The Creator of ‘Potter Puppet Pals’ Talks About Finding His Voice Online and In Somerville
Thirty minutes into our conversation, Neil Cicierega politely suggests that he’s open to talking about his experience of living in Somerville for the past eight years.
Between tales of phone calls with the Warner Bros. legal department over unlicensed merch from his beloved “Potter Puppet Pals” web series, his prolific output of Smash Mouth-inspired song mashups, and the hundreds of millions of views that come with being a pioneer of early YouTube-era humor, the thought of asking him anything about Somerville had honestly slipped my mind.
As evidenced by his sheepish, yet welcoming demeanor, and the fact that the barista at Diesel Café where we meet has to ask his name twice before taking his order, Cicierega’s level of YouTube celebrity around the city is modest. Which might be the ideal outcome for an artist who found his identity through the internet just as much as he shaped the internet’s identity.
I’m Neil Cicierega and, due to a bizarre set of circumstances, I have a creative career,” Cicierega began with a nervous laugh while opening his talk at the arts- and tech-based XOXO Festival in 2016.
The title of “content creator” may seem accurate for Cicierega, but a little stodgy considering the kind of content he makes, so the video on XOXO’s channel lists his occupation simply as an “Internet Person.” As far as explaining his nearly 20-year career of generating absurdly humorous media for millions of fans online, the title is fairly apropos for the 32-year-old artist/musician/comedian/career polyglot.
“It’s really hard to explain to people, and I never sound confident when I do,” he says. “But it’s my job to do what I want to do, create what I want to create, and hope that enough people like it enough where I stay afloat.”
Growing up a stone’s throw from Somerville in Boston, Cicierega’s career path received an unforeseen catalyst in the late ’90s when his parents pulled him from his fourth grade classes in favor of homeschooling. Adopting a loose curriculum comprising one annual, state-observed test provided boundless amounts of time for him and his two siblings to explore their interests.
Cicierega’s initial gold mine was in “animutations,” a burgeoning format of Flash animations pairing non-sequitur pop culture references with misheard lyrics from Japanese music.
“I was used to moving little pictures around and not drawing anything,” he says, somewhat critical in retrospect. “I wasn’t really an artist.”
Nevertheless, Cicierega was at the forefront of a new, online-based comedy movement. It was a mantle he would continue to shape when he discovered his sister Emmy’s humorously drawn comics paying tribute to an iconic boy wizard and his magical friends.
“She drew little comics of Harry Potter characters as puppets doing wacky stuff, and I thought it would make a great animation,” Cicierega recalls. “I came up with voices for everyone and spent, like, two straight days or something putting it all together. I kind of taught myself how to make vector drawings of the characters and animated them about as smoothly as you could get away with in 2003.”
He uploaded “Bothering Snape” to user-content site Newgrounds in September 2003 as a surprise for Emmy. The minute-and-a-half-long video features Harry Potter and Ron Weasley as puppets headbutting Professor Snape until he casts a killing curse on the duo.
“It ended up blowing everything else out of the water,” Cicierega says. “I remember being really proud with how well-animated they were because I was making trash, nonsense animation before that point.”
A sequel, “Trouble at Hogwarts,” followed that December, and then came a live-action puppet reprisal on his new YouTube channel in 2006. With an international fan base now tuning in, Cicierega stuck to his eccentrically humorous sensibilities, most notably on series highlight “The Mysterious Ticking Noise.”
A self-described “weird little one-off” musical episode, “Ticking Noise”—which turns 15 this year—features the main characters singing their own names and culminates with the lethal discovery of a pipe bomb. It’s the series’ most-watched and best-known episode at 181 million views. The video caught the attention of J.K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe, the latter of whom joked with MTV News about doing a live-action parody for charity in 2010.
For Cicierega, as overwhelming as the celebrity attention was, the success of “Ticking Noise” served a more important purpose—of crystallizing the tenants of the nascent YouTube comedy world as irreverently pop culture-driven, sometimes nonsensical, and almost always willing to try anything.
“I feel like I can always reliably amuse people within a certain age range, because we all grew up with Homestar Runner and early YouTube’s ‘wild, wild west’ kind of humor,” Cicierega says. “That kind of surreal humor has matured and people will recognize it as a staple of the internet that’s not going away now, which has made me a little more comfortable with following my instincts and not worrying about whether or not something is truly going to be appreciated.”
While many early YouTube pioneers fell off the map over the ensuing decade, Cicierega remains a rare example of consistency in the digital age. Millenials of a certain age still play “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny,” a 2005 viral hit by Cicierega-fronted band Lemon Demon about an imagined celebrity deathmatch, just as readily as his multiple Smash Mouth mashups released over the last five years. Yes, multiple.
Cicierega still produces Patreon-backed videos with longtime friends/collaborators Kevin James and Ryan Murphy under the collective name Guaranteed Video alongside his own projects. Featuring Somerville regularly as a backdrop, Cicierega views the city as a sort of enclave for creatives like him and his wife, comic book artist and animator Ming Doyle, to create roots in an often untethered industry.
“There’s a lot of creatively invigorating art stuff going on here, even if it’s not specific to my really internet-based brand of art,” he says. “I choose to be in front of a computer for most of the day, but it’s nice to go out and be able to socialize in this creative place right away without having to make a day trip out of it.”
Aside from scoring a “really outsider film project” for friends in the near future, Cicierega’s creative plans are fairly open, dictated solely by when creativity strikes next, as they’ve been for the better part of two decades.
“Because the internet is so big, the dream of being one of the most well-known people on the internet doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “I try not to worry too much about whether what I’m doing right now is going to lead to something more legitimate or bigger or if it’s going to run out of steam. It hasn’t yet and, if anything, it’s only become more concrete that this is my job.”