1. There’s tickling, and then there’s a thing known as “Competitive Endurance Tickling”.
There's an unexpected agony when someone finds out your most ticklish spot, when your bare feet are vulnerable to a sneak attack and you explode in bouts of laughter. It's in every rom-com you've ever seen, tickling in slow-motion as a sign of affection, a moment of pure unadulterated bliss. And then there's something else, it's called Competitive Endurance Tickling and participants are likely young men in colour-coded outfits. Often head-to-toe in Adidas, one is strapped to a surface and the others climb on top of him, digging their fingers into his ribs, waist, and armpits. He will writhe in agony, which you can clearly see as the entire thing is being filmed.
2. Competitive tickling is an “out-there, interesting thing” and definitely NOT gay.
In 2014, New Zealand journalist David Farrier stumbled upon one of these videos. Farrier has made a career out of doing "wacky stories" for TV news and competitive tickling piqued his interest. So he reached out to the company that made the video.
The response Farrier received from Jane O'Brien Media, the makers of the video, was not the typical response to a media request. Farrier originally wanted to do a short piece on New Zealanders who had been flown up to Los Angeles to participate in these tickling competitions, but was immediately rebuffed. "Association with a homosexual journalist is not something that will [sic] embrace," the company replied.
3. When you rebuff a journalist it usually makes them more determined, not less.
Fellow New Zealander Dylan Reeve read the response from Jane O'Brien Media and like Farrier, found the disconnect between the videos and comments to be somewhat startling. "I had seen the video so I knew what it was, that gay fetish thing, but then I saw that reply and I thought no, that doesn't make any sense."
So the two New Zealanders decided to dig a little further. At this time Farrier and Reeve were only online acquaintances but both worked in television and motivated by the escalating communications with O'Brien Media, the two decided to put a plan together. "At some point, Dylan came over to my house, we had pizza and started talking about the idea of doing a Kickstarter campaign to make a film. To go to L.A., and go to a tickling shoot, and find out in person what's happening." Over the next eighteen months, the pair made two trips to the United States, six months apart, to speak with and film several figures who had somehow come into contact with Jane O'Brien Media.
The resulting film is called Tickled, and when it premiered at Sundance Film Festival this year Variety described it as "an engrossing investigative documentary". BuzzFeed spoke with Farrier and Reeve while they were in Sydney ahead of the film's general release in the US and Australia.
4. Tickling is no laughing matter.
Before the filmmakers travelled to the US to start filming, they blogged about the unfolding story. And then the legal threats began. Jane O'Brien Media was adamant that the tickling videos were in no way homoerotic. It was all in the name of sport, they claimed. But Farrier and Reeve weren't buying it.
5. Tickling is all about dominance and power.
They sought the advice of an expert in homoerotic tickling. Richard Ivey is the founder of the popular adult website myfriendsfeet.com, a site dedicated to male feet, tickling, and sock fetishes. The site features photos and videos of men in various states of undress showcasing their feet, or strapped down to a chair or bed, their faces contorted in tickling torture.
Reeve and Farrier met with Ivey. Reeve's conclusion from those conversations was that "there's no difference in what they're making".
"Both are clearly making fetish content. Sure, none of the guys in the Jane O'Brien videos are naked, none of them are doing anything overtly sexual, but then… there are videos that Richard makes that are the same."
The filmmakers experienced Ivey's techniques first-hand (or first-foot), as Farrier explains, "Richard tickled us both on the tickle chair. It's awful. When you're being tickled and you can't get away, it's pretty horrible."
6. Tickling is kind of like torture.
Getting away from the tickling is the problem. As Reeve highlighted there is a difference in the way the two tickle video makers treat their subjects. "It's how they [Jane O'Brien and Ivey] behave in relation to the people who make the videos where it starts to really diverge."
"Lots of the models who go and do Jane O'Brien Media videos have a perfectly fine experience. They go, get tickled, get paid, have a fun long weekend in LA and then they come home, and that's probably all they hear about it. There's a smaller but significant portion that have a very negative experience as a result, and for reasons that aren't clear to anyone, let alone them or anyone else, they find themselves the subjects of this harassment and bullying that makes no sense."
7. The organisers of Competitive Endurance Tickling are very protective of their sport.
As the filmmakers continued their search for answers, legal threats mounted against them. "Early on, it was this fun journey, here were these interesting things coming up," says Farrier. "Then these crazy emails started, the personal attacks. And then when we started getting hit with all the legal threats, I suddenly thought twice about going on."
Reeve was adamant they should keep going. "There was a stubbornness where I didn't want to let someone win with the tactics that they clearly always fell upon. They had this tactic of just always using, you know, bullying and these legal threats and it always worked. I didn't want to let them win."
8. When attacked by tickle devotees it sometimes pays to live in New Zealand.
Farrier continued to hunt for the elusive Jane and her associates to find out where the threats were actually coming from. "There was a really great aspect to us being physically removed from the States, and when all these legal threats were coming in from America – we're in New Zealand, that physical isolation did help."
As their investigation deepened, they delved into the process of recruitment. How does one find so many participants for these niche videos? The pair soon discovered a phenomenon known as "tickle cells", an audition system Jane O'Brien Media uses to cast young men from all across the US, and beyond.
"There have been participants and tickle cells in the UK, Australia, Italy, Spain, Denmark, and Canada. It's this really big network, which is kind of mind-blowing when you think about it. When you think of the money involved as well in this whole thing. It's funny because the whole thing is just tickling, right?"
"It goes deeper than that."
9. There’s no law against laughter.
Eighteen months after their initial contact with Jane O'Brien Media, Farrier and Reeve finished the film, and started to enter it into film festivals in the US. The marketing begin to attract two kinds of people: those who have been affected by the dark side of Competitive Endurance Tickling, and those behind it.
"Things flared up when we released at Sundance, and when we did other festivals in America, members of Jane O'Brien Media have shown up at festivals we've been at. We've had more legal issues – but I'm confident that everything's fine, we've had everything vetted through lawyers," says Farrier.
10. He who laughs last, laughs longest.
This is not your standard documentary. It's cut like a thriller, with tension so high you almost get a sense that what you're watching couldn't possibly be real. But the filmmakers are adamant this is not mockumentary, despite commentary to that effect.
"Tickling is the most innocent thing in the world," Farrier said. "And you enter this world that is completely corrupt and people are being taken advantage of in a variety of ways, nothing is being done about it because there's a company that is sheltered with lawyers and money and it's an injustice. And I think people feel, watching it, that there's a lot of injustice that's being done."
Or, as Reeve puts it, "It's about power, manipulation, lying, deceit, bullying, and harassment… but also there's tickling."
Tickled is screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival and opens in cinemas across the United States June 17.