On May 3, user @willywonkatiktok, who is “not affiliated, associated, authorized or endorsed by Willy Wonka” (as per his bio), launched his TikTok account with three videos of his impeccable impression of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka from the 2005 film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” The account began with the talented 19-year-old impressionist Duke “Depp” recreating scenes from the movie as the character. As his account gained popularity, he put on the official uniform; he swapped the original blonde wig and black shades for the Wonka classic short black bob, maroon coat, top hat and white bug-eye sunglasses. He expanded his content with reaction videos and a series called “TTWW”—”TikTok Trends with Willy Wonka.”
TikTok Wonka truly revolutionized his internet presence in late July when he took over the song “I Wanna Love You” by Akon and Snoop Dogg with his most iconic shirtless thirst trap dance. The video now has 8 million likes and over 600,000 comments riddled with “I’m back for my daily ritual,” “this the show I’ll be getting if I get the golden ticket?” and “the amount of times I have rewatched this is EMBARRASSING.” Simply put, TikTok users can’t hear the song now without thinking about the video, and I have to admit it, neither can I.
After watching that video a few times, Wonka is taking over my For You page. Once you’re on Willy Wonka TikTok, there really is no going back. You’re bound to see him every day. Not only that, but Wonka is infiltrating other social media platforms where his videos are being uploaded. Friends DM me his TikToks on Instagram or I see them posted on Snapchat stories. As of August, he has amassed 10.8 million followers and 220.6 million total likes. How do we begin to unpack the viral obsession over this cosplay of Gen Z’s beloved childhood character?
Generation Z undoubtedly has a quirky sense of humor and that’s putting it nicely. Absurd, sardonic, self-deprecating, nonsensical, and let’s be honest, sometimes downright weird, Gen Z communicates primarily through memes. They say that only 7% of communication is verbal and 93% is non-verbal. It’s not the 7% that doesn’t sit right with me, but I’d argue that for Gen Z, the 93% is specifically through internet memes.
TikTok Willy Wonka gone sexy is exactly on brand with our absurd and weird sense of humor. Quite frankly, it doesn’t make much sense. Imagine trying to explain your newfound infatuation with Willy Wonka to your March self. There’s the real TikTok challenge.
Perhaps the fixation on Willy Wonka is because of the character’s role in our mutual childhoods. Kids either despised Depp’s Wonka, thought he was creepy or had a big crush on him. Perhaps Duke Depp just reinvigorated a past flame with his excellent Wonka impersonation with his abs on display and giving old fans something they didn’t know they needed.
Or maybe it’s simply the pure ridiculousness of TikTok Wonka as a whole. Never would I think I’d be typing “sexy” and “Willy Wonka” in the same sentence, but here we are. We absolutely love our shock factor and senseless jokes and something about Willy Wonka dancing to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” just hits.
Moreover, it might not necessarily be the specific content of the meme that matters, but more so the widespread popularity of the meme in general. In any internet analysis, it is important to consider the context of virality. As the global pandemic continues and many are still quarantined, we’ve seen the rise and fall of multiple TikTok trends as the app gains more traction.
From making whipped coffee in March, to Lin-Manuel Miranda jokes after the recording of “Hamilton” dropped and now on to Wonka, quarantine TikTok has had a rollercoaster of fads, all of which seem to have nothing in common except that they’re generally wholesome. It’s a step away from our tendency toward dark humor and that distraction is a nice interruption from the scary ongoings and turbulence everywhere.
And we hear it often: “(fill in the blank) is a coping mechanism.” Distraction is a coping mechanism, humor is a coping mechanism, memes are coping mechanisms and watching the classic Wonka video on a loop every day is a coping mechanism. Humor is a way of managing stress because the opportunity to pause and laugh at something can prevent us from feeling too overwhelmed, and thereby allow us to see the situation more calmly and clearly. It acts as both a preventative and a cure to negative emotions.
Results of recent studies by the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory show that “in the face of stressful imagery, comedy is a more effective coping strategy than solemnity—and positive, optimistic humor is more effective than cynicism.” This may account for TikTok’s recent inclination toward generally wholesome or at least positive trends instead of our frequently darker memes. A dancing Willy Wonka trend is dumb, but not in a negative way. There is simply no other point or commentary behind it. Sometimes a thirst trap of an eccentric chocolate factory owner is just a thirst trap of an eccentric chocolate factory owner. It’s funny and it’s a refreshing break from cynicism.
Furthermore, because humor is a way to connect with other people, during a time when we’re physically separated from each other, sharing some laughs over stupid memes online when every person is facing personal obstacles is more necessary than it has ever been. As the saying goes, laughter really is the best medicine. So being unable to escape Wonka may not be such a bad thing if we find him funny and his 30-second (or eternal if you can’t stop watching like some of us) videos are a temporary escape. To my friends online, keep sharing Wonka’s videos and to Wonka himself, don’t stop your dancing, haha, yeah.