April 14, 2011 -- For once, the joke's on TMZ.
The gossip website that so many celebrities love to hate now has an enemy of its own: TMZforKidz, a site that looks like TMZ, sounds like TMZ, but actually parodies the entertainment news service.
"There's something about TMZ's tone and the way it's written that's so uniquely theirs and so insipid that I'm surprised no one's tried to mimic it before," TMZforKidz co-founder Guy Cimbalo told ABCNews.com in a phone interview. "All it takes is a few bad puns and bold faces and you're off to the races."
Cimbalo, 34, started the site "about a month ago" with his friend Jean-Paul Tremblay, 35. Both work in Brooklyn, N.Y. as writers and consultants. According to Tremblay, it started as a joke -- What if there was a TMZ for kids? "Then a number of friends said it would be great if the thing actually existed," he said, "because it's a sort of commentary on what the folks at TMZ do."
Think of it as The Onion of celebrity news. TMZforKidz peddles fake gossip about teen, tween, child and even infant celebrities, the idea being that if people continue to crave dirt about the (mostly) adult stars TMZ covers, it's only a matter of time before they want similar stuff on their offspring. (Countless online photo galleries of Suri Cruise and her ilk suggest there's an appetite for that.)
"Ostensibly, the idea is that it's OK for us to dwell on who Lindsay Lohan or Jessica Simpson is dating," said Tremblay, "So at what point do we say it's not OK to care about this sixth grader dating this fifth grader, even if they're famous?"
To that end, TMZforKidz aims to shock and amuse. A recent item about Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter featured the headline "Apple Martin: 'Mummy Needs to Chill the F--- Out'" and an anecdote about how the 6-year-old exploded with expletives after the always-poised Paltrow refused to let her go on a Legoland ride.
"I just thought the image of this precious, precocious girl spewing out the most vile curse words was funny," Cimbalo said.
A post about celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe's newborn son said the boy is already a fashion victim, quoting an "infant insider" who revealed that Zoe tried to squeeze 2-week-old Skyler into a pair of too-tight jeans: "Skyler was noticeably uncomfortable in the outfit … The jeans were so tight there wasn't even room for his wee-wee!"
You could be forgiven for thinking TMZforKidz is a legitimate TMZ spinoff. The sites have similar logos, headline styles, and formatting, to say nothing of the tone of their posts.
TMZforKidz also features hokey drawings purportedly by children (actually by the founders' adult friends) not unlike the visual mashups TMZ makes (on Wednesday, TMZ pasted Charlie Sheen's head on top of a man holding a sign saying "Will Act for Food"). A recent TMZforKidz drawing featured a crayon-rendition of Britney Spears threatening paparazzi with an umbrella after she had shaved her head.
Cimbalo said it didn't take long to mimic the gossip giant.
"I did all the coding in maybe a couple of days and then I started writing posts," he said. "As soon as I came up with 'Suri Cruise's Turtle Has Two Weeks to Live," I felt like we had struck on the essence of it."
Since TMZforKidz launched, the site has seen a steady increase in attention. Blogs including Daily Candy promoted it last week; Cimbalo said the site recently received 20,000 unique visits in one day.
TMZ also noticed, and they're not happy. Lawyers for TMZ's parent company, Warner Bros., sent Cimbalo and Dreamhost, the server company that hosts TMZforKidz, a cease-and-desist letter on April 8. It said the site violates the trademarks and intellectual property of TMZ. Dreamhost shut down TMZforKidz, and Cimbalo and Tremblay lost the majority of their posts.
"I'm not using their logo, all of the code is originally mine," Cimbalo said. "It seems ironic that this website that is dedicated to making people's lives an absolute hell is now all, 'How dare you?'"
"We were trying to be playful about it at the outset by putting the 'Z' backwards," Tremblay said, referring to TMZforKidz's childishly-scrawled logo. "It's meant to be satire. For about 30 seconds you're alarmed, like 'Good God, what have they done?' But I would be shocked if someone who continued to scroll down still thought this was real."
So within four hours, TMZforKidz was up and running again with a new host. Considering the "endless number of hosting providers out there," Cimbalo doesn't plan to shelve his satirical side project, even if TMZ tries to shut him down again. TMZ did not respond to ABCNews.com's repeated requests for comment on whether it plans to pursue further action against the site.
But Cimbalo hopes TMZ eventually embraces its weird little stepchild. After all, he argued, isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery?
"I think of TMZ as one of those guilty pleasures that is far more guilty than others," he said. "They've carved out their own unique corner of hell, and I guess you've got to admire them for that."