A green duck puppet is being taught about death by a sentient grinning coffin. His two friends – a red humanoid creature with a mop-like head and a yellow bozo Muppet-style character – sing a jaunty song about preparing for his funeral. It’s an understatement to describe comedy-horror show Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared as brilliantly crackers. Like Sesame Street filmed by David Lynch, each episode starts off as a pastiche of an educational kid’s TV show, before drifting into a nightmarish hellscape. It’s the kind of televisual fever-dream that might give Cookie Monster a coronary.
The six-episode Channel 4 series is based on the cult YouTube shorts of the same name, which have racked up over a quarter of a billion views since they debuted over a decade ago. Along the way, it’s amassed a dedicated fan following and even spawned its own Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared Lazy Oaf clothing line. Aesthetically, it’s an eye-poppingly colourful world that brings to mind a cursed VHS of an old British children’s programme you might discover at a car boot sale.
“We were inspired by lots of British kids’ shows from the ‘60s and ‘70s that have this innately disturbing quality to them,” says Joseph Pelling, who created the show alongside fellow art school students Becky Sloan and Baker Terry. “For every Oliver Postgate,” adds Terry, referring to the late creator of homespun stop-motion classics like Bagpuss and the Clangers, “there’s 10 similar things that are chilling because of the voices in them, the characters themselves, and the sheer shonkiness of the filmmaking involved – it’s all shot for pennies in people’s sheds and then voiced by Oxbridge graduates. It’s all deeply unsettling.”
Certainly, they lean into the horror aspect. In the first episode of the Channel 4 series, a benignly smiling briefcase teaches the three nameless main protagonists – known as Duck, Yellow Guy (both voiced by Terry) and Red Guy (Pelling) – about the wonders of employment via a cheerful ditty, before it descends into a psychological horror replete with a puppet getting his arm mangled in a workplace accident. Episode three, where the gang learn about the concept of family, has a cannibalistic denouement that’s darker than Liz Truss’ soul. Along the way, the characters constantly question their reality and existence.
“We designed them to be stock kids’ show characters to begin with,” explains Pelling. “They feel very generic and then when they start to behave in ways that don’t slot into that, it comes off as more of a leftfield rug-pull. If they suddenly say something that’s quite deep or cutting, it’s fun and jarring because you’re used to seeing these archetype characters only saying friendly things.”
Twelve years ago, Pelling, Terry and Sloan met at Kingston University while variously studying animation and fine art. “We were just messing around together, experimenting visually, making songs and doing weird voices – we sound like the most annoying people ever from that description!” laughs Pelling. Sloan had built the puppets before they even had a script, and they uploaded the first short onto YouTube with low expectations, but it swiftly went viral. With its arresting mix of puppetry, live action, 2D animation, CGI and stop-motion, it felt like Pingu meets Salad Fingers or a British take on MTV’s Wonder Showzen.
“I think people responded quickly to the YouTube ones because clearly so much effort had gone into it and back then, the stuff that was being uploaded [onto the platform] tended to be fairly lo-fi,” reasons Terry. “It made people think: what is this? These people have put this much time and effort into this weird thing and it isn’t even on television!”
Arguably, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’s fandom is as bonkers as the show itself. They scrutinise each episode for easter eggs and discuss myriad conspiracy theories and hidden meanings. Each Halloween, the creators are inundated with photos of devotees dressed up as the characters. “And every single one of those people is immediately served with a cease-and-desist order!” jokes Terry. In 2013, when a Kickstarter was launched to fund four short web episodes, a 12-year-old boy even went as far as to use a hacked credit card to donate £35,000 to the campaign. His mum later emailed Pelling and the gang to apologise.
Unsurprisingly, given Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’s reach, the creators had turned down other offers before Channel 4 came knocking. “The interest that was expressed earlier was always about combining what we had with an existing property,” recalls Terry. “They’d say: ‘You could team up with xx-popular person from YouTube and I can imagine the hijinx you would get up to!’ No-one ever said: would you like to make a show like the one we’ve just done?’” Both felt protective of the show’s DNA. “We wanted to retain the oddness and the singularity of it,” says Pelling. “It doesn’t easily attach itself to pop culture.”
Instead, the expanded half-hour episodes and better production values meant they could further expand Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’s intricately surreal world – where every inanimate object possible is animated with a personality (talking bread, clipboards with eyes, sentient urinals and even grapes with USB ports) and comedians like Phil Wang, Jen Ives and Stath Lets Flats’ Jamie Demetriou provide cameo voiceovers. They also drilled down on the story with script-editing help from US sitcom veteran Megan Ganz (Community/It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
Aside from the horror and wilful strangeness, the result is that it also works as a traditional house-share sitcom with contrasting personalities (the egotistical Duck, dolorous Red Guy and dim-witted Yellow Guy), and some unexpectedly poignant moments. “We used to say puppets plus guts equals viral,” says Terry, of the step up. “But the Channel 4 series has matured in that nothing was done for the express purpose of shocking people. It was all led by story. This is new territory for us.”
He continues: “Our inept attempts at being puppeteers previously led to funny moments by accident, but the puppeteers we worked with on the television series are supernaturally talented people, so we often had to give the direction of: ‘Can you make it worse?’”
From the earworm theme tune to nonsensical Mighty Boosh-esque songs about electricity, vending machines and transport, music is integral to the show, and something that Terry and Pelling, who were both in bands at university, find joyous to do. “The approach is to create something that’s catchy but also irritating,” says Pelling. Terry elaborates: “It’s walking a fine line between annoying in a good way and then ‘just turn this shit off!’”
Pelling and Sloan have made music videos for Tame Impala (the lysergic ‘Feels Like I’m Going Backwards’) and Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s ‘Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)’ – the latter memorably featured a masturbating puppet. “I think Kevin [Parker] from Tame Impala was a fan of the first Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, which is why we were able to pitch the video,” says Pelling. Asked if any other high-profile musicians enjoy the series, Terry quips: “I know Sir Paul McCartney is a fan. He’s got a tattoo of Red Guy ON HIS FACE and his guitar case is plastered with Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared stickers.”
As for the future of the franchise, Pelling says they’ve discussed a potential musical or live show, while Terry adds, tongue lodged in cheek, that he’d like to see them appear in a Santander advert. “It’s definitely not the end of the felt road for these characters,” he says. Who knows? Watching 2022’s most batshit programme, maybe even Macca will finally give them the thumbs-up. “We don’t explain the name and it feels like a strange video that looks nice and fun,” says Pelling. “We want people to come away from it being hopefully entertained but still a bit confused.”
All episodes of ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ launch on All 4 on September 23 before airing on Channel 4 from September 30