Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared might be one of the best series ever to be distributed on YouTube. Created by English artists Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling, the six-episode series is a twisted homage to children’s television with strong threads of David Lynch and deadpan British comedy woven throughout. My fellow Fan Contributor Drew Dietsch describes it as “Sesame Street meets Twin Peaks.”
When Sloan and Pelling released the first two episodes to YouTube, they quickly gathered a strong fanbase. The show’s creators then took to Kickstarter to raise funds for another four episodes, and the fans contributed over £104,000 to the campaign. What we got out of it might be the best fan-funded web series ever produced. The show feels pure and whole, a rich world of colorful puppets and catchy songs brought to life through masterful filmmaking.
Come along with me and fellow Fan Contributors Drew Dietsch, Andrew Hawkins, and Ryan Covey as we break the series down episode-by-episode (some of which are NSFW).
Episode 1: Creativity
“What’s your favorite idea?”
With this deceptively cheery question, we’re introduced to the felt-covered nightmare world of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. The main conceit of the series involves a group of three friends (Yellow Guy, Red Guy, and Duck Guy) whose lives are interrupted by some sentient being that sings them what seems to be an educational song. Things usually start out innocuous enough but somewhere along the line, they devolve into hallucinatory delirium. This introductory episode feels like a perfect mission statement for the series that will follow. In this inaugural outing, it’s a sketchbook teaching the trio about creativity.
There’s an acknowledgment of the show’s existence as a show right in the first episode, and this meta-commentary will become crucial to the themes and ideas that DHMIS is manically playing with. While it’s easy to dismiss the insanity as being weird for weirdness’ sake, it’s clear that the filmmakers are exploring life’s horrifying concepts from the get-go. It’s not by accident that Duck Guy’s art project is simply the word “death.”
Pelling has said that the initial idea of the show was to illustrate how absurd it is trying to teach children an abstract concept in such a limited and often condescending manner. DHMIS revels in the abstract nature of its topics and isn’t afraid to point out their ridiculous and terrifying possibilities. And there’s no better jumping off point for such an exploration as the intangible and unquantifiable idea of creativity itself. [Drew Dietsch]
Episode 2: Time
In DHMIS’s second episode, things get much darker. No longer burdened with keeping up the illusion of kid-friendliness, things devolve into madness much more quickly.
A singing clock covers the subject with a jaunty spoken-word tune. The episode also fleshes out our three protagonists somewhat. Red Guy has a bemused disinterest in what’s happening. Duck Guy is game to play along but struggling against his own skepticism. Yellow Guy is childlike and ignorant, but obviously uncomfortable with the darkening tone.
This episode has probably the most laughs of any episode in the series. The bizarre detours and the clock’s abusive behavior when the trio doesn’t play along is mined for some big laughs. “I’m friends with my dad” and “It’s 9:30, there’s fish everywhere” brought out belly laughter so severe that I had to stop the video and collect myself.
Episode 2 is also the first to explore a deeper, recurring theme: fear of growing up, growing old and dying. Yellow Guy would appear to be a crude avatar for the audience. His growing discomfort reflects our own as we realize that this is going south. Similarly, Yellow Guy is the only member of the trio who seems appropriately disturbed when they start falling apart. [Ryan Covey]
Episode 3: Love
Being the first crowdfunded episode, the level of production evident in this installment is much higher than in the previous two. This change is both beneficial and detrimental to the effectiveness of the show. At this point, DHMIS was only two episodes in, but the bar was set very high for Wonder Showzen style comedy and mature abstract themes. This chapter marks the moment when things became less funny and more intensely bizarre.
We open on a missing persons sign and are immediately propelled into a plot where Yellow Guy runs away after Duck Guy kills a bug. Duck and Red are having a chicken picnic made up of raw, bloody chicken and eggs. It’s strange, but not nearly as bizarre as the journey that Yellow Guy embarks on when he meets a singing butterfly up in a tree. This new singing teacher character is the most sinister yet: a menacing cult leader who wears a smile and preaches love.
Yellow Guy is transported over a cartoon rainbow into a realm where a cult of puppets is celebrating love. Their displays of affection become especially unsettling when the creatures tell the story of Michael, and explain what a “special one” is. The straw dolls and tombstones give off a sense of impending doom that’s right in line with the darkness, death, and fear mentioned earlier by the butterfly.
Once Malcolm the King of Love is wheeled out, the madness reaches its peak. The other puppets tell Yellow Guy that he needs to change his name to Shrigis and become brainwashed never to be alone. That’s why Love is the most psychologically disturbing episode for me. Yellow Guy is lucky to have escaped that nightmarish fate. Even if it was only a dream, that last moment with a fetal stop motion puppet calling him “Father!” and getting squished is enough to haunt anybody for days. [Andrew Hawkins]
Episode 4: Computer
Episode 4 is an important turning point for Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. Its narrative consequences are acknowledged in future episodes, and it foreshadows Red Guy’s role in the series finale. At this point, the main trio has caught on to the fact that something will educate them when the need arises. So just when you think the series has settled into a solid formula, Pelling and Sloan continue to subvert expectations. They set up The Globe to be the teacher but instead introduce one of the show’s most memorable and frightening characters: The Computer.
The Computer’s cute shape and catchy song make him instantly endearing. But his prying questions (“Do you like cow’s or goat’s milk?”) test Red Guy’s patience. He touches the keyboard, and the adorable computer we’ve just met gives us a genuine scare. Our trio is then transported (sort of) into the digital realm, where the series toys with alternate planes of reality.
Our heroes are confronted with some very chilling questions: Is your digital avatar representative of your real you? Is reality just a simulation? Red Guy, disillusioned by the digital world, starts to notice that some sort of reality-bending event is taking place. His friends glitch in and out of the dining room. Yellow Guy’s dad, Roy (a harbinger of doom), stands in the darkened corner of the dining room. Red Guy follows the computer’s power cable to a door. He opens it, and finds himself on another plane of reality. [Travis Newton]
Episode 5: Food
This episode doesn’t beat around the bush with Red Guy’s fate from Episode 4. Our attention is immediately drawn to Red Guy’s absence. His glimpse of that alternate reality was a truth so profound and strange that it forever changed him. Maybe he’s just grown up.
But before Duck Guy or Yellow Guy can wonder about any of this, they’re serenaded by a kitchen full of singing food. This episode’s lesson is about nutrition and eating, which is a much more concrete subject than time, love, or the digital realm. But food is still a hugely controversial and highly personal issue we seem to have a lot of trouble with. Developing nations are still starving. The U.S. is experiencing an obesity epidemic. You’d think we’d have this food thing figured out by now, but clearly it’s way more complicated than that.
The singing food spouts a lot of pseudoscience, which echoes much of today’s discourse about the human diet. Regardless, Duck Guy’s time has come to pass on from this plane of reality. He answers a ringing phone to find himself in a darkened operating room. It’s his first glimpse at another reality, and it changes him. He gets frustrated and leaves the show, only to wind up vivisected, canned, and eaten by an obese Yellow Guy. The phone rings again, and the bell tolls for Yellow Guy.
During the credits, Red Guy is seen in adult clothes, giving us the first glimpse of his new life. [Travis Newton]
Episode 6: Dreams
In what appears to be the conclusion of the series, we see Yellow Guy sobbing at the loss of his friends. He’s still stuck in this apparently fabricated world, but when his bedside lamp decides to sing him a song about dreams, Yellow Guy finally refuses to listen and participate. Yellow Guy has always been the most simple-minded and childlike of the group, and it’s in this final episode that we see him try and combat the juvenile universe that he’s been made a prisoner of.
Meanwhile, Red Guy exists in another world of identical looking people, shuffling away in their comfortably bland lives. We discover that Red Guy has some spark of creativity in him when he dreams up the idea of a file coming to life and singing a song. Later, he strips his clothes off and sings the song from the first episode to a bar full of his peers. His boring colleagues boo at his performance, but in the back of the room is Roy, Yellow Guy’s father.
It’s here where the self-aware nature and meta-commentary of the show really explode. Red Guy is transported to a room with a monitor that’s showing the awfulness happening to Yellow Guy. Red Guy fiddles with the machine which makes more and more “teachers” appear, only to have Roy step out of the shadow and place an elongated hand on Red Guy’s shoulder. Eventually, Red Guy pulls the plug on the show (literally), and the three friends are back where they started in episode one. Except they’ve changed colors — the favorite colors they mentioned in the first episode. Oh, and that unmoving calendar finally turns to June 20th. They’ve somehow escaped… until a sketchbook swings open and asks, “What’s your favorite idea?” [Drew Dietsch]