Willy Wonka memes

Meme History: Willy Wonka Memes

Willy Wonka is back in the zeitgeist, but let's not forgot his classic meme origins.


Kyle Calise


Posted on Mar 10, 2024   Updated on Mar 10, 2024, 11:38 am CDT

Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory is clearly having a moment in early 2024.  

Described as a “nightmare” that “left children in tears,” but billed as “immersive” and “enchanting,” Willy’s Chocolate Experience gifted the internet some of the most viral and depressing images so far this year

But it’s easy to forget that well before we had sad Oompa Loompas bartending for even sadder families in sketchy warehouses, the original Wonka internet obsession revolved around not the green-haired factory employees, but the man himself

Decades before Paul Atreides or Jack Sparrow ran the chocolate factory, there was the man, the myth, the legend, Gene Wilder. In the 1971 film, Wilder gives an incredibly three-dimensional performance, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. His Wonka is at times deceptivecharmingmanipulativeplayful, and sincere. The injustice is that the internet merely latched onto his condescension.

In the 2000s, the phrase “you must be new here” was a common taunt doled out to mock anyone online making an obvious, redundant, or plain stupid comment—mostly on Reddit4chan, and Tumblr

In Body Image
via know your meme

But in 2011, users began attaching it to this image of Wonka, cartoonifying the nuanced character, and molding him into a symbol of superiority. Memers used Wonka to add flavor, and color to a taunt that otherwise was getting a little stale online.

But as it became more commonplace, use of the image itself replaced the need for the phrase “you must be new here.” Now, the top line of the meme identifies its target, Wilder’s face implies that the meme’s creator knows better than they do, and the bottom line says something snarky and mean.

In the wake of Wilder’s death in August 2016, the meme had a resurgence. A lot of people felt that it was in bad taste to attach such an emblem of negativity to the legacy of an actor who was synonymous with joy and laughter. But a lot of people also thought it was great that Wilder got another moment of glory in the 21st century.

In February 2024, a London-based group called House of Illuminati organized a Willy Wonka-themed event in Glasgow, Scotland. Billing it as an immersive, fantasy experience, for families it was neither immersive, nor their fantasy.

An anonymous attendee posted an image of one of the event’s only two Oompa Loompas, played by actresses Jenny Fogarty and Kristy Patterson to Facebook. 

It quickly circulated all over the internet as a microcosm of how lackluster the event actually was

And Fogarty and Patterson were really open about that—with Fogarty quoted saying “It was shocking. It was embarrassing.”

Needless to say, it was perfect meme-fodder as well. For all of his whimsy and flair, Willy Wonka himself does think he knows better than a lot of people, and in the original story he trusts his methods, opaque as they may be. The vibrancy of Wonka’s wonderland prevents many of the characters from seeing the truth of the situation:

He actually is a slightly condescending person, uninterested in real interaction with other people, living in a weird and somewhat creepy and dark place. And if that doesn’t accurately describe Reddit and 4chan in the 2000s, I’ll eat my chocolate-covered hat.

So, sad and flawed as it may be of us, we can’t help but feel a little superior looking at images from that drab warehouse in Glasgow and think that somehow this is all kind of fitting.

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*First Published: Mar 10, 2024, 6:00 am CDT