Juan Joya Borja, a Spanish comedian also known as El Risitas (The Giggles), is once again making waves on social media despite his death in April 2021. Although the truth is, he never really stopped: his uniquely infectious, high-pitched laughter and toothless grin, which caught the public imagination during a 2001 television interview in Spain, has since become a classic meme in many countries, including the United States, where the clip is often associated with tech issues. The latest iteration comes courtesy of X owner Elon Musk, who took the Spanish-language video clip on Tuesday and adapted it to the big tech news story of the day: OpenAI’s decision to fire CEO Sam Altman (who has since been reinstated).
In the original clip, Joya Borja is in fact telling host Jesús Quintero a funny anecdote involving paella pans from back when he was working as a dishwasher at a beach restaurant. But the subtitles make it look like he is discussing the surprise dismissal last Friday at OpenAI, the developer of ChatGPT. “We can’t let AGI [artificial general intelligence] fall into the wrong hands,” reads the subtitle as El Risitas speaks in a serious tone. There is a dramatic pause. “Then Satya appears and raptures the whole fucking company!” he apparently says, cracking up. In reality, the comedian is laughing about the fact that he lost some of the restaurant’s paella pans that he’d left out on the beach overnight, when the tide came up.
The meme has gone around so much that a new version is now circulating in which, instead of listening to the original audio of the Canal Sur interview, an artificial intelligence tool has been used so that Joya Borja reads with his own voice and intonation the subtitles written by Musk.
Joya Borja’s international fame was cemented in 2015, when someone decided to subtitle the famous interview to poke fun at the relaunch of the Spiderman film saga. Shortly thereafter, Joya Borja morphed into an Apple engineer discussing the features of the company’s 2015 laptop: “It doesn’t have USB ports, it has a mobile processor and it costs $1,299!” El Risitas also famously became an Nvidia software engineer.
The different versions of the video have accumulated millions of views on YouTube, turning Joya Borja into an icon on the internet, to the extent that his face is an emoticon on Twitch. Even Marine Le Pen’s National Rally used the image of the Seville native to try to attract the young vote, thus associating him with the political far right.
Given the impact of the latest iteration of the meme, the Spanish broadcaster that owns the rights to the original interview, Canal Sur, on Tuesday reminded Elon Musk about the need to pay rights.
Juan Joya Borja died at the age of 65 in Seville in 2021 after a few months in hospital, where he had been admitted for a leg amputation. Jesús Quintero, the TV host who catapulted him to fame, died last year.
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