The story of the little boy is a thread that only the Internet could weave.
In 2007, performance artist Jack Ferver appeared in a cleverly bizarre advertisement for Berries and Cream Starburst candies, playing a “Little Boy” in antique costume who sang and danced to his love for berries and cream. The crazy absurdity of the spot – and a accompanying dance tutorial, in which the boy paid homage to his late “mum” – seemed to scratch a specific itch. Both videos became the first viral hits online.
Fourteen years and many iterations of social media culture later, podcaster and comedian Justin McElroy uploaded a clip of the song and dance “berries and cream” to TikTok, where 2000s nostalgia had become. a trope.
“You don’t want to get too hyperbolic about a 30-second commercial, but Jack as a little boy is both hysterical and oddly subversive,” McElroy said. “It’s one of those things that you post on YouTube every once in a while just to see if it’s as weird as you remember it.” In his January TikTok post, he begged, “Please make great art with this.”
Which brings us back to the boy himself. Since filming the Berries and Cream commercial, Ferver, who uses the them / them pronouns, has become a professor at Bard College and has built a body of often dark and funny psychological dance-drama works. Although well regarded in the New York art scene, Ferver was relatively unknown outside of it – until TikTok’s rebirth of the Starburst character.
In September, Ferver, now 42, created @thereallittlelad TikTok account and started creating short monologues and character dances. His inspired, slightly imbalance posts delighted “berries and cream” on TikTok. In one month, The Little Lad had more than 2 million followers. Ferver also launched a Youtube channel, which allowed the boy more space to sing songs about mom, explore ASMR and share hair care tips. Eventually, Starburst caught the trend, hiring Ferver for a TikTok ad campaign. (The brand has teased bringing back the flavor of berries and cream.)
The Little Lad viral wave may have already reached its peak. But Ferver, now indelibly associated with the character, sees him as a piece with their other performance art. Recently, they talked about the little boy’s crazy ride. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You weren’t a TikTok person before all of this, were you?
Not at all. I did a TikTok post as Jack Ferver for a commission in 2020. And then I thought, I don’t know what to do with this app. I am old!
How did you hear about the berry and cream trend on TikTok?
This summer, all of my friends continued to send me TikToks from people doing Little Lad content. It sounded very “Twin Peaks” to me. Like “The little boy: the return”.
It was [the dancer and costume designer] Reid Bartelme, my best friend and former podcast co-host, who used to say, “You have do something. ”You know, in his classic way of pushing Sagittarius out the door. So I thought, OK, I’m going to go to Wigs and Plus and buy a wig and do this TikTok and then see how it goes. I certainly hadn’t planned to have two million followers in a month.
Looking back at the 2007 commercial, it looks a lot like a Jack Ferver production. How much of the original Little Lad comes from you?
There was a script, and it was collaborative. But a lot was me. For my audition, I probably did this song and danced 16 different ways. I remember thinking it should be a simple kid’s dance, something anyone could do, like spin a rose.
A dance anyone could do – you were doing a TikTok dance. In 2007.
Which is so weird, isn’t it? It sounds like that precursor to TikTok dances – even to the extent that it had that viral “how-to” component, which is also very TikTok.
What do you think of the initial success of the ad?
Most of the time, I felt lucky. I wanted to do my own work, and a commercial that took a few days to film would allow me to sustain myself long enough to advance one of my pioneering performances.
Once you started posting TikToks as a little boy, you built the character really quickly.
I mean, I did 16 feature films. I’ve been in all of these theatrical, television and film productions. I am a writer who grew up as a performer.
And you had the weirdness of advertising to lean on.
Something that strikes me as exciting about the little boy on TikTok, and feels really true to the original ad, is that you get mystery and humor, and doing both at the same time is difficult.
Also, as I understood how TikTok worked, I let this inform what the little boy was doing. TikTok has this community component that these other platforms don’t have. What I found interesting was responding to people who were commenting and really getting into that little boy’s interpretive area. This is another work of performance art.
What is involved in your Little Lad transformation?
Hairdressing and makeup are part of it. It creates a lot of containers, a lot of structure, and then a free association within that. None of these TikToks are premeditated. YouTube videos are unscripted. And that’s partly because I’m curious about what could come up with that. Is it something that could become a spectacle? May be.
I hope that wasn’t too esoteric an answer. The thing is, I concocted looks, and my best girlfriend Parker [Posey, the actor] has a farm in the upstate, where I’m going to shoot a lot.
I keep wondering if we’ll see more of Jack’s world in Little Lad’s posts.
This is something I thought about: Do I, Jack Ferver, bring my own life to all of this? I had even been reluctant to do an interview about it, because I wanted to keep the Little Boy as mysterious as possible. There has been this whole debate about whether the little boy was really me, and I loved reading these articles. I felt like I was in a TikTok Elena Ferrante moment.
But I guess enough people know it’s me at this point. And the kindness of the people who respond to the little boy also really binds him to everything I do as Jack Ferver. The reason I do work is that I want to help people feel more kindness and feel less alone.
The Little Lad community is an unusually nice corner of the Internet.
One way we see commentators kindly remember you, Jack Ferver, using them / them pronouns.
I felt very empowered by what I saw from TikTok in terms of breaking away from categorical thinking – with genre, with everything.
And by the way, Jack Ferver is them / them, but the little boy said they use all the pronouns. I, feeling like the parent of the little boy here, want to make sure that the little boy includes everyone, that they invite everyone to play.
You’ve had a long career in performance, and yet the little boy will likely be how most people will know you. How does that feel?
It was all so surprising! What a gift to be surprised at this point in my life. If I heard someone else tell this story – “There was this performance artist, and they did this commercial that had this resurgence, and they did these TikToks” – I’d be like, It sounds weird! That looks interesting! Tell me more!