The little lad? Berries and cream? Call it performance art.
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The little lad? Berries and cream? Call it performance art.
A phone shows Jack Ferver in a TikTok video in New York, Nov. 7, 2021. Ferver, the creator of a well-regarded body of dance-theater works, has also become a TikTok phenomenon because of a Starburst ad from 2007. Yudi Ela/The New York Times.

by Margaret Fuhrer

NEW YORK, NY.- The tale of the Little Lad is a yarn only the internet could spin.

In 2007, performance artist Jack Ferver appeared in a cunningly strange commercial for Berries and Cream Starburst candy, playing a “Little Lad” in antique garb who sang and danced about his love for berries and cream. The screwball absurdity of the spot — and an accompanying dance tutorial, in which the Lad paid tribute to his late “mummy” — seemed to scratch a specific itch. Both videos became early viral hits online.

Fourteen years and many iterations of social media culture later, podcaster and comedian Justin McElroy uploaded a clip of the “berries and cream” song and dance to TikTok, where mining 2000s nostalgia had become a trope.

“You don’t want to get too hyperbolic about a 30-second commercial, but Jack as the Little Lad is both hysterical and weirdly subversive,” McElroy said. “It’s one of those things you pull up on YouTube every now and then just to see if it’s as strange as you remember it.” In his January TikTok post, he entreated: “Please make great art with this.”

TikTok answered the call. Thousands of young users — many discovering the character for the first time — began uploading their own Little Lad tributes and creating “berries and cream” song mashups.

Which brings us back to the Lad himself. Since filming the Berries and Cream commercial, Ferver, who uses they/them pronouns, has become a professor at Bard College and built a body of psychological dance-theater works that are often darkly funny. Although well regarded on the New York arts scene, Ferver was relatively unknown outside of it — until the Starburst character’s TikTok renaissance.

In September, Ferver, now 42, set up @thereallittlelad TikTok account and began creating short monologues and dances in character. His inspired, slightly unhinged posts delighted “berries and cream” TikTok. Within a month, the Little Lad had more than 2 million followers. Ferver also started a YouTube channel, which allowed the Lad more space to sing songs about Mummy, explore ASMR and share hair care tips. Eventually, Starburst caught on to the trend, hiring Ferver for a TikTok ad campaign. (The brand has teased bringing back the Berries and Cream flavor.)

The Little Lad’s viral wave may already have crested. But Ferver, now indelibly associated with the character, sees it as of a piece with their other performance art. Recently, they spoke about the Little Lad’s wild ride. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: You weren’t a TikTok person before all of this, right?

A: Not at all. I did one 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’m old!

Q: How did you hear about the “berries and cream” trend on TikTok?

A: This summer, all of my friends kept sending me TikToks of people doing Little Lad content. It felt very “Twin Peaks” to me. Like, “The Little Lad: The Return.”

It was [dancer and costume designer] Reid Bartelme, my best friend and former podcast co-host, who was like, “You have to do something.” You know, in his classic Sagittarius push-you-out-the-door way. So I thought, OK, I’ll go to Wigs and Plus and get a wig and do this TikTok and then see how it goes. I certainly didn’t anticipate getting 2 million followers in a month.

Q: Rewatching the 2007 ad now, it feels very much like a Jack Ferver production. How much of the original Little Lad came from you?

A: There was a script, and it was collaborative. But a lot was me. For my audition, I probably did that song and dance 16 different ways. I remember thinking, this should be a simple child’s dance, something that anyone could do, like ring-around-a-rosy.

Q: A dance that anyone could do — you were making a TikTok dance. In 2007.

A: Which is so bizarre, right? It does feel like this precursor to the TikTok dances — even in that it had this viral component of “how to do it,” which is also very TikTok.

Q: What were your feelings about the ad’s initial success?

A: Mostly I just felt lucky. I wanted to make my own work, and one ad that took a couple of days to film would allow me to sustain myself long enough to get one of my vanguard performance pieces forward.

Q: Once you started posting TikToks as the Little Lad, you built out the character very quickly.

A: I mean, I’ve made 16 full-length works. I’ve been in all these theater and TV and film productions. I’m a writer who grew up as a performer.

Q: And you had the strangeness of the commercial to build on.

A: Something that feels exciting to me about the Little Lad on TikTok, and feels really true to the original ad, is that you get mystery and you get humor, and to do both at the same time is hard.

Also, as I caught on to how TikTok works, I let that inform what the Little Lad was doing. TikTok has this community component to it that these other platforms don’t. What I found interesting was writing back to people who were commenting, and really getting into that zone of performing the Little Lad. It’s another performance art piece.

Q: What’s involved in your Little Lad transformation?

A: The hair and makeup is a big part of it. It’s creating a lot of container, a lot of structure, and then free-associating inside of that. None of these TikToks are premeditated. The YouTube videos are not scripted. And part of that is because I’m curious about what could happen with it. Is this something that could become a show? Maybe.

I hope that wasn’t too esoteric an answer. The brass tacks of it are that I’ve put together some looks, and my best girlfriend Parker [Posey, the actor] has a farmhouse upstate, where I’ll shoot a lot of things.

Q: I keep wondering if we’ll see more of Jack’s world in the Little Lad’s posts.

A: That’s something I’ve been thinking about: Do I, Jack Ferver, bring my own life into this whole thing? I’d been reticent even to do an interview about this, because I wanted to keep the Little Lad as mysterious as possible. There was all this debate about if the Little Lad was actually me, and I loved reading those posts. 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 Lad really ties it into everything I make as Jack Ferver, too. The whole reason I make work is that I want to help people experience more kindness and feel less alone.

Q: The Little Lad community is an unusually kind corner of the internet.

A: So kind!

Q: One way we see that is commenters gently reminding each other that you, Jack Ferver, use they/them pronouns.

A: I’ve felt very bolstered from what I’ve seen from TikTok in terms of breaking away from categorical thinking — with gender, with everything.

And by the way, Jack Ferver is they/them, but the Little Lad has said they use all pronouns. I, feeling like the parent of the Little Lad here, am interested in making sure the Little Lad includes everybody, that they invite everyone to play.

Q: You’ve had an extensive performance career, and yet the Little Lad is probably going to be the way most of the world knows you. How does that feel?

A: This whole thing has been 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, Sounds bizarre! Sounds interesting! Tell me more!

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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