By Lanford Beard
December 19, 2011 at 03:00 PM EST
David Letterman: John P. Filo/CBS

After 2011, will the word “occupy” ever mean the same thing to you again? Can you ever deny the omnipotence of Ryan Gosling? (He’s a gentleman and a feminist scholar!) A Californian taxidermist and a Pop Tart-shaped cat with a catchy theme song suddenly had relevance, and everyday folks like you and me suddenly had a chance for a date with the likes of Justin Timberlake.

These are just a sampling of the most memorable memes to overtake the World Wide Web over the last 12 months. We’ve got one for every month. Check them out after the jump!

Social Studies

Occupy Pepper Spray

Nothing makes for a meme like an innocent cartoon (more on that below) or the cavalier ability of a rent-a-cop to inflict pain on peaceful protesters. When Occupy Wall Street found its way to California’s U.C. Davis, concerned citizens were appalled by the seeming casualness with which campus police lieutenant John Pike sprayed occupiers with peppers spray. Enter Internet artistes, who injected the unfriendly officer into great works of art from the Sistine Chapel to Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” helped him find his way into The Twilight Saga riff and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Even Tim Tebow got a shout-out — one of many this year. Keep reading…

A pose by any other name

Between planking, Batmanning, owling, and Tebowing, the Internet was not lacking for absurd poses this year. If you’re talking bang for buck, though, Tebowing (based on a prayer pose struck by Denver Broncos’ super-religious QB Tim Tebow) is where it’s at. Pop culture figures like Kermit and Spider-Man (more on him later) took to the Tebow, as did a weight lifter under a 135-lb. bar and a gymnast on the uneven bars. Even a pancake got in on the action! For sheer grace under pressure, the top tier of Tebowing goes to the group of visitors to Disney’s Splash Mountain in Orlando, Fla., who managed a synchronized Tebow before facing the deluge of dirty theme park water. Goal!

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NEXT: A-list memes (by which we mean Ryan Gosling… and everyone else)

Celebrities

Ryan Gosling EVERYTHING

On the heels of last year’s outstanding F— Yeah, Ryan Gosling! meme came a seemingly unending stream of Gosling-y goodness. First, a viral video surfaced in September of Gosling breaking up a fight in New York City. Then, his theory that Disney is breeding an army of ninja cats took off. In October, the intellectualicious Feminist Ryan Gosling Tumblr launched. Last month, typographers got in on the fun, then décor bloggers were inspired to find parallels between the Gos and interior design. Unfairly, we were asked to make the ultimate Sophie’s choice: Ryan Gosling vs. Puppy. Even librarians, vinyl enthusiasts, political scientists, biostatisticians, a Brooklyn food co-op, publishing types, and people who just don’t like to curse joined the fray. What can’t this man do? Besides win Sexiest Man Alive? (Too soon?) Wait, what? There’s a protest for that, too? Oh, I give up.

Natalie Portman’s laugh

It was the guffaw heard ’round the world. This January, when Natalie Portman won the Golden Globe for Best Actress, she dropped a lead balloon on the audience about how her Black Swan co-star-turned baby daddy “totally” wanted to have sex with her (she was several months pregnant with baby Aleph at the ceremony). Pleased as punch with herself, she let it rip with a chortle that launched countless video tributes. For now, we’ll give you just this one — mainly because Steve Buscemi and Thomas Jane’s looks of consternation are works of art unto themselves.

In a word, #winning

Very long story short, Charlie Sheen flew off the rails with glorious panache this past February. After waking the sleeping giant known as Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre, Sheen took part in a 20/20 interview that coined more gold than the U.S. Mint. “I’m on a drug… it’s called Charlie Sheen” + tiger blood + Adonis DNA = WINNING! Sure, his Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not an Option tour sunk on contact, but that can scarcely diminish the wonder of those off-kilter months leading up to it.

Will you go out with me, [Insert Celebrity Name Here]?

‘Twas a year when even A-list celebrity couldn’t separate the chosen from the masses. Blame it on Sergeant Scott Moore, who practically reinvented the wheel when he decided to post a YouTube plea for Mila Kunis to join him at November’s Marine Corps Ball. Soon enough, Kunis’ No Strings Attached co-star Justin Timberlake was pulled called into action and, as with all things pop culture these days, Betty White inevitably was roped into the conversation. In November, we saw a late entry for Joseph Gordon-Levitt after his moving performance in cancer dramedy 50/50. But it was Corporal Kelsey DeSantis, the lucky girl below, who actually had the pleasure of  Timberlake’s company at her special night. He even blogged the morning after, calling his night with DeSantis “an evening that I [won’t] forget.”

Divided We Fall: Martin Spelda

Is Michael Fassbender a shark?

The pictures speak for themselves. Those are some mighty fine chompers, Fassy!

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NEXT: Hipsters and taxidermists alike are shown a little meme love

Cartoons and such

Being Julia: Alex Dukay

Facial hair frenzy

You may have heard of this thing called, Moustair, so described by its creators as “Where men meets moustaches meets hair meets moustaches meets hair….” No matter if you’re an Oscar-winning actor, an ass-kicking Spartan, a legendary Jedi Master, the leader of a highly contentious country on the international stage (see left), a genocidal maniac, or even a Muppet. If you have currently, or have ever had, facial hair, you were not safe from the most hipsteriffic meme this side of… well most of 2011’s other memes.

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The year’s most Amazing meme

Take vintage stills of one of Marvel Comics’ most beloved superheroes, add contemporary pop culture references, and you’ve got ready-made Internet hilarity. Such was the formula for ’60s Spider Man, which pointed out the absurdity of various single-cell moments from Spider-Man’s archives.

David Letterman: John Paul Filo/CBS

I wanted to be part of your world… before it was cool

Another cartoon-tastic meme found its way online when hipster despising Photoshoppers got their hands on a particularly flustered photo of Ariel from a Disney modern classic, 1989’s The Little Mermaid. So how would Ariel tell her story if she lived in Williamsburg? For starters, “My dad owns Pitchfork.” Then, “I left the ocean. It’s too current.” Also? “I got legs just so I could wear skinny jeans.” Brilliant.

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Finding Neverland: Clive Coote

Heck yes, Chuck Testa!

Until this year, Testa was a simple man from Ojai, Calif., with a simple passion for taxidermy. Then he made the most awesome commercial for taxidermy ever! Granted, the competition’s not exactly stiff (no pun intended), but that doesn’t diminish Testa’s flair for the dramatic. Even amid a cast of formidable supporting players, he shines like the star he was always meant to be. And so, from that one Testa-cular minute, we would never look at Jesus, Dumbledore, or Mufasa the same again.

A kitty. Shaped like a Pop Tart. Shooting rainbows out its butt. What’s not to like?

Seriously? You need more than that? Okay…

What do you think, PopWatchers? What was your favorite meme of 2011?

For more on the Best and Worst of 2011, pick up Entertainment Weekly’s new issue, on stands now.

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