I am sitting beside an anthropomorphic fridge, surrounded by puppet parts and piles of felt, talking to the creators of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared about how to have a viral hit. “We’ve had that discussion a few times,” says Joseph Pelling, who created the show with fellow artist and animator Becky Sloan. “And we don’t really know. Thinking about it too much would probably drive us mad.”
There’s a pause, then Baker Terry, who works with the pair as a writer, raises a hand and says: “Puppets plus guts equals viral.” In their case, he’s probably right. Since the first episode aired on YouTube in 2011, digital style, the show’s formula of Sesame Street-type characters trapped in a David Lynch-esque musical universe has built a vast online following.
The first episode, in which a smiling notebook sings a song teaching the three main characters (Red Guy, Yellow Guy and Duck Guy) how to be creative has been seen 30 million times. It includes the tip: “Green is not a creative colour.” The latest episode, the fifth, lampoons advice about healthy eating and has racked up over 4 million views since it launched three months ago (with a passing mention in the film apparently causing a global spike in Google searches for the word “aspic”).
This week, fashion label Lazy Oaf launched a new clothing line based on the series, proving that, yes, there are actually a lot of people out there willing to wear outfits that reference a relatively niche show that starts out like a kids’ educational programme before descending into mind-bending horror, complete with muzak, goggle-eyes and raw meat.
Even its creators seem a little overwhelmed by the scale and commitment of the fanbase. The first episode – borne out of a desire to poke fun at art school education and “do something with puppets” – was only uploaded to YouTube on a whim. Yet it led to an invitation from Sundance film festival, where it successfully screened in 2012. Channel 4’s Random Acts commissioned a second episode a year later and soon a Kickstarter campaign had raised over £100,000 to fund four more.
Inevitably, the show caught the eye of more mainstream commissioners, but the team refused to be lured. “We wanted to keep it fairly odd and have the freedom to do exactly what we wanted,” says Pelling. “We felt: if it’s been born out of the internet, let’s keep it there.”
If Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is weird, the response it has received has been even weirder: YouTube is full of fans with homemade props recreating live-action versions of the show. Curiouser still are the conspiracy theories to be found in comments, forums and blogs: the date 19 June and background characters like Roy, Yellow Guy’s bung-nosed dad, feature prominently in these, while one fan has written a thesis tying the show to a conspiracy involving alleged Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadžić.
The team, talking to me in their studio in Shoreditch, London, use this feedback to tease viewers and play with expectations. “The subtler the better too,” says Sloan, explaining how episode five (in which a nonsensical song and dance about food is repeatedly interrupted by the sinister ring of a red telephone) ends with the glimpse of a real mobile number. “You’d have to zoom in to see it,” she says. “But we put the film online and within a second it was ringing. We kept answering it because we felt bad – pretending to be different characters.” In the end, Terry took it home. “I obsessively answered it for two weeks,” he says. “Until my wife was like: ‘Fuck. This.’”
The team take great care not to dismiss any of their fan’s musings, which they clearly enjoy a lot, and they avoid answering questions about specific statements they’re trying to make with each episode. Still, the way the show has begun to quietly permeate the world beyond YouTube is a surprise even for those familiar with it.
“The moment I realised it was bigger than the sum of its parts,” says Pegah Farahmand, commissioning editor for Random Acts, “was when I went to a Halloween party with my friends and there was this man dressed up as Red Guy. I just thought that was amazing. And when I heard they had a clothing line coming out, I was like, ‘What the fuck?’”
Though she admits the internet has become the “go-to place” for more experimental film-making, she does feel shows like Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared can go wider. “There’s still scope to do something really interesting with them on TV,” she says. “It’s still the most powerful medium we have.”
Sloan and Pelling are (perhaps deliberately) vague about whether a more formal TV show could come into being, preferring to drop hints that a musical (“the first ever stop-motion animation musical featuring Dermot O’Leary”) may be on the horizon. “It’s crossing over,” says Pelling, “the way people absorb stuff on TV or online. But TV is still a different kettle of fish.”
As for what we can expect in the sixth and final episode, planned to air on (of course) 19 June, they are even vaguer. “There’s gonna be puppets in it,” says Sloan. “And probably some meat.”
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.
- Denial Is the Heartbeat of America
- O Canada, we missed you
- The Best Kids Movies on Netflix Right Now (October 2021) | Digital Trends
- 'He doesn't care!' Harry Styles blasted by Billy Porter for wearing dress on Vogue cover
- Slice-of-life fishing sim Moonglow Bay is beautifully somber and sweet
- The Comedians You Should and Will Know in 2021
Don't Hug Me I'm Scared: the puppets who sing, dance and eat raw meat have 1030 words, post on www.theguardian.com at January 27, 2016. This is cached page on Talk Vietnam. If you want remove this page, please contact us.