Recess Therapy’s Julian Shapiro Barnum Believes in the Power of Play
They say never work with children or animals. The comedian behind the most joyful series on the internet disagrees.
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Julian Shapiro-Barnum of Recess Therapy, the multi-platform viral comedy series, is asking kids all kinds of big questions. Some of them are playful (If there were aliens, what do you think they’d look like?), some are existential (Why do you think you are here on this earth?), and some are surprisingly dark (What do you think happens after someone dies?). The answers are even more unpredictable. One kid is confident that aliens have 49 noises and 65 mouths, another says the meaning of life is beans with rice, and another believes life after death is just like human life except you can fly through walls. The most internet-viral kid is obsessed with Komodo dragons, who, he tells Shapiro-Barnum repeatedly, eat people — which he’d like to see.
The interview series started as a senior thesis project; today, over two million people follow Recess Therapy on Instagram, plus another 85.9k on YouTube and 103.8k on TikTok. In an age of real-world chaos and internet doom-scrolling, it’s no surprise that we’re craving Recess Therapy. Below, we talked to Shapiro-Barnum about making comedy with kids, spending time with his family’s pandemic puppy, and collaborating with a Corgi.
Tell me about your pets!
I’m a Standard Poodle guy. When I was very young, I think about seven, we got a black Standard Poodle who is very small for a Standard and very, very strange. He was my best friend. He lived with us for twelve years and then he got mouth cancer, which was really heartbreaking. We had to put him to sleep during the pandemic.
My mom bounced back very quickly and got Basil, who is ginormous. He’s the biggest Standard Poodle ever and he’s brilliant and so rough with his body. We have a very special relationship. A big thing I do in Recess Therapy is keep alive the idea of play and how, you know, a really good way to get into a conversation with a child — especially one you don’t know — is by playing a game. Play is a really quick way to break down a barrier. It shows that you’re fun; it shows you can be trusted. With my dog, Basil, we play so hardcore. I’m the only person who he will just come up to and start biting and growling at, because he wants me to get down on the floor with him and bite him and play with him. We have a pretty crazy friendship.
How did you get started with Recess Therapy?
I started it while I was in college. I was doing a lot of interview stuff and comedy stuff. I did an interview with kids for my senior project and it went very well and it was very sweet. It felt like it was hitting on things in a way other stuff hadn’t — I was, like, asking people what their favorite Teletubby was. I pitched it to a media company called Doing Things Media and they were interested in helping me do it. They gave me an editor and stuff, and it just really blew up. By January of this year it had gotten pretty big.
What was it like when it first started getting attention?
I think it’s really easy for something to be big on the internet and you don’t feel it, you know? I think once people started to know who I was when I went places, I was like, “Whoa, I guess a lot of people do watch this.”
There’s something very funny about being internet popular, though. It doesn’t lend itself to any elitism because it’s the thing that’s free and everyone has access to. When people say hi, everyone’s so sweet and approachable. I think everyone’s just excited, and we’re excited together. Cause it’s not really about me — it’s the kids, you know?
Recess Therapy is pure positivity. Is that something you’ve always incorporated into your humor?
I feel like I’ve really gotten my education from doing comedy improv; I’ve been doing it my whole life. When I was in high school, I remember all I wanted to do was say the most foul things — just really raunchy stuff. But in fact, most of my shows I did when I was in high school were for children. Through that process, it was kind of trained in me to do comedy that was very clean — you know, it could be bathroom-humor gross or outrageous or silly, but it wasn’t mean or nasty in any capacity.
Then I got to college and I was like, “I’m free!” And I think I swung very heavily back in the other direction. But I think at some point, especially once the pandemic started, I started doing a ton of on-the-street interview work. I was finding that comedy based in creating a little quick community with somebody on the street read so well and actually did something positive. I’ve always really tried to make work that is additive in some capacity — instead of taking away from people, you know, building them out. In the past year and a half that’s become something I try to do.
I saw you recently worked with the dog influencer Maxine the Fluffy Corgi. How was that experience?
Wonderful. Maxine the Fluffy Corgi, she’s an Instagram famous dog who I started working with a little over a year ago. I was helping edit videos for them; this was before I did Recess Therapy. Once I started Recess Therapy, we just became friends, and I love that dog. We did Recess Therapy together, and it was just a crazy combo. It made for very sweet videos.
Would you ever take Basil to film with you?
I think that would go poorly. He’s too feisty and too big and too scared of things. He’s been to shoots, but held very far away. I don’t know how he’d do with kids. He’s not aggressive, but he gets nervous. Mushu once met a child and just peed on her. That was bad. Not a shining moment.
Does Basil know any tricks?
Yeah, we say touch and he’ll put his nose on your hand. He’ll leave a treat alone if you put it in front of him, but I think that one’s hard for him. My favorite thing he does is he’ll stand in the shower and just look at you until you turn it on. Like, you’ll get up in the night and he’s just in the shower looking at you. He really likes the shower.
That actually sounds really scary.
It’s a little disconcerting that there’s this giant beast in the shower. I think it’s because it’s cool in there. He has a lot of personality. I think we didn’t really know what we were doing with Mushu, and in the other direction we’ve coddled Basil too much. Maybe next dog we’ll get just right. But we love them equally.
Has Basil ever inspired any work?
Both my dogs have been very good at just comforting me while I work. There are moments I’ve felt not great and having a dog around has really softened that a little bit. Just being able to pet a living animal who loves you back is very comforting.
Is there anything else you want to say to fans of Recess Therapy?
If you know any people who own a Komodo dragon, please reach out. They’re very hard to find.
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