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Julian Shapiro-Barnum interviews kids for his social media sensation “Recess Therapy.” – The New York Times

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Julian Shapiro-Barnum interviews kids for his social media sensation “Recess Therapy.”

Julian Shapiro-Barnum brims with creative energy, often scribbling ideas for new projects in his Moleskine the way others might add items to a shopping list. And though he graduated in 2021 from the B.F.A. acting program at Boston University, he said he’s never wanted fame.
“But I really like audiences,” he said at a cafe in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Though his energy levels belie it, he’s never had a cup of coffee; instead, he drank herbal tea.
Recess Therapy,” which he created and hosts, has amassed more than a million Instagram followers since its start in 2021. In short video clips on that platform, and full-length YouTube episodes, he interviews New Yorkers aged 2 to 9 on topics ominous and frivolous: climate change, love, the economy, peeing your pants. The results are alternately — or sometimes simultaneously — profound, hysterical, saccharine, aphoristic, rhapsodic, loopy and unhinged, a kind of timeless-yet-woke Generation Alpha version of Charles Schulz’s “The Doctor Is In.”
“He’s always been very outgoing and energized by interactions with other people,” said Sophia Lee, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of five gay parents — three mothers and two fathers — who raised him and his younger twin siblings in three households in Brooklyn. “When he was 7 or 8 and we went out for dinner, over the course of the meal, Julian just got up and walked around, and by the end he’d talked to everyone at every table. We’d joke that we’d call him the Mayor of Everywhere.”
When he was as young as 3, he used to make up character studies for himself and his parents to act out. “He wanted us to pretend that we were two strangers that he’d just met on the street,” said Nicole Barnum, Ms. Lee’s wife, and a family law lawyer. “He’d say, ‘I’ve lost my family. Do you think I could come live at your house?”
Mr. Shapiro-Barnum’s formal performance history began in third grade, with an improv class at his school. It spiraled from there. “He would get really into one form of creation and take it to some level: stop-motion animation, puppets, musical theater, improv, regular theater,” Ms. Lee said. “He was sort of a serial monogamist.”
His desire for connection feels voracious but not aggressive. It’s sincere, almost guileless, sourced in uninhibited inquisitiveness. “He’s a really relentless creator,” said Charlotte Weinman, a college classmate and occasional collaborator. “He always has an idea and has great follow through.”
“Recess Therapy” was one of these concepts. While studying art history in Madrid during his junior year of college, in early 2020, Mr. Shapiro-Barnum habitually talked to strangers — to explore the city and to practice his Spanish. “I was having this creative renaissance,” he said. “And then Covid came, and I got kicked out.” Upon his return to Brooklyn, he podded up with his fathers, and became involved in Black Lives Matter protests.
A desire to mix politics and performance amid the crises of the pandemic and the social justice movement resulted in his creating a series of topical video interview projects, often with strangers, often outside. The first was a scripted talk show called “The Social Distance,” which he shot with his fathers, and looked at the onset of the pandemic and what it was doing to our capacity for human connection.
Next came an unscripted sidewalk interview show called “How Are You Doing Right Now?,” in which he lured passers-by to join him to discuss their lives and struggles. Then there was a street corner truth-or-dare show called “I’m Interested,” which involved breaking down divisions between people.
“I was on this kind of hungry, on-the-street journey,” Mr. Shapiro-Barnum, 22, said. “It wasn’t great, I was pretty new to the interview thing. But that really started me down this path of loving to go out and talk to people about their lives and their stories.”
His fathers — Lorin Sklamberg, a sound archivist at Yivo Institute for Jewish Research and the lead singer of the Klezmer band the Klezmatics, and Michael Williams, the general counsel for the victim service agency Safe Horizon — were fascinated with this evolution. “He’s really blossomed, in a way, taking — like many of us in the arts — an unfortunate situation and thriving in spite of it,” Mr. Sklamberg said.
During a side gig editing dog videos for Doing Things Media, an online content production company, he revived a concept he’d had: how kids in the playground remained joyous despite the pandemic’s perturbations — and how they could actually mentor him. “The reason it’s called ‘Recess Therapy’ is that the original idea was that I was going to bring things that I was struggling with to children and, like, get advice from them,” Mr. Shapiro-Barnum said.
He pitched this concept to his boss, Scott Dunn, who was receptive. “If there are two industries that are never going anywhere, it’s the pet space and the kid space,” Mr. Dunn said. “There’s relatability to it, there’s ownership, it doesn’t fluctuate with market trends.”
Mr. Dunn provided a producer, an editor and a platform. Because Doing Things produces dozens of popular Instagram pages, with tens of millions of followers, it’s able to cross-promote new projects. “A lot of times these things fail,” Mr. Dunn said. “But very quickly we learned that people were loving ‘Recess Therapy’ and wanted more.”
On a frigid Saturday morning in January at the Grand Army Plaza farmers’ market, Mr. Shapiro-Barnum filmed an episode. He was dressed in dark painter’s pants, wire-rimmed glasses and a striped thrift store sweater, looking a little like Where’s Waldo’s eager nephew.
He and his cameraperson, Julia Ty Goldberg, another college classmate, lingered, binder of release forms in hand, approaching families by the vegan taco truck or the organic goat cheese stand, seeking willing subjects to provide their unvarnished insights for an upcoming episode on friendship.
“We usually do about four and a half hours to get 15 interviews,” he said.
They greeted a child who had been on the program previously but didn’t have time for this shoot. (Some fan favorites from “Recess Therapy” are getting recognized; at least one, Mr. Shapiro-Barnum said, has been offered deals as an influencer.) They were drawn to a child with an outré look — kooky sunglasses and boots — but were turned down. “There’s one, in the yellow jacket,” Mr. Shapiro-Barnum said, pointing at a child. They chased her into Prospect Park, audio and video equipment dangling.
They caught up with kids on benches, in front of statues, in the median of Flatbush Avenue. Mr. Shapiro-Barnum wielded his interviewer’s microphone like a magic wand, using it to distract, redirect, conjure and bestow. A consummate director, he double-checked his lighting, or shifted Ms. Ty Goldberg’s position.
Mr. Shapiro-Barnum scrolled through approaches like one would a TikTok feed: off-kilter questioning, imitation, silly voices. At one point, he pretended to be a tiger, wondering if he could befriend a child he also wanted to eat. The child demurred, not exactly not-scared. Occasionally, he’d suggest a retake, asking a child to answer a question again, or face forward when delivering lines he could clearly see as pull quotes for an episode.
In order to preserve his shambolic portrait of childhood (mis)apprehension, he occasionally had to fend off intervention. “Sometimes parents can’t help but give direction. ‘Sit up straight.’ ‘Smile.’ ‘Wipe ice cream from your face,’” Mr. Shapiro-Barnum said. “We like it to be a little more informal.” As a pair of young women walked by, one leaned into the other and said, “That’s the guy from Instagram who makes the kid videos we were laughing at.”
When I asked parents why they allowed a stranger to have access to their children, on camera, for free they had different responses. “I’m a huge fan of the show,” one said. “He just seemed so nice,” another said. “We need this kind of open community connection now,” a third said. The father of a girl who’d appeared on a previous episode referred to the recognition his daughter had received. “The entire school came up to us after it aired,” he said. “She was like a celebrity.” (After filming, the girl requested a treat. “When you hit 100,000 likes, you can have a doughnut,” her father joked.)
Mr. Shapiro-Barnum spun threads of internet gold with his young subjects. He got down on their level — the ground. He echoed their thoughts, encouraging elaboration. He scaffolded their energy with silly riffs. “It just takes an entry point,” he said. “We’re just looking for a bit.”
Some of this ease comes from years of working with young kids. Mr. Shapiro-Barnum taught young children improv at the MacGuffin, a theater and film company in Philadelphia. And he was a creative force in corralling the energies of younger cousins with whom he spent a lot of time in his adolescence. “I like making kids feel comfortable, and making them look good, and making them feel like they’re having fun,” he said.
His other mom, Lauren Shapiro, a lawyer with Brooklyn Defender Services, concurred. “I think the way he comes across in ‘Recess Therapy’ is true to his nature,” she said. “He’s positive and happy.” She waited a beat. “Even though he was always drawn to horror movies.”
However, not every interaction is quite so charmed. “Some parents are skeptical and very rude,” he said. “And about a third of interviews don’t work, because the kid is shy.”
Moreover, his audience’s fandom can take unexpected turns. An episode on L.G.B.T.Q. Pride elicited some heinous comments. “We lost 60,000 followers,” Mr. Shapiro-Barnum said. (He personally blocked many haters.) Another episode featured a boy who gently ribbed him about his glasses, causing some audience members to bristle. “They wrote, ‘This kid sucks. This kid has bad parents. Julian, we love you!’” he said. “I took it down immediately, because I hated that people were willing to turn on a kid in my defense.”
Mr. Shapiro-Barnum is enjoying his newfound stability, his creative autonomy and his ability to make rent without a day job. “There’s monetization stuff through YouTube, through ads. And Instagram is starting to roll out an ad thing,” he said. “I have two roommates, and I don’t have expensive tastes, which helps. But it’s crazy that I’m able to make a living doing what I want to do.”
Still, he worries about getting stuck. “I don’t want to be only perceived as someone in the kids’ space,” he said. “And I don’t want to not be able to do adult things, because I also think that people who work with kids don’t need to be sanitized.” He plans to continue performing “raunchy stand-up comedy” in local clubs like the Bell House, Tiny Cupboard or Eastville, where he makes jokes about trying to have sex with his mother’s girlfriends, or buying coffins for his myriad parents with a loyalty card discount. He also wants to pursue more grown-up on-the-street projects.
But he’s not forgoing meetings with high-profile kids’ media producers and paid collaborations with well-known kid-centric corporations, while he expands the “Recess Therapy” concept. “I would love to talk to kids about race, gender and sexuality,” he said. “And I would love to take ‘Recess Therapy’ on the road — like, do an Anthony Bourdain on childhood in different countries.”
He craves a multifarious creator’s career like that of Charles Rogers or John Cameron Mitchell. He wants to “democratize art and talk about real issues.”
For now, though, he has other significant challenges. “I’m also just trying to figure out how to be an adult,” he said. Perhaps the kids can help him with that.
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