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Cringe King

Tavlova and the rise of the Kiwi meme.

Cringe King

Jun 7, 2023 Society

When I was a student at Onehunga High School, I had a friend named Calley Gibbons. He was a pure showman and we all thought he’d be a star some day. I assumed it’d be as an actor (he was the lead in our school play), or maybe as a boxer. Calley became a bricklayer with his own business — but fame found him anyway. 

Calley’s a huge New Zealand Warriors fan, and attended home games regularly, usually sitting beneath the coaches’ box. He was soon noticed as a regular fixture at games, particularly because he would pop into televised shots of the coaches’ box drinking a shoey. At one game, a security guard with a head of steam ejected Calley, issuing a lifetime ban. The insult to this dedicated Warriors fan led to an online campaign in Calley’s support, in which he was dubbed “Roger Shoey-vasa-Sheck”. The campaign was successful and Calley’s lifetime ban was revoked, and soon he was shoeying once more beneath the coaches’ box. 

The campaign was spearheaded by Tavis Hughes (aka ‘Tavlova’), social media sensation and purveyor of some of the finest memes in Aotearoa. “He was doing a shoey and it was on TV and I was watching a game with some mates and was like, ‘Who the hell is that? What a legend!’,” he says, laughing over a beer at a sports bar in Eden Terrace. “And then he did it again! So I put out on my Insta like, ‘What should we call this guy? He needs a name, he’s at legendary status’.” 

That the whole thing was blown entirely out of proportion is part of the charm for Tav. “He messaged me immediately after he got banned, still with security. I set up this petition and it went bananas. It made international rugby league news. It was on The Matty Johns Show. It got over 10,000 signatures. Apparently he was never banned at all — it was just a security guard drunk on power, but it put respect on his name.”

The fact that it became such a sensation is testament to the pull and influence the Tavlova meme page now has. Chances are, if you’ve been on social media in the last few years and you’re a Kiwi, you’ve probably seen or even shared a Tavlova meme. At first just a Facebook page for Hughes to casually share news about standup shows and short comedy skits, Tavlova now slings memes on Facebook (28K homegrown followers) and Instagram (16.7K) and has a website with associated merchandise. His irreverent humour and absurd recall of the cultural flotsam and jetsam of the millennial Kiwi childhood is second to none; and he’s as capable of making a New Zealand 90s kid roar with laughter as to have them shaking their heads in disbelief. 

Originally from Levin, Hughes moved to Auckland in search of filmmaking stardom, later switching to comedy. The memes grew out of his promising but difficult entry into Auckland’s standup scene. “I did it for half a year, and I did enjoy it, but mentally it’s very taxing. I knew I didn’t want to do it full time,” he says. “I’m a bit more of a storyteller and wanted to make things that last.” 

Ironically, Hughes ended up telling his lasting stories in that most impermanent of locales, the internet. “I was pushing my standup and some little video skits, but in the meantime I made memes to keep people entertained and returning to the page, to try and beat the algorithm,” he says. “I realised that meme-making was sustainable alongside my career… I felt like over time, with frequency, people would grow to love it.” 

He likes his work to bear the usual garish hallmarks of internet culture, then slyly subvert them. “A lot of the stuff I’m doing is aiming for that shock value, where you deceive the person first, then they realise it’s a joke. Like this Kardashian meme I did [which claimed that the Kardashians had been caught by fishery officers smuggling undersized snapper] — nine out of 10 people would see that initially and think it was real. And then realise, ‘Oh it’s fuckin’ Tav winding me up.’ That’s my favourite type of gag — when I can convince someone for a second that it’s real.”

Memes by Tavlova

What sets a Tavlova meme apart from other, similar Aotearoa-based meme pages is a preternatural ability to merge the meme au courant with a New Zealandism that straddles the line between national pride and national cringe. You name it, Tavlova has probably made a meme about it — political figures like Judith Collins, Wayne Brown and Winston Peters; iconic 2000s music acts like Che Fu and Ben Lummis; and ad jingles permanently imprinted into the Kiwi millennial brain (“There is nothing like a Crown, for picking it up and putting it down” or “Gotta get a garage, gotta get a gottage, gotta get a Skyline”). The metallic Totalspan dog, Sensing Murder, Space Man Candy Sticks, Paddy Gower, Le Snaks — the list goes on and on.

Part of the appeal of Tavlova’s memes is their affection for a rose-tinted, long-lost period of youthfulness — the halcyon days of the 90s and 00s. “Ultimately it’s because I’m a fuckin’ 90s kid, and in the 90s New Zealand actually had like… culture. We were watching the same shows, the same ads. There wasn’t YouTube or anything. We all saw the ‘Gotta get a gottage’ ad. We all saw the Totalspan dog. All that stuff became cemented in the lexicon. To me they were the last iconic pop cultural references of Kiwiana… The internet came along and destroyed all that. It all became global, and now we don’t really have that specificity anymore. Like, you’re never gonna get the Deceptikonz doing the fire safety ads again. That was peak, bro.”

Since memes first entered the pop cultural consciousness, it’s been taken for gospel that anonymity is part of the point — that you never can be sure where the meme came from, as though it bubbled up from the fevered, deviant psyche of the internet itself. It’s complex. On the one hand, memes may be considered as democratised social artefacts — by the people, for the people — transcending capitalist concepts of ownership. On the other hand, we exist in a hyper-capitalist reality, and creating memes of good quality can sometimes involve hours of work. They can also generate significant income, whether via commercial brand work or the sale of merch. 

For Tavlova, memes are his art, and being recognised for that art is important. When he first went viral, with a series of memes based on Countdown classified notices, no one knew who Tavlova was, and Tav had very little control over the spread. “Now if that happened, I’d be okay with it, but at the time it felt like I was being robbed of credit.” The solution? The Tavlova watermark. “The casual fans initially pushed back against the watermark,” he says. “And I get that — that’s the way people consume content on the internet. So much of it is throwaway. But if you like it and it’s consistent you would wanna know who made it so you can follow along.”

And follow along they have. The increased attention has led to increased expectations and problems arising from Aotearoa’s increasingly combative political environment. “There was this guy I grew up with and hadn’t spoken to him in years. He was massively anti-vax and sent me a message like, ‘You should use your platform to stop the lies.’ And I was like, ‘Oh hey man, hope you’re well.’ He said, ‘You need to be telling people the truth to stop the government’s bullshit.’ I was like, ‘Man, this is a comedy page.’” 

Former prime minister Jacinda Ardern was a common subject of commenter ire. “When the Brian Tamaki protest shit was going down and I was posting memes about him I had people messaging me like, ‘How come you don’t give the same response to Jacinda?’ Coz like, bro, Brian’s a bad person. And I want to respond to that.” Tavlova says he’s an equal-opportunity roaster of New Zealand personalities, but is conscious that online hate has warped this country’s political discussions. “I didn’t go too hard on Jacinda because I think there was a point where it went from making fun to fuelling hatred. The stuff I’m using against, say, Winston Peters or National MPs isn’t going to be used in the same way.” If it’s a double standard, it’s not one that he’s especially worried about. “I’ve definitely had fans get mad at me. I just delete comments if they get nasty. I’m thick-skinned but also, this ain’t the Herald man, take that shit there. This is my page. If you’re gonna be a dick, I’m gonna kick you out.’

Tav’s favourite meme is not one that blew up astronomically or made the news. It’s a Winston meme, naturally; a mash-up of an image from a popular YouTube channel called ‘lofi hip hop radio — beats to study/relax to’. In place of the cartoon girl studying in her room, Tavlova has inserted Winston Peters. “It’s a personal one. When I was making it… it was just the perfect crossover, it all fell together perfectly. I knew instantly it was my magnum opus — I’ll never make anything better than this.” It’s a feeling that assured Tav he’s in the right place for now. “If I post something and it goes crazy, that’s a great feeling. But I still prefer making something and thinking like, ‘I could print this out and sell this shit’.” 

Making memes is not the be-all and end-all, however. Tav is still keen to pursue filmmaking, but is yet to get anything off the ground. “The good thing about memes is that I can just do it myself,” he says. “Filmmaking is a collaborative process. I need to figure out what I want to do, get people involved and actually action it. Try and fuckin’ do it before I’m 40.” 

Until then, there’s always the Warriors — this year, finally, is their year, right? — and the potential for a shoey with Roger Shoey-vasa-Sheck on the horizon. “We’re going to a game together in June, so hopefully we can get on the big screen. We’ll definitely be popping some shoeys.”

This story was published in Metro N°438 as part of our quite bummery Cultural Collapse special.
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