Narwhals, Narwhals, Causing a Commotion: An Interview With Mr. Weebl's Jonti Picking

If you've seen the Sprint commercial or are already familiar with Narwhals, you know well that, once the Narwhals tune burrows into your brain, it does not come out easily.
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2015-03-03-narwhals3.jpgHow will you remember Sprint's Unlimited $50 Plan?

A better question might be: how will you ever forget it?

Sprint's latest campaign includes a clip of Mr. Weebl's viral Narwhals animated short. If you've seen the Sprint commercial or are already familiar with Narwhals, you know well that, once the Narwhals tune burrows into your brain, it does not come out easily.

Mr. Weebl, aka Jonti Picking, is the creative mind behind Narwhals and hundreds of other animated videos, including the viral hit, Badger Badger Badger, and MTV's Weebl and Bob series. At the time of this article, Narwhals has over 41 million views on YouTube, and Weebl videos collectively have over 250 million views.

In 2013, Picking teamed up with Queen lead guitarist Brian May and actor Brian Blessed to create a new version of Badger Badger Badger in support of May's Team Badger campaign to stop government plans to cull badgers in the UK. On September 1, 2013, Save The Badger Badger Badger hit #1 on the iTunes Rock chart.

As Picking himself suggests, Weebl videos defy an easy description. They often feature animals, they are intentionally annoying, and are impossible to forget.

So I checked out Narwhals on YouTube and it has over 41 million views. That's amazing!

Yeah. And it's added on a million I think since the Sprint advert went out, which is just crazy, to be honest.

That blows away Badgers, right? Badgers is about 21 million?

It's hard to say with Badgers because that was very much pre-YouTube so it's been shown on a lot of sites and YouTube obviously just counts YouTube. And someone else has a website just devoted to Badgers so I don't know how many views he's getting. It's on a load of other places as well. So it's really hard to tell which one's more popular, to be honest.

I want to talk about you and your work but since the Sprint commercial reintroduced me to your work, can we start with how the commercial happened?


So Narwhals is not new, right? It came out in 2009?

That's correct, yes.

So what happened? Did someone from Sprint just call you with an amazing idea that, hey, we're gonna make a Sprint commercial with Narwhals?

I honestly don't know what happened on that side of things. All I know is that their ad agency contacted me out of the blue and said, "Can we use Narwhals in an advert?" And I thought, "Sure, why not?" So that's pretty much as much as I know. But they showed me the advert as well and yeah it tickled my fancy. I like the bizarreness of it to be honest. Life is so absurd most of the time if you just take a moment to sit back and look at what's going on and you just realize quite how odd it is so, yeah, this is just more about oddness to me which I enjoy.

I'm wondering if your animations are more or less odd than real life. They seem slightly more odd to me but what do you think?

I guess it's sort of contextual isn't it? So I kind of know what's going off in my head when I'm making them, I guess. But I say that and I never really understood Badgers going back to until I saw it on TV during the - we were trying to stop the badger cull over here and we did a thing with (Queen lead guitarist) Brian May and all the big TV channels were playing my Badger cartoon with Brian May. Before then I never understood quite why it was so popular and funny, so seeing things out of context that way sort of goes, "Oh, right." You spend so much time focusing on these things that you kind of lose what the joke is until someone else tells you, I guess.

Talk a bit about Team Badger and what it is and how it came about.

So the government over here, despite advice from their own scientific advisors, wanted to cull a large amount of badgers within a certain area. They're always saying, "This is a bad idea. It's not gonna stop it. You're just gonna kill the healthy badgers and cause a spread of TB into other areas outside of this. So don't do it." We could inoculate instead which is obviously the more humane and sensible thing to do.


But people love to kill things apparently.

Yes they do.

Brian (May), being a huge fan of badgers, he called me and said, "Can you help out?" I think someone was doing videos for his talk he did in Oxford -- he was talking about badgers there and then put two and two together and said, "You should speak to Jonti." And yeah, he phoned me up and said, "Could we do something with Badgers?" And I said, "Yeah, absolutely because I like badgers." And he said, "Well, what do you see me doing on it?"

And I was kind of taken aback by that because obviously he's Brian May. I said, "Well, you're Brian May. I'm assuming you play guitar?" And he went, "Oh, okay." Which is like, "Okay, what else are you gonna do?" But yeah and then, "Will you write a little remix with me, Jonti, and then we'll do something." So I'm a big fan of Flash Gordon which he did the soundtrack for.

So I started like making bits of samples for that. And then, here you go -- here's a Flash Gordon-ized Badger Badger Badger with Queen-type singing on it.

So then I went down to Brian May's very fancy studio to record Badger Badger Badger with him and Brian Blessed. And he just brought out all the mix tapes from the original Flash Gordon soundtrack. It's just insane and incredible. My mind was blown, frankly.

So that seems like an experience that may even be more odd than one of your videos.

I think so, yeah. It has to be definitely up there. I mean the song was played in the House of Lords over here - you just gotta sit back and go, "What is going on?"

Did it make a difference?

There was definitely an upsurge in signatures on the petition and a lot more people were made aware of what was going on. And I think that put a dampener on the government's plans. It's still ongoing, to be honest. But yeah, certainly, in awareness it helped.

For people who are not familiar with your videos, if you were forced to describe them to someone who had never seen one before, say if you were speaking with a person from another planet who happened to speak perfect English, how would you describe them?

I guess you'd say it's kind of surreal, absurdist humor made as catchy as possible to sort of stick in your head and annoy you. The earworm thing always struck me as something that is intensely annoying but at the same time kind of enjoyable. So I focused on that. It's very hard to explain because I try not to over-think the initial idea. I go with this Malcolm Gladwell Blink theory - your first feelings are the right ones. But yeah, it's intentionally annoying.

I think you've absolutely accomplished your goal in that respect, though it's also very fun. I'm really glad that you mentioned Blink because I wanted to understand the process how these videos happen, starting with that flash of genius - can you just talk about that and maybe take an example like Badgers or Narwhals about what was the initial inspiration, how and when did that happen and then follow that process through to the point where it emerges from the sausage funnel.

It all stems from different things I think. As you go about your life, you just see little quirky things happening around you and I like those little moments where you go, "That's a bit odd. Let's do something with that." So one of the scripts I wrote for Weebl and Bob was based on this lad - I went to see a film in a park and it's this lad just washing his hands in the portaloos for about 30 minutes and then that germ of a thought like, "Hey, he's obsessed with cleanliness, bububoy." So that was one.

The Badger Badger Badger song actually started with - did you ever hear Saturday Night by Whigfield? It was a very long time ago.


"Saturday night and I like the way you move." They had a duck quacking throughout the entire thing. So I thought, ah, if I put a very annoying noise throughout the entire tune, Badger Badger Badger then it's gonna be popular. I wanted to test that theory, which worked, I guess. So there's an annoying little squeal all the way through the entire song.

I understand that you put the animation out there and then left for the weekend and when you got back, the whole world had blown up.

Yeah. It was very strange. While I was making Badger Badger Badger I was doing an advert for a butter company and I was in the studio doing voiceovers with them and I showed them Badger Badger Badger in progress and said to them, "This is gonna be huge." And they looked at me like I'd gone insane. And it was huge, so yeah, it shows what they know.

I was one of the millions watching Badger Badger Badger back in the day. I think it took three or four years to finally purge that out of my brain and now it's back in there.

I'm very sorry.

Okay, so you mentioned Weebl and Bob. I'm binge watching trying to catch up. There are over 100 episodes, right?


When did you start Weebl and Bob?

I think it was 2002. It could have been late 2001.

And it was picked up by MTV, right?

Yeah, MTV in the UK showed the full episodes and then MTV-2 bunched a load of them together to make a half-hour show. Apparently it did better than Jackass over here from what I heard. Whether that's true or not, I don't know.

Well, it certainly deserved to do better than Jackass. I understand that Bob is smaller than Weebl due to an overdose of cheese?


I just have to say that there just aren't enough public service announcements warning about the dangers of cheese. I want to thank you for that. I loved Weebl and Bob's Ode to Ladytron.

Oh, yeah. I'm glad the parody laws have changed over here so we can do things like that now.

I think the laws of gravity may be changing as well.


So what are some of your favorite Weebl and Bob moments?

I think the monkey song was one of my favorites. I think it's called Anywhere. The parody of Take on Me is one of my favorites. And I always had a sort of soft spot for Art - the playing chess with death black and white film.

So I always had a soft spot for that as well.

Speaking of soft spots let me ask you about animals in your videos. So there are lots of animals in your videos and some are stars and some get vivisected and made into sausage and some get splattered on the Hubble telescope. So I am assuming correctly from Team Badger that it is it fair to say you're an animal fan?

I am an animal fan, yes.

Can you talk a little bit about animals in your videos?

Actually I do have a little bit of a little bit of a fascination with natural history being brought up with David Attenborough talking about various creatures and narwhals are amazing creatures. You look at them and going, "How do you exist? This is insane." And apparently the horn is basically some sort of crazy sonar full of nerve endings. So yeah, you look at these things and, wow, what a variety of life. This is fascinating.

There are so many things I'd love to cover like geoducks and trilobites and dinosaurs and all these kind of things - such a wide variety of life on this planet that's fascinating.

How many animated shorts you have made?

I have no clue. If you include everyone else's stuff that I've worked with as well, it's over 300 by some mark I imagine. It's around 350 I would say probably.

Do you do the vocals?

I do most of the vocals, yeah.

You have a lovely voice.

Oh, thank you very much.

I can't help but wonder what kind of childhood experiences are necessary to produce a Shrimp Glockenspiel, Dugong, Moist Whale animator?

I've got amusing people in my life, I'll give you that. My uncle is hilarious. He's got a very obscure sense of humor and he's big on science as well so I think just being a big science nerdy geek fiend throughout my life and then being introduced to Monty Python, especially Spike Milligan before then who seemed to influence a lot people, but didn't really get the same respect. I've been brought up on all that side of comedy. I like Morecambe & Wise and I like median comedians like Stewart Lee, if you've ever seen him?


He's kind of a joke explainer but not really. It's like he likes the whole process of comedy. So it's nice to see that and try and figure out what makes things funny. My mum used to take in waifs and strays, so we had like a one-armed guy who used to be an ex-heroin addict who'd stay around and he had lots of electronica albums with him. And then there was an ex Hells Angel - all kinds of people just coming through our doors constantly. We had a big house back then. We lived in a bit of a grotty town, so houses were cheap. But yeah, my mum was very much into helping people so meeting lots of people that way was always very interesting.

So is your family is on board with what you do for a living?

We've had words about the more salty animations, I will say. Yeah but generally I've calmed down a bit now I think.

Well yes, I can tell because I'm looking at your Skype picture with the blood splattered on your face and I can tell that you've absolutely calmed down. How did you get into animation in the first place?

2015-03-03-mrweebl2.jpgIt was kind of by accident, to be honest. I studied art and music and didn't really get into the side of art that I wanted to do because when you say, "Oh, I draw cartoons. I do character stuff," everyone was either a fine artist or a graphic designer so I didn't really fit in with that. So I thought, "Oh, I like music as well," so I went off and did music. And as part of my course there they had a module that was about Internet stuff like Director and Flash.

So I got into Flash and it was like, "Oh, I can animate now." And I ended up with a job down in London working on Flash. And in my down time I'd be like, "Well, what can I do animation wise?" So I'd go home and work until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. in the morning just making cartoons and then going back to work the next day. I was just doing that quite happily, not making any money or anything. It was just a hobby. And then MTV phoned up out of the blue while I'm at work and said, "Do you want to do Weebl and Bob for us?" And I went, "Okay," and took a chance and that became my job from that point.

It sounds like you are one of the rare individuals who has really discovered what you love to do with your life and is doing it for a living.

I am incredibly fortunate; I know this for a fact. I mean it's just such a joy to wake up and go, "Oh, I can't wait to try and make something new today." So it's never gotten dull or boring. It's been a struggle at times with YouTube changing algorithms and making it quite difficult for animation as a whole. But yeah, if I wasn't passionate about this, I don't think I'd be able to carry on doing it. When you're going to bed at 7:00 in the morning because you've got a crazy deadline, then I guess that would get tiring. But yeah, every day is brilliant, basically.

How is YouTube making life difficult for animators?

Basically, YouTube changed their algorithm in the last few years to favor watch time and the amount of content you can put up. So the big channels are able to put up a lot of content in a short amount of time with, say, 20 minutes three times a week. YouTube is preferential to channels that can do that whereas people that make short form sketch comedy music and animation are always struggling to keep up with that rate of output because obviously animation takes ages to make. So it's really affected the animation community on YouTube and we're seeing a lot of people struggling as a result.

That must be a huge problem for you because YouTube is really your lifeblood, right?

It's the main sort of source of income certainly, yes.

Regarding the music loops, do you ever drive your family mad?

My wife hates it. We just moved house in September so I used to be out in the shed over the garden so no one could hear me and now I'm just upstairs with a very flimsy door while we wait for my new studio to be built. And she bursts in there and says, "You turn that off! You're driving me insane! You're not doing anything!" She'd be listening to eight bars looping for four hours and she'd just had enough at that point.

I couldn't make it all the way through 10 hours of Amazing Horse so I can't begin to imagine what it's like to live at your house. Do you have a favorite video?

I think for me my favorite is probably Walk in the Woods, which isn't actually a music one. It's about a rabbit who is doing a crap in the woods and a bear scares him and then they fly off into space on a tower of crap. And for me it's like my most proper cartoon-y cartoon so far and I just like - it finishes on quite a bittersweet note as well so I like that, a little bit of pathos at the end.

Is it fair to say that you expect to be doing this for the rest of your life?

I hope so, I really do. I'm trying to sort out a pitch for a series at the moment for TV or Netflix based on Magical Trevor and if that happens then yeah, absolutely I'll be hopefully doing this for the rest of my life.

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