In 2012, a cherub-faced eight-year-old in a slightly-too-large suit took the web by storm, promising to make the internet “better”…provided he be paid for his time in pancakes. His name was Robby Novak, and he had just signed onto a video series with SoulPancake, the production company launched by The Office (and now Backstrom) star Rainn Wilson and whose mission was to “chew on life’s big questions.” Wilson answered Novak’s demands with a huge stack of flapjacks and Kid President was born. Now, at 11, the country’s first politician of awesome, has compiled his many proclamations of wisdom into a book he co-authored with his brother-in-law Brad Montague: Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome.
The whimsically illustrated guide features 100 tips on “how to be awesome,” from Novak and his friends. Gems include #21: “If you see spinach (or anything else) in somebody’s teeth, tell them but only after you’ve told them something embarrassing about yourself” and #44: “Invent a new handshake.” The book also follows Kid President’s adventures to meet luminaries like Michelle and Barack Obama and stars like Justin Timberlake and Craig Robinson. (Robinson and Kid President spent an afternoon ringing doorbells and singing cat carols to surprised strangers.) There are also features on everyday heroes–kids and adults who are striving to make the world a better place. The book is silly, irreverent, and unabashedly idealistic: adjectives which perfectly describe the work of SoulPancake itself. “We want to have a profound influence on the creation and curation of joy,” says CEO Shabnam Mogharabi.
Clearly, we could all use a little more awesomeness in our lives. (#70: dress your friends like superheroes and do someone’s yard work.) Follow these five tips from Kid President and Rainn Wilson, and you’ll be on your way.
The primary goal of Kid President’s guide is creating joy. It’s an abstract term, yes, but one that Wilson says is a “universal human feeling that inspires and unites us…It’s like a rocket fuel for creativity. If there’s one thing every human being needs almost more than anything else, it’s joy. And corn dogs.”
And don’t underestimate the corn dogs. Much of the advice that Kid President dispenses involves sending small, creative gifts (like corn dogs) to your friends and adversaries alike. Awesome tip #19 is to send a pizza to somebody you disagree with. Maybe all your enemy needs is a little encouragement to do the right thing and fulfill his true potential. The same encouragement is vital for those you love. “I would never have become an actor without the heart-felt support of my high school acting teachers, Suzanne Adams and Michael Routenberg,” says Wilson.
“We live in a world where we all have lots of things that divide us,” writes Kid President. “It’s often easy to forget that we have many things in common, including one big one: At one time we were all kids.” And yet most adults would probably feel awkward following Kid President’s advice to the letter. Sure, we could throw spontaneous dance parties, give ice cream to our fighting co-workers and hand out homemade medals to our friends, but practically speaking, that might not go over well in a lot of offices.
Wilson’s solution to this dilemma? “You don’t need anyone’s permission to be awesome,” he says. “If your friends don’t appreciate the way you celebrate and inject joy into the world, then find people who do. Also what office wouldn’t enjoy a spontaneous, ice cream dance party? Get another job if they reject that. Or fire them all!!! IDIOTS.”
What if you really love some creative pursuit but don’t have the talent for it? Should you follow your talent (and maybe try to develop a new passion) or follow your passion (and accept that you might not be very good at what you’re doing)? Both options could easily lead to discouragement. According to Wilson, talent is about “figuring out our capacities and maximizing the gifts we’ve been given. It’s being the best possible version of yourself,” he says. To this end, the real question to consider is one of purpose. “It’s not what you “want” to do, it’s what you “need” to do,” he says. “You might love acting but not have a talent for it. Instead you are good at the organization of money. Eventually you can raise money for a non-profit arts school in the inner city and find your talent and passion have merged.”
Kid President himself is dispensing encouragement by example. He suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta or “brittle bone disease”. In his short lifetime, he has experienced over 70 fractures and breaks. And yet instead of holing up in his house, he’s literally bouncing around, calling for spontaneous dance parties. All this dancing (and he dances a lot) could physically hurt him. But he’s taking that risk for the sake of other people who also need encouragement and joy in their lives.
Wilson says that an underlying theme of the book is “what can you do to make the world more ‘awesome.’” To him, the answer is “to be of service to other people. To have an outward focus on giving others joy and encouragement. “It’s a strange dichotomy that we actually become more happy when we focus on giving happiness to others,” he explains. One example in the book is a surprise party, which Kid President and SoulPancake threw for Nancy Flexer, a 1st grade teacher who retired after 41 years of teaching at the same grade school. “A great teacher is the perfect embodiment of joy, talent and encouragement, all wrapped up in one amazing underpaid package,” says Wilson.
A lot of today’s comedy–much of it really good– comes from a place of cynicism. In contrast, Kid President seems like one huge f-you to cynicism and snark. That may be great for kids (and the book is marketed through HarperCollins Children’s Books), but what about adults? Can we realistically engage with the world like 11-year-old Kid President?
Wilson acknowledges that it’s “an easy fall-back position to be cynical. It’s also easy to be crass and mocking. It takes much more work to create comedy that uplifts and yet never feels precious or sentimental,” he says. To this end, Kid President is great at mocking himself in a jovial way. He misspells words (with a wink), advocates sending surprise corn dogs while fully knowing the gross results of receiving days’ old, unrefrigerated foodstuffs in the mail and is proud of how cheap his suit is. (“Elegant black socks,” he writes. “Just kidding. They’re just socks that are black.”)
“Kid President’s humor is a fantastic example of not stooping to lowest common denominator and instead, pushing against the tide to create something that is funny without being sarcastic or making fun at others’ expense.”
That’s a lesson that adults can take to heart and it’s one to which SoulPancake is committed. The company is currently producing the second season of Kid President’s video series and will launch two scripted comedies in 2015. These include Hollywood & Vine, which stars Vine social media stars and Impress Me, the TV version of SoulPancake web series The Impression Guys. The company is also partnering with Visa, Coca-Cola, Lowe’s, ConAgra, and Shout on what CEO Mogharabi calls “uplifting digital campaigns. Basically, we’re working on being a mecca of awesome for anyone who gives a damn,” she says.