Tracking the BBC Dad Meme’s Transformation into Artistic Satire
Earlier this month, two cheeky kids barged in on their dad, professor Robert E. Kelly, during a live Skype interview with BBC. Minutes later, the footage was spreading fast and hard across the internet and a new meme—one that coaxed laughter even from the mouths of curmudgeons—was born. Just hours after the segment aired, it had already been viewed on Facebook more than 30 million times.
But smiles weren’t the only aftereffects the blooper inspired. Artist-designed spoofs emerged, too. Two of the most impactful reveal how, through the imaginative interpretation of a lighthearted meme, artists can deliver political satire (like a witty jab at President Donald Trump) and experimental art to more eyeballs than was once thought possible.
The two spoofs in question hit the internet several days after the original “BBC Dad” footage, as it’s been nicknamed, went viral. The first aired on Comedy Central’s notorious talk show The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Funnyman host Noah set the stage by treating his audience to a giggling blow-by-blow of the original viral video: Kelly’s serious analysis of North Korean politics in his home office, the kamikaze interruption from two wobbling toddlers, and their mom’s valiant (and wildly frantic) attempt to swoop in to extract them. The audience was in stitches when Noah delivered his punchline: “It was almost like a giant metaphor for the Trump administration.”
What consumed the screen next was a genius piece of satire thought up by Noah, the show’s executive producer Jen Flanz, supervising producer Ramin Hedayati, and graphic artist Michael Hogan. In it, the faces of Trump and members of his entourage are superimposed onto those in BBC’s viral video. Sean Spicer babbles incoherently in place of Kelly. Trump’s beaming head bobs in on top of Kelly’s elder daughter’s little body; he mischievously wields an uncapped marker. Ben Carson trails just behind in the rolling baby walker. “And obviously, as in real life, Kellyanne [Conway] slid in to clean up the mess,” says Flanz. Indeed, in The Daily Show’s interpretation, Kelly’s wife, Kim Jung-A, was replaced by a skittering Conway, Trump’s Counselor known for her poker-faced deflections of tough questions and wily coverups for the President and his staff when they’re questioned about spreading inaccurate information.
The response from viewers was enthusiastic, and The Daily Show team rushed to turn the 20-second clip into an “easily shareable” GIF, says Hedayati. Their instinct was spot-on, and soon, the satirical GIF was ripping across social media channels.
The creation of GIFs—especially those that comment on current events—has become an integral part of The Daily Show’s content strategy. “Some jokes are better transmitted visually,” says Hedayati. “Anytime there’s a popular piece of footage circulating, it’s fun for us to play with it, manipulate it, and add a little commentary.”
But while Noah, Flanz, and Hedayati had a feeling that their “BBC Dad” spoof would gain traction, they didn’t quite expect the virality that followed. The original was so widely shared that the spoof was easy to recognize. “But who would’ve thought that putting Trump’s grinning mug on a swaggering child would be such a perfect fit?” On The Daily Show’s Twitter feed alone, the GIF has received 23,000 likes and 14,000 retweets.
Around the same time The Daily Show was brainstorming their interpretation, an artist based in San Francisco couldn’t get the “BBC Dad” clip out of his head. “The whole video was funny, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the individual movements of the two children and how hilarious and essential to the clip they were,” says Chris Gerringer, an artist, animator, and web developer. “I thought that if I got them down on paper, they’d leave my head.”
So Gerringer spent 30 minutes sketching Kelly’s two children and animating the drawings to imitate their moves. He posted the resulting animation, which pared the BBC blooper down to the bespectacled toddler’s disco-strut and the baby’s waddle, on Twitter. While other GIFs he’s concocted similarly riff on pop cultural visuals he finds amusing and relevant—and have garnered a devoted following on Twitter and Instagram—none of his work has ever gone full-stop viral.
This animation did. It flew across Twitter (where to-date it’s received 36,000 likes and 22,000 retweets), iMessage, Facebook, Instagram, and Slack. But unlike The Daily Show, Gerringer didn’t create his GIF with a goal of virality. “It was just an instinct and a creative exercise,” he says. “Something that I thought would make my artist friends laugh.”
But when it went viral, it did much more. It revealed, like a condensed, hand-drawn sociological study, why the original “BBC Dad” clip was so hilarious. In extracting the children from the narrative, Gerringer highlights the essential comedic tool at work in the original footage: the body language (an endearing mix of chutzpah and obliviousness) of the toddler and baby—and how their parents respond to it.
Both Gerringer and The Daily Show used the meme to deliver their artistic message, whether political or formal, to a massive audience. But in doing so, they emphasized the most charming, mesmerizing aspect of the blooper itself: the fact that we humans, whether kids or all-powerful politicians, are fallible. And that’s, put simply, pretty darn funny.