If you come across someone expressing outrage about something that’s old hat, there’s a meme that might be perfect for you—the “first time” meme. You know the one: The picture that looks like it’s from an old-timey Western, with a rugged cowboy cool as can be, standing at a gallows with a noose around his neck, quipping via caption, “First time?”
Here’s how the “first time” meme started.
The ‘First Time’ meme’s origin story
It all began with a movie called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a 2018 offering from the Coen Brothers described by IMDb as “six tales of life and violence in the Old West, following a singing gunslinger, a bank robber, a traveling impresario, an elderly prospector, a wagon train, and a perverse pair of bounty hunters.”
The source of the “first time” meme comes around the 1:40 mark of the official trailer, showing a scene of four men at a gallows with a crowd of townspeople gathered. One appears to be verklempt over what he believes to be his final moments; the cowboy character played by James Franco looks over at him slyly, cracking, “First time?”
The video went up on Sept. 12, 2018, and five years later, was moving toward the six million view mark.
According to KnowYourMeme, a Twitter user darkly used the “first time” meme about two months after the trailer went up to address school shootings, pairing it with a caption reading, “When you’re hiding from a school shooter and the foreign exchange student starts crying.”
From there, the DankMemes subreddit on Reddit moved in, fashioning an anti-vaccination meme and a bleak Lion King-themed one with a caption reading, “When you’re watching the new Lion King film and a six year old starts crying when Mufasa dies.”
KnowYourMeme notes, from there, that the meme spread, and is still in circulation five years after first surfacing.
An early 2019 article on the movie in Slate from Movie Club editor declared Franco’s section to be the best part of the movie, declaring “First time?” to be “the best joke of the year.”
And what about James Franco?
The actor’s been at a crossroads since early 2018, when allegations of sexually exploitive behavior surfaced in a Los Angeles Times article. That article laid out troubling accusations from four of his students and another person calling Franco her “mentor.”
One of those accusers said in the story, “I feel there was an abuse of power, and there was a culture of exploiting non-celebrity women, and a culture of women being replaceable,” referring to a film school Franco founded at the heart of the story.
In 2021, Franco addressed the allegations in a podcast interview covered by Variety. That story quotes Franco as saying, “In 2018, there were some complaints about me and an article about me. And at that moment I just thought, ‘I’m gonna be quiet. I’m gonna pause.’ [It] did not seem like the right time to say anything. There were people that were upset with me and I needed to listen.”
The Variety article noted, in response to a 2019 lawsuit filed by two accusers, “In June 2021, Franco paid $2,235,000 as a settlement, with $894,000 going to the named plaintiffs and $1,341,000 going into a common fund for the rest of the members of the lawsuit.”
““The stupidest thing I did, or one of the stupidest things I did, at the school was I called one of my classes — a masterclass — ‘Sex Scenes,’” Franco said in the article. “It was not about sex scenes. I was not teaching people how to do sex scenes or intimate scenes or anything of that nature…It should have been called Contemporary Romance or something like that. It was a class where they did scenes about whatever their romance is. What they go through as young people. So meeting people on dating apps, or breakups or just a bad date — stuff like that. That’s what was being done in that class. It was not sex scenes.”
But the accusers, responding via their lawyers to Variety for that article, released a statement reading in part, “In addition to being blind about power dynamics, Franco is completely insensitive to, and still apparently does not care about, the immense pain and suffering he put his victims through with this sham of an acting school. It is unbelievable that even after agreeing to a settlement he continues to downplay the survivors’ experiences and ignore their pain, despite acknowledging he had no business starting such a school in the first place. This wasn’t a misunderstanding over a course name, it wasn’t the result of him being overworked — it was, and is, despicable conduct.”
But it’s probably not the last time for the ‘First Time’ meme
Though Franco’s enduring in a sense through the First Time meme, a quick look at his IMDb page shows that he’s been much less active in the industry since the allegations his. A June 2023 article in We Got This Covered declared, “We can say, unequivocally, that Franco’s career has suffered since 2018,” but then it also asserted, “In one sense, Franco’s career hasn’t been affected by the cancellation at all. He’s continued to write and direct independent films, and he’s even landed supporting roles in acclaimed dramas,” citing The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as a specific example.
Both Imgflip and Imgur both have “First Time” meme templates at the ready for people who want to share a sentiment that matches that energy. So while Franco now might leave some a bit queasy, there’s a little piece of his ouevre bringing joy to people who might not even be aware it’s him.
Phil West is a veteran professional writer and editor, and the author of two books on soccer, ‘The United States of Soccer,’ and ‘I Believe That We Will Win,’ both from The Overlook Press. His work has appeared most recently in The Striker (where he served as managing editor), MLSSoccer.com, Next City, and Texas Highways. Based in Austin, he is also a lecturer in the Writing Program at the University of Texas at San Antonio.