Over the past year, YouTube has found the spotlight on itself in an unflattering way. Amid other controversies, the site has faced a considerable backlash over the amount of, to be delicate, “odd” children’s content on its service. YouTube serves as a default entertainment source for young children, and a type of automated babysitter for parents. Just put your kid in front of YouTube and let the algorithms guide them. Within this system, video uploaders have found a rich vein in making low-quality children’s content using popular characters and freely available online resources, so the videos can be served up by the site’s recommendation system.
This August, that tension has exploded with the mainstream arrival of Billion Surprise Toys, a YouTube channel that, as far as I know, doesn’t actually sell any toys. “We make screen time count by delivering the right content, to the right child. We match fun, educational videos to your child’s unique interests,” the creators write on their Comic Sans–heavy website. “Our videos are easy to access and watch across various platforms and devices. We believe in the power of technology to be a force for good in our children’s lives.” Billion Surprise Toys is an offshoot of the Dubai-based Animacast International, and the strategy is pretty simple:
1. Place the word toy in the name of the YouTube channel (young kids love watching videos of toys)
2. Pepper said channel with low-grade, easily produced CGI of characters performing public-domain nursery rhymes.
A video from the channel went viral earlier this month, and it’s a lot easier to explain if you just watch it first.
Okay … where to begin? The song is as good a place as any. Many dubious nursery-rhyme databases are telling me its called “Johny Johny Yes Papa.” The lyrics in their entirety are:
Open your mouth!
Ha! Ha! Ha!
I will freely admit that I have never heard this song in my life. The kid is eating sugar? Or not? The laugh at the end is very ambiguous. Anyhow, you can find thousands of poorly animated “Johny Johny Yes Papa” videos on YouTube. They’ve been slowly accreting on the site for years, along with a near-infinite number of other nursery-rhyme videos.
So why has this specific video taken off? There are multiple versions of the song on Billion Surprise Toys’ channel alone, each of which have millions of views, the sign that a kids’ channel has effectively gamed YouTube. All of them star this young couple and their enormous-headed baby. It’s probably not a mistake that Johny here looks like a Boss Baby casting reject.
Adding to the weirdness is the dance moves performed by the father-son pair, who at one point busts out the horse dance from “Gangnam Style.” It’s not hard to find the motion-capture files for dance moves only, ready to be skinned with whatever CGI character your heart desires. See also: dancing Pokémon, dancing Peach and Daisy).
So that’s how we ended up here, meme-ing a nursery rhyme because of an insane video that seems to have crashed to Earth via a portal from an alternate universe.
Dig a little deeper into the Billion Surprise Toys channel and you’ll find any number of other horrors. A creature made of ice cream who sleeps in Johny’s house, a family of anthropomorphic buses, a dog that wears a onesie, Chiya (a baby with tiny eyes who has definitely killed), Uncle Bob (who is definitely a toddler with a mustache), and a talking refrigerator.
The refrigerator one is specifically weird because there are numerous remixes of “Johny Johny Yes Papa” in which the family requests food from the appliance’s innards.
Anyhow, the horrors of the channel have broken everyone’s brain.
In researching the cast of Billion Surprise Toys, I encountered this official image of Papa reading a newspaper. The CG newspaper is obviously a stock asset sold online because if you zoom in on the bottom, you’ll find a headline about the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in 1898. This, of course, calls into question when exactly these videos are taking place in the timeline of humanity, and how old Papa and his large-headed ward really are.
Broken down into parts, every part of this confounding video seems to make sense. Create or buy a few simple CGI assets that resemble popular franchises, plug in some simple character animations, and set it to public-domain music. Kids almost never realize the difference, and publishers can make a lot of money through YouTube by clearing that low bar. Billion Surprise Toys is just at the extreme end of the spectrum. It’s an imitation of children’s programming that exists in the uncanny valley and heightens the viewer’s discomfort. There is an entire ecosystem of this vaguely disturbing stuff lurking in the depths of YouTube Kids — the explosion of this meme is a result of adults who can detect those crucial differences in quality and intent stumbling into that world.
We are, if you haven’t picked up by now, all completely insane, and our new gods are the Billion Surprise Toys family, who watch over us with their enormous, glossy eyes and sustain themselves with food from the magic fridge. All Hail Billion Surprise Toys.