Would you ever guess that tickling is a sport? Well, it’s true .... sort of. Competitive Endurance Tickling — in which “contestants” are tied down and tickled for as long as they can stand it — is a strange but profitable world of online videos.
David Farrier, an entertainment reporter from New Zealand, set out to write a story on the tickling videos, and he quickly discovered there was too much to capture in print, so he started filming.
Farrier had never made a documentary, so he hired director Dylan Reeve to help. Their film, “Tickled,” became less about the competitive tickling world and more about what happened when Farrier began investigating the people and companies behind the videos.
The Frame's John Horn spoke with Farrier about how he first stumbled upon this niche world of underground sport.
How did you first come across these competitive tickling videos?
In New Zealand, I'm a light entertainment reporter so I'm always trying to find a strange story in pop culture or TV or film. I've been doing this now for about 10 years, so this is almost a competition with my friends — can someone surprise me with something? And my friend sent me a link to this website of competitive endurance tickling and I was blown away.
For people who don't know, these are generally young men who are clothed, are restrained and being tickled. Is that a fair description?
Yeah, that's a fair call. It's a tickling competition that takes place in L.A. once a month. That's what it's pitched as. You're flown in from wherever you are in the world — there are New Zealanders that are flown 12 hours from Auckland to LA. You're flown in, all your expenses are paid for, you're put up in a really nice hotel, and all you've got to do is tickle people on camera while you're in Adidas sports gear. So I was looking at all of these videos online. It's a legitimate thing. You've got about five guys in each video. It looks like it could be some sort of tickling league. But I was looking at these videos thinking, What is going on here? When you get a group of good looking guys — they're sort of athletic, sporty, all tickling each other — in the back of your head you're thinking, Is this a sport, or is it something more sexual? Which is what I started looking into.
It's relatively innocent as it appears. It is not something that is sexually explicit. But as you start inquiring about who is presenting this competition, you stumble across a company called Jane O'Brien Media. You reach out to them and they send this response back: "To be brutally frank, associations with a homosexual journalist is not something we will embrace."
Yeah, it was a Facebook post that they made public. They've got this Facebook page with about 22,000 likes, and so I went to their page and I said, I'm from New Zealand and could I interview you? That was the response I got back, which was bizarre on a number of levels because, A: why does my sexuality matter about this at all?; and B: the sport did seem quite gay. It was so aggressive that it made me think, There's got to be more to this.
So had they not responded the way you had, you would not have had a film?
Oh, totally. If "Debbie" had just responded saying, Oh we're a bit busy today, try us again next week, I would have moved on to a different story and never even gone there. But she gave me her email and we just started emailing back and forth and the abuse just got bigger and bigger.
One of the things that happens early on, and that makes you interested in what's happening, is there are a lot of athletes or performers in the competitive endurance tickling arena, and when you reach out to try and interview them, it's hard to get anybody to talk. What happens?
Yeah, it was really difficult. The logical thing, when I was looking into this, was to talk to some of the competitors, some of the people that had done this. Very quickly people were [saying], No, we don't want to talk to you. And for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons was, [fear of annoying] Jane or Debbie in any way. If they said, Hey, I've come to L.A. three times. You pay me really well to tickle. I had a great time, but I don't want to do the next tickling session. Or maybe they sent an email [in which] Jane didn't approve of their language and [how they] conducted themselves. The tiniest little thing could set Jane off. Suddenly, all your tickling videos are on porn sites, Vimeo, or YouTube and being emailed to their coaches at school.
Your life is basically ruined online.
Yeah. In this really bizarre way. These tickling videos are reframed in this very dark, strange way. So suddenly this thing that seemed innocent is suddenly completely turned against you.
Part of the pressure is that the people behind these videos seem to know very specific personal details about a lot of people's lives — who they're married to, where they live, family relationships, etc. Were you at all startled about what they found out about you and your work?
Yeah. Jane O'Brien very quickly seemed to find out a lot about me, to the point where I was at work one day and I got a phone call from someone and they said, "Are you at your house?" I said, "Who are you and what are you doing?" It was a private investigator that they had hired to give me some legal papers. But it's quite disconcerting when you suddenly find out a company that had been pretty aggressive and threatening to sue, suddenly knew where I lived. They knew the fact that I loved "Jurassic Park." They knew a lot about my life, what I liked and who was in my life, almost in a way that was like, We know about you and we know what you're about.
It's terrifying and a little strange, but this is clearly a film about a really tiny niche of the Internet. Do you think the film reveals a bigger story about the way people work on the web, how video can be used to entertain, threaten and exploit people?
Completely. It's that age-old thing, that cautionary tale about the Internet: Who are you really talking to and who's behind the advertising on your screen? It's like an extreme version of that.