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“Johny Johny Yes Papa”: the meme born from YouTube’s hellscape of kids’ videos, explained

How a banal nursery rhyme spawned the creepiest meme of 2018.

Billion Surprise Toys/YouTube
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Have you been eating sugar and telling lies? If you have, you’re among friends — or at least among the many people on the internet who’ve turned a kids’ video from YouTube into a bizarre, many-layered meme about a big-headed Boss Baby clone who’s learning to lie to his strict parents, possibly by way of some slick dance moves.

The meme is named after the song at its center, “Johny Johny Yes Papa,” which is the foundation for an extremely trippy viral video that racked up nearly 300,000 likes when it was casually shared on Twitter last week by a user named @b6ner, who offered the crass but admittedly apt commentary, “i’m losing my fucking mind.” The video has since been yanked from YouTube due to a copyright claim — more on that in a moment — but not before the meme it spawned took on a life of its own.

No description of the video can really do it justice; to truly understand the sordid tale of “Johny Johny,” you’ll have to watch for yourself. While nearly all other iterations of this particular version have been scrubbed from the web, you can enjoy a fun remix of the song itself, complete with the meme-starting melody and vocals, here:

And you can watch the full video — albeit with different music — in this meme version, which replaces the original’s lyrics and melody with a thumping techno soundtrack:

In short, it’s a largely nonsensical animated joint about a kid named Johny, set amid a candy-colored backdrop and a pulsing uptempo beat. It’s two minutes and 22 seconds of Johny sneaking around to eat plain sugar straight from a jar and getting caught by his mustachioed dad, with plenty of dance breaks.

All this weirdness has yielded a deeply unusual meme that has spread across the internet in several directions, reaching both the mainstream internet and its outer, more subversive edges. The video’s fragmented, slightly absurdist lyrics and sugar-based parent-child conflict have inspired a bizarre mythos that expands Johny’s family dynamics into a portrait of nuclear family dysfunction, complete with weird psychosexual elements and hints of dark secrets.

There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it down one step at a time. All you need to know before we begin is that “Johny Johny Yes Papa” is essentially an amalgamation of many strands of internet culture, knotted together in a kind of Dadaist CGI rinse cycle. And like all memes of its ilk, it’s much more than the sum of its parts.

The video that spawned the meme is itself a hodgepodge of elements recycled from the internet, starting with its nursery rhyme lyrics

The “Johny Johny” meme video originated on a YouTube channel called Billion Surprise Toys, which actually hosts a whole series of similar videos in which the gleefully disobedient Johny gets caught stealing food from his parents. Here’s one that’s similar to the original, now-deleted video, to give you an idea.

But the song in Billion Surprise Toys’ video, “Johny Johny Yes Papa,” predates the channel by years. It has many iterations, one of the earliest of which, on YouTube anyway, is a 2009 rendition, apparently of Indian origin, with “Johny” spelled “Johnny” and set to the familiar melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little, Star.”

As noted by that video’s creator, the Indian preschool franchise Shemrock, the lyrics are as follows:

Johnny Johnny! Yes, Papa?
Eating sugar? No, Papa.
Telling lies? No, Papa.
Open your mouth
O Ha! Ha! Ha!

So it’s a simple nursery rhyme, one that appears to have ties to India and Southeast Asia, and one that seems to be suitable for kids to understand and sing along with. Since that 2009 version was posted to YouTube, the song itself has been the subject of hundreds of videos. Up until recently, the most successful version was posted in 2013 by the India-based kids’ YouTube powerhouse ChuChu TV:

The important thing to understand about the companies making these videos is that they are often extremely successful on YouTube. One compilation video of ChuChu TV songs (including “Johny Johny”) has more than 1.5 billion views. And because YouTube’s algorithm can be easily manipulated to continuously surface incrementally similar content designed to mindlessly entertain small children, there’s a huge platform-induced incentive to churn out endless, repetitive videos that essentially regurgitate the same content over and over again, with slight variations.

So we don’t just have one single version of the “Johny Johny Yes Papa” song; we have hundreds, with subtle differences in music and video content and structure. There’s even a subreddit that, since 2014, has chronicled many of them.

“Johny” isn’t the only new nursery rhyme-style song to receive this kind of treatment on YouTube. For instance, the familiar “Five Little Ducks“ song that you may remember from your own childhood is one of endless repetitions of counting songs that include “five little monkeys” and “five little frogs.” A YouTube search for variants on these videos yields just under 2 million results.

Then there’s the notorious (among parents, anyway) “Finger Family,” which accounts for about 400,000 YouTube videos.

Each of these songs has essentially spawned its own endless repetitive kids’ song subcycle within an endless, algorithm-manipulating YouTube subculture. In the case of “Johny,” for example, there are live-action versions, versions for adults, and educational versions. Additionally, the breadth and scope of whatever Johny’s lying about changes substantially from song to song and verse to verse, from eating various sweet foods to shirking rituals like dressing before school or getting ready for bed. And some of the individual video variants have racked up literally billions of views — again, for the companies that are in the sole business of producing them.

One such company, based in Dubai, runs Billion Surprise Toys. In creating the “Johny Johny” video behind the meme, it was presumably following the “typical” YouTube kids’ video playbook of producing a new, slightly altered version of an existing and already popular video in an effort to manipulate YouTube’s algorithm. To do this, it added a few special CGI quirks to make the video stand out from its many fellows. And musically, it took a highly efficient shortcut that’s used all the time in these types of videos: It combined the lyrics of “Johny Johny” with the tune from another viral kids’ hit.

The music and dancing in Billion Surprise Toys’ now-deleted “Johny Johny” video came from other familiar sources with lots of kid-friendly appeal

One of YouTube’s most popular kid-centric mega-channels is Pinkfong. Overseen by a Korean education and entertainment company, Pinkfong has racked up more than 5 billion views total — and over 1.5 billion of those views come from a single video: “Baby Shark Dance.”

For the obvious reason that the “Baby Shark Dance” video is well-made and adorable, boasts a ridiculously catchy song (doo-doo-doo-da-doo), and mixes animation with live action instead of relying solely on generic CGI, the video has been a global hit among the toddler set — and, by extension, their parents — since it was first posted in 2016. In 2017, it even spawned an Indonesian dance craze that saw families and communities around the country doing versions of the dance:

Like every other song mentioned here, “Baby Shark Dance” has spawned its own offshoots and variants. So it’s to be expected that Billion Surprise Toys — which has been on YouTube since 2013 and which, like Pinkfong, boasts more than 5 billion total views — would have noticed the popularity of “Baby Shark Dance.”

This is where “Johny Johny Yes Papa” comes in. Rather than simply tweaking and remaking either work, the company took the lyrics of “Johny Johny” (such as they are) and combined them with the musical theme of “Baby Shark Dance” (such as it is). Then it added the wide-eyed, big-headed CGI baby, his disciplinarian father, his disciplinarian father’s mustache, and a whole mashup of familiar dance moves.

As you can see from the GIFs of the video in this story, it’s a pretty sophisticated effort for a silly clip designed to keep toddlers staring at YouTube. In fact, the method by which this video was almost certainly made also tells us something about why it spread so rapidly and suddenly.

Witness how Mustache Dad is essentially performing a sequence of already famous dance moves, like the horse gallop from Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video and Beyoncé’s iconic “Single Ladies” strut. The moves were likely recreated from original videos of Psy and Beyoncé using publicly available motion capture files and then imported into 3D graphics software and “skinned” with the character of Johny’s dad.

The result is simultaneously a step further removed from its two predecessors and much weirder to (non-toddler) people who’ve never heard of “Johny Johny” or “Baby Shark Dance.”

And the bizarreness of the video — combined with the sudden realization, for many, that Billion Surprise Toys has made several kids’ videos about Johny and his family, where Johny is always getting busted for one thing or another in progressively more disturbing scenarios — was what made it such perfect meme fodder.

“Johny Johny” introduced millions of people to Billion Surprise Toys’ hellscape of a kid video universe; memes ensued

The kids’ videos on YouTube aren’t intended to be memes, even though they essentially function like memes by spawning endless iterations of themselves. But they have also spawned real memes, like these clearly ironic takes on the “Johny Johny” nursery rhyme:

(Please note that the obvious irony here doesn’t make them any less creepy.)

Since Billion Surprise Toys’ “Johny Johny” video has gone mainstream, it’s generated a number of fairly mainstream reactions that celebrate its lighter aspects and mashes them together with other memes — you know, typical meme fare.

Twitter

But it’s also generated many wide-eyed, taken-aback analyses of just what is happening in these many videos. This video in particular, in which Johny’s dad is suddenly mad at him for simply eating breakfast, has made the rounds as fodder for one thread of the “Johny Johny” meme that warns of him being trapped in an abusive household.

It’s not as if no one knew that kids’ videos can be, er, weird and creepy. Like classic nursery rhymes and fairy tales, which often appear horrifying from an adult perspective, the sorts of random elements that make these types of videos catchy and entertaining to kids can take on surreal and distorted overtones when viewed through an adult lens.

For instance, in many of the other Billion Surprise Toys videos that reveal glimpses of Johny’s life, he’s shadowed by a giant talking ice cream cone:

Oh, and there’s a walking anthropomorphic fridge that at one point seems to be a sibling who calls Johny’s mother “Mommy”:

And the further you go down the rabbit hole of Billion Surprise Toys’ videos, the weirder and edgier they get.

The world’s attention was arguably first drawn to the rabbit hole of these kinds of stories after last year’s massively viral Medium post “Something is wrong on the internet,” in which its author, James Bridle, made a classic “think of the children” argument that YouTube videos for kids are tailored to lead to bizarre, distorted, dark, and violent ends. Bridle emphatically cautioned that kids might start out enjoying cute rhyming songs about sleeping bunnies, but eventually the YouTube algorithm’s iterative process leads them down a path to videos of superheroes beating each other up.

Bridle’s post was a wake-up call for many people about the nature of YouTube’s algorithm and the way it can trend toward extremes. That’s a valid concern. But in his hand-wringing, Bridle sidestepped the inherent truth that these kinds of children’s stories have always been kinda effed up.

Stuff that might delight a toddler — like a giant talking ice cream cone that sleeps in their bed and hangs out with them at home — often feels disturbing to adults. And with the “Johny” meme, that weird, wordless WTF quality seems to have gained a viral memetic quality, as the internet’s good citizens try to reconcile the hypnotic humor of these videos with the hilariously dark implications of Johny’s domestic situation.

In search of the meaning behind it all, Johny’s family members have been ranked and his dad’s hotness debated. And memers have taken the story into their own hands — in some cases with extremely dark results:

In essence, it seems to be the rare meme that appeals to every kind of meme-maker and every kind of audience.

But there’s one party that’s not happy about any of this — the video’s creator.

The YouTube channel that unintentionally gave us the “Johny Johny” meme is now trying to curtail its spread across the web

With the internet’s adult meme-makers taking the meme in directions like this one, a new wrinkle has emerged in the form of a massive copyright crackdown by the video’s creator, Billion Surprise Toys. The media website Dazed, which received a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice over the video, confirmed the claim’s origin to Vox. Billion Surprise Toys seems to have gone all out to eradicate the memetic spread of its video, including by issuing a DMCA takedown to the original massively viral tweet that started it all, disabling embedding for many of the videos across its channel, and apparently deleting or obscuring the link to the original video on YouTube. It has also issued takedown notices to just about every image-based follow-up we could find.

Granted, there’s justification for the channel to freak out and try to stop the meme before it gets even less kid-appropriate. But all the memes are squarely within the realm of fair use — and, more significantly, it seems highly dubious that Billion Surprise Toys’ copyright claim would stand up on its own.

The company could not be reached for comment, but given how generic and memetic all the elements in its video are, it seems as though the company has little legal claim against meme-makers who have ramped up young Johny’s popularity — even though some of those memes might be damaging to Billion Surprise Toys’ brand as a kid-friendly channel.

To state the obvious, it owns the copyright to neither of the two songs it combined, since “Johny” existed for years before Billion Surprise Toys made a video about him and his sugar consumption. “Baby Shark Dance,” was popularized internationally as a camp song with many variants, long before Pinkfong came along. So at a glance, it stands to reason that any copyright claim in this case is invalid.

Still, the DMCA notices have definitely slowed the spread of the video, at least for now. And for some onlookers, no doubt overwhelmed by the mix of catchy, creepy, and just plain strange entertainment the videos offer, that’s a relief:

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