How Three TikTokers Used God to Find Surrealism
“Three gallons, three seconds.” The cold open of one of @Tik_tok_bhadie’s best videos sticks in your head: A guy eagerly taking the lid off one of three gallons of milk is interrupted by a knock at the door. From there, it’s a descent into a twisted riff on the concept of the door-to-door salesman, with a stranger in sunglasses trying to hawk vintage jackets from inside the unsuspecting milk-drinker’s cabinets, fridge, and oven. The sketch includes multiple references to Minecraft and a green-screen reveal as a transition to the final scene, outdoors, where the milk guy realizes he really does need a jacket. For its cinematic ending, the salesman dramatically removes his sunglasses and delivers the line, “Stay toasty.”
The milk video, which has been liked more than 2.6 million times, is by Grant Beene, 23, and stars him and Frankie Lagana, 25. The two creators — along with a third collaborator, Jericho Mencke, 20 — support themselves by making bizarre but tight comedy videos that stand out from the churn of tutorials and trends. Characterized by unusual props that propel the plot (a walking TV set, a whoopee cushion); time-saving transitions (like a fist bump that causes the scene to jump); and an overall eerie, otherworldly quality, the TikToks made by these three friends draw millions of views to each post. On Twitter, users have called their work “neo-surrealist” and “Lynchian.” Their fans just call it “fever dream.” That’s high praise, apparently, but it doesn’t really capture what they’re up to.
More from Rolling Stone
“I personally find the ‘fever dream’ title so cringy,” Beene says. “People will say, ‘fever dream vibes’ in the comments and get 100,000 likes. And it’s just — I don’t know what I would call them, dude. I just call them sketches.” With TikTok followings ranging from 1.6 million (Lagana) to 2.7 million (Mencke), whatever genre the three friends are working in is clearly meeting a cultural moment in today’s post-lockdown, content-drenched landscape, even if they haven’t entirely figured out why that is yet.
The three creators met a couple years ago through the internet, but quickly became friends offline. Beene and Lagana live in Los Angeles while Mencke is in Arizona for the time being, but as is the case for many in the creator landscape, their collaborations — like their friendships — aren’t tied to a geographic place. When they each joined TikTok in 2019, none of them knew exactly what they’d be making. Mencke started out doing offbeat interviews and sendups of popular trends on the app, before noticing that sketches commenters called “fever dream” were drawing the most engagement. “I was like, ‘OK, if there’s any genre I’m gonna get stuck in…’ I actually love sketch comedy, because the creativity doesn’t have a bar, and we can kind of do whatever we want,” he says.
All three are devout Christians, and Lagana says he downloaded the app because God guided him to while he was praying about what to do next with his life. He’d made YouTube videos in the past, but they didn’t feel “authentic,” he says. “I began to really feel God put Tiktok on my heart like, ‘Just try this platform,’” he says. He initially posted comedic scenes that were mostly improvised, but during the pandemic, he found the time to start writing out sketches ahead of filming. Beene just wanted the play with the duet feature on the app, then felt himself gaining traction. He initially posted front-facing shorts from his parents’ garage, oftentimes as a character called DJ Young Metronome. He started doing more involved sketches after he connected with other creators, including Lagana.
things aren’t always what they seem 😎
♬ original sound – grantbeans
One of Mencke’s strangest videos starts with the creepy tones of ice cream truck music in the dark of night. He sits up in bed beside his wife, who is a mop with a watermelon for a head. “Honey, do you want anything? I’m getting some ice cream,” he says. The video only gets weirder from there, packing several more characters — including Lagana as the ice cream man, a hostage situation with a chainsaw, and Mencke being jolted out of a dream to find himself holding a melting ice cream cone — into the video’s 51 seconds. It is somehow an ad for CashApp, and it has been viewed 3.3 million times.
According to these three creators, their brand of greatness cannot be rushed, even if TikTok’s algorithm begs for a near-constant supply of content. “When it feels forced, I’m not happy with the end product,” Mencke says. He’s found his audience responds well to a slower cadence of posts. “You’ll see comments where people are just happy that I posted again, because it’s been a month,” he says. “I think the idea of quality over quantity, people like that.”
These days, the creators most often conceptualize and write videos on their own before bringing them to their collaborators, but Lagana says the limited time they spend together in person always generates new ideas for him. “Jericho and Grant are just the most wonderful geniuses in the world,” he says. “Just actually getting to sit down and hang out and laugh creates so many ideas.”
Like an improv comedian taking a suggestion from the audience, Mencke plays with a random word generator to think up puns and jokes to get him started. Other times he and Beene write together. They all agree the video plots need to make sense — fever dream label aside. “A lot of people think it’s so random, but as we’re writing, we’ll be like, ‘What’s the motive of this character? What would they say?'” Mencke says. Beene writes early drafts off the top of his head, then refines the narrative later in the process. “I’ll write like, 90 percent of the sketch, and then I’ll have these little plot holes that don’t make sense, and Jericho is very good at smoothing those out,” he says of their partnership.
After they gather props and build sets, the guys then film the sketches, with the help of their fellow creators or roommates on camera. They do this most often at night. The choice is a practical one as much as creative: “It’s harder to work during the day when the sun’s changing and lighting changing,” says Mencke, adding that a recent video of his took 15 hours to record over the course of three nights. But they also think it creates a cool effect. “It’s just more of the surreal or fever-dream vibe,” he says.
The creators are largely products of their online adolescence, driven less by a love of mainstream comedians and film predecessors than the digital creators who came before them. Beene was 10 when Vine launched, and he cites child stars Filmquaker, Boysru1e, and Christian Leave as inspiration for his work. He and Mencke both became fans of Kyle Mooney after commenters on TikTok said their work reminded them of Mooney’s sketch group Good Neighbor. They devoured his YouTube videos with Beck Bennett from the mid-aughts, unaware of the comics’ trajectory.
“We went back and watched all his YouTube stuff, and then we realized he was on [Saturday Night Live], like, this is a big guy,” Mencke says. Lagana cites Lonely Island and directors Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Wes Anderson as heroes, though he also draws influence from early YouTubers like the sketch group Smosh and Vine’s touring MAGCON stars (who included Shawn Mendes) from the late 2010s. The latter made him consider a career in creating. “It’s a group of basically pretty boys that would travel around,” he said. “And I was just like, ‘This is so cool.’ Even if they’re popular for their looks, they’re making this work, and they’re adding their own flavor of humor and different things in. I was just like, ‘I would love to do something like this in the future.’”
Faith in humanity restored 🥺💞 @cashapp #thatsmoney #cashapppartner w/ @frankiesfun
♬ original sound – Jericho Mencke
THE WORLD TODAY COULD BE PRIMED for a surrealist art revival, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, war, and other anxiety-producing circumstances. Started almost exactly a century ago, the first surrealists were reacting to the global conflict of World War I, which was followed immediately by the flu pandemic.
“Because they believe that logic and rationality brings about only tragedies, they need to look for alternative ways to understand the world and the universe around them,” says Gražina Subelytė, an art historian and associate curator at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. She sees parallels in today’s environment to that era of global conflict. “We went through the pandemic, which is still not over, you have the war in Ukraine, the conflict in Iran, and I think the tragedy most marking the future of the current young generation is the climate crisis. We don’t even know what the world will look like in 10 years. It’s this unprecedented moment, and a bit of a sense of hopelessness comes to the fore.”
The three friends endured the pandemic at a formative time in their lives. Yet they claim they aren’t feeling hopeless at all. “I think what’s happened is a beautiful accident,” Beene says. “I didn’t set out to make surrealist videos because I thought the culture was hungry for surrealism, but I do think that’s a huge reason the videos have seen so much success.” Beene thought the pandemic lockdown era ultimately did him good. “The pandemic just slowed down my life, but it was kind of necessary,” he says. “If you didn’t fight the slowdown, it was actually a little bit therapeutic.”
But part of the vision of the original surrealists resonates. “I definitely think our videos and my videos are a big rejection of reality,” Lagana says. “We’re just like, ‘How can we be so extreme to where it makes no sense that it actually makes sense again?'”
At the same time, the three friends do seem to be reacting to something in their environment, whether that’s coming of age during lockdown or navigating the creator landscape: all three have recently developed a strong faith in God, and it’s possible only a higher power knows whether that has to do with the pressures and fears of being alive today.
Lagana was raised atheist, but says he started praying when he was 19 to help with his anxiety and depression. That was around 2017, a year filled with fear and uncertainty. “I was just like, ‘God if you are real, show up,’ because I was having a lot of bad thoughts,” he says. “Within three weeks of praying, I saw my anxiety go away.” He joined an interdenominational Christian travel program before landing in L.A. and working on TikTok content.
Beene was brought up Christian but says talking about religion with Lagana renewed his interest in forming a personal relationship with God. “I guess the confidence I have now is knowing like, dude, I’m living on the Lord’s terms and not my own,” he says. “And he’s got a pretty great win rate, bro. It’s about 100 percent.” He credits God with helping his numbers grow on TikTok, and even providing him with a Tesla when he needed a car.
Mencke, who has the most followers of the group, says his faith leads him to use the app only to post. He never scrolls TikTok himself. He’d rather be reading the Bible. “Not putting my identity in videos but like, finding my identity and Jesus — that’s something that’s super important to me,” he says. “That’s something that influenced me to get off social media, because it’s like, not a super healthy place to be.”
Best of Rolling Stone
Meet the Creators and Activists Leading Social Media's Next Wave