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WEB SCOUT / DAVID SARNO

The kids are wild about Fred

June 25, 2008|DAVID SARNO

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 swiftly end. 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 26, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Web Scout: In some copies of Tuesday's Calendar section, the Web Scout column misspelled the last name of YouTube personality Lucas Cruikshank's business manager, James Dolin, as Dolan.

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 a quarter of a 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 up 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 brothers and sisters, 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 may have been outside of cellular range.)

It's remarkable that Cruikshank stormed to the top of YouTube without 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" still only had 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 L.A.-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?

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