By Sherry Liang, CNN
In a TikTok video with more than 30 million views and 7 million likes, a chipmunk is paying for groceries at the cashier.
The rabbit cashier asks, “Paper or plastic?”
The chipmunk ominously replies — and repeats, at the rabbit’s confusion, “Mouth.”
In the next frame, the groceries (a pile of nuts) and the rabbit’s hand are engulfed by the chipmunk in one mouthful.
This points audiences to the punchline, and an animal fact — chipmunks’ cheeks can expand to a size three times larger than their heads.
By animating the chipmunk’s elastic cheeks (and morbid tendencies), the creators with Natural Habitat Shorts say they’re experimenting with “animals in human situations” — allowing the creatures to turn the tables for entertainment and drop some knowledge in the process.
“To animals, everything they do is very mundane. It’s just survival to them,” said Nicole Low, one of the creators behind the account. “This is how we must look to them filming their lives.”
The brains behind the videos — college classmates-turned-roommates Low, Brennan Brinkley and Tyler Kula — saw TikTok as an opportunity to reimagine nature documentaries from the perspectives of animals. Their videos feature bats drinking coffee upside down at a cafe (and spilling the scalding drink on other customers) and crows dressing up as scarecrows for Halloween, using Cartoon-Network-style animations and voiceovers.
Like most animal videos on the internet, there’s an audience for that. Since starting in August, the account has amassed over a million followers and nearly 20 million likes.
Less than a minute long each and averaging well over millions of views, videos from creators like Natural Habitat Shorts aren’t going viral just for laughs. The TikToks are based on science and history — subjects that elementary school teachers dream of making their students excited for.
The concepts explored by Natural Habitat Shorts are all anchored around a fun fact about the animals. But nature — and its absurdity — lends itself to humor, which can help make complex concepts easier to understand, Brinkley said.
“There’s so much irony in comedy,” Brinkley said. “Finding the irony in the interesting things about these animals is really important.”
The science of humor
There’s a humor to science, and a science to humor.
Science and history as comedic entertainment isn’t a new phenomenon. Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” which featured historical reenactments based on inebriated narration, tackled topics like former US presidents and famous inventions for six seasons.
Researchers like Stephen Hupp, a psychology professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, have studied the use of humor in engaging students and found that consistently entertaining students with humorous facts or visuals can help them retain information.
TikTok videos, while not nearly as extensive as the content covered in a full class period, can help pique interest in topics of natural history, Hupp said.
“It’s a good tool to get engagement,” Hupp said.
TikTok creator Adrian Bliss said he’s always enjoyed museums and history. He converged his affinity for these subjects with his deadpan humor, garnering more than 3.5 million followers over the past year. His sketches are live-action reenactments, inspired by funny, strange scenarios that he said pop into his head — like an audience of crickets at a comedy show, or a dinosaur trying to sneak onto Noah’s Ark.
Bliss said the all-knowing algorithms of TikTok have helped him reach niche “corners” of the platform. His video on Henry the VIII found its way to “Tudor-Tok,” as fans of the House of the Tudor informed him.
“It has to be entertaining and funny — that’s the most important thing,” Bliss said. “If it ends up being educational or inspires anyone to take interest in certain subjects, that’s the perfect thing to make.”
Bliss didn’t expect the popularity — or for educators and scientists to reach out in the way they have. Bliss said he’s seen comments from teachers saying they showed the videos to their class. Brinkley said a bat sanctuary reached out after seeing Natural Habitat Shorts’ videos on bats.
“A teacher thinks your comment is interesting enough to be shown in their class,” Bliss said. “It’s quite cool … a really nice feeling.”
Christine Greenhow, an associate professor of educational psychology and technology at Michigan State University, researches the use of social media in the classroom. She said engaging students with funny videos can be “very powerful.”
“Educators would benefit from greater understanding of how students are using social media for learning purposes outside of school and building on those practices within classrooms,” Greenhow said.
Putting joke to fact
Bliss has a wardrobe of costumes for nearly every historical occasion. He’s been Noah and all the animals on the ark in the same TikTok sketch. He’s played both Romeo and Juliet, a cast of biblical figures and a Mona Lisa painting. (Yes, there’s a costume for her.)
All the one-man show needs is a green screen, costume, tripod and a fact — which he gets from places like the Natural History Museum in London and National Geographic articles. Sometimes his account’s bio, “Down with the fourth wall” (which alludes to his characters making eye contact with the camera and breaking that invisible barrier between actor and audience), applies a little too well in real life.
“It’s a strange — very strange — experience filming stuff on your own in a costume,” Bliss said. “It’s only bad when the doorbell goes, and you’re dressed as a bumblebee or an egg.”
Natural Habitat Shorts is also a lean operation. The trio met studying film at Florida State University, and they cite memories of the children’s television show “Zoboomafoo” and educational videos from the Crash Course YouTube channel as inspirations. (Hank Green, one of the brothers behind Crash Course, now follows the Natural Habitat Shorts account.)
The three of them handle everything, including storyboards, animations, voiceovers and editing.
“Anyone can do it,” Brinkley said. “You just need people around you that you trust their sense of humor.”
TikTok, with its infinite feed and loops of videos under three minutes, is a platform for concise content and instant punchlines — Bliss and Natural Habitat Shorts’ videos have never surpassed one minute. Brinkley said the limited timeframe is just long enough to introduce an idea and deliver a punchline.
Bliss said the intent for his videos was never to supplant a lecture or even be used in a classroom. But he hopes he can pique interest in topics he thinks are amusing.
“If you can access an interesting fact … in a humorous way, I think it just makes it much more accessible,” Bliss said. “You can’t necessarily teach everything about the subject, of course, but it’s a good entry point.”
Bliss and Natural Habitat Shorts both said the key to their videos is to make content they find intriguing and entertaining. As the old saying goes — where there’s a fact, there’s a gag.
“I can’t see us ever running out,” Kula said. “There’s too many animals.”
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