a long talk

The Cringe King of TikTok, 7 Weeks Later

Photo: Jake Novak

In March 2022, Jake Novak started taking his TikTok output seriously. The singer, actor, and Disneyland performer set a goal for himself to post at least one video every Wednesday. His work on YouTube hadn’t been hitting, and on an internet that survives via attention consumption, Novak wasn’t getting much to eat. But on TikTok, his mix of original songs, raps, and TikTok duets began to attract views: One video, a Lin-Manuel Miranda–style TikTok duet rap to a song called “Me or the PS5,” skyrocketed his follower count from 10,000 to a quarter-million, racking up over 17.6 million views to date. His overly earnest, “theater kid stuck in 2011” approach to his videos may not have been for everyone (and may have led to some videos with, well, questionable taste at best), but his consistent approach to the platform was working. That is, until June 15, when the attention turned sour.

On that day, emboldened by his growing fan base, Novak posted a video that immediately entered TikTok infamy. In the minute-long clip, Novak pitches himself directly to Lorne Michaels with a simple (musical) plea: “I want to be the next SNL cast member!” It … did not go well.

In an instant, Novak became the King of TikTok Cringe. Users stitched his video to make fun of him; rifled through his past (and also cringey) work; and had fun with Novak’s “easy mark” status in the video comment section, on Twitter, and in other TikToks. Even former SNL cast member Leslie Jones commented with a facepalm emoji. Novak did not acknowledge any of the criticism and has yet to post anything on social media since the SNL clip fiasco began.

Novak’s silence led to even more intrigue: Where was the man who had taken TikTok by hatestorm? Multiple people posted videos of him at work at Disneyland. Some TikTokers wrote songs ironically begging him to return, and others made parodies that veered dangerously close to the original. He made some people laugh and some people angry. He became the subject of YouTube video essays discussing cringe. The only public interaction Novak himself has had with the internet since June 15 has been an update on his website removing his contact information and noting, with no further context, that his SNL video had reached over 4 million views.

So how does it feel to be the target of such an enormous internet pile-on calling you “cringe”? What’s it like to avoid the internet when you know the internet is still obsessed with you? Novak recently agreed to get candid about the SNL video, its aftermath, and what he’s taken away from the experience.

How would you describe the “Jake Novak” persona?
I would say usually upbeat and self-deprecating — just sort of keeping a plastered smile on, even though I’m talking about things that don’t feel very good to talk about. I think I was doing slightly different things: The original songs were a bit on the sillier side and just complaining about the trauma of losing the Wordle, for example. Which is like, okay, we can all relate to that, and also, it’s really not that bad — you’re going to be fine. But in the rap-style videos, I was allowing myself to dig a little bit more at what’s really underneath the things I was talking about from those topics. Ultimately it was just the vibe of a guy trying to earnestly express the kinds of things that he’s feeling in his everyday life, and wondering if anyone else feels the same.

Would you say earnestness is a large part of what you were trying to do?
I think so. I don’t know if that was an intent of mine from the start. I was walking a line between arch and earnest, but trying to steer more toward the latter. I just found it was more interesting to show myself where I was, and, ideally, make something funny about that, but hopefully relatable as well.

Who are your artistic inspirations?
There’s a very clear line between the sort of rap stuff that I’ve done and Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’m a musical-theater kid, through and through. I’ve been doing musicals since I was 9 years old. I discovered In the Heights when I was younger, and it just blew my mind. And as a theater guy, Stephen Sondheim is basically … he’s basically God. He’s everything. I found my love of storytelling through Sondheim.

Bo Burnham is like … I mean, we all love Bo. How do you not? And Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, who started herself on YouTube, just making funny videos and goes on, gets this whole show — that’s fantastic. Folks like that have really influenced the way that I work, and also the way that I want to work and the kinds of avenues that I hope to take.

Would you consider yourself a super-online person?
No. I find that when I am spending more time online, I’m less happy. I’m less engaged in the real world. That’s just come to be a version of myself that I don’t like as much as others.

Okay, we’re gonna go into the SNL video now.
All right, let’s go. Buckle up.

Can you walk me through making it?
I’m a fan of SNL and have been for a long time, especially as someone who loves comedy. I was following the end of this last season, and I became aware that they had a lot of cast members who were leaving the show. At that point, it wasn’t like I was a complete nobody. I wasn’t by any means a household name — most people don’t know who the hell I am, but I have a certain amount of TikTok followers at that point. So I figured, Well, why don’t I just give it a shot? What’s the worst that could happen? Honestly, that was a real thought. [Laughs.]

I did not intend for it to be a highlight reel of my greatest hits or say, like, “This next 75 seconds is going to change your life!” What I really wanted it to do was just be an introduction to me, and hopefully encourage them, if they enjoyed what they saw, to look at the other videos that were on my profile.

Did you show it to anyone before you posted?
This one I did not. That’s something that I have struggled with in the process of being someone who’s doing things on a weekly basis. Creating a music video and song is not a trivial amount of work. I do not make a living from making these videos — I still have jobs that I must do to pay my rent. If I’m going to put these things out once a week on the same day, I don’t always have the time to get it in front of someone else’s eyes.

It just so happened that my timeline was running long, and I didn’t have the time to run it by someone. And I wish that I had. But at that point, that was not an option for me. I was very hell-bent on keeping that schedule.

And those timelines were all self-imposed based on how much work you wanted to get done?
That’s right. I had just sort of declared, basically arbitrarily, that I was going to be posting new things every Wednesday, and it was Wednesday. I had to follow through on it.

And you really did think of it as addressed directly to SNL, not necessarily the other people watching?
Yeah. I mean, one of the first lines is, “Hi, Lorne Michaels.” That was the target audience. Obviously, I knew I was going to have other folks on the way there, but that was the only one that I was actually concerned about seeing it.

Were you happy with the video when you posted it?
I was. I thought it was fun. I thought that I did good work on it. I don’t know that I thought it was like my masterpiece or anything, but when you’re doing so much in such a short amount of time, you don’t have time to think of everything as a masterpiece. And in this age that we’re living in, where there’s this appetite for constant content, it’s just more important to put something out than nothing at all and worrying about the details. I’ve gotten trapped in that pattern in the past, so I was just kind of like, You know what? I feel like this was fun, I think this was good, and whatever it is, it’s time to put it out and then immediately move on to the next thing.

Can you describe the process of the response starting and then blowing up?
It was initially very encouraging. I noticed that it was getting a higher early view count than I was used to. A lot of the comments were very good and encouraging and nice, but even from pretty early, there definitely were some comments that were not so great. It’s not like they were horrific to start; it was just like, “I’m not feeling this,” or “This is kinda cringey,” or things of that nature. I did realize pretty quickly that those were the comments that were really starting to take hold in terms of the number of people who were liking them or responding to them, or posting similar kinds of comments. Within 12 to 24 hours, it was pretty clear that it was going to start going down a pretty negative path.

What do you think was the thing that people picked up negatively about the video?
I guess people just didn’t think it was that funny, which is fair. Not everybody has to think everything’s funny. What I noticed when it started was, “Where are the jokes?” “This isn’t that funny.” Or the comments about like, “This is not funny, so you would be great on SNL.” And “You’re a perfect match,” kind of thing, which … hilarious. That was the tenor of it at the beginning.

What is your relationship to the word “cringe”?
I guess it’s a This is so bad and they don’t know it kind of thing, maybe? Or I just … I don’t … That’s interesting. Yeah, I guess I haven’t really put a definition on what that means in internet speak. I guess my impression of it is saying “bad without knowing it,” and “should be shamed for being so bad and not having the self-awareness to know how bad they are.” Or something like that.

How did you feel when people called you “cringey”?
There’s definitely some second-guessing of myself, like, Oh, do I just not get it? and Did I really misstep that much? You start to question yourself. It definitely does start to make you wonder, Oh gosh, there are that many people saying this. Is that true? So … [Gets choked up.] There’s a bit of questioning that goes on of, I wonder if I actually am the things that I think of myself to be.

What form did the attacks take outside of TikTok comments?
One of the earliest indications that I got was that one of my closest friends, who is very active on Twitter — and I am not active on Twitter — told me that there were people going through and digging up old tweets of mine and batting them around, and lots of content that was disparaging to me specifically was being tweeted. My website was getting flooded with hits. On an incredible day before all this, my website would maybe get 150 hits, and then early on in this, the site started getting 2,000 hits in a day, 3,000, 5,000. I just had an instinctual feeling that this was not good attention because, again, I’ve had videos that had done much better than this one in the past, and the attention on my website was still fairly minimal in comparison.

I got a lot of really nasty emails. I had a contact form on my website, which in the past probably got ten emails in a year, and then I was getting that many in the week or more. On these forums, you can just put in any email address that you want, so I got a lot of “lornemichaels@gmail.com” sending me an email saying, like, “Wow, we love you, call me at this number and let’s set up a meeting.” Or people just telling me, “You’re horrible,” “You’re cringey.” Definitely got at least one encouragement to kill myself. So there’s probably been more of those, although I haven’t seen them directly. It just sort of evolved into just a hate inbox, so I’ve taken that off my site.

Admittedly, I’m not as intimately aware of some of the details of where this has spun off to on TikTok just for my own mental health. I have friends who have kept track of it, and they have said in no uncertain terms that it is not a place I should go, that things that are being said about me are really nasty and twisted and weird and just conspiratorial in nature. Apparently there’s a lot of conspiracy theories because I haven’t posted any videos or really anything on social media at all since this video came out. I’m in a very distrustful relationship with the internet right now, so anything that’s coming my way or to the direction of people that I know, I’m just choosing to not engage with.

There’s even been some scares in terms of the kinds of messages that people in my life have received that seemed to indicate that some harm might have been done to me, which caused some very serious … I guess not repercussions yet, but it has caused serious emotional distress for not just me, but for my friends and co-workers who had nothing to do with any of this. It’s prompted the start of investigations about who these people are that are sending these kinds of messages. So it has gone very far, and much to my continual surprise, it seems to just keep going.

When did you decide not to post a video on the following Wednesday?
Very soon before the following Wednesday. My initial thought was that I was just going to take it in stride. I had something written and recorded that I was pretty ready to move forward with. It had nothing to do with any of this. But that time, I did send it to a friend for feedback, and he told me this: “This is not what you need to do next.” He had constructive notes about why he thought that, and we ended up getting into a discussion about whether or not I should address it, and if so, how.

I have a lot to say about it, but in terms of what I want the next video of mine to come out as, I haven’t quite landed on how I want to express the things that I’ve been feeling and to characterize what I’ve been going through, if it even ends up being about that at all. I think it was just like, Hold on. Don’t worry about that week-to-week deadline right now, because this is a special circumstance. My friend encouraged me to stop and take stock and really to think it through differently this time, and I stand by that completely.

Why didn’t you delete it?
I don’t know. It just didn’t really cross my mind. Deletion is a useful tool, but I don’t know if anything ever really is deleted on the internet these days. By the time I could have deleted that video, it almost certainly existed independently on the TikTok servers or somewhere else — somebody screen-recorded it, and it lives there. So the thing is never really gone in that sense.

I think there was still some hope in me that maybe it could have benefits, maybe it could still work out in my favor. It also feels like a deletion is letting other people control me and my self-expression and what I want to have out in the world. I have no interest in letting a bunch of strangers have say over that.

You work at Disneyland, correct?

Have you encountered anyone there who recognized you?
Yes. I haven’t had encounters that were very clearly negative. But also, it’s entirely possible for people to see me from the distance and get a photo or recording of me without me having any interaction with them at all. I’m aware that people have found me out in the world and are doing something with that. I have noticed that there are just a few more cameras, a few more phones pointing in my direction when I am working.

How does that affect your work there?
It’s kind of back and forth. There are some times where I just don’t think about it, don’t worry about it, it’s fine. The nature of that job is that at least hundreds of people a day are going to see us, and many of them are going to have their phones out and record us, and that’s something that’s just a part of that job.

What is unusual is that I’ve sort of come to a less trustful place. I think in the past, I was reasonably sure that anyone who was taking a video was doing so purely out of a place of like, They’re on vacation, they’re having a good time, they wanna remember this nice thing that they saw and enjoyed. Now I look at everyone with a phone as I’m singing and doing my job, and I’m just not sure what they are going to do with that. And ultimately, I do not have control over that. It has definitely created a bit more anxiety in my working day of just not knowing what people’s intentions are toward me, and if anything that I might do or say, on a given day, just in the course of my job, might end up on the internet and repurposed out of context.

Do you want to create content moving forward?
Oh, absolutely. I think that if anything, honestly, this has only increased my resolve, which was already pretty high, to create things. I have no intention of backing down from that whatsoever. I do think that the way in which I do it and the mediums through which that goes may be different. I don’t know what’s coming next, but this has certainly changed my opinion on these internet platforms and what it means to be a creator on them and to just express yourself on them at all. I’m definitely having to reevaluate my relationship with them and what I want that to be going forward.

You took on the persona of “Anxious Guy” in a lot of your TikTok videos. Do you think this experience might change the way you approach anxiety in your work going forward?
I think if anything, there’s an opportunity to talk about it even more candidly than I have in the past. In this case, there are people who are thinking of Jake Novak not as a human being, but just some dude on the internet. So it’s easy to make fun of him or to say crazy random things about him, because it doesn’t matter, it’s just the internet. The reality is that we’re people on the other side of this, and we have lives and friends and families, and all of these things get impacted when attention like this comes to us. Maybe this just encourages a little bit more awareness of the fact that these sorts of actions on the internet do have real-world consequences — and consequences that are fairly serious.

There was an episode just within the last several days where I had friends thinking they had basically received a death threat toward me, and were not able to get in touch with me and thought I might be dead because of this, and that’s not okay. Now I’m having to live my life with a bit more skittishness. That could have been a total false alarm, but I don’t fucking know that, and I’m not going to take any chances with that when it comes to my personal safety. So I think we really have to understand better that just because we make a piece of content that you don’t like or you disagree with, or is just simply not to your taste, does not give anyone the right to creep into that person’s real life and cause them anxiety or fear. It seems like there was just not really much of a concern about that in this particular case with me, and I’m sure that is true for other folks on the internet who this has happened to as well.

I really don’t have an issue if people don’t like the stuff that I do. Of course, I would like it if people like the stuff that I do, but I understand not everything is for everybody. I made a thing that you thought sucked. Don’t come after me in my real life. Just leave me alone. There’s a reason why you can just scroll. You just teach the algorithm that you don’t want to see that anymore, and then you don’t have to see it anymore.

Are you giving something up by not embracing all the attention?
Probably, yeah. And to be clear, I don’t know if I’m done with the internet yet. I think I just have a little more urgency to try and find other avenues, because I love doing what I do, and I think I do a good job of it, and I think there are other people who believe that I do a good job of it. I think I have something to offer, and I’m hopeful that will translate into different kinds of opportunities for me. But in the meantime, we’ll see how it goes.

I’m gonna let you go in a second, but I am curious about where “Jake Novak,” the person, goes from here.
Me too, man. [Laughs.] Honestly, as horrible as the internet has been to me in the past six weeks, I have really enjoyed this hiatus. I’m getting to see my friends more and just have more meaningful experiences in real life. I’m not worrying so much about working multiple jobs and then also working full-time hours doing this content-creation work, which would often make it so that I was sleeping an hour a night sometimes, and just really burning the candle at as many ends as there were wicks. I’m allowing myself to be in this other stage for a bit, and then I know there will come a time where I’m like, Okay, I’m done with that, I’ve gotten what I need, I feel restored.

I think that I’m realizing in this little break how important those are. As a very success- and achievement-oriented person, that’s just how I’ve always been from a young age; it’s always felt to me like any time that is not spent working toward something actionable — a project, a whatever — is time wasted. I don’t necessarily think that’s true anymore. I think that we all have to have a sort of balance. We have to get better at acknowledging that not everybody has to be doing everything all the time, and that’s myself included. That is an attitude that we’ve forgotten about in the internet era of “now, now, now.” I’m glad to have gotten in touch with the other side of that and look forward to continuing to incorporate that into my life and personal life and working life going forward, in addition to getting back to the very fun and draining grind of creating. Whenever that happens.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Cringe King of TikTok, 7 Weeks Later