It is safe to say that Kevin Bloody Wilson, the lewd, 72-year old, politically incorrect Australian pub comedy veteran, was not on the radar of Danny Godlewski, an 18-year-old history nerd who captains his hockey team in North Haven, Connecticut.
Wilson’s 2006 song DILLIGAF (Do I look like I give a fuck?) would probably have remained unknown among Godlewski and his circle of friends, if not for TikTok, the rapidly growing lip-syncing video app, where, for a few, shining weeks, Kevin Bloody Wilson has been a phenomenon.
His disembodied voice is among those of a select group of Australians making it big on a platform still dominated by Americans. The group includes Ian Zaro, comedian and star of ABC TV’s Black Comedy, the Australian Reptile Park, and the federal Greens candidate Emerald Moon – all in their unique genres of comedy, animals and politics.
For the uninitiated, TikTok is an app where users share short videos, 15 to 60 seconds long, usually set to music or film dialogue. In essence, it’s a hybrid of already existing lip-sync apps, and Vine, the beloved six-second video site created and then canned by Twitter.
The appeal, especially for young users, is easy to understand. TikTok videos are equal parts comedy sketch, meme and video blog. The app is overwhelmingly low-fi but with just enough editing software to give it a bit of a cinematic sheen when you need it. It’s also super cheap – you can craft extremely entertaining videos with nothing but your phone and a good idea.
TikTok bought and cannibalised Musical.ly, the popular lip-sync app, in 2017, giving it an instant, existing audience.
On TikTok, catchy audio is king, and DILLIGAF is a perfect example – short, snappy and easily relatable. At the time of publication, the hashtag had a combined 24.6m views, spread out across hundreds of clips.
Godlewski makes history videos. So in his version, he first plays King George III, circa 1775. “You guys need to pay taxes,” he says. Cut to Godlewski, now playing American colonists. The guitar is jangling. “D–I–L–L–I–G–A–F,” he mimes. “Do I look like I give a fuck?”
You can see how that would take off. Everybody, deep within themselves, feels a sensation that could be in some way termed DILLIGAF.
Godlewski is about to study communications and history, and wants to be a foreign affairs adviser. He says he had no idea who Kevin Bloody Wilson was before Guardian Australia told him. But he knew he had a winner on his hands.
“I definitely didn’t know,” he says. “I could tell just off the accent that it was Australian.”
Godlewski has a knack for explaining what is funny and why some songs work on the app.
“It’s so effective comedically to have something like that as a set-up. He sounds so jubilant and happy while he is singing it. Which is just good comedy to have. Then to go into such a blunt turn. It had enough of a little bit of shock. I could tell the trend would keep getting better because it had just such good potential for TikTok.”
Milking the third deadliest snake on the planet
On TV, Zaro, 23, is a star of ABC’s Black Comedy, the innovative, Indigenous-led sketch series. On TikTok, he has a staggering 1.7 million followers.
For Zaro, they are part of the same spectrum of comedy he has been performing since he was a kid.
“I’ve always been a class clown,” he says. A singer, comedian and musical theatre nerd – he just finished up in the Townsville production of Jesus Christ Superstar – the platform makes sense for him.
Zaro got his start at the ABC through yet another early lip-sync predecessor, the app Dubsmash. It’s a demonstration that, though TikTok may be grabbing headlines, the underlying mechanics are essentially half a decade old.
“What made me skyrocket was my facial expressions,” he says. “I was very animated. That was how my other videos went crazy on Dubsmash.
“I got hired to do comedy workshops with youth around NSW and the kids, some of them knew me from Dubsmash, they said Musical.ly is the new thing. I jumped on it because the kids told me to.”
When TikTok merged with Musical.ly in 2017, the app was automatically updated on everyone’s phones, and Zaro found himself where he is now. He predicts that more comedians will be on the platform.
One of the other leading lights of Australian TikTok is the Australian Reptile Park on the New South Wales central coast.
Rebecca Plumridge, its marketing director, took a gamble that paid off. “I didn’t think TikTok was as big as it was,” she says. “I was like ‘Aw yeah we’ll give it a crack’.”
It was one video that did it – of snake handler Zach milking a tiger snake.
“It’s something we post on all social platforms all the time,” Plumridge says. “We didn’t think it was going to be the biggest thing ever. We were out of the office and we looked on TikTok the next day and it had 5m views and we were just flabbergasted.”
It’s now on 12.3m views. “Something just snapped and it went crazy.”
Plumridge says this is thanks to a few unique mechanics, native to TikTok.
“There’s this thing you can do, when you mention another account, it does this thing where you do a split screen, and they can react to your video. That was the reason the snake one blew up – people were filming themselves reacting to it.
“We did another one with Hugo the Galapagos tortoise. You don’t see the person feeding them, you just see a hand off-screen, so people were pretending to be him. It’s very interactive in that way.”
Godlewski has similar thoughts. “You could make videos and put them on Twitter and they might do well. I don’t think there is an app that facilitates short videos right after another at your fingertips like TikTok. You can just keep scrolling.”
The account’s success also reflects the fact that the vast majority of TikTok’s user base is American. In many ways, it is something tried and tested – Steve Irwin for the digital age.
Plumridge says 51% of the account’s audience is American; 12% is from the UK, 8% from Australia, 6% from India and 3% from Canada. Every few weeks, they meet a visitor at the park who found out about them from TikTok.
“I think what makes us so unique is that everyone is so interested in Aus wildlife. We got lucky in that aspect.
“I knew nothing about TikTok going in. I had no idea how it worked, I just made the account. It’s so easy to use. It’s crazy, it just takes off.”
‘I feel incredibly old using TikTok. I’m 24.’
Emerald Moon still considers herself a stranger to TikTok. In June, inspired by her younger sister, the Queensland state budget and a good joke, the federal Greens candidate decided to give it a go.
Her first attempt struck gold. Based on an existing meme format, which poked fun at billionaires’ willingness to donate to the Notre Dame cathedral, it is better watched than explained.
Moon says she was surprised it did so well. “It is weird,” she says. “It is such a specific Queensland government budget meme.” And yet it resonated well outside the state, partly because “the story is repeated everywhere”, including in the US, which has the biggest prison-spending program. .
“I still feel a little bit like an alien on TikTok,” she says. “My little sister who is 12, has been using it since it was formerly Musical.ly. She really is a native to it. The audience is mostly tweens. I feel incredibly old using TikTok. I’m 24.”
Unlike other social media platforms, TikTok has not yet been monetised or heavily populated by news organisations, although journalists such as Pedestrian’s Brad Esposito are experimenting with it as a medium for news.
Moon, who ran for the seat of Bowman at the last election, is hesitant to trumpet TikTok as the next big political tool – it’s still in its infancy. But there is something to be said about it being accessible, and funny, in whatever format.
“I was thinking about it – coming out of the election, we’ve had quite a few people from the left or the notional left, saying ‘It’s crazy that we didn’t win the election. People are just stupid or selfish, how could they not see the details of our policy?’” she says.
“I think having a 300-page policy platform, and expecting every voter to read that, that’s not the way politics works. It’s wrong to blame voters not to do that. People are busy, people are stressed, and disconnected from politics.
“It can be dismissed as not the way we should be communicating serious policies. But I think there is value in recognising as politicians, the ability to communicate policy platforms like that in a way that is interesting and relatable.”
Moon has a point. While TikTok may rise and fall, the format of short online videos will not go away. It already has a longevity of nearly a decade via Dubsmash and, before that, Vine.
Godlewski feels the same. He’s made friends on the platform, and he’s found a place to indulge his love of history, the documentaries he’s watched since he was a kid, and the hours of advanced classes at school.
“I’m very quiet and stuff. I don’t tell people about my TikTok account usually. It’s not out of embarrassment … I like it because you can create whatever you want and you have the opportunity to make people laugh and brighten their day. The other side of it is you have to be careful with what you put out and how it reflects on you. But it makes you feel like you’re just with friends and making a joke in the room. It just feels personal.”