One fateful day in 2010, Keanu Reeves sat down on a bench in New York to enjoy a sandwich. Well, perhaps enjoy is not the right word, as the actor looked absolutely miserable at the time. A nearby photographer snapped a photo of the star, and thus began the history of the Sad Keanu meme.
While memes can live and die in a single day thanks to the breakneck pace of the internet, few have managed to make as big an impact as the Keanu Reeves meme. Upon first discovery, the joke was quickly picked up by hundreds of thousands of people, up until the DMCA began issuing takedown notices to prominent meme pages. Even compared to past Keanu memes, this one grabbed the attention of the public in a way that was absolutely unprecedented.
The true story behind the Sad Keanu Reeves meme is one for the history books. From the legal backlash, to the outpour of support from fans who believed the star was a wonderful person, don't be surprised if this tale goes on to serve as the inspiration for a future "Best Picture" Oscar nominee.
While several earlier Sad Keanu sightings have been reported on ephemeral message boards such as 4Chan, the first concrete use of the meme occurred on June 3, 2010, when Reddit user rockon4life45 created a thread titled "Keanu. More sadness in the comments."
The thread is helmed by the now instantly recognizable photo of the star, along with the caption "I really enjoy acting. Because when I act, I'm no longer me." The promised additional sadness came in the form of a screenshotted 4Chan list detailing all of Reeves's reasons for being sad (close friend died of drugs, never married, etc.).
The thread instantly took the internet by storm, garnering 281,000 views and rocketing straight to the front page of Reddit.
After experiencing explosive popularity on Reddit, Keanu memes began popping up all over the internet in the summer of 2010. By the second week of June, online news outlets such as Buzzfeed began documenting the phenomenon. Some fans even planned out "Operation: Happy Reeves," which aimed to cheer up the actor, and which attracted over 14,000 supporters to its Facebook event.
On June 10, the Tumblr account "SadKeanu" was launched, creating a space for meme makers across the globe to come together and share their work. The joke reached an apparent critical mass on June 14, when the website SadKeanu.com opened its virtual doors.
Whenever a meme goes viral on the internet, imitators do everything in their power to capitalize on the original's prestige. This was certainly the case for the Sad Keanu meme, as the internet was flooded with copycat images, mere days after the joke's rise to fame.
The first notable spinoff meme was titled "Sad Keanu in a Helmet," and featured Reeves sitting down to enjoy some juice while also wearing a helmet. Another notable derivative was the anachronistic "Happy Keanu" meme, which began circulating the web in October, 2010.
The popularity of the joke caused meme makers to branch out to other celebs, leading to the creation of memes such as "Sad Kanye" and "Sad Jack White" a few years later. While these analogs experienced varying levels of success, none managed to take the world by storm quite like the image of the dispirited Reeves.
On June 17, 2010, the website SadKeanu.com received a DMCA takedown notice, just three days after the blog's conception. Creators were informed that the images hosted on their site violated copyright laws, and therefore had to be removed immediately.
Surprisingly, the takedown did not come from the melancholic actor himself; the notice was actually issued on behalf of Ron Asadorian, a photographer for the publication Splash News, who was responsible for snapping the now infamous lunchtime photo. Even if the image was not being used to make money, it still technically violated fair use laws, so its owners were allowed to put an end to the internet's fun.