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Then there’s Kiri, the kitten with glaucoma in one eye — protruding and “the size of a Chicken McNugget.” Kiri became one of Leavins’ favorite submissions, and one of the show’s mascots. A viewer designed a button in Kiri’s honor — a cat face with a button eye marked with an “X.”
There’s also the Chihuahua named Roo, missing two front legs, hopping around like a miniature kangaroo. And El Vez, the bunny whose head grew on sideways — a sweet, fluffy fellow who’s expert at making left-hand turns but is challenged by attempts to veer in the other direction. Squiggles is the half-paralyzed guinea pig whose owner strapped him to a tiny cart in order to give him mobility.
Leavins’ imposition of deformity upon “cute” has resulted in the misfit creatures often winning his “Cute-Down” contests, not unlike Elphaba Thropp, the misunderstood green-skinned girl who won the hearts of thousands of teens in the Broadway musical Wicked.
Yet, as Internet sites go, even his average of 400,000 to 500,000 hits per week is a modest accomplishment, and Leavins has been fathoming why his efforts remain commercially marginal.
“I haven’t quite found a portal like mine on the Web. It’s hard to sustain because it’s not about sex, or celebrities,” Leavins explains. “I’m reacting to what the viewers of the site send me.
“It’s not a popular site because it’s female-based,” he believes. “And the teen girls who watch my show are the edgy teen girls who hate other teenagers, so it never makes it into the mainstream. The most successful sites are male-based. And the successful female sites tend to revolve around cosmetics, sharing feelings, raising kids.”
There’s also the possibility that Cute With Chris would fare better if Leavins were more of a “cute” purist. He acknowledges that his traffic doesn’t compare to pet sites that celebrate “cute” without Leavins’ undertow of snarkiness. (See dailypets.co.uk, thepuppychannel.com or cuteoverload.com.)
The co-host of Cute With Chris is a plastic horse named Pervy, who’s about 4 inches tall and moves across the table where Leavins sits broadcasting, via the high-tech device of an almost invisible piano-wire leash, by which Leavins pulls Pervy across the table. With a woman’s voice, Pervy makes all kinds of comments laced in double entendre (“Ride me, I’m a horse,” “Lotion makes one slippery” and “Jugs are for juice”) — another means by which Leavins reveals his personal tedium with the “cute” at the heart of his show, like a Santa who’s spent a few too many winters in a department store.
A more minor challenge to his Web hits may come from petty censorship, revealed in the opening of Episode 154, in which Leavins reads a viewer letter from 14-year-old Madison in Iowa:
“Dear Chris, Last week I was watching your video in the kitchen, and when Pervy said ‘Jugs are for juice,’ my mom made me stop watching and also she flagged the video. Now I can’t watch your show, but why? Because jugs are for juice.” (In his live show, Leavins mentions that being flagged by any self-appointed censor can knock out 90 percent of the potential Web hits, because the flagged posting becomes accessible only through special permission.)
Leavins then answers the e-mail: “Thanks for your letter, Madison. Yes, jugs are for juice, and also, lotion does make one slippery. But every parent has the right to decide what their child can or cannot watch, and you need to respect your mother’s decision. However, the flag button on YouTube is meant to protect people from graphic depictions of sex, violence or hate speech. It’s not meant to protect people from plastic horses. In any case, Madison, I think we’ve all learned something from this experience. We’ve learned that when you say innocent things like “jugs” or “Ride me, I’m a horse,” your mother’s mind goes to some very weird places. [Brief pause.] Hey, mama!”
In a junk shop, well before he conceived of Cute With Chris, Leavins stumbled across an old photograph of a woman with a dog — a boxer. He had no idea who the woman was, and he’d never before seen the dog. Since it was a photo from years earlier, he presumed that both were now dead. Why else would such a photo be for sale in a junk shop? He was struck by how such a photo would hold value only for the woman, or her family, or one of her very dear friends. He reflected on the many photographs he had of his own dog, a (now-deceased) Shetland Sheepdog named Luke, and what would happen to the images after he dies. Who would possibly be interested in them? Who is really interested in anybody’s else’s photos of their pets? His own pet photos would surely end up in the trash, like the detritus of all our lives, and deaths.