There is a subtle genius to the latest iteration of the character/show/media property/brand known as all-caps FRED. The madcap preteen with a high squeaky voice, created and played by Lucas Cruikshank, may be simultaneously one of the most hated and most popular things to come out of YouTube (s GOOG) in the history of the site — a conflict Figgle Chat, a six episode web series that premiered this week, addresses head-on.
Cruikshank first began creating FRED videos in 2006, when he was 13 years old. Five years later, FRED has officially crossed over into the old media world, with a series of successful TV movies for Nickelodeon under Cruikshank’s belt — another, Night of the Living FRED, will premiere this Halloween, and there’s also an animated series on the way.
Just like The Annoying Orange, FRED appeals largely to the 18-and-under demographic — and just like Annoying Orange, Cruikshank is represented by The Collective, one of the small group of companies that work with YouTube talent to increase their reach. In fact, Collective CEO CEO Michael Green told us in a phone interview, Cruikshank was the company’s first new media client, beginning approximately three and a half years ago.
While the online presence of FRED is still valuable, until last week there hadn’t been any fresh content on FRED’s channel in months — a problem the Collective team has faced head on with Figgle Chat, directed by Next New Networks and MTV alumni Bobby Miller. Utilizing the familiar format of a talk show, Figgle Chat combines the antics of FRED interviewing folks like Obama impersonator Alphacat with behind-the-scenes commentary from the show’s fictional crew.
According to Miller, the show came about when Collective producer Rob Czar approached him about doing a variety show featuring FRED: “I instantly said yes,” Miller told me via IM. “This series is a chance to get people interested in the character again, since it’s been a while since his last video and there are these other projects about to come out.”
While the show’s blend of behind-the-scenes and on-camera action inspires some comparison to The Larry Sanders Show, Miller actually drew more from the long-running Cartoon Network series Space Ghost Coast to Coast — a style which complemented Cruikshank’s performance. “We had to shoot 60 pages in three days, so I was like, well, we can’t have a ton of set ups,” Miller said. “So the other characters’ cutaway shots are always the same size and they always wear the same thing. I liked that idea of this being a live action cartoon.”
“I watched some of [Miller’s] previous work and really liked the tone of his material. He’s a super cool guy, and working with him was a great experience,” Cruikshank said via email. “The show was shot really loosely with lots of improv and last minute changes, so it kept the content fresh and fun.”
Dominant in the behind-the-scenes element is camera guy Keith (Mike Johnson, who also co-wrote the show), who’s not shy about expressing his loathing for FRED — and serves as the voice of those who don’t understand FRED’s appeal (and enjoy actively expressing it). “One of my main sticking points when writing the show with Mike was that we needed to address [the polarizing factor] and use it as source of comedy,” Miller said. “Because that’s the only way we can really evolve it, in my eyes.”
The “haters” aren’t something the Collective sees as a drawback, because in Green’s words, “Polarizing is sometimes very successful.” And addressing it directly was an element Cruikshank loved, according to Miller: “I think it’s because he’s been with this character for four years. He’s really game to make fun of it.”
The result is a show that simultaneously gives both camps what they want: FRED goofing around for the fans, while being actively insulted by others. (One memorable Keith line, from the series teaser: “When are you going to go through puberty and drop that voice?” Keith is also on Twitter.) A day into the first episode’s release, it had received over 54,000 views — and, more notably, had 2,124 likes to 755 dislikes. “There are people who just subscribe to his YouTube channel so that they can post negative comments. I mean, I don’t know what kind of human being does that, or has the time for that. But, that’s commitment!” Miller said.
According to Green, there are no plans to prioritize Cruikshank’s future projects on one platform over another. “Over time, the web presence [including his social media following] is a more valuable asset, but that is only part of the analysis when we think about Lucas — money is an important objective, but not the most important part,” he said.
Plans exist for Cruikshank’s evolution as a performer beyond the FRED brand, but they only exist in the long term. “I love doing Fred, and I’m so thankful for what the property has given me, but I still want to venture outside of the Fred world and try some new ideas out, whether it be online or on another medium,” Cruikshank said.
Prior to making Figgle Chat, Miller was not a FRED hater, though he did admit to being jealous of the way Cruikshank got his success. “It seemed ‘easy’ to him. But, that’s what happens. You really can’t predict what catches on and what doesn’t. And there’s a reason why he’s successful. He’s a talented guy and he’s only 18. Which is really scary to me.”