At age 17, Lucas Cruikshank has become one of the most successful children’s entertainers of his day, and evidence that YouTube can actually produce its own pop culture. And he’s done it all by being really, really annoying. Cruikshank’s character Fred Figglehorn is a manic 6-year-old whose digitally processed screech, rubbery facial contortions, and yen for fast-paced slapstick is pure anathema to most adults, but his popularity with kids has made him one of the most watched things on the Internet: Fred boasts his own channel with more than 2 million subscribers, and views for individual videos that number more than twice that. In the non-virtual world, the Fred empire includes lucrative endorsement deals, his own line of Hot Topic clothing, albums (including 2009’s It’s Hackin’ Christmas With Fred EP and the recently released Who’s Ready To Party?), and the Nickelodeon-produced Fred: The Movie. For a Midwestern kid who started out making movies with his cousins to amuse his family, Cruikshank seems to embody the “anybody can be famous” dream of the Internet better than most.
And yet Fred is really, really annoying—something the relentlessly upbeat Cruikshank seems to recognize and dismiss as a matter of taste. Cruikshank remains blissfully unperturbed by the people who passionately hate his work, preferring to focus instead on his young fan base and encourage them in their own creative expression rather than dwell on the opinions of haters. Part of that could likely be attributed to the positive surroundings of his small-town, big-family upbringing; part of it also seems to be that Cruikshank, though still in high school, is already something of a PR master, as the success of his ever-growing brand can attest. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Cruikshank about what went into building that brand, why he ignores criticism, and how he plans to avoid being Fred forever.
The A.V. Club: How do you balance the normal day-to-day of going to school with the business of being Fred?
Lucas Cruikshank: My parents obviously always have school come first. I have to do my homework before I can do any of the other stuff with Fred. That’s kind of how I keep it all in check.
AVC: Did you do your homework before this interview?
LC: [Laughs.] I didn’t have any homework today, so it wasn’t a problem.
AVC: Is it hard to concentrate on school knowing that you make more money than your teachers and you could probably just walk away any time you want?
LC: [Laughs.] No, I know that I have to go to high school. It’s not that big of a deal. Obviously, I’d rather go to high school than not have gone to high school and be a total idiot my entire life.
AVC: Could you walk us through how a typical Fred video gets made?
LC: I come up with the title, that’s usually how I start them. I know the general idea of what the video will be—the beginning, middle, and end—and then from there, I pretty much improv it. I’ve never really scripted anything with Fred.
AVC: Once the videos started becoming more popular, did anything change? Did you concentrate more on the stories, or start playing to a certain audience?
LC: Not really. I really tried to not do that. Once it really started getting popular, while we were filming it, it was like, “Oh my gosh, a million people are going to see this.” It kind of made me nervous. But you really can’t think about that, because it will affect your work.
AVC: Have you ever met adult Fred fans?
LC: Yeah, definitely! My grandpa’s a fan. That’s an adult. I have adults sometimes that tell me they’re fans and stuff, but I think, for the most part, it’s kids. There are adults who get it, but most adults don’t like it.
AVC: Do you think there’s a generation gap there—maybe not only in tolerating screechy voices and funny faces, but also in seeing YouTube as a viable source of entertainment?
LC: I think the kids like it because it’s funny, and they also like it because they could relate to the things that Fred goes through. Like, Fred doesn’t have any friends, or maybe how he doesn’t have a dad in his house, or something like that. So there’s a lot of things you could relate to Fred. I think that adults, for the most part, hear the voice and automatically push it away, because it’s so in your face. They don’t really give it a chance.
AVC: And yet Fred does have some adult issues: His mom was in rehab, there’s the absentee dad you mentioned, there were hints that he’d been locked in a cage and abused, and he’s on medication. When you started to get deals with Nickelodeon and the like, were you ever asked to tone any of that stuff down?
LC: Um, I never really… [Pauses.] I don’t know, I guess. Like, for the movie, for instance, we really didn’t…[Pauses.] You could probably get the feeling that the mom’s an alcoholic, and you know that the dad’s not there, but Fred doesn’t really go into it. It’s still all there, but we didn’t talk about it as much as in the videos. Obviously, it was on Nickelodeon.
AVC: So was that something that Nickelodeon specifically brought up with you?
LC: No, I think it was just me and the writer and the producers. When we had the initial meeting for the movie, we all knew that we were going to make it like [that]. We wanted all my fans to be able to see it. We wouldn’t want to make it a PG-13 movie, because there would be a big chunk of my fans that couldn’t see it. And we didn’t want to make it too kiddie, because then my older, 15-year-old and 16-year-old fans wouldn’t watch it. So we made it good for everyone. That was our plan.
AVC: You also aged Fred from 6 years old to 15. Why?
LC: I feel that Fred has always been a 15-year-old—or 14-year-old, or whatever. The thing is, he’s still, like, trapped in the mentality of a 6-year-old. Obviously, when you watch the videos, I don’t look like a 6-year-old. I think that he’s just trapped in the mentality of a 6-year-old.
AVC: Have you ever known a 15-year-old like Fred?
LC: [Laughs.] No, thankfully, I do not know anyone who acts like Fred in real life.
AVC: How involved were you in the process of making the Fred album?
LC: I recorded all the songs on the album. That’s pretty much how I was involved. When we first sat down to have the meeting, I gave them a bunch of ideas for songs, and some of the songs are based off of YouTube videos, and other ones are just random things I think Fred would think about. We narrowed it down to, like, 10 choices and made those songs. I helped co-write them. It was just really fun. Definitely different from acting.
AVC: Is your album the kind of music you would listen to?
LC: Probably not. It’s really catchy pop, kind of like Hannah Montana. Actually, the producers who did the Fred album also did all the Hannah Montana stuff and the High School Musical stuff, so I think it’s for that age. But no, I don’t listen to High School Musical and Hannah Montana regularly. [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you listen to?
LC: I like to listen to different things. I listen to Bruno Mars. He’s new. I like him. I like The Cataracs. I like Cobra Starship. 3OH!3.
AVC: In your most recent video, you had a guest appearance from Weezer. How did they get involved?
LC: Weezer, they always do something crazy with YouTube. In the last album—did you see the “Pork And Beans” video? With all the Internet people. So they kind of did that this time, only instead bringing all the YouTube people to be in their video, they got into most of the popular YouTubers’ videos. That’s how that went down.
AVC: Have you met any famous people who are fans of yours?
LC: Yeah, it’s always crazy. Like, when I’m at an event and people know who I am. I think that’s weird. Most recently, at the [Television Critics Association] conference or whatever, Jersey Shore was there, and Snooki knew who I was. So that was exciting.
AVC: And what did you and Snooki talk about?
LC: We didn’t really get a chance to talk. I heard that they were there, so I really wanted to meet them. So I went to them, and Snooki told me her little sister was a fan.
AVC: Do you generally get recognized when you go out?
LC: Yeah, well, it depends where I’m going. Depends if I’m going to an amusement park or a mall. If there’s a lot of kids there, then most of the time I get recognized. It’s fun getting to meet the fans, I think.
AVC: Since the videos are so heavily processed, are you able to be Fred when you meet your fans—do the voice and all that?
LC: No. I guess that’s never been a thing that came up. No one has ever told me to. Luckily, because that would be awkward in public.
AVC: What’s the general reaction people have when they find out you’re Fred?
LC: It kind of depends on the age. If they’re really little, they’re like, “Wait. You’re not even acting like Fred. Why do you call yourself Lucas?” It depends how old you are, like if you don’t understand [Fred] isn’t a real person yet. Then if I meet kids my age or a little bit younger, they’re like, “Oh, hey, I like your videos” and all that stuff. They understand that I’m just an actor playing the character, rather than actually being the character.
AVC: What about people at your school and in your peer group? How do most people behave around you?
LC: Luckily, they all behave the same. I go to a really small, country school. My house is surrounded on three sides by cornfields. So I’ve been in school with them since third grade. They all know me as the same Lucas before the YouTube videos took off.
AVC: When I was 16, if everyone knew I had made a video of myself acting like a hyperactive 6-year-old, I definitely would have taken a lot of abuse. Do you really not get hassled at all?
LC: [Laughs.] No, not really. My school doesn’t really have too many of those problems.
AVC: You’ve said people either absolutely love or absolutely hate Fred. Have you had much experience with meeting the people who hate him?
LC: No, I’ve never met someone who was mean to me. Like, a fan or a hater or something. I think online, like on YouTube and stuff, people could pretty much say whatever they want. They have no filter in their brain, because no one knows who they are. They’re totally anonymous, so they could say whatever they want. But when they’re in person with me, they wouldn’t say those things, because I can actually see who they are. They’re not another name on a comments list.
AVC: Do you even pay attention to the comments you get?
LC: No, not really. I really try not to focus on any of that—the comments, or the views, or the subscribers, or any of that. It kind of changes how you think. I’d rather just be thinking about the creative part of it.
AVC: The critics, too, have been pretty mean. Do you think critical opinion matters much?
LC: You mean for the Fred movie?
AVC: Yes, and for Fred in general.
LC: Well, I made the movie for the fans. I didn’t make it for the critics. All of my fans really liked it. We tested the movie before we put it out. We had a bunch of test audiences with kids, the core demographic, and it tested amazingly. I think we did the job pretty well.
AVC: What has playing Fred done to your romantic life?
LC: [Laughs.] I don’t know, what do you mean?
AVC: It seems like playing a hyperactive 6-year-old would be sort of a turn-off—and yet you do have a healthy female following online. Have you met actual Fred groupies?
LC: [Laughs.] Well, I don’t like girls who are crazy like that. I don’t think I’d ever date someone like that, because that would be weird, dating a hardcore Fred fan.
AVC: You’ve said you started Fred because you wanted to become an actor, but when a character becomes really famous before the actor, sometimes the actor has problems being seen as anything other than that character. Do you worry about that?
LC: No. I mean, I hope whatever character I’m doing is more famous than me. I’d rather have people talking about the character I’m doing, or the movie I’m doing, or the show I’m doing, rather than what I’m doing. Because I don’t ever want to be one of those people famous for like, “Oh, he’s dating her” or “She’s dating him”—those types of celebrities who are known for their personal lives. I’d rather be known for my professional life. Obviously my professional life right now is Fred. Since I’m known as Fred, that’s good.
AVC: Maybe you’re too young to remember Urkel from Family Matters, but your MySpace page says you like Saved By The Bell, so you’re familiar with Screech.
AVC: Those are two characters that were essentially the “Fred” of their time, and both of those actors had a lot of trouble getting away from those characters later. Have you learned anything from their examples?
LC: I’m always thinking about how I don’t want to get stuck in Fred. I don’t think it’ll be too hard, because I’m hoping the fans I’ve made with the Fred character will follow me into other endeavors. I’m hoping to debut a new YouTube character soon, so hopefully they’ll follow me into that. Also, I signed a deal with Nickelodeon for a TV show that has nothing to do with Fred, so that’ll be another good thing.
AVC: You’re talking about Marvin, Marvin, the sitcom about an alien?
AVC: So what’s the character like there? How is he different from Fred?
LC: It’s really early in the process—I can’t say too much—but the show’s premise is kind of like a modern-day Mork & Mindy. It’ll be really fun.
AVC: It’s been reported that you also recently auditioned for a part in the film adaptation of Marvel’s Runaways. Is that true?
LC: Yeah, that’s true. Yup.
AVC: What role did you audition for?
LC: [Pauses.] Uh, actually, I think that was stupid of me to mention that, to answer it in the other interview. So I’ll say, “No comment.”
AVC: You’ve done well with the Fred brand so far, what with the movie, the album, the clothing line, the various novelties, etc. Are you conscious of oversaturating the brand, or are you more about getting it while the getting is good?
LC: No, definitely I don’t want to get it while the getting is good. I want to stop it before it’s way too much. That’s why I’m already thinking ahead of what I’ll do next. I think Fred’s almost done. I mean, I’ve been doing it for four years, and it seems so much longer to me than four years. I think it’s time. I think the fans will be wanting something new soon, so I’m preparing that.
AVC: You once talked about actually killing Fred off, and then you immediately retracted it. I assume when you say Fred will be done, you’re not planning to kill him off?
LC: I did say I was going to kill him off, but I was totally joking. But then the interviewer or the reporter didn’t include the part of the quote that said, “Just kidding.” They just included the part that said I wanted to kill him, so that came off totally wrong. I don’t know. I guess I’ll just see what happens. I definitely would never kill Fred off. That would be really rude of me, especially to the younger fans. [Laughs.] But I haven’t really planned any of that. I just take it one step at a time.
AVC: How long do you think you can keep doing Fred? It would be kind of weird to be doing this as a 30-year-old man.
LC: Definitely. But that’s like, 12 years from now. I definitely hope I’m stopping before then. I guess I’ll see what happens. I did the first movie, and we’re planning a sequel. So I’ll do the sequel. I’m just hoping to do a new character.
AVC: Could you tell us anything about the new character?
LC: No. Sorry.
AVC: What else would you like to do in the future? Do you plan to go to college? Are you going to jump straight into the entertainment world?
LC: I’m not really sure. I definitely want to go to college sometime. I think my dream career would be to own my own production company and be able to write movies and star in them every once in awhile. Kind of like a Judd Apatow type of guy. That would be really fun.
AVC: When you finally do say goodbye to Fred, if you’re not going to kill him, what would you like to see happen to him?
LC: I’m not really sure. I don’t know. I don’t want to say anything, because I might regret it later, because who knows what could happen?