, the baboons looked at all the money like, "So what?" They started tearing it up and eating it. They don’t care. The one with the computer, that was a brand new computer, and he just pounded and pounded on it. When he pushed it the trainer happened to be at edge of the table and he caught it literally two inches from the floor. Everyone was just gasping.

GK: These guys don’t care. 

Vikki: That’s why it’s so fun. They just look pretty. Their eyes are just amazing.

So these videos are the baboons' genuine interactions with technology? Were any of these scenes rehearsed, did they train for it? Or did you let them go free? 
 No. You pretty much can’t train. It’s like they say, "Oh, smile and that’s when the do the teethy smile." But you just let them go. You make parameters and just let them be.

GK: And there’s a hierarchy of respect. They really respect the trainer and listen to the trainer. The interesting thing is if we interjected anything with the trainer, they learned right away that we were asking the trainer to ask them to do things. They didn’t want to hear it from us. They wanted to hear it from the trainer.

Vikki: They are so smart. And within themselves they have their own hierarchy. Because Kazoo was the younger one so Kazoo was definitely the junior here. It was just amazing. We’ve done all kinds of different animals—we did some children books with bears.

GK: With the wild animals you have to have a lot of trainers and a lot of respect.

Vikki: And it can’t be long. Just a couple of takes of each thing. They are bored. Like, the globe goes off the table and it’s gone. It’s kind of like children, so you have all different kinds of things set up. You just have to see what happens.

So what you’re saying is that these baboons are natural thespians then. Because in the clips they have the most amazing reactions I’ve ever seen.
: They’re just being themselves. We had a bunch of people in the room and when you start laughing they get wrapped up and do a little bit more. They perform to the group.

I’m particularly interested in, if you remember, what it was like with the newspaper when the baboon is wearing glasses. That’s my favorite because he does the eye thing. What was it like directing that?
Vikki: Well it was pretty much him.

GK: Then we rigged it. On set and in the studio we have a shop and a way of making things with wires, so we try to rig it and make it work for the animals. Same thing with the glasses. We felt it really worked well for that, but then I don’t think we used the glasses in other shots because it was one more variable. So he puts on the glasses, he takes off the glasses. But if he’s holding the paper he doesn’t pick up the glasses.

Vikki: The chair one, you see the back of the chair and then you turn it. They had practiced that. They had him sitting in the chair and turning around and they would go smile and he would cross his legs. That was all him. They like the chair, but then they also like being on top of the table. When they weren’t on set we had stools and they were sitting on those stools. That was their place. They wanted little areas that was theirs. Once they got in those chairs they didn’t want to move.

How did you come up with the scenarios?
Vikki: The fun part of what we do is we set up and we have some ideas. We can just do that. We were in advertising for years and years and you have to get the exact behavior of the dogs jumping through the hoop or whatever. What we love about working with Getty and Stock licensing everything is that we can do things and special moments happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise. It’s really a win for us.

GK: It keeps it really fresh. Like you were saying with the newspaper.

Vikki: You didn’t know that was going to happen.

GK: That’s why we have quite a few takes, quite a few variations and stories that we got out of the baboon.

What was your overall goal in filming this series? To license it out for whatever company would want to get the image or video?
: One clip a friend sent us was the Georgia lottery and they were throwing the money. Have you ever seen Dinner for Schmucks? You can look at the trailer and there is a scene in it of one eating the paper and the character is watching the TV and he’s like, he’s eating the paper! It’s on TV. He’s eating the paper and it’s funny.

GK: At that point we felt like we accomplished what we wanted to do. That’s really our goal, to make people laugh. It’s not as isolated as you may think it is, it’s universal.

Vikki: People can relate to it.

GK: You photograph something very specific like this, baboons in an office environment, and then people look at it and are like, "I’ve been there, I’ve had that experience." That will play really well. The thing about the animals is people don’t look at it and think, the cultural context of "that was shot in Japan" or "that was shot in Germany." It’s become something that works well in Japan, Germany, and the United States.

So how many clips of the baboons are there in total?
Vikki: When we go to Getty you can look at a lot of them, but I think there are over 50. There was a bunch alone and then there were ones with the three of them. With pie charts, then there’s the chair, the globe, newspaper.

GK: It was an expensive production so we did a lot of variations. When I’m shooting I’m trying to think, within this shot there are three to five seconds that are perfect. Then we have it and move on to the next one. This was film so it was a little difficult to know that we had it. You have to understand that in your brain that you got it because the baboon will only do it a couple of times. Then you can move on and say, bring in the globe and see what happens here.

Vikki: The prep takes weeks and weeks, to have different backgrounds and things. So you have the production so big and the day is just a big day where everything is setup. It’s a big deal.

Had you noticed any of the social media before I sent a couple to you?
: Yes. A friend had sent some things. He’s online all the time. He checks out everything and he was like, "Hey! The baboons!" Now we’ve been getting calls from people and it’s been fun. How do you think it’s been received?

People really love it. Has interest  sparked back up in terms of licensing the photos?
Vikki: We’ll see if somebody wants it for something else. 

GK: It takes time, I suppose, for people to see it and then for people to think that would be perfect for their use. Then for them to contact Getty and edit it into what they are doing, secure the rights, and then we’ll know in six months or something like that.

Vikki: It’s been a great collaboration with Getty because we sit in here and make the stock and it goes all over the world. There’s one of a red-eyed tree frog that’s done really well. It’s two frogs and one is crawling over the other one.

GK: It’s a self-portrait actually. The little one is Vikki—she’s knocking me off the branch.

Do you remember the baboons' names?
Vikki: One was Kazoo, the little one. Then there’s Dagmar (?) and Daphne. We did a lot with Kazoo. There’s a real cute shot and he’s got a tissue with a little blue blanket around him. It’s sort of a get well [thing]. When he was young we started working with him. He’s real familiar with the studio.

GK: He’s really confident.

Vikki: They communicate with each other too. So Kazoo was like, "Yeah I’ve been here, but I know these people. This is a good gig. This is okay."

Do you know where they are now?
Vikki: They are actually with the trainer still. She has a facility out of L.A. They are still going. The thing with a lot of the animals, they live so long. There are some that have lasted and lasted.

GK: [The trainers are] wonderful in terms of keeping the animals and keeping them stimulated. They do a lot of work for the animals with public schools kids. It’s good for the animals. It’s good for the kids. It’s good for the community.

Vikki: They do it with lions, tigers, camels, and different animals.

That’s great. What are you two currently up to?
: We do a lot of animal stuff. We do a lot of portraits and we do all kinds of things. If you look at some of our stills and stuff you see we do both things.

GK: We have focused more and more on the animals—animals in the studio and animals in the environment. Those are things that we enjoy doing.

Vikki: We had another one that was a cat in an environment that was clicking the keyboards. That was in another movie too. We have different animals that can do stuff. We still just do all the same kind of things. 

GK: It’s been fun. I think the great thing about photography is that it changes all the time. You change with it. You find new ways of doing things. It is anthropomorphic because then people relate to it. Sometimes that means the glasses and the paper. Sometimes, people will just look at a baboon and think, "Wow, that looks so human."

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