It’s a chilly but calm Friday evening. The snow is coming down pretty heavily outside, and my dog is laying on my bed. I sign into Zoom and wait for Jonothon’s arrival. I see him in the waiting room and admit him into the call. His audio isn’t working, so he decides to re-install Zoom, then come back. It’s still not working. We end up just facetiming instead. It’s ok, minor setback. After everything that happened in 2020, I’m unbothered. He sits in his chair sporting a red hoodie, with the words “Blessed With Finesse” written across. It feels like I’m just catching up with an old friend.
Monika: How have you been dealing with the pandemic? Has it changed your lifestyle a lot? Has anything big changed for you?
Jonothon: Yeah, definitely. As of February of last year, my main two careers are in entertainment and hospitality, so both of those industries got completely shut down. Like, when I’m not acting or performing, my survival job is waiting tables and catering. So yeah, those first 3 months, I was just kind of at home, taking care of things. It was actually a nice pause time, you know, I stayed home, I did puzzles – it was just really peaceful. I kind of weirdly yearned for that peace of mind. I need like, a cabin in the woods as somewhere to go.
Jonothon: But then some performance opportunities started going virtual, I mean I’m the kind of person that takes opportunities. I talked to a lot of artists during the pandemic, and they were just kind of shut down. I’d ask them what they’ve been up to, and they would say, “Well, nothing. There’s nothing I can do.” And I’m like, oh, I’ve been writing, and making stuff, and coming up with crazy ideas. I got lucky that I got to be a part of this weekly zoom performance called “Eschaton.”
This company came to New York in the early spring in order to make a new immersive show – they were going to get a building, and people were coming in, and there were going to be a bunch of performers. The pandemic came and shut everything down, so they created a virtual version of it, and they used Zoom. They sell tickets where you go to a virtual hub and you have room keys to go into different rooms.
Monika: Like breakout rooms, kind of?
Jonothon: Sort of. It’s separate Zoom meetings that are happening, but you’re accessing them all from a central place that’s a ticketed entry. And we’re all live – there’s like 20 performers live streaming from their homes or studios – it’s really cool. So I started doing the rat as a part of that show, all year, and then in October – my friend Todd, who’s a Hollywood film director, he reached out and told me he’s going to be in New York, in SoHo, in the studio, and he said, “Let’s make something. I’m bored. I haven’t made anything all year.” And I was like, “Well, I wanna do something with the rat.” So, we came up with a story where I pull the pizza down the stairs. So I go get those props, I’m prepared to just make this short film. The furthest thing from my mind was going viral or making a TikTok account or whatever.
Monika: Is this the birth of The Rat? Is this where it’s coming from?
Jonothon: Basically, yeah.
Monika: Oh, woah, I was trying to wait until later, but ok, ok, let’s get into it. Get into it!
Jonothon: I mean I’ve been doing it since 2009 – that’s when I made the first rat. But, it was kind of on the shelf for a long time, and I never thought it would be this big, popular thing – at all. It’s so weird, it’s like, how could you possibly think, “Oh, this will be something everyone likes.”
Monika: I feel like the things that go viral nowadays is never expected, you know what I mean? It’s just so random.
Jonothon: Oh yeah, yeah. TikTok especially, it’s hilarious, some of the kids. There’s a guy with 18 million followers who just dresses like the Willy Wonka with the Johnny Depp outfit. It’s so weird. It’s just this kind of lame reference, and yet, he’s just a charming young guy, and people dig it. There’s also the Pennywise clown guy, and I didn’t get it at first. I was thinking, “why does he have 10 million?” And then you follow them and it’s just like, a nice dude who likes doing cosplay and they do dances. Now I’m starting to understand more that that’s where the support comes from – people just want you to be true to yourself.
Monika: Are you familiar with how TikTok works?
Jonothon: I started a TikTok account in the summer, I made one post of me trying to learn how to do handstands in Prospect Park. All summer I was like, going on runs and doing handstands. I was making time lapses of handstands. And then, I didn’t post anything else or really use the app until October. We went to make this film that we shot in Washington Square Park, we shot for like 10 hours overnight. I got home at 5am, I woke up at around 1pm, to a text from my friend with a link to BarStool Sports, and he was like, “Bro, you’re blowing up.” And it was at like, 500,000 views, it was getting 100,000 views an hour. It was someone else’s video of the rat in the dark – you can’t even tell what’s going on, it’s just totally random. Other people were posting too, there was a thing on TikTok. So as soon as I was done with the movie, I started going out on my own and getting my own content.
Monika: And was that the first-ever time you posted about The Rat?
Johnothon: Pretty much, yeah, that was the first post. It was October 26th – that was the first time The Rat hit the internet.
Monika: Damn, and you weren’t expecting that?
Jonothon: Not at all, and you can’t expect it. It has to happen that way. If I was like, “I’m gonna make a TikTok account, and I’m gonna do The Rat, and it’s gonna blow up,” it never would have happened. It had to be someone else seeing it. Also, they sent it to BarStool Sport, and when you do that, you sign away the rights to that content, but it gets seen by millions of people. So, it’s this weird exchange. I won’t send my content to those aggregate sites now, but sometimes I’m kind of tempted to. Like I made a video this week of me snowboarding on the pizza slice, like I put glued plastic to the bottom of the pizza and it actually really works as a sled, and I look at it and I think it’s hilarious, but it’s not getting a ton of views on my platforms. So part of me is like, I should just give it to these bigger places, cause I don’t see why this isn’t the viral clip of the year. It’s so funny.
Monika: Ok, wait, wait, so, because you said when you give it to these other places, they pretty much own that. So is it per video? Or do they own that character?
Jonothon: No, no it’s the video..
They just own the rights to the video, and all that means is that if CNN wants to show that clip, they might pay 300 bucks. And like, I guess I would want a piece of that, but that’s not where my income is ever going to come from. It’s more valuable for me to have 10 million people see this video of a rat snowboarding on a pizza slice, cause then I’ll get more opportunities to make branded content.
Monika: No, for sure. I totally get that. Ok, wait because you said you first originally had the idea in 2009. I’m just so fascinated when I see people going viral on the internet for really random things, and I’m just like where? Where is this coming from? But I know you had the idea first in 2009, so just talk about that for a bit. How did that come about? Where’s the inspiration from?
Jonothon: So nothing happens in a void, I believe everything, all creation, all art is a product of previous people’s work and ideas and research. I studied acting all growing up, and I went to college on an acting scholarship, just straight up like, “I want to be an actor.” Then at the end of college, I bit of change my mind where I realized I wanted to do physical theatre.
Monika: Like performance art?
Johnothon: Yeah, performance art – using my body more than my voice or mind. There’s a theatre company in Portland, Oregan called “Imago Theatre”
Since the 70’s, they’ve been doing this show called Frogz – Frogz with a z, and it’s literally frogs. Like the curtain opens, and it’s 3 frogs on the stage staring at the audience.
Monika: Like actual frogs? Real frogs?
Jonothon: Actors dressed as frogs. Sorry, that’s funny cause I say it’s literally frogs – it’s almost literally frogs. Performers dressed as frogs, but it’s similar to the rat character. It’s a big beautiful paper maché mask, and it’s worn at the top of the head, and then the actors are in these extreme positions. So I was in that show for 4 years, and after the first 2 years, I played tons of different animals – frogs, alligators, penguins, polar bears. So, I did that walking on all fours creature performance, I learned and performed for thousands of people on stages. Then I started getting in this position where like, I was squatting on my feet and I could use my hands. And I was like, we don’t have a rat in any of these shows. I wanted to make my own rat character. So I asked them, “how do you make a mask?” Luckily, I had mentors around me, and they were like, “this is what you need – clay, paper maché, glue, wood..” and I just tried, I made this mask and it turned out pretty cool. In 2009, I made a play based on the character and I got an award for the play, and it was pretty ok – a lot of people saw it, it was pretty successful for what it was. As a promotion stunt, we went into Times Square and I wandered around as the rat.
Monika: This is back in 2009?
Jonothon: Yeah, 2009 – way before TikTok, and Instagram I think. This was like, 2 years into Facebook existence.
We did put a clip on Youtube that got 70,000 views over a decade – it didn’t layer up, but it was steady. So, in 2018 I had the idea to make a new rat mask, because the original one was like, not really big enough to really go over my head, I always wanted the eyes to be able to blink. There were these features I wanted. And so I started making a new one, and I was looking back at the history of it all, and I realized that the day we went out into public, that’s actually more interesting than the play I wrote about, and like, putting this character on a stage. So, the scene was in there as I was making it, and obviously, 2 years ago I was thinking that it was something that could go viral. But it left my brain for some reason in October – I had this big director wanting to work with me on a legitimate film project, so I was just laser focused on making a good movie, maybe that’ll get a lot of views, and then I can start doing this public performance.
Monika: Wait but the movie that you were working on back in October – was that movie based around the rat character? Or was it something else?
Jonothon: Yeah yeah yeah! It was totally the rat character. We came up with a few ideas where like, he wakes up in a giant rat trap, there’s a girl rat, he drives a pizza. You know, so that’s why I made those props – I made the pizza, I made the rat trap.
Monika: For the movie ?
Johnothon: For the movie, exactly. I got the masks totally up and running – there were some features that weren’t quite ready to go, but the movie was really the catalyst to getting out there. Then, once we were in public, and I realized suddenly that my premonition of it being a viral thing, happened. Then I made my own content, and luckily content published on my own platform went way bigger than any of those first few ones.
Monika: That’s so dope. I know you said you have your original mask from 2009, so did you make a new one in 2018? Or just a second one in 2020?
Johnothon: There’s actually 4 masks. I made 4. I made one in 2009, I made one in 2013 because my college did a production of a play with a rat in it. It’s funny because my heart wasn’t in it and you can see it in the mask – the features are kind of soft. And then the 2018 one – I was like, “I am going to make the mask that I’ve been imagining for 10 years, and I really took the time with it. I had to make the mechanism that makes the eyes blink – I had to build that first before I sculpted the mask because I knew the two eyes needed to be connected to each other on an apparatus, and that needed to fit inside the mask with the eyes going out of the eye hole. So the only way to do that is to take that, put it in place, and then sculpt clay around it so the eyes fit.
Monika: There’s legitimate engineering that goes behind this mask?
Monika: Like it’s a whole process, it’s not just like cardboard and glue?
Jonothon: Yeah, there’s a lot. Which has been really fun because I’m not trained as an engineer, other than professional work as a puppeteer and then witnessing other people solve problems like that. And I do enjoy woodwork – all these shelves and things I built.
Yeah, this is all hardware – like screws and bolts, and things like that. But yeah, it’s all just problem-solving – I want the rat to smoke a cigarette, and I would love if I had a real cigarette where I could pull the smoke from the side of the mouth, and then blow the smoke out the front of the mouth.
Monika: Is that something you’re trying to do?
Jonothon: Oh I did it, I built it. It’s a mechanism that has a vape pen – there’s a vape pen inside the mask so it’s all hidden and there’s a tube that goes in my mouth. So I just pretend I’m smoking a cigarette, but I’m breathing in the vape pen then blow that out and it goes through the mouth of the mask. If you watch the short film, there’s an amazing shot – it’s backlit, and the rat blows smoke out.
Monika: Wait, so do you have different masks that are able to do all these different mechanisms? Or is there just one mask that can do all these things?
Jonothon: It’s all the same mask – the mechanisms are modular, so sometimes I’ll put the smoking mechanism in if I know I’m going to be using it for photos or videos, and then I’ll tale it out. Most of the time, it’s not in there because I don’t need it.
Monika: I see I see, so it’s separate pieces that you can kind of add-in?
Jonothon: Yeah, exactly. I mean ultimately I’d like it all to be one thing and just be ready to go. There have been a few times where I wanna demonstrate the smoking thing to someone and I’m like, “Ugh! I wish I had it.”
Monika: Are you making merch for Buddy The Rat?
Jonothon: I have personal merch – I have a teespring.
Jonothon: This is an “I <3 NY” mug, and there’s Buddy at the back. I have some stickers, which I love. Then there’s this silhouette that we put on some t-shirts. But we made a new one where it says “Only in New York” along the top which I think is cool, I think people like text.
Monika: Yeah 100%. And I wanted to say, like when you used to do theatre and you did the frog performances and you were learning about different animals – you are really good at doing the actual movements, like the squatting and being on all fours. I’ve seen some of the videos, and it’s really realistic. It’s really good.
Jonothon: Thank you! It’s funny because I get people asking me if I study rats and if I study the movements, and I mean… kind of? Like, I follow a bunch of rats on Instagram, cute pet rats.
Monika: Yeah, and aren’t there a lot of rats in New York City anyway?
Jonothon: In New York, you see rats every day – you ride the subway, you see them running around, you walk past the trash and they jump out at you. They’re a part of our lives, so you know how they move. I did read a book “Rats” that was a New York Times bestseller, by some journalist and it was everything you want to know about rats. It’s about 200 pages, it’s great. But really, what I’m doing in my performance is also pretty improvised. Like, I’ve only started finding the character and who the character really is in the last year by being out there and doing it. It’s like, yes it’s a rat, yes it’s an animal, but it’s also like a lot like a dog, and I jump really high just because I can, and I learned that from the show “Frogz.” So I just sort of bring in anything that seems to work for the performance I’m giving. I try to be careful not to scare people – people get scared naturally, which can be funny. And I will scare – like if there’s a group of giddy people who recognize me, who are like, “can we get a picture?” I’ll be like, “yeah, yeah,” and then I’ll jump out. If I know I’m going to get a scream followed by laughter, that’s ok. But if someone doesn’t like it and is uncomfortable, I’ll leave them alone. I’ve also made little kids cry a few times, which is like really off-brand – I do not want to be associated with terrorizing children.
Monika: Yeah, definitely, that’s so funny. And you were saying that you were trying to make it as genuine as possible, and even the suit – the suit is very fitting, it’s a brown suit, and it’s always the same suit. Do you have multiple of the same suit?
Jonothon: I wish. I need to start patching it up, that jacket is coming apart now. I mean, I’ve been in New York for a long time, I’ve been pursuing a career in entertainment for a long time. My end game is so much further than this – this is great, this is a great opportunity, finally I’m getting some attention, and I have some meetings with agents. I’m able to have people find out what I really do, which is that I’m a writer, I’m an actor, I’m a producer and I fully intend on working in Hollywood. I want to make film and TV at the highest level. I think I’ve got a lot of ideas, I think I can rally people together. So yeah, branding is really important to me. I do have a bit of entrepreneurial spirit when I’m making this, where I’m like, “Ok, I know that a brand needs to be super identifiable,” so 90% of the time, the character has to dress the way he dresses. If there’s ever a Buddy videogame or something, he’s going to be in the suit. Cartoon characters have a very specific look. Now, I have started to explore different looks – I have a really well fitted J.Crew suit that I own. There’s a TikTok trend of Iggy, this dog, dressing in different outfits, and there’s an audio meme that’s like, “I had so many cute outfits this year.”
I made one of those with my friend in California, he owns a vintage shop, and it’s all women’s clothing, but we just dressed me up as The Rat in the most outrageous fashions we could, and it’s so funny – it really works. 2 weeks ago, I just did another shoot – it wasn’t womens clothing, but it was similar. It was wild, vintage, there were a lot of military uniforms, and then just me with a model. So I really am playing into Buddy as a fashionista, and I would love if I got invited to the Met Gala, and I could, you know trounce up the red carpet on all fours.
Monika: I would love to see that – if COVID is ever not a thing.
Jonothon: Next year, hopefully, it’ll be back.
Monika: I think that’s really cool that you’re trying to expand it, and not just keep it in a box – you’re finding different outfits, you’re turning it into this character, you’re giving it different styles. I think that’s all so cool. So you said that you’ve been in New York for a long time – were you born in New York?
Jonothon: I was born in Arizona, but my dad was born in Brooklyn, and my grandparents have lived here for a long time, and I still have cousins in Bergen Beach. My mom is from Upstate New York, and her great-grandpa came through from Ellis Island, from Ireland, and he was in Upper Manhattan for a long time. So, I definitely feel my roots here – the first time I came, I came for a moment when I was about 10 to visit those cousins, and then my first real trip to New York was when I was 18 as a senior in high school. We did a senior trip here, and I just knew I had to live here. So, all through college I traveled multiple times a year, I would come out here. As soon as I was done with school, I moved out, and I haven’t looked back. There’s nowhere else I want to live, I mean I’m really, really one of those die-hard New Yorkers.
Monika: Wow, so how long have you been in New York now?
Jonothon: 15 years.
Monika: Wow, and you don’t see yourself living anywhere else?
Jonothon: No, definitely not. All my most ambitious dreams are owning a house in SoHo, which is insane – you have to be quite wealthy to have that. I don’t imagine living somewhere more peaceful, like I want to be here. I’d like to be comfortable, I’d like not to have roommates, I’d like to have a work studio, have a little more space, but there’s nowhere else that I want to be based.
Monika: No, for sure. And I feel like with New York, obviously there’s a lot of – I feel like New York in general, it’s just very busy and fast-paced. It’s really saturated and it’s just full. But on top of that, there are a lot of creators, artists, designers, models, actors, musicians – like there’s just all types of people, and I think for me that’s very exciting. You know, I live in Ottawa, I don’t know if you know where that is – it’s a small city, it’s the capital. I feel like living in a place where it’s just exciting – it’s exciting to live there. I know you said you don’t picture yourself living anywhere else, but what about New York do you like and you feel like you fit there?
Jonothon: Well, everything you just said – that it’s full of artists, but also the diversity is so valuable. The people are from every walk of life, and the fact that it is a struggle to live here, it is expensive, it is difficult means everyone has a deeper reason to be here, and everyone works hard. There’s just this work ethic that’s like, you’re willing to just do anything, to power through to make this dream happen, or whatever it is. Even the dream of living here is a thing. It is enough just to be present. That’s funny, I haven’t thought about that in a very long time, and when I first moved here, that was a big thing for me. I was like, “I don’t have to do anything but simply be in New York to have achieved something.” So there’s all that. The other big thing is development as an artist. If you are an artist, any kind of artist, and you want to get better, obviously you need to practice your art, but being in New York, you get better. You interact with people who are working at the top of, not just your field, but every other field that exists. And so, you glean from them how to do it – ideas on how to do it, motivation from the fact that they’ve been keeping at it, evidence that it’s possible to make it. And it’s been hard – I’ve had major ups and downs, but New York’s always provided me with opportunities to get back on my feet and keep going. That’s what it is, and I just don’t see that ever ending. It’s just going to be happening at different levels. This Buddy The Rat thing has been so amazing, like my favorite part of it is how much I feel like I’m giving something to the city, and how people are responding with such a positive reaction to it. It’s a celebration of everything New York – you know, it’s like rats, and fashion, and performance art, theatre, and be yourself. I worked with New York Nico who’s a big influencer
Monika: I know him!
Jonothon: He’s awesome, because what he does is he goes around and interviews local bodegas, and there’s these street performance guys. There’s a guy named Tiger Hood
He golfs with little cartons full of paper, they’re totally harmless. It’s a hilarious, crazy thing he does. With New York Nico, I went and made a video with him, and you know, I’m just learning about the community that I’m part of. Also, in Brooklyn, I’m being embraced – I’ve met these amazing lightfeet dancers, and we’ve made videos together because they do backflips. Those videos have gone crazy viral. I was invited to an event a few weeks ago by this brand, that’s where I got this hoodie “Blessed With Finesse.”
Jonothon: And the guy throwing the event was OWMX and I’ve never been in that scene at all. It was a bunch of brands, a bunch of models, photographers – all exchanging content, exchanging information, following each other. Everyone had some kind of following – at least 5 or 10 thousand Instagram followers, and it was all the Brooklyn community. I go there with this [referring to the rat mask] somehow, fitting in with all the models and rappers, and it’s extraordinary to me. I grew up in downtown Scottsdale, Arizona, like pure, lily white, totally isolated kind of environment, and I’ve been in New York for 15 years, but only just now am I even being opened up to just how deep this culture and community goes that I’ve been living in and around, but never feeling like I’m a part of. That’s changing now because of this art project.
Monika: Wow, that’s amazing. And I know Buddy The Rat is your most known work, but I think when you make something that’s genuine to you – like I feel like when you talked about Buddy The Rat with your friend and you were making it, and the idea was coming into fruition, I feel like it was coming from a very genuine place. I think the thing with content and creating art is that people can tell when it’s genuine and not genuine. So that’s really good that it’s growing, and it’s taking you to new places, it’s introducing you to new people, it’s taking you to higher heights, I just think that’s really exciting. I know you said that this isn’t the end and you want to do more, but where do you see yourself going it? Do you have other things that you want to do with him? Do you have any other characters?
Jonothon: Yeah, I do, actually it’s funny because I’m kind of excited – the last 4 years, I’ve been working on a project called “Apple Boys.” Basically, it’s a barbershop quarter, which is, you know, this kind of lame American cultural genre of music, where it’s four old white men singing in harmony. It’s sort of boring – there’s a cultural association that when it shows up on TV, it’s usually as a joke of itself.
Monika: Like, a parody ?
Jonothon: It’s totally a parody. So I just saw an opportunity to take that, and make something cool with it.
Monika: And not have it be a parody ?
Jonothon: Exactly, not a parody, and embracing it. Four-part harmonies are amazing, and when people experience it live, it’s extraordinary, moving, and attractive. I put together a team of young, attractive, ethnically diverse performers of both genders.
Monika: Wait, is this in New York?
Jonothon: Yeah, this is in New York. In 2012 is when we first started, and we started doing these songs and writing stories/narratives around them and wrote a musical along with this amazing composer. We got it produced in 2018, and it got a Rave review in the New Yorker – totally everyone loved it. It was this weird thing where people, after the show, we’re like, “omg, I didn’t know it would be good.” It’s one of those things where it’s a difficult thing to demonstrate. Think about Buddy The Rat – if I didn’t have these viral videos and I was trying to explain this to you, you’d be like, “ok dude, you dress up in a rat costume” and it’s like yeah yeah, but trust me. Anyway, it’s kind of like that. But the point of telling you this story is I spent 4 years with a vision for that project, where we’d be a multiplatform entertainment company. We would make YouTube videos, we would have live appearances – we did have tons of live appearances. I performed on stage with Emma Stone and Allen Cumming once at Club Cumming – that’s Allen’s downtown club, it’s cabaret. We had a lot of success with the musical, we had broadway stars working on it, and we were on track to have an off broadway production. I talked to Luna Park, the theme park in Coney Island, about licensing these characters as their mascots. My composer and I also wrote an animated series, based on those characters. We have a full pitch book – we pitched it to Nickelodeon once. We had a lot going with that. This year, I want to focus on something else for a moment, just cause of COVID and all these things. When this started popping off, I was surprised, but I wasn’t uncomfortable, because it perfectly tracks my expectations for my other project. Like, here I have an entertainment property than can exist across multiple platforms – it makes sense on social media, it makes sense on TikTok, nice photos of The Rat make sense on Instagram, my Youtube following keeps growing every day. So, I immediately had my lawyers trademark the name November, and and my writing partner Ben Bonoma (not sure of the spelling??) and I, we’re working on a Buddy The Rat animated series, Buddy The Rat videogame, I’m excited about the Goorin Brothers collaboration. I think there’s enough cultural momentum with it to turn it into a brand, express it in other media and other formats. I do want the freedom to do nothing but pursue my art every day. I want the freedom to live a comfortable life – I’m almost 40, I’ve been living this scrappy artist life for so long, I would like to make good money off of my career in several years and live comfortably. I want to have a big philanthropic aspect to what I’m doing, and I’m going to be donating 10% of my income from Buddy The Rat to charities. I’m still working out the details on how to do that exactly. There’s this guy, Alex Connell, he’s a climber – he gives away a portion of his income to charity, and that inspired me. If I have the opportunity to really build wealth with this, and all my other stuff, I don’t need all of it. I already know the potential it has, and I don’t personally need that 10% of it – I’m sure I can live with giving it away.
Monika: I really appreciate that you just said that. That you don’t need all of it, and some of it can go to charity.
Jonothon: At a certain level, yeah. I mean, I’ve lived at this level long enough – I mean, like I said, I would like to be more comfortable than I am now, but I also see the potential earning of this type of work to get to a point where I don’t personally need it. I would rather give away 10%. I’ve been inspired by other people who have made this pledge. There’s an organization, it’s called the Ten Percent Pledge
Monika: Wow, and you’re obviously able to check that on Instagram too, right? See your audience analytics?
Jonothon: Yeah, the analytics! Instagram is a little bit different, typically. I have 520 thousand followers on TikTok, and I only have 66 thousand on Instagram. So the representation of who’s following me where is a lot different. Instagram is mostly the US and mostly New York, even. It’s a lot more insular right now. But that will change with travel.
Monika: Yeah, for sure. But I think also the algorithm on TikTok as well really helps. I love TikTok, I’m obsessed with it, and the algorithm, it’s really specific to you. So, I don’t know what kind of things you would have to like in order to get rat content to come to you for your page. But with Instagram, you have to actually be tagged in it or something to go to it. With TikTok, it just shows up on your For You page. It’s just different algorithm. So I think with Instagram, the algorithm needs to keep up, because I think right now, TikTok is at the top of its game.
Jonothon: Totally, totally. They’re working it out. I’m just trying this new thing with Instagram now where I’m posting more photos. I’ve done around 30 awesome photoshoots with really talented photographers since November, so I have all these great photos. I’m starting to turn my Instagram feed to have rows of nice photos, just 3 from a particular photo shoot, and then my reels and the videos and stuff.
Monika: Yeah for sure, so there’s an aesthetic you’re going for?
Jonothon: Yeah, exactly. One thing that’s funny is that I’ve been posting on Youtube very lazily, like not even every day – every other day, I just choose one of the videos I posted elsewhere. I have around 32 thousand subscribers now, and I’m getting between 500 to 1000 subscribers a day, and Youtube is one of the best monetization platforms. If you can get big subscribers, you can be in their partner program, then they run ads in your videos. So, it’s been 3 months, and I think I’m getting to point where if I take the time each day to look at ways you can monetize these things, I can start to earn a living from it.
Monika: Yeah, for sure. You know TikTok has a creator fund?
Jonothon: Yeah, I’m in the creator fund! It’s good, it’s helpful, but it’s not nearly enough to live on. But it is useful and it is nice that they pay creators.
Monika: So we were talking before about the experience of living in New York, and I know Los Angeles is another place where people in the entertainment and creative industry go – it’s either New York or LA, that’s the options. So for you, what’s the difference between both places and what are the pros and cons?
Jonothon: Well I grew up In Arizona, so I went to LA a lot growing up. It’s like a 6-hour drive. And I actually lived there for 3 months in college, I went there for a whole semester where I lived with a friend. It was the kind of city I never really liked for very superficial reasons – just cause I’m not a car person, I like New York because you can get around without a car. You know, just dumb reasons. So I wasn’t really open-minded about the culture there, and over time I started to enjoy it more and more. I was just there in December and I had a blast, I would love to spend more time there and I would love to be there and work. Again, I don’t think I could be based there, but spending some significant amount of time there, or if I booked a show or something and I had to be there for several months, I wouldn’t hate it. I’d go surfing, there’s just warm coastal stuff that I would love to spend time doing. I had to live in Las Vegas for 3 months once, because I was a Blue Man with Blue Man group.
Monika: No way! That’s so cool.
Jonothon: Yeah! In 2011, so I was Blue Man in New York and in Las Vegas as well, and that was a place where I was so resistant, like, “Oh God, living in Las Vegas, that’s insane.” And the first half of the time there, I was just getting wasted all the time, going to the strip a lot, basically pretending like I still lived in New York, like big city life. Obviously, that wasn’t fun for a while, so the second half, I decided to change gears, and I ended up meeting a bunch of locals. It was people in their 20’s who had grown up there, and going to house parties that they would throw, and going to the local diner. I got to experience the town on its own terms, not in response to any other city I was living. So I went out more, I went to the lake, I went water skiing. I was so much happier. So I think that’s my approach for when I do have to spend time or live in any given place, you really gotta engage with it on its own terms, and focus on what it has to offer, not what it’s lacking because of the place you like. So, a lot of people that say they hate LA but love New York – they’re focusing on the things in New York that LA doesn’t have, as opposed to things that are awesome about LA.
Monika: Yeah, totally. I think the difference of mindset there is tourist mindset versus local. Because as a tourist, you’re looking for all the exciting things, but as a local, you just want to genuinely experience what the city has to offer.
Jonothon: Yeah, exactly. Also, I think I have a pretty generous outlook on things. So people will often have a negative feeling about the people in LA – about how New Yorkers work really hard and are deeper, whereas in LA it’s vapid. But, it’s also like, just because there are more people seeking fame for fame’s sake in LA, because it is more of a fame capital than New York. I still don’t fault people for any kind of dream they might have. Everyone’s got hopes and dreams, and if they’re kind and caring and treat people respectfully, they deserve as much respect and appreciation as anyone else. So yeah, I really don’t complain about almost anything. “Don’t complain” is one of my favorite mantras. I have friends who complain, and sometimes I’m like, astonished at how often they’re triggered to start to complain about something. And as performers, the relationship with producers is often this antagonistic thing from the performer’s perspective, but I’ve also produced stuff on my own and worked intimately with high level producers. So I feel like either it’s because of that perspective, just my big picture of thinking, and I just try to cast them in the most favorable light possible, and realize that they are just trying to help you in the best way. Yes, there are bad people doing nefarious things and you have to be able to look out for that. Like right now, I’m looking at a big opportunity with a major network TV show, and the contract has language about ownership and rights to certain content and that type of thing. It’s a little bit daunting, but I’m able to process it without getting too stressed out because I recognize that that language exists for a reason – I try to think, “what is there motivation for it?” It can’t be purely to exploit. It’s been on the air for 16 years, it’s a totally legit, beloved program – and the heart of the program are these performers they find. So, they’re not looking to destroy my future with some tricky legal language.
A better way to put it in personal terms is just, as an artist in entertainment, you’ll be navigating a lot of personalities, a lot of challenging decisions. The more you can put yourself in the other person’s perspective, and also just play the game of casting them in a charitable light – like, let’s assume they want the best for me in this thing they’re asking. Another quote I like, I have this quote on my wall, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Monika: Ohhh interesting, is that something you live by?
Jonothon: Yeah! There have been times where I collaborate with people, and it feels to me like they claim to have had more of creative input than I feel like they might have had – that kind of thing. Or I work my ass off for another artist’s project, and then I don’t get credited – that kind of happens in the visual world a lot, they’ll hire someone. But I just recognize that, I’m not where they are yet, and once I’m where they are, I will a) be given the most credit just because I’m the front man, and b) I will have the opportunity to give the other people the credit that I feel like I’ve been denied.
Monika: I know what you’re trying to say, but do you think then, that if you’re a smaller creator, that you don’t deserve credit as much as bigger creators do?
Jonothon: No no, everyone deserves credit, and efforts should be made to give everyone credit. I think there’s definitely higher level artists that feel like if they give credit to the people that helped them, it dilutes something? Maybe? It’s just ego, it’s just someone wanting – I don’t know what it is. As I make all this content, for instance, I’m not filming my videos – it’s always a friend, or someone I’ve hired, and I don’t make it a habit of crediting them every time. I’ve had some friends who have been like, “could you please credit me?” and I say yes absolutely. Or if I’ve been working with someone who’s art is photography and videography, and they’re filming, and we’re doing something, then I will credit them. But if it’s a friend helping shoot a sloppy video that’s going on TikTok, it doesn’t feel much like a necessity. But if they ever asked, I have no beef with it. I just won’t do it as a default.
Monika: No totally, so it’s just kind of “give credit where credit is due” kind of thing? Where if they don’t care about it or ask for it, then it is what it is?
Jonothon: Right, and I’m not afraid of being seen as derivative – it doesn’t dilute what I’m doing to say that I learned that jump from this show called “Frogz” from Imago Theatre. Those are the people that pioneered that jump – I’m using their choreography and modifying it for my character. Also, the way I wear the mask, that’s from the show “Frogz” – that’s how they wear the masks. I learned it from those people, and I happily tell them that. I’m not stealing their property or their work – I’m using what I learned from them.
Monika: Yeah, definitely. I feel like we’re getting really philosophical, but it’s ok. I feel like it all comes down to: there’s no original thought – that’s the underline. And I think everything comes from something. I feel like I’ve had this so many times where I think that I’ve had an original thought, and I see that it’s already been made or it’s already a thing. I feel like everything comes from something, and even if you make something or you create something, it’s still inspired by something else, and you just made another version of it – do you know what I mean?
Jonothon: No, totally. And it’s crazy to me when an artist makes something, and then people identify what it must have been inspired by, and they deny it. They’re like, “No, no, no – it’s nothing like that. Here’s why my thing is different.” When it’s like, there’s so much great art produced very distinctively derivative. I would point to “Stranger Things” as a great example. The pitch book for Stranger Things was like, these are the movies we are going to base it off of. It’s going to look like E.T., it’s going to look like Poltergeist, all the shots will look like this, the costumes will be like that – and it’s amazing, and original, and exciting, and super successful. Because they are fully aware of what they’re inspired by, and then making their own original story within that, and I feel like I bring that into all my work too. I’m really inspired by that kind of thinking, where it’s like, “I love this thing. This is a direct reference to this. These guys are my heroes. I want my work to look like their work.” And you’re going to find your own original path within that – the aggregate is what’s original. This rat, I think, is pretty original – like what I’m doing hasn’t really been done before, and one way I’ve described it in some earlier interviews is that it’s accessible performance art. I’m doing something with no time bracket, it’s not in a studio, it doesn’t have a clear purpose, it’s not even clearly a performance – I’m not asking people for money, nothing happens, which are all features of performance art, I think. And yet, most performance art and the idea that comes to people’s minds when they hear the term is like, someone naked, shaving their head.
Monika: Painting themselves?
Jonothon: Yeah, painting themselves. Not to say that that work is not vital to the world of art, but it’s just not accessible to most people – they don’t get it. What I’m doing, most people get, even if they don’t know what or why, they still feel something. It doesn’t alienate you. Even if it’s a passing thought.
Monika: No, for sure. I feel like there’s a level of comfort and familiarity with it, but there’s also a level of shock value to it. So it’s a healthy balance, I think.
Jonothon: Yeah, exactly. So I think if there’s anything I’ve done that’s really innovative about it, I think that’s what it is. Bringing this, sort of, sophisticated performance work onto the streets, in a very unsophisticated environment, where you’re not used to seeing it. The term sophisticated, I only mean the complexity of the mask – in the beginning, there were a lot of people who were like, “Anybody can do this! It’s just some guy in a rat costume.” And I’m like, yeah , except you can’t really buy this mask on Amazon. But it doesn’t matter, I didn’t feel the need to defend myself against that kind of commentary because time took care of that. I knew I just needed to be out there long enough and people are going to inherently understand that that’s not what’s going on, you know? I got a lot of comments from some of the video editorials or things I do – I posted a video about how I made the mask, and I get a lot of comments that are like, “Oh, I didn’t realize you’re actually an artist! This is a thing, this is so cool! I’m way more interested now.” So I think that’s just going to keep continuing and happening.
Monika: No, totally. I think you’re really on a groove right now, and the fact that this just started in October – you said earlier in the interview that you did it in October, and you trademarked it in November. Right?
Jonothon: Yeah, we started the trademark process.
Monika: Has it been trademarked yet officially, or still in the process?
Jonothon: I think so! I mean, no one else can sweep in and trademark it for sure. I don’t have the trademark on my wall yet, but I did it for the Apple Boys
I have that one. But it’s coming, and I’m hoping that as there are more singular news events that I’m featured in, and I get more attention, then I’m really hoping that I get to sit down and pitch the video game, pitch the TV show. I’m actually working with the director of the short film, we want to pitch a travel show, where I’m the host, and we go around the world, exactly like I described. I’m going to do that anyway, but if we can do it in the context of a travel show, where I’m your host, and then I do Buddy The Rat in the street, and then we interview street performers. So we meet the guy who paints himself silver and stands still – find out who he is, how he started doing that, and then make a little film with them at the end.
Monika: Yeah, totally. I feel like you should make an app as well, like maybe a game app or something about Buddy The Rat. Like traveling in New York, that would be so cool! I feel like apps are such a big thing nowadays.
Jonothon: Yeah, we should do like a ‘Pokémon Go’ style and find Buddy.
Monika: Yeah! Or have him in New York like collecting coins or something, and he gets stronger or something. But that’s really cool, I feel like you definitely have momentum right now, and the fact that this just started literally in October 2020 and it’s already gained so much.
Monika: What does True Urban Culture mean to you ?
Jonothon: True Urban Culture means to me everything that is New York City. Grit- Originality- Authenticity- Togetherness. It’s the artists who maintain a hard edge, but a soft heart. Who distinguish themselves as originals but try to fit into the bigger picture. True Urban Culture is New York City.
I felt like I could pick Jonothon’s brain for hours. He is smart and extremely easy to talk to. He is the epitome of the struggling-artist-in-New-York-City trope, but I think he’s finally having his break. I think he has a lot to offer as an artist, and I think Buddy The Rat is just the beginning for his career to takeoff. Bursting with ideas and obviously very creatively inclined, Johnothon Lyons, creator of Buddy The Rat, is undoubtedly on a momentum. I’m excited to see where this goes, where this takes him as an artist, and other projects and creative works from him. The true New Yorker that he is, his work ethic, drive, motivation, and ultimately, fearlessness with his craft, his creative limits are boundless. You can find him on Instagram and Tiktok.