A Thing I Wrote a Month Ago about Kid President
I’d like to talk about my friend, Brad. Lately, he and his brother-in-law, Robbie Novak, have been in the news. Let me say two things about this.
One: it’s about time. And two: I couldn’t be happier.
I’ve had quite a few people come out of the woodwork over Kid President’s recent explosion in popularity. They know I’m a friend of Brad’s—a self-professed “best friend” (emphasis on the “self-professed”)—and they want my take on the YouTube phenomenon. Specifically, they want to know about this video.
Honestly, had “Pep Talk” not received as many hits as it did, or had it even reached the standard 10,000, 20,000, or, more recently, 200,000 hits of other Kid President videos, I might have answered, “I think ‘Pep Talk’ is good, but the Nick Hornby one—that or the Rainn Wilson one—are my favorites.” That is, I would have given it qualified praise. “Qualified praise.”
It’s a skosh ridiculous. Yet the praise is qualified because, like a lot of you, I’ve been following Brad’s work consistently for the past decade. He’s been in the business of dolling out homegrown joy, both in face-to-face conversation and through silly little videos, since I’ve known him. The hours he’s put into making ephemeral videos that are released, enjoyed, then inevitably buried in the lower depths of YouTube or Vimeo are astounding. He’s been filming—playing and honing his craft—for his entire adult life, mostly in Henderson, TN.
I’ve seen Brad’s brain on TVs and doodles and computers, and I’ve become accustomed to it. It’s what stupidly led me to give “Pep Talk” a qualified “B” or “B-.“ I looked forward to his and Robbie’s videos, and this one, though good, wasn’t really a prime cut.
Given that I’d seen 100 or so Brad-produced videos, I viewed it with habituated eyes. Brad’s the prophet from my hometown.
Roland Barthe said that the author is dead, yet that doesn’t really apply when you know the author. So I’d like to reiterate: it’s about time. For a while now, Brad’s been struggling with how to help the world. He’s made videos, started non-profits, spoke at Youth Rallies, and dreamed up camps. He’s voiced concerns about the efficacy of these projects. Yet throughout this, he’s consistently put his voice out there. He kept struggling and playing in order to add dashes of grace to the world. And struggling to help the world is the first step in actually helping the world.
He works with simple ideas. Sometimes the English major part of me, critical and distant, comes with claws to dissect those ideas. I look for loopholes, note the lack of nuance in Kid President’s solutions. I laugh, certainly, but I secretly wonder what a childlike plan—simply worded, emphasizing love, action, and community—can accomplish in the face of a very dark adult world. Don’t elementary messages (especially motivational and therapeutic messages, the likes of which Oprah, Eckhard Tollie, etc. spew) add to the problem? The cynical part of me knows that the world’s not changed this way—believes the result of Kid President’s “propaganda” will lead solely to the very outcome he desires: dancing. It might strike one as fiddling as the world burns.
But this mindset denies the simplicity of our most significant messages. It denies that, oftentimes, simple messages prove most effective. Some people are able to take the message “as is,” uncritically (it is delivered by a kid) but many of us must “recover the artifact.” For the highly critical and the cynical alike—we might say for the adult—this proves a struggle. In fact, James K. A. Smith, in his new book Imagining the Kingdom, cites David Foster Wallace as an advocate for the simple. In Infinite Jest, Wallace writes of Geoffrey Day, an “intellectualist” suspicious of AA’s litany of clichés. In response to Day’s balking, his AA sponsor says the following:
There’s no set way to argue intellectual-type stuff about the Program. Surrender to Win, Give it Away to Keep It. God As You Understand Him. You can’t think about it like an intellectual thing. Trust me because I’ve been there, man. You can analyze til you’re breaking tables with your forehead…
In his commencement address to Kenyon College students, Wallace similarly argues for the power of clichés: they contain the deepest of truths, yet because of their simplicity we gloss over their power. Our responsibility is to see them with new eyes. Gingerly though. Deconstruct them and they lose their magic.
In AA, you commit to simple truths and, through repetition, you do the impossible. You rewire your brain. You enter recovery.
Stop being boring; don’t stop believing; keep going; “you were made to be awesome”; get out there and create.
All delivered by a cool little President.
These messages are rarely therapeutic pats on the back or ego massages for a narcissistic nation. Kid President admonishes. (It IS a pep talk, after all.) Sure, KP is saying you have potential, but he’s also saying You’re not where you’re supposed to be and You’re not living up to your latent possibilities.
When I examine this video, from its cinematography to its musical cues, I think of one of my favorite TV shows, Friday Night Lights. And then to coach Eric Taylor, a character I’ve jokingly informed Brad is (besides Brad) my number one role model. Taylor’s goodness stems from his telling you not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear to realize your potential.
The mantras of AA and the admonitions found in the Kid President videos can seem patronizing in their simplicity. But in truth, 1) clichés are often the very messages we need to hear, and 2) Brad knows that the simple is still worth saying. (His role model is Mr. Rogers.) He’d like to see a different world, and he’s encouraging you to make it so. To partake in the greatest form of rebellion available to us: joy. Dancing.
He wants things to be different. It oozes from his videos. And delivered by a kid—a Kid President, “clothed with immense power!”—we listen. The dude carries authority. He’s got a dope suit.
Brad can grow frustrated with Robby: the guy only has an attention span of around 30 minutes, leaving Brad to film pretty “run and gun,” oftentimes producing footage solely by means of groveling. But despite his far-from-saintly, child-like characteristics, Robby really is the very embodiment of joy in the face of a dark world. He has brittle bone disease, but he’s happy. He likes being here. He likes Justin Bieber and dancing and the drums and Adventure Time. This is not to say that, if you suffer, Kid President automatically expects you to be joyful. It doesn’t mean you don’t suffer pain, or that, for some people, life is pain. Some people literally cannot dance. “They also serve who stand and wait.”
But for those that can yet don’t dance…
This may come across as hyperbolic, but Christ DID say the kingdom of heaven is made up of those like little children.
Brad’s goal is simple: to bring joy. He’s been doing it for a long time. You can accuse him of a child-like quality or, if you’d like to get harsh, of having a Peter Pan complex. But if we’re able, we all need to attempt to allow more kid in us. C.S. Lewis famously said, “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
Brad pushes joy. It can offend those of us who cozy up in our cynical adult cubbyholes—those who wish to intellectualize and judge everything that comes across our viewfinder. But Brad wants people to join in the parade. He wants the confetti. He wants to see the kingdom lived.
Simple messages, repeated his entire adult life. Make joy, guided by a philosophy of joy.
Be joyful! “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth!” Even after school shootings, be joyful. Even through your own suffering, by joyful! Because “you were made to be awesome,” be joyful. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!”
I’m happy for my friend Brad. He’s been spreading joy for a while now. May he continue to do so, with God’s mercy.
Now let’s get to dancing.