The viral video taking over the internet this week is, at first, inexplicable. An animated child who looks strikingly similar to the protagonist of The Boss Baby is eating sugar late at night, only to be caught by his father.
“Johnny, Johnny, eating sugar?” the father says in a singsong lilt.
Johnny initially denies eating sugar, but eventually admits he has been eating sugar, opening his mouth to reveal a big pile of sugar. Throughout the video, Johnny and his dad cut between the kitchen and a disco.
The clip is just the kind of internet bizarre that can blow up online. Video of the clip attached to a tweet with the caption “I’m losing my fucking mind” amassed more than 100,000 retweets after being posted on August 18. Johnny Johnny parodies have proliferated on YouTube and other apps, even as the animators behind the original videos have filed a flurry of copyright takedown notices.
But this isn’t the first time the internet has discovered the unusual world of “Johnny Johnny Yes Papa.” Johnny Johnny videos, which are based on a long-running Indian nursery rhyme and meant for children, resurface every couple of years on the internet—and have become big business for the handful of YouTube channels making videos out of it.
No one knows how to keep kids watching “Johnny Johnny Yes Papa” like Vinoth Chandar, the founder of Chennai, India-based animation company ChuChuTV.
While the Johnny Johnny video that caught fire this summer came from a rival nursery rhyme channel, Chandar’s own Johnny Johnny video fueled a previous meme boomlet in 2013, amassing nearly 400 million views.
Chandar said he got the idea to make a Johnny Johnny video to show “love and affection between a dad and a son.”
“The little playful Johnny would play some cute pranks on his daddy,” Chandar wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.
For Chandra’s business, it’s more or less irrelevant whether meme-crazed teens and Weird Twitter latch onto his Johnny Johnny videos. His market is young children—and plenty of them are watching.
Chandar declined to discuss revenues his company has made from Johnny Johnny videos, but he’s almost certainly made millions of dollars off each of the more popular ones. An hour-long ChuChuTV video of Johnny Johnny variants has amassed more than 1.5 billion YouTube views—making it one of the most popular videos in the site’s history.
Since then, ChuChuTV and its Johnny Johnny video have spawned a host of rivals.
“Many people have tried to emulate us after our success,” Chandar told The Daily Beast.
While ChuChuTV employs teams of professional animators for its Johnny Johnny videos, not everyone making clips about the sugar-eating boy is willing to put that much work in. Instead, most Johnny Johnny videos feature a bizarre aesthetic that relies on stock animations, including some taken from other cartoon shows.
In one Johnny Johnny video, the father is played by a stock animated character strikingly reminiscent of Family Guy’s Peter Griffin. In another, Johnny and his father are almost goblin-like. The jarring aesthetics of some entries in the genre recall late 2017’s Elsagate imbroglio, when YouTube was overrun with disturbing and sexual videos of children’s characters like Spiderman and Elsa from iFrozen.
“The characters are so jagged and sharp, they look almost designed to be villainous,” said Matt Schimkowitz, an associate editor at Know Your Meme.
The particular style of low-budget Johnny Johnny video is driven by the economics of the YouTube nursery rhyme business, which relies on flooding the site with videos while minimizing animation costs.
“The faster you can get them up, the more you can get them up, the more these ear-worms will entice and keep kids coming back for more,” said Schimkowitz.
The rush to innovate on what would at first appear to be a very simple formula has also created some disturbing twists on the Johnny scenario. In one Johnny Johnny video, the Johnny role is played by an anthropomorphic refrigerator who lies about the kind of treats he contains. Eventually, he confesses, and the family eats food directly out of him.
It’s moments like these, according to Schimkowitz, that create his feelings about Johnny Johnny videos: “It really rages from a kind of obsession with them to an intense fear.”
Even ChuChuTV’s Johnny Johnny videos can take bizarre turns. In one clip, for example, the Johnny character is aided in his sugar-theft by what appears to be a tiny Tyrannosaurus rex—a creature that is accepted as a given in an otherwise normal human home without any explanation.
In this case, at least, someone has an explanation for what’s going on.
Chandar explains that the dinosaur is an established character in ChuChuTV’s Johnny universe, part of a group of “dino babies” that has already been introduced in a previous episode of the Johnny nursery-rhyme series.
“Our baby characters and the dino babies are friends,” Chandar explained to The Daily Beast. “They found them in a forest and took them to home as pets and they always hang out with the dinos.”
For those sick or disturbed by Johnny Johnny videos, Schimkowitz has bad news: he think this meme has potential to stick around.
“I think this one might be with us for a while,” Schimkowitz said.