Back in November 2016, just weeks after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, the creators of the irreverent card game Cards Against Humanity (CAH) ‘Ben Hantoot & Max Temkin’ raised just over $100,000 to dig a deep hole to nowhere.
It wasn’t the company’s first stunt, either, or its last.
Back in 2014, for instance, CAH sold 30,000 boxes of dried bull excrement at $6 a pop as a Black Friday “deal.” Most recently, the company aired its first-ever Super Bowl commercial this year: 30 seconds of a stationary potato, on which the word “Advertisement” had been written in marker.
As it turns out, there’s a lot of work that goes into these stunts. The “holiday hole,” for instance, took almost two years of planning, including finding permits, talking to neighbors, hiring contractors, and arranging for a live stream. And it was all just for one very strange, but undeniably hilarious, joke.
For Max Temkin and Ben Hantoot — two of the eight high school friends who co-created and co-own the game equally — it’s a good metaphor for how they run CAH. In comedy, as in business, Temkin says, your audience doesn’t care about the details or the hard work behind the scenes, they just care about the end result.
And CAH happens to be both: With 30 employees and counting from its Chicago-area office, as well as lucrative retail deals with Amazon and Target, it’s gone from Kickstarter sensation to thriving small business.
But it also happens to be one gigantic, ongoing comedy routine, created by people doing hard work behind the scenes to make sure the joke never gets old.
“You don’t want to let people see you sweat,” says Temkin.
According to Temkin, the secret to the Cards Against Humanity business model isn’t at all complicated: “We sell a game for money, and we spend less than we make.” Temkin says that this model has led the company to strong year-over-year growth, despite his constant fears that the “bottom is going to fall out” one of these days.
The other big factor in the success of CAH, says Temkin, is that it’s an equal partnership between the eight cofounders, none of whom make the game their full-time gig.
The cofounders act as checks on each other, Temkin says, keeping the company focused on its very simple business model. For instance, Hantoot says that there were “factions” among the CAH partners who wanted a deal with a retailer like Target long ago — while others were afraid that such a deal would hurt the game’s subversive image.
Now, just about six years after the release of the game, the partners collectively realized that “we were no longer too cool to be in Target,” Hantoot says. And so, Hantoot was given the go-ahead to negotiate the deal, which sees the retailer sell the game from its stores, expanding the game’s availability drastically.
“I had to concede that we did not have the punk rock authenticity left,” Temkin says. “At some point, we became mainstream.”
But by the same token, the ownership structure means that there’s no oversight from investors or a board of directors. It gives the company the latitude to run the business at its own pace, without any pressure. And if they decide that they have the budget to dig a tremendous hole in the earth, they can take that “huge risk,” Temkin says.
“We just do it because it’s funny,” Temkin says.
As the company matures, Temkin says one thing is constant: “The voice of the game has not changed.”
For instance, to celebrate the partnership with Target, CAH made an exclusive pack of cards, only to be sold at the retailer. In true CAH style, the $4 pack came with a gimmick: The promise of an instant $1 rebate that was actually a dollar bill tucked inside the package.
More notably, though, the cards themselves actually “pretty viciously make fun of Target,” Hantoot says. One card says “Gender-neutral toys that make children feel no emotions whatsoever.” Another reads “Extracting the maximum amount of money from naive consumers.”
Under the terms of the deal, Hantoot says, Target could have no editorial input on Cards Against Humanity, whatsoever, in order to preserve that all-important voice.
New customer service agents and other public-facing employees at Cards Against Humanity are put through a training seminar on how to write with the game’s voice. And Hantoot says that they pride themselves on having a culture of radical openness and a flat structure, the better to foster creativity.
“We’re not comedians. We’re just a bunch of friends,” Hantoot says.
And so, to make sure that the game stays relevant, Cards Against Humanity has reinvested some of its profits in hiring professional comedians in a proper writer’s room for the game. They come up with card ideas that “we would never have thought of in a million years,” Temkin says.
A recent example of a potential new game card dreamed up by the writers involves the outrageous description of a cigarette smoking octopus using its many tentacles to perform simultaneous sex acts. But Temkin notes that while it’s important the game be funny and edgy, the game should never be too cruel or mean-spirited towards any one group.
So the Cards Against Humanity writer’s room also serves as kind of an early warning system, with comedians from different backgrounds alerting their colleagues if a joke is on the wrong side of that fine line between offensive and funny. And even then, the card is playtested extensively to make sure there’s no potential for misuse.
This writer’s room concept is the purest expression of Cards Against Humanity’s future, Temkin says. The first CAH expansion set they worked on, the Green Box, came out in November 2016, and Hantoot says it’s “so much better than anything we came up with.”
Going forward, Temkin says, the writer’s room is doing the heavy lifting on making sure that Cards Against Humanity stays current, stays relevant, and most of all, stays funny. The rest, he says, are details.
“That’s the lifeblood of [Cards Against Humanity],” Temkin says.