Less than a week since the nation was gripped by parish council fever, a phrase that feels mortifyingly British to have to write, another Zoom-based viral video has swept the internet. This time the setting is Presidio, Texas and the meeting in question is a court hearing, reportedly for a man who attempted to leave the US with contraband cash. It came to the attention of the world when the presiding judge in the case posted a snippet from the proceedings online, saying “If a child used your computer before you join a virtual hearing, check the Zoom video options to be sure filters are off.”
The video, a perfect 40 seconds, shows three lawyers about to begin proceedings. However, one of these lawyers is not like the others. One of these lawyers, who goes by the apparently real name of Rod Ponton, is a cat.
It’s not the first time that unseasoned users of videocall software have fallen foul of filters. There was also the Italian priest who livestreamed mass while his phone cycled through filters that rendered him as, among other things, a boxer, a wizard and a wolf. God willing, it won’t be the last time either.
Just as with the priest, here the delight comes from the dissonance between the absurdity of the image and the seriousness of the setting. There are few occasions more inherently grave than a court hearing. Lives can hang in the balance. And yet here, in this most sombre of environments, a CGI cat appeared, complete with enormous, verge-of-tears eyes and a little mouth moving plaintively.
So: the call begins, and instead of seeing three lawyers, the participants are presented with two lawyers and a kitten. There is a moment of understandable silence. As the judge suggests to Ponton that he may have a filter on, one of the non-cat lawyers, who goes by the name of “Gibbs”, puts on his glasses and leans forward to confirm that he is indeed Zooming with a cat this morning.
Then, Ponton speaks for the first time. This utterance is a real treat. It’s not a word, but a high, quivering groan, a sound so perfectly guilty and panicked that even if you were unable to see the screen I reckon you could guess that it was the sound of a man unexpectedly presenting in court as a small animal. The eyes of the cat dart madly around as Ponton, unseen, desperately looks for a way to resume human form, an expression on its little face that says nothing so much as, “Help, I am an attorney at law trapped inside the digital body of a kitten.”
Ponton explains that his assistant is trying to help him turn off the filter, and then says something the heroism of which is almost too much to bear: “I’m prepared to go forward with it.” The situation is so serious that he is willing to forgo his dignity and continue proceedings, which could take several hours, even if he must present throughout as a kitten. This is swiftly followed by the fantastic humiliation of Ponton having to announce to the judge, explicitly, that he is “not a cat”.
The judge replies, “I can see that”, but, of course, he can do no such thing. The video conjures the existence of Lawyer Cat, tireless defender of justice and adorable little mister. The existence of Lawyer Cat, of course, implies the existence of an entirely feline justice system that exists just out of sight, under the surface of the world we think we know: you can see the little cat prisons, the cat police, a kitten in a suit with his tie loosened, sitting at a kitchen table late at night surrounded by Chinese takeaway cartons and folders of submissions and heavy tomes about tort law, wiping one paw across his furrowed brow and saying “God damn it” under his breath.
Whenever something goes viral people seem to want to make it mean something. I could analyse this video for deeper lessons it has to impart. I could write about “What Lawyer Cat Tells Us About The Fifteen Micro-Seconds of Fame In The Libidinal Meme Economy Under Lockdown and Also Capitalism”, or “What We Learn from Lawyer Cat About the Imperfect Zoomification of Judicial Proceedings”. I could even get into the lightning speed with which unsavoury allegations about Rod Ponton’s past have emerged, and write about the implications of sudden fame.
I’m not going to. You have my personal guarantee that you will not learn anything while watching the video. What does Lawyer Cat tell us about ourselves? Almost nothing. It’s just very, very funny.
• Imogen West-Knights is a writer and journalist based in London