Since he created his YouTube channel less than two months ago, this kid-pleasing misadventurer has racked up more subscribers than the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus and, oh yeah, CBS.
Last week, someone in the online video business gave me a simple tip.
"Fred," the guy said.
"Fred?" I said.
"Yes," he said. "Kids love Fred."
I had not heard of Fred, much less known that kids loved him. But that would end swiftly. As soon as I could, I searched for Fred on YouTube and found his video channel. There were plenty of videos, and I hunkered down to watch.
A warning before I continue: Fred is for immature audiences only. The following article may contain themes and language that are unsuitable for anyone over 16.
The first thing about Fred is that he brings new meaning to the word hyper. The fictional 6-year-old, invented and played by 14-year-old Nebraskan Lucas Cruikshank, is a fast-talking tyke with "temper problems," an absentee father and a propensity to screech if things don't go his way. If those traits aren't enough to dissuade you, Fred's voice is 'chipmunked,' raising it several octaves above Cruikshank's own to achieve, if not maximum verisimilitude, then certainly maximum annoyingness. Try to imagine a shrill, halting super-soprano bleating these lines from an episode called "Fred Goes Swimming":
"I'm ready to go inside the pool! Oh my God, it's cold. I love swimming. I love swimming! This pool is small. On TV I saw a pool that was really big ... oh my God, there's a shark! I'm scared. Just kidding, it's just a toy shark. I got you!"
Doesn't sound like your cup of tea? That makes two of us. Let us say we are outnumbered; with nearly 250,000 subscribers, Fred's YouTube channel is the fourth most subscribed in the site's history. Meaning every time he posts a new video, nearly one-quarter million people get notified.
Since he created his channel less than two months ago, Fred has racked up more subscribers than almost all of YouTube's old guard, passing lonelygirl15, LisaNova, kevjumba, and sxephil. He's also got more subscribers than the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Soulja Boy, and, oh yeah, CBS.
And those are just his hard-core fans. Once Fred's videos are released, they rocket into the YouTube exosphere, generating 4 and even 5 million views a pop — repeat viewership numbers that are unmatched anywhere on the Internet. Fred's most-viewed episode, "Fred Loses His Meds," would've been the top-rated show on cable last week.
Pretty good for a kid with a camera. Fred — or rather, Lucas — lives in rural Nebraska with his parents and has seven siblings, some of whom appear in the videos with him. He goes to school in a converted barn and had never seen the ocean or been on an airplane until he visited L.A. in February.
(I couldn't reach him for this article because, a representative said, he was en route to perform in a national dance competition, and might have been outside of cellular range.)
It's remarkable that Cruikshank stormed to the top of YouTube with almost no coverage from either the blogosphere or the mainstream media. The Associated Press wrote a story in July about Cruikshank and his two cousins, Katie and John Smet, now 15, with whom he began making videos in 2006. But that was a year ago, "JKL productions" had only 7,500 subscribers and Fred had yet to take off. Since then, there hasn't been a peep.
That an act with millions of fans could escape the popular attention is more evidence of the digital fissuring of our culture. As we ensconce ourselves ever further in our respective demographics, personal and professional, we continue to drift apart from the people right next to us, until even an iceberg holding 4 million 'tweens can float by unnoticed.
Not that we should've noticed. If you're past a certain age, Fred's appeal is essentially inscrutable. His antics are Kryptonite for grown-ups, repelling any but the most vigorous attempts to watch an entire episode and keeping us in the dark about why kids seem to love him so much.
"They just think he's the funniest thing ever," said Valerie Moizel of the Los Angeles-based WOO ad agency, which found out about Fred after it conducted kid-centered focus groups for its ZipIt instant messaging product — which later showed up in Fred's videos. "We watched them watch him — they fall on the floor hysterically laughing. They're just mesmerized."
And more than just the zaniness, it's possible that kids are connecting to Fred on other levels too. He has parental, behavior and girl problems, so there's a little something for everyone.
"The biggest draw is the subject matter," Moizel added. "He really knows how to touch on things that are current and that teenagers deal with."
So here we are at a moment when for all its cash and talent, the best of Hollywood's online efforts slide off the wall like penne al dente, while a Nebraska kid with a $100 camera can attract a giant, hugely valuable audience by jumping in a baby pool with his clothes on. What does he know that we don't?
Cruikshank's generation is the first one never to have known a world without the Internet. These kids speak the language of computers and technology as well as they speak English — if not better. So it figures that one of them would be the first to produce a hit show for his peers — one that adults did not help produce and are equally not meant to watch. This is a new model: for kids, by kids.
"fred your so lol i can't believe you!" read one of the 25,000 comments on a recent episode. "fred I LOVE YOU haha this is so funny," said another, and perhaps most representative: "fred iz soo cute!!" It seems that this farm boy has a few special admirers.
But Hollywood, ever hungry for 'tween eyeballs, predictably has caught the scent. Cruikshank recently signed with James Dolan, an L.A. business manager at Sonesta Entertainment. Along with the product placements — for which he's being paid "generously," Moizel said — he has also appeared in a commercial for the ZipIt that aired on Nickelodeon, ABC Family and the Disney Channel.
Before long, Cruikshank might end up on stage, playing electric guitar and drinking virgin mai tais with Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers.
I won't be in the audience for that, and I'm sure I won't be missed.