By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 11:39 PM
Lucas Cruikshank, the potential future of adolescent comedy, steamrolls onto the screen, a mixture of flounce and tightly coiled energy, doing Fred Figglehorn.
"OH MY GOD IT'S FRIIIIDAAAAY!" he shrieks to the camera. His voice (digitally altered) sounds like he's been sucking helium. "Hey! Say that fast and it sounds like Fred Day! Friday, Fred Day, Friday, Fred Day, Friday, Fred Day . . . Oh my God, did they decide this week to make the week the weekend and the weekend the week? . . . I think they might do that!"
This is a movie. This is a movie based on a YouTube character. This is a movie based on one of the most successful YouTube characters of all time. Cruikshank's videos regularly score millions of hits; "Fred Goes Swimming," the most-watched installment of the franchise, currently has 45 million views. For comparison, last season's most popular sitcom, "Two and a Half Men," averaged 15 million viewers per episode. He is possibly the most famous thing that you are not watching, and on Saturday night, Fred is coming to a bigger screen. "Fred: the Movie," debuts on Nickelodeon.
His hair is a Justin Bieber swoop, perhaps an homage to the best-known boy ever pulled from YouTube into mass fame - Cruikshank, at 17, is about the same age.
Reached by telephone, a few days before he and his parents are scheduled to fly from their home in Nebraska to Los Angeles, Cruikshank is asked how he thinks Fred got so big.
"I thought I would make, like, 50 people laugh," he says, bubbily and humbly.
In short, he has no idea.
But here Fred stands, at an intersection of screens, wondering if Fred is the next Bieber or just the next Pauly Shore - and whether YouTube belongs on television.
The bellwethers of YouTube are its Most Subscribed Channels - the individuals whose viewers tune in again and again as they would for a sitcom. One-hit viral videos - "David After Dentist" or "JK Wedding Entrance" - may get more media attention, but the Most Subscribed people are the workhorses who shape what people want online. Each one of the top five, TubeMogul.com estimates, makes a six-figure salary from ads and product placement.
For a while now, the kings at the top - young, male, sophomoric - have held steady.
There is Ryan Higa, 20, now a film student in Las Vegas who specializes in rants and pop-culture how-to's ("How to be Emo").
There is Shane Dawson, 22, who video blogs as himself and his female alter ego, Shanaynay.
There is Smosh, a duo of 22-year-old sketch artists.
There is Ray William Johnson, who makes sense of it all by reviewing YouTube's best.
And there is Cruikshank, the hopeful platform hopper.
The character of Fred is a spastic 6-year-old living with his mother, who - like most people in Fred's world - we never meet. She's a cruddy parent (an alcoholic, maybe?), which the audience understands but Fred doesn't. His life is one long embarrassment ("I peed in the pool," he confesses in "Fred Goes Swimming"), guided by his love for his neighbor Judy. He's occasionally pitiable, but has anger issues: "I'm going to start her house on fire," he announces when Judy has been particularly mean. "Just kidding."
Fred's channel is YouTube's second-most popular, with nearly 2 million subscribers. He used to be first - and was the first artist to break a million - but Higa overtook him in 2009.
There's no bad blood: "All of the top YouTubers are the nicest people," says Higa, whose mom fields his press calls. "People always think we hate each other," but actually, Higa is another Fred fan. "Lucas was the first person I really saw who made an entire channel based on one character," says Higa. "And it was watching a person you'd never seen before."
Variety recently listed Cruikshank as one of the top 10 comedians to watch; the Hollywood Reporter named him one of the 50 most powerful people in digital media. He won the 2009 Teen Choice Award for best Web star, and was nominated again in 2010 but lost to Dawson.
The passion with which people embrace Fred's grating personality is equaled only by the passion with which others hate it.
"Stay awesome!" writes one responder to a Fred video.
Another responds: "I feel like I am being strangled by cats."
"There are things about the Fred experience that can repel people," says Evan Weiss, Cruikshank's manager, who first learned about his client because his own children were obsessed and attests that Cruikshank is "a bona fide creative genius."
Says Margie Cohn, Nickelodeon's president of original programming and development, "He's just hit a chord someplace." He's not something adults would have invented for kids - usually children prefer aspirational characters - but remove the middleman, and Fred is what kids want.
The production has muscle behind it: Brian Robbins, who also worked on "One Tree Hill," "Smallville" and "Varsity Blues."
The plot is basically an extended Fredisode: Fred learns that Judy has moved across town, goes to visit her, and is crushed when she excludes him from a housewarming party. He caps off the evening by vomiting on her dress - in the story's meta nod, the moment becomes a viral hit on YouTube - then throws his own party. He enlists nerdy Bertha, the Duckie to his Molly Ringwald, to create the most awesome shindig ever attended by two tweens and one drunk mom.
The creation story, circa 2006: Cruikshank, the fourth of eight kids of an engineer dad and a nurse mom, lives in the rural town of Columbus, Neb. He wants to be an actor; after school he Googles "casting directors" and "Nebraska," in the hopes that someone will be scouring his town for the next big star. They never are. His older sisters like to mess around with a video camera, but they don't want their little brother to join. Cruikshank is given his own.
Then he learns about YouTube. "I saw all of these video bloggers talking about their lives, and some of them were so boring," Cruikshank says. He thought it would be funny if a blogger was a little kid.
"The actual creating of the character? Probably took about two minutes."
Take "Fred Goes to the Dentist," which Cruikshank cites as his personal favorite. It has about 24 million views.
The video opens with Fred screaming, "I'm going to brush my teeth because I have a dentist appointment today!" Then, in the course of under three minutes, he will: fear that his mom will put him up for adoption, wish he had underwear with teeth on them, read the Bible, be shamed by Judy at the dentist, and make up a song about how he both loves and hates her, ending the song on a heretofore elusive high note.
With enough analysis, the video starts to take on an elaborate genius. Watch how he targets his kid audience with intrinsically funny words like "underwear." Watch how he creates a visual gag by stuffing his mouth with cotton. Watch how humiliation is balanced by the triumphant ending.
Ask Cruikshank how he plotted, scripted and edited "Fred Goes to the Dentist," and he says:
"The dentist is something that a lot of kids are scared of. So it's cool watching Fred go through it."
But surely he didn't just grab a few cotton balls and wing it?
"That's pretty much it."
But laissez-faire, juvenile production is exactly what works in the upper echelons of YouTube. "The work has to look like regular people made it," says Alexandra Juhasz, a media studies professor at Pitzer College.
In direct contradiction to early predictions - that one day YouTube's content would be as polished as anything on network TV - the kings of the site today retain a shaky, living-room quality about them, no matter how big they get.
It's a paradox: In order to remain popular, "they have to keep their talent in check," says Juhasz. Otherwise they look like mediocre TV, rather than excellent YouTube.
In "Fred: the Movie," the production values are better, of course, and the world of Fred is bigger. Previously offscreen characters are now flesh and blood, from Judy to the evil bully, Kevin.
There are other changes, too. Fred's mother is softer, portrayed more as exhausted than angry. Fred's voice is also toned down - a good half octave, at least - to lessen the offense on adult ears. Cohn characterizes movie Fred as "very quirky and appealing."
Mass appealing, even. There's a costume montage near the end. Judy and Fred walk off into the sunset. It's all very scrubbed. This is a Fred that parents could love. Is it a Fred that the world beyond YouTube will embrace?
Other kings of YouTube have tried to make forays into television or movies. Higa made "Ryan and Sean's Not So Excellent Adventure," which played in some theaters in California and Hawaii before going to DVD. Last month, Dawson announced that he would be working on his own pilot.
Cruikshank has also signed with Nickelodeon to do another pilot - one that has nothing to do with Fred. Titled "Marvin, Marvin," the show is about a boy who doesn't fit in because he is, in fact, from another planet.
For Cruikshank, it's a tremendous break - and a little sad.