Johny, Papa and the dark implications of the memeification of kids’ TV
You’ve probably already heard about the Johny Johny Yes Papa meme.
It started when a fairly harmless animated kids song – featuring Boss Baby doppelgänger Johny, who sneaks around his house looking for sugar as his dad (basically Pete Campbell from Mad Men with a creepy moustache) humorously catches him out – went viral. Thanks to this video’s bizarre dance breaks, absurdist lyrics and fidgety animation it was perfect fodder for meme creators, quickly becoming a trending topic on Twitter.
The video was first shared by Twitter user @b6ner, who tweeted “I’m losing my fucking mind” about the odd discovery, racking up nearly 300,000 likes in the process. Due to copyright infringement, the original is no longer on YouTube, but the memes it inspired are pretty much everywhere. These range from fairly innocent clips that revel in the original video’s weirdness, re-editing it to contain references to the video game Fortnite, to far more sinister interpretations that try to make a joke out of the idea Johny is being sexually abused by his dad, or rather ‘Papa’, with the character’s voices replaced with demonic screams.
A lot of the perceived weirdness around the video has been created due to “cultural mistranslation”, according to Scott Wark, a researcher in meme theory at the University of Warwick. He claims: “People have made a lot about how creepy Papa’s moustache is, but the original video was produced by a studio in India where this kind of facial hair is very common.”
Wark believes the idea of turning animated kids songs, which teach small children right from wrong, into dark memes is a protest due to this kind of content being so authoritarian in nature and dominating keyword searches on YouTube. It may tap into a long history of internet users misleading people towards content they weren’t expecting – think Two Girls, One Cup and Goatse memes – too. Yet there’s also something inherently creepy about this trend, with meme creators able to exploit loopholes in the internet to essentially terrify children.
“What’s different about the Johny and Papa trend is not just that it involves kids content, but that it’s being shaped by an algorithmically-mediated system of keyword-based recommendations built into video streaming platforms,” explains Wark. He says this means meme creators can tie innocent popular keywords to sinister videos so toddlers looking to watch comforting songs on their mum’s iPad are just as likely to end up watching one of the darker Johny and Papa memes.
He adds: “It’s also driven by features like Autoplay, which makes videos so easy to watch. This trend is dark and sinister because it exploits how social media platforms run, making us feel like the internet itself has a kind of agency and it means us harm. We’re not in control and it’s coming for our kids – maybe not by intention, but partially by design.”
Dark remakes of children’s videos are easy to find; a few clicks and you can watch videos where the cast of Peppa Pig commit suicide. But Wark says these videos shouldn’t just be looked at as conventional trolling: “This trend exploits that moment of expectation and desire you get, in very small amounts, when you click a link or wait for the next video to buffer. You’re waiting, but also you’re anticipating what’s coming.”
“You’re vulnerable because your guard is down, especially if you’re a five-year-old expecting another Peppa Pig episode. This is a moment that trolls and content producers can exploit, for whatever purpose.”
Looking forward, Wark says the popularity of memes such as Johny and Papa opens up a broader question on what social media platforms are actually for and how, ultimately, they should be regulated. He concludes: “Morality puts the onus on platforms to do the right thing by their users. They have no incentive to do so, so for me it’s more of a political question: what kind of culture do we want to have? Who – or what – gets to shape what this culture is?”
“Fucking up kids doesn’t fit into my cultural-political ideal, but moralising alone won’t fix this problem. Creating proper consequences for the social media platforms that enable a culture in which kids can so easily be terrified just might.”