Meet Peanut, the raunchy North Philly gangsta puppet with a secret.
I meet Peanut outside a corner store on Frankford Avenue, the impromptu set of his latest video adventure. He's wearing his Jordans and carrying his matching Gucci bag and wallet — a puppet ready for his close-up. He greets me with that disarming falsetto, the one he uses to curse out rivals and hit on chicks on YouTube.
Also present are K.P. and RStar, two key (human) players in Peanut's adventures; cameraman and editor Data; and Mohammed Shariff, Peanut's lawyer.
Both Peanut and Shariff make it clear that the interview will be with the puppet, and not the man behind him. The man behind him isn't giving interviews.
A school bus approaches. In full Peanut-mania, the kids rush the windows, shouting his name in adulation. Peanut shows the kids some love, waving back, responding warmly. I wonder why the bus hasn't pulled off yet, then I notice that the driver is also trying to snap a photo. She's a fan, too. Peanut's crew laughs at the scene, joking that the kids probably shouldn't even be watching. Peanut may be a puppet, but he's not Elmo.
Peanut is from North Philly — down around 33rd, he says. He hangs out on South Street. He shops at City Blue. He argues with crackheads, gets fellated by women he's known for only minutes and robs other hustlers with his beloved puppet-sized .38.
In one video, he slaps a Muslim street salesman for spraying too many unwanted perfume samples. In another, he pistol-whips a rival puppet named Pistachio for hitting on his girl and attempting to steal his shine.
"I know it sounds cruel, but [Peanut's] the average lowlife, and he's somebody that everybody who lives in the hood may know," Brandon Wyche of HipHopSince1987.com says. Wyche was one of the first bloggers to post Peanut's videos. "That's what I think makes Peanut so funny," he says. "Seeing Peanut, and him being so close to home, and him using Philly terms makes it unique, and everyone can relate to it."
Hot 107.9 radio personality QDeezy first discovered Peanut through Wyche's blog. He was instantly a fan. "You kind of get away with things when it's animated or a puppet," he figures. "It's brilliant. … Some of the content is a little vulgar, but it's entertaining, to say the least."
"When I came home from jail, my friend said I was a clown," the puppet says. "Yamean, I was just running around, acting a fool. And they was, like, 'What if you just run around with a camera all day?'" The resulting two-dozen-plus episodes chronicling Peanut's doings are completely improvised. The co-stars, all native Philadelphians, generally play themselves. After filming, Peanut goes over the footage with friends and editors Data and Skeem. "When the videos get edited and all that, we don't put in the color correction. It's live," Peanut says. "I think it's just showing Philly. The good and the bad of Philly." Peanut is proud that his videos have spread through the power of word of mouth. Being regularly featured on HipHopSince1987.com and WorldStarHipHop.com couldn't have hurt.
"Number 10 was the one that made it pop," Peanut explains, "when I smacked the bol with the burner, the skitdaddle. But number 16 is the one that got the buzz."
He's talking about the episode titled "Peanut Gets Laid Down North Philly," wherein our hero meets a girl at Taco Bell/KFC, ignores that K.P. has declared her as one of his "personals," and ultimately beds her at RStar's place. At press time, episode 16 was nearing 1 million views. Peanut's Peanut Live 215 channel was nearing 8 million total.
Since the man behind Peanut holds fast to his anonymity, the puppet has had imposters. Data, a music-video director by trade, once bumped into a guy at the Gallery who claimed to be Peanut's creator. The guy had no idea that Data worked with the real deal. Peanut's friends have heard stories of men pretending to be Peanut to seduce girls, apparently with some success.
Such is the adoration people have for this puppet. His fans tweet him tribute drawings and photos of Peanut-themed cakes. So far, at least two people have gotten tattoos of his face, and a third has tattooed his catchphrase "skitfuckindaddle." Several DJs have produced party mixes looping Peanut's sayings. R&B songstress Marsha Ambrosius and World Junior Welterweight champion Danny "Swift" Garcia have both guest-starred in videos, and rumor has it that more celeb collabs are in the works. Peanut is staying tight-lipped on that — no small feat for a puppet.
The webisodes haven't been without critics. In the comments of episode 16, one YouTube viewer wrote, "I know shes [sic] got a nice ass and all, but this is really creepy." Another called it "disgusting." However, even with the criticism, the negative comments seem to be the outliers. There are scores more comments expressing laughter, utter disbelief or both.
Peanut insists that his message is positive: "Every show is a lesson, is a lesson to be learned. Even if I just show up on the corner, and I pull the girl in the car, and I'm hittin' her in the back of car — there's a lesson in that. Do you want to be that girl? Are you not going to be that girl? You seeing it go down, so what side are you on?" I ask him if the episodes showing the drug game are included in that. "Yes, all that. Everything to better the community."
"Some of the stuff is kind of messed up, but that's kind of how parts of Philly are," says merchandising consultant Tim Nesmith, who met Peanut when his company, PhillyScreen, began producing the puppet's catchphrase-bearing T-shirts. "He's making fun of what's wrong with society, and people really catch it."
Peanut's satire hides in plain sight. Way more vulgar than The Simpsons, and too true-to-life to compare with Animal Farm, Peanut's videos depict extreme but undeniably commonplace occurrences. Says Nesmith: "It's people in Philadelphia that act like Peanut. And even when you come in contact with people who act like that, you have to laugh."
The season one finale hit YouTube in late April. Peanut has one or two more videos and maybe a few snippets to drop, but that'll be it for a while. "I caught a case in '10 and it's catching up to me now," the puppet says. "And I'll probably have to sit for a couple months. I just want my fans to stick with me through this."
He can't say when he's going in, or for how long. "We'll just have to wait and see." All levity evaporates from the conversation — no small feat when talking to a puppet.
"I just want to bring love back to every community where people stressed out every day and they're looking for another way. And if they don't have money, they can watch, get laughs," says Peanut. Right on cue, Peanut breaks the serious tone with a few jabs at my redundant, reporterly questions. I can't help but laugh. This is what Peanut does: He makes fun of people. But really, he makes jokes for people who need them. The way he sees it, this is a city that's had its knocks. Peanut knows that Philadelphians need something to laugh about.
"We bring together people of different nationalities, different groups of people who wouldn't necessarily be together," says Data. He might be on to something. After all, two days after hanging with Peanut, I went to my best friend's birthday dinner. The younger contingent started talking Peanut videos, and my best friend's mother looked up and said, "Peanut? What does he say? Oh yeah! Skitdaddle!" My best friend could not have be prouder that his mother, a Jewish woman in her 60s, proved to be already in the know. "Peanut has 26 episodes," she added.
Back in March, when the crew filmed episode 23, a throng of about 60 people gathered to watch. This installment included a fairly grisly fight scene, and based on the crowd, the cops assumed it was real. Five squad cars approached, but when the police realized it was Peanut, they dropped it immediately.
"[The cop] looks around, he seen me, he's like, 'When that little motherfucker done, tell him to skitfuckindaddle.' And he walked to his car," Peanut recalls.
Data notes that this wasn't the only time the cops have been cooperative. "I know from shooting music videos that it's not always like that," Data says regarding the goodwill. "It's about Peanut."