Matthew Inman turned a few random doodles on a website into an empire with up to seven million monthly readers. The man behind TheOatmeal.com tells us how he pulled it off.
If Matthew Inman had had a five-year plan, it might have looked something like this: Build website from the ground up in 66 hours. Quit lucrative programming job to become an internet cartoonist. Write two New York Times best-sellers. Get wrapped up in the funniest legal dispute in recent memory. Raise $220,000 for charity. Buy a museum. Take over the world.
Okay, maybe not. We doubt the 30-year-old artist could have predicted his current career path when he was toiling away at a consulting gig a few years ago. But then he created the dating site Mingle2 and posted comics about bad kissers and dinosaur dating advice in an effort to gain some viral traction. The plan worked, and Inman realized he liked drawing cartoons more than he liked working for other people. In 2009, he launched TheOatmeal.com.
Inman draws only when inspiration strikes—on any given day, he might post an infographic on angler fish, a takedown of modern religions, a song about a lecherous dinosaur, or a passionate ode to sriracha sauce. There’s no niche. No schedule. No weekly Reddit chat with his fans. No humoring his haters on Facebook. And yet Inman commands the kind of numbers most bloggers only dream about—40 million page views a month. We caught up with Inman to see how he conquered the internet, one thong-wearing pterodactyl at a time.
You’ve said you’re not a pen-and-paper artist. How did you get into drawing comics?
I thought if I could draw funny comics, people would come to my dating website, and it would be a success. Those comics became more popular than my site, so that spurred me to do just comics for a living.
What made you take the risk?
When I made the switch, I’d say, “I’m not going to build websites anymore, I’m going to make comics!” Everyone would look at me like, “Oh, boy, he’s going to be asking me for money soon.” My mom was getting my old room ready. But I had some confidence because my comics had been viewed by tons of people—like, I did one called How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You. It ended up being viewed by six million people over the course of a summer.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
There are some comics I write that feel like a chore—it’s deliberate, and it takes weeks. But then there are comics where inspiration strikes, and I stay up until three in the morning and get it done, and I put it out the next day, and it’s well-received. That’s the best part of the job, when I get those quickly inspired, didn’t-think-about-it-too-much comics.
Do you get a lot of terrible suggestions from fans?
I’ve written a couple of comics where I find something that irritates me, and I kind of embellish on that. So anyone who’s ever been irritated by anything in the whole world will email me, like, “Yo, you should make a comic about when you’re using your hair dryer and you turn too quickly and you unplug it—that’s so annoying!” And it’s like, No, that’s a stupid fucking idea. But I’ve had some good suggestions. I had one guy a couple of years ago suggest that I write about this parasitic flatworm that lives in cows, and he described its life cycle—how it goes from cow to cow poop, and it’s eaten by snails, and it controls the brains of the snails and makes them go up onto a blade of grass where they’re eaten by a cow again. It’s this mind-controlling, zombie parasite flatworm.
You’ve also written about religion, Apple, and killer cats—is anything off-limits for you?
I stayed away from politics during the last election, because I looked at Facebook every day and I remember being so tired of reading about it. But other than that, I’m pretty much wide-open. I used to not write about religion, because I didn’t want to polarize my readers. But at some point last summer, I decided I just didn’t give a shit anymore. I’d just write comics that proudly profess my atheism. And I lost readers from it, but I don’t care—they were funny comics.
I noticed you have comments disabled on your website.
I used to think it was an integral part of being a writer or artist—that you have to read comments, and you have to react to them, and you have to mold your work around them. But that doesn’t make me a better artist—if anything, it just makes me doubt myself. So I just don’t read any of it, because I can’t help focusing on that one negative one where some guy writes something awful. I’ve found that my comics are becoming more and more of a rhetorical performance. I just want to draw things that I hope are funny and put them on the web, and that’ll be the extent of the communication, to preserve my own sanity more than anything.
If the internet didn’t exist, what do you think you’d be doing?
I’ve actually thought about that. I’m pretty good at arguing, so maybe I would’ve been a lawyer. I’m not inspired by lawyers—I just know how well I argue with my family members.
You’re not bad at arguing lawsuits. In 2012, FunnyJunk.com sued you for defamation after you accused the site of copyright infringement. What was your initial reaction?
It’s funny, because the first thing that came out of me wasn’t the human being—it was the comedian. I read their letter and was like, “This is fucking gold. This is comedy gold.” I remember thinking, I don’t have to write any comics this week—I have something much funnier to write about. It was almost kind of exciting because every day was this ridiculous drama. I would basically wake up and be like, “Okay, let’s eat some popcorn and watch the computer and see what happens!”
You launched the BearLove campaign in response, vowing to crowd-source the $20,000 they demanded, donate it all to charity instead, and send the lawyer a cartoon depiction of his mom fucking a bear. I’m guessing you didn’t expect to raise nearly a quarter-million dollars in the process.
When I first published that, I sat there and waited and watched the page. I kept hitting refresh, and nobody was donating. And I remember my stomach just dropping, like, Oh, God, this is so embarrassing. What I didn’t realize was, it takes a good ten minutes to read that article and the letter from FunnyJunk. So people were actually reading it, and that whole ten minutes I was just dying because I thought nobody was going to donate. When we hit our $20,000 goal in an hour or two, it was just amazing to see people rally. [The campaign ultimately raised more than $220,000, which was donated to the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation. The suit was eventually dropped.]
You also raised $1.7 million to buy Nikola Tesla’s old laboratory on Long Island. What’s the status of that project?
The money we raised was enough to buy it, but not enough to renovate it and build a museum. So next on the list will be to get someone to come in and help us out. You’ve got these dilapidated buildings all over the place, covered in graffiti and asbestos and all sorts of terribleness. I wanted to have a festival on the grounds on July 10 [Tesla’s birthday], but after visiting the grounds and realizing how much work there is to be done, it might have to wait until next year.
It’s easy to be impressed by his achievements in science and engineering, but I’m not a scientist or engineer, so ultimately that stuff doesn’t inspire me. What inspired me about him was that he was this tinkering hacker geek who worked for the greater good, with no financial return—a bit like Steve Wozniak, in a way, rather than Steve Jobs. I ended up writing a comic about him, and it was the most popular thing I’d ever done. It got, like, 400,000 Facebook “Likes” in a single week. And now the Tesla museum is kind of what I do.
What’s been the most surreal moment of your career so far?
I was at the grocery store six months ago, shopping for asparagus, and some guy recognized me. It doesn’t happen very often because I don’t publicize my appearance on the website; I draw myself as this sort of Oatmeal-looking character.
You created a Facebook fan page dedicated to sriracha sauce—what’s your favorite sriracha recipe?
Anything with mayonnaise and sriracha. If you steam vegetables and then mix mayonnaise and sriracha, it’s delicious.
Who makes you laugh?
Louis C.K., Eddie Izzard, The Far Side…. And lately, actor-wise, I really like Jonah Hill.
Do you work better in the morning
or at night?
I’m better at busywork in the morning—things like email, or drawing something complicated. And then at night is when I get creative and write and make jokes.