Joey Moser talks to Tickled director David Farrier about his infamous documentary and its follow-up The Tickle King, now showing on HBO.
Many documentaries look at their subjects from afar because events are documented in their footage and their story is complete. With some docs, like 2016’s Tickled, the ordeal is all the more fascinating because the story is still developing. Co-director David Farrier’s odyssey with former disgraced school administrator David D’Amato continues with HBO’s 20 minute follow-up The Tickle King, and it proves that fact is sometimes stranger than fiction.
In case you aren’t familiar with Farrier’s feature, here’s a little backstory. While trying to find something new to write, journalist Farrier casually stumbled upon the unknown world of competitive endurance tickling, but when he reached out to video producer Jane O’Brien Media, he was met with a hostile reception. Upon further investigation, Farrier, along with co-director Dylan Reeve, uncovered that the young men featured in these videos were being continually harassed when they tried to sever ties with the secret tickling world. It’s one of the oddest documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s ridiculous and silly and unnerving and uncomfortable all at the same time, but there’s more story to tell.
Getting started in the tickle world
When you watch the feature film, you might not be able to look at the innocent act of tickling the same way again. When I asked Farrier if he thinks he could participate in the activity after making the documentary, he was quick to answer.
“No. Richard Ivey tickled me—it’s not in the film—but he strapped me down on a tickling bench and tickled me for 10 minutes. It was such a difficult thing to be tickled by a professional tickler and you can’t get away with your hands and your legs completely locked away. It’s pretty awful. If you’re into tickling, good on you but it’s definitely not for me.”
Up until he dived into this documentary (or documentary series at this point), Farrier had mainly been associated with lighter journalism. At the beginning of the documentary feature, we see him chatting up with a younger Justin Bieber (tickling and the Biebs were both innocent back then) and interviewing some cosplay performers. Tickled thrust him into a world of more expose reporting–something he would be more open to if the right project came along.
“Dylan and I both found it incredibly satisfying uncovering a story that hasn’t been told before and putting the pieces together. I wasn’t trained as an investigative reporter. I’ve admired the work of investigative reporters in the newsroom that I used to work in. I think Dylan and I both love the internet–we both spend a lot of time online–and I did enjoy the investigation side. If another logical subject fits the topic of a documentary then I’d love to dive straight back in. I do a lot of writing as well. I did an investigation recently about this sort of hidden world of pedophiles on YouTube and how they exploit young YouTubers. That worked as a written piece, and that’s the joy of the world we live in. Investigations can be a written piece of a podcast or a series of small videos or a documentary. If there’s another topic that fits a feature format, I’d love to dive back in.”
The Tickled aftermath
When the feature documentary’s credits begin to roll, a lot of questions remain. David D’Amato has been unmasked and suspicions confirmed, but it’s obvious that this documentary can continue. There’s more to the story, and that’s when things get a little crazy.
“The end of Tickled, things are left in a kind of quiet situation where it’s ongoing but we’re not experiencing the same chaos as when we were making the film. Once the film premiered at Sundance it got pretty crazy again and we started filming again, and we knew that that footage was going to go somewhere. Another film or online or whatever the situation was. But I think HBO premiere is so important for us because it’s going to go out so widely it seemed like a perfect time to make sense of the chaos of last year. We had posted some things on Facebook but I really wanted to use that footage as a timeline so people could understand. With the looming HBO date, it seemed like the most logical time to get it together.”
The Tickle King, HBO’s 20 minute follow-up, has some incredible footage. With a lot of exposes, you don’t get to hear from both sides or even see them when they are alive, but David D’Amato pays a lot of attention to Farrier and Reeve’s films. While Farrier was promoting the feature in New York, Reeve was in Los Angeles at a screening, and D’Amato was actually in attendance. Kevin Clarke, a Jane O’Brien Media representative featured a lot in Tickled, is more aggressive towards the filmmakers while D’Amato is oddly calm, shaking Reeve’s hand and willing to witness the theater’s Q&A session. These incidents were reported on in the news when Tickled came out, but it’s another thing entirely to watch it unfold on screen.
“I was so proud with how Dylan dealt with that situation. It was a really full on thing to be involved with to have the key people who didn’t want the film made watching the film and then getting quite angry. There was a lot of yelling and a lot of threats. I think the other emotion was almost jealousy that I wasn’t there, because I would’ve loved to have been just in that room watching. Or just to feel the atmosphere in that room. I think Dylan did this amazing job of not allowing that situation get out of hand. He had this great idea to give the floor to the main character in the film and give him the mic and let him speak. That was pretty incredible and gave you some insight into how his mind works. We don’t want people lashing out at this person through booing, and we didn’t want to harass these people back. We didn’t want to play by their rules. Dylan just wanted to calm the crowd down. This person bought a ticket to the film, and we should be able to hear what they have to say. It was neat how he shut that down.”
While a tickling empire toppling over sounds utterly ridiculous, Farrier remains calm and collected during the entire interview process. These are people that don’t want to be acknowledged publicly, and they certainly don’t want to be ambushed over involvement in a tickling website. It’s all rather strange and a bit scary, but Farrier manages to keep his calm demeanor even though approaching them was something he feared doing.
“When I was approaching people that didn’t want to be filmed like when I approach the studio where they had the tickling competition. Or when I approached the subject on this, you know, snowy street. Being from New Zealand, my main fear at times was ‘does this person have a gun?’ In America, people seem to like their guns, right? So that was in the back of my head as this fear. Of course, no one pulled a gun out, and I was perfectly safe and fine, but that was always in the back of my head when I was approaching people.”
Since the story is so ongoing, it feels like there could almost be a tickling documentary genre forming, and Farrier will be right there to document it. No matter what medium the story will be presented it in future reportings, one thing is certain: this is no laughing matter.
“I think there probably is more story to tell. I got to the end of The Tickle King and there’s still questions that are raised in that, and I think we will hear from more victims and more people that are involved with this world. The authorities might be pressured to act more now that the story is going much wider now. When audiences watch Tickled, I think there’s a sense of injustice that Dylan and I felt when we were making it. We will monitor things, and film where we can. We will follow the story and figure out what the best venue is to show it whether it’s on HBO or we write about it. Visually has been the best way to tell the story so far, so I’d like to think we’ll keep filming and find a way to put it out there.”