Shakily placing my index finger between two rows of teeth I, perhaps foolishly, expect a nip. Or at worst a nibble, the type of superficial wound imposed by a hyperactive kitten. But these are not just any gnashers. These are teeth made famous for inflicting pain
The jaw clamps down, and my naïve expectations are promptly exploded. My poor appendage pulses in agony, sending a system-wide distress signal. It hurts – the sort of sting for which swearwords are yet to be invented, so I instead opt for a notably feeble yelp.
Following what feels like a fortnight, the human vice releases its prey. He giggles. The culprit’s father watches on, sporting an expression that combines misty-eyed pride with glee. “We have a rule,” he grins. “If requested, Charlie is allowed to bite.”
At least I’m in good company. The injury list includes Jimmy Carr on The Big Fat Quiz of the Noughties and, of course, his own brother Harry. In 2007, Charlie bit his finger.
Uploaded on 22 May that year, ‘Charlie bit my finger – again !’ is the accidental viral sensation that, as I type these words (with a still-sore finger, I hasten to add), has 849,125,241 views. Eight hundred and forty-nine million.
For 171 days in 2009 (before VEVO came along and forever spoiled the game), it was YouTube’s most widely seen video, watched from the White House to Vatican City. It has been parodied by the Hemsworths, spliced with Kanye and remixed using screaming goats, Spartan warriors and, perhaps inevitably, Luis Suarez.
Ten years on, and Charlie’s chomp has generated an estimated £1 million in revenue, made possible by a YouTube channel boasting more than a billion views, official merchandise, an app, and a slew of lucrative ads. But with the clip’s charming protagonists now 13 and 11, it begs the question: what does it mean to be virtually famous? These boys could live to 200, yet still be defined by an off-the-cuff moment they don’t even remember. Is there a price to be paid for internet stardom?
In many respects, Charlie bit my finger is a masterclass in comedy. In less than 56 seconds, a whole Shakespearian farce unfolds. It combines humour, pathos, innocence, trust, pain, anger, regret, and so much comic timing that it’s almost incomprehensible to believe it’s not scripted. And yet it is entirely natural – an innocent snapshot of family life, that just so happened to be captured on film.
Dissected by college professor Jonah Berger, it seems the clip’s unfathomable success and rabid shareability is not a coincidence. Believe it or not, ‘Charlie bit my finger’ can be explained by scientific theory.
“When we watch Harry and Charlie, we briefly enter into a state of high arousal, as the autonomic nervous system mirrors the flurry of feelings on-screen,” Berger wrote in a 2011 study. “Our heart rate increases and sweat glands open; the body prepares for action. These are the same physical changes that occur when we encounter any strongly emotional content, from a scary movie to a sappy love poem.
“When people are aroused, they are much more likely to pass on information.”
It’s true. When the video caught fire in 2007, I was in my first term of university. I vividly remember using it – and other funny viral clips – as social currency; a web 2.0 version of being among the first to have Sgt. Pepper’s on vinyl. Of its 849 million views, a few hundred can be traced to my IP address, and I drove my then girlfriend (now, somehow, wife) to the tip of a nervous breakdown – portraying Harry and Charlie alike in line-by-line recreations, whenever under the influence of cider and black.
Smash cut to present day, and it was a little bizarre to be emailing the boys’ dad, Howard Davies-Carr, negotiating a meet-up to mark the clip’s 10th birthday. I wasn’t just a journalist, I explained, I was a fan. Though a tad cagey to begin with (“We do not crave exposure”), he agreed, and we set a date.
THE HOUSE THAT YOUTUBE BUILT
Ensconced in a leafy Buckinghamshire suburb, the Davies-Carr home is slick and roomy, but is not exactly the house that YouTube built. The family were here when wee Charlie nibbled his sibling’s digit, and still own the same sofa that was captured on film. There is no Maserati on the driveway, but a people carrier. As I step over a kid’s bicycle to ring the doorbell, mum Shelley answers, cleaning products in hand. She’s trying to cram in some housework before the boys – there are now four of them – return from school. She says: “The house will be turned upside down within five minutes.”
Howard emerges from a business call – despite managing the ‘Charlie bit me’ empire, he remains a full-time IT consultant – and shakes my hand. Trim, imposing and built like towering Jenga, he has a decade’s worth of online negotiations to his name and is whip-smart. But he is also, at heart, a dad. He mispronounces meme (meme like crème, not meme like cream), and jokes that while the kids watch things on YouTube, they’d be sent to bed early if caught watching “Pee-Wee-Die [PewDiePie], or whatever his name is.”
I note that, lovely though it is, their home probably won’t see MTV Cribs rebooted any time soon (a garden trampoline, slide and two rabbits do not trouble 50 Cent’s ‘strip club area’, for example). “Everyone thinks we’re millionaires, which we’re not,” Shelley admits, painting her fingernails in a pair of fluffy slippers. “We’ve not gone on nice holidays and bought nice cars – we’ve put our children through private school.”
Broaching the topic of viral fame, I ask whether Harry and Charlie have ever felt the strain of 850 million sets of eyes watching them grow up. “Well the boys’ normal life is doing an interview or advert every few months – they don’t know any different,” explains Howard. “But it is totally something to be concerned about, and I say to them quite often that by the time they get to 18, they’ve got to have something more about their life than the video clip.
“They could live off this, couldn’t they?” he continues. “You know what Z-List celebrities do nowadays. They wouldn't live very well, they’d probably end up alcoholics and all the rest of it, but they could potentially live off this.” My mind conjures an alternate future in which Harry or Charlie enters the 2026 Big Brother house, forced to chew fellow contestants to earn eviction immunity. Yes, it could absolutely happen, however their parents seem too protective, too savvy, to let such a grim reality come to pass.
Tea time, and the four Davies-Carr boys – Harry, 13; Charlie, 11; Jasper, 9; Rupert, 6 – arrive home like an atomic blast. The noise level switches from serene to ear-splitting, and at any one time there is at least one child screaming, quarrelling, crying or bleeding. Rupert wants me to watch him do flips on the trampoline outside. Charlie talks football, and cheekily winds up anyone within a 10-metre radius. Harry – now a teenager, don’t forget – tells me with his eyes that he’d sooner we all left.
Following a mock 10th birthday party, complete with cake, party poppers and metre-high foil balloons, I sit down with Harry to get his take on it all. Problem is, it’s pushing 8pm and he’s yet to have dinner. He wants this over as soon as possible, and so our conversation unfolds like this.
Harry: OK let’s go. Let’s go.
Me: Sorry if I ask questions you’ve answered a million times before.
Me: Do you know how exactly how many views the video has?
Harry: ‘Charlie bit my finger’ has 849 million views.
Me: That’s a lot, isn’t it?
Harry: Yeah. Quite a lot, yeah.
Me: That’s more than double the population of America.
Me: How does that make you feel?
Harry: It feels good that we have lots of views.
Me: Do you ever get recognised in the street? Sign autographs? Do selfies?
Harry: Not really.
Me: What do you say to people that believe the video is fake, that you made it all up?
Harry: I say that they’re idiots…
MAKES YOU GO ‘WOW’
As ‘Charlie bit my finger’ enters its second decade, it’ll be fascinating to watch what comes next. With his school friends creating their own YouTube channels, I’m told Charlie is keen to capitalise on what represents a rather sizeable head start: 344,000+ subscribers. As for Harry…
“Harry could leave it all behind,” says Howard, “but when you mention you’re going to do something, then he wants to be involved.”
But while Harry is reacting to the public eye’s glare precisely in the manner you’d hope a normal 13-year-old might, the beauty of the internet means that ‘Charlie bit my finger’ never gets old. And it lives on. Besides from the occasional video upload, the family still receives fan emails – a few from “crazies”, many more from well-wishers. Some say they’ve named their child Charlie, others that the video changed their life. “Some people email to almost download their emotions, get it off their chest,” smiles Howard.
“There was one girl that was studying in Thailand and lived in Burma,” he adds. “She sent an email explaining that she took the video home, where they don’t have access to the internet, on a computer. She said villagers from around her town all came to watch the video on her laptop.
“It’s stuff like that which still makes you go ‘Wow’.”
Main image: Simon Jacobs/Caters News