Like many other people, the COVID-19 pandemic had Julian Shapiro-Barnum feeling low.
The 22-year-old comedian and actor had spent his senior year at Boston University entirely online, and after moving back home to New York, he felt constricted to his apartment.
"Being stuck in that place was really challenging," Shapiro-Barnum said -- but instead of basking in his sorrow, he decided to take his problems to the streets to get feedback from the experts. In this case, kids.
"I called my creative partner and said 'Let's interview kids on the playground. They look so happy and like they're really having so much fun. … Let's see how they do it,'" he said. "I'm genuinely interested in seeing how they stay so joyful and resilient."
What he found was a little more complicated.
Though the children were enthusiastic and hilarious with their answers, it wasn't all happy. Shapiro-Barnum said he found that many children were, too, struggling with the "new normal" and not being able to see their friends. They grappled with the concept or confines of gender identity and tackled the uncertainty and excitement of the future. Their insight on such topics, however, was much simpler (and funnier) in delivery than the typical adult. It was cathartic.
"Walking back from the playground, I just felt fresh from having that perspective," Shapiro-Barnum said.
The actor soon after launched Recess Therapy. In the online show -- what feels like a new-age spin on "Kids Say the Darndest Things" -- Shapiro-Barnum sets out to ask kids general questions in man-on-the-street style videos. And as the saying goes, the truth comes "out of the mouth of babes."
There have been heartwarming thoughts about Pride month, stream-of-conscious mumblings, suspicions about aliens, and suggested solutions to climate change. Children have also weighed in on crucial subjects like the key to happiness (hint: ice cream), favorite foods (also: ice cream), why vacation is crucial (this, too, somehow involves ice cream), and what adults could do better (to summarize: A LOT).
Episode 9: Pride www.youtube.com
The process of creating the show has indeed been therapeutic, Shapiro-Barnum said.
"I was taken aback by how varied and complex and thoughtful these kids are, how they have not put all these boxes around things," and how they had "crazy, wacky ways" of fixing real-life problems, he said.
"They had so much hope," he said. "They seemed so free of the stress incorporated in my life."
Within six months, Shapiro-Barnum estimates that he's talked to hundreds of children for Recess Therapy, interviewing them weekly about random things like "the summer vibe," growing up, lying and even the taboo topic of peeing in your pants.
The response has been overwhelming.
Recess Therapy's Youtube page, which features full-length videos, has around 4,500 subscribers, but the Instagram page, which showcases shorter clips, has amassed more than 768,000 followers and counting, and well over 13 million views in total. Some children have recognized the host while walking around Brooklyn, and both children and adults have been tuning in, leaving warm and encouraging messages, Shapiro-Barnum said.
"They'll say 'I've watched everything you ever made' or 'I feel so much better after seeing this,'" he said. "And I think that's the power of the show. … We're just trying to make something positive and happy that is a break from everything. I really want people to come to this page and get that catharsis that only kids can bring in this way."
Gathering interviews, however, takes work. Some parents have been skeptical and don't want to put their kids on the internet, but Shapiro-Barnum said there are always some parents who are really excited about the subject and who see the vision.
Alex and Karina Tervooren, owners of New York food tour company and blog Food Strolls, encouraged their six-year-old son Eduard to participate in the interview while attending a food festival in Brooklyn.
"Mom said she'd give us $1, and we were just like fine, and we started to know him and talked about food and stuff," said Eduard about his interview with Shapiro-Barnum. (Though the topic was summer vibes, Eduard ranted casually about the blank space in his brain, the time he and his siblings flushed a ball down the toilet and how he'll eat anything).
The episode now has more than 1.4 million views, and the Tervoorens said they have received texts from friends all around the country about Eduard's Recess Therapy debut, which Eduard finds amusing.
"I thought it was hilarious. Eduard can be very loquacious and goes on and on, but Julian did a good job editing to show the salient points and keeping it funny and playful," said Alex Tervooren. "Whether questions are meant to be funny or philosophical, when a child answers it, it's always in a straightforward and nonsensical way."
Karina Tervooren, who has gone on to watch other episodes of Recess Therapy, described it as a "feel-good" show.
"If you're having a bad day and you watch that, you start smiling right away," she said. "The things (kids) talk about, the way they talk about how they see some things, how they handle subjects -- it's very interesting."
In some ways, Shapiro-Barnum -- who once dreamt of being a puppeteer -- has been preparing for this moment and platform. Since high school, the comedian and formally trained actor has performed comedy for children and has worked to make both children and adults laugh using his improv skills. His goal is to continue that work, with hopes of expanding Recess Therapy and diving into deeper subjects with kids -- still with the much-needed dose of comedy.
"Kids can be so hilarious but also heartwarming and healing and they've brought me such depth," he said. And sometimes, he added, "they're more fun to hang out with."
Shapiro-Barnum has also floated the idea of changing up the locations for the show -- like attending an actual recess period at a school or taking the show outside of New York and to another country to get kids' candid opinions about America.
But ultimately, he said, he's working to make comedy with commentary -- something that adds to the conversation.
"I'm just trying to make something that's not just noise," he said.
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