Harry Potter fans never wanted Harry Potter to end. Even in the mid-2000s, when a book or movie release was always on the horizon, fans spent the downtime generating their own material. The time between the release of J.K. Rowling’s Deathly Hallows and the final films was a fan-generated Potter content renaissance: FanFiction.net and LiveJournal exploded with fic, college students composed three whole musicals centered around Harry Potter, and even a couple of puppets achieved viral fame. The creators behind these heralded pieces of Pottermania weren’t just big fans; they were also immensely talented. Potter was just a launch pad.
Fan-created Potter content never went away, but today, the passion for those creations rarely reaches the fervor of the 2000s. Many fans who grew up in the Potter fandom became more critical of the books and the expanded universe that has grown to surround them. The validity of the theatrical sequel, The Cursed Child, has been questioned by fans, many of whom rejected the play’s place in the official canon. There has also been fan backlash to the Fantastic Beasts movies, ranging from Johnny Depp’s controversial casting to the exclusion of Dumbledore’s sexuality.
For many fans, it was the self-generated material that held up over time, and what they turn to when newer spinoffs and story extensions don’t hold up to their expectations. The original Potter experience was so fortified by offshoots and remixes, by the fans and for the fans, that many feel the new movies and books and plays will never quite hold up.
Though there were — and are — many different facets of fan-generated Harry Potter material, three of the most iconic are still heralded by fans everywhere. Potter Puppet Pals, The Shoebox Project, and A Very Potter Musical were all made while Pottermania was still at its peak. The creators of each have moved onto different projects, but it was their passion for Rowling’s world that gave them the head start. Here’s where they are today.
Potter Puppet Pals
Musician Neil Cicierega was only a teenager when he created the first Potter Puppet Pals as a surprise for his sister, Emmy. The two were big Potter fans and Emmy had drawn a comic of the characters.
“I just worked on it for 24 hours straight and voiced it in secret in my bedroom,” Cicierega told Polygon in a phone interview. “I put that up online and it was a big hit and we got together and we worked on some more animated skits.”
A quintessential component of online PotterMania, the Potter Puppet Pals offered wacky alternative personalities to the core Potter cast. Harry has an inflated sense of ego and massive amounts of “wizard angst”; Dumbledore periodically strips to the nude; Ron is horribly wimpy and uselessly dim. The videos started as a series of Flash animations on Newgrounds in 2003, but eventually migrated to YouTube in 2006, when the siblings tried their hand at repeating the success with live-action puppets. With their mom’s help, they constructed the cast of puppets and started to put on some skits. It wasn’t until the success of The Mysterious Ticking Noise, however, that they realized how big these videos had become.
The Mysterious Ticking Noise is perhaps the most famous of the Potter Puppet Pals videos, with currently 180 million views on YouTube (and a special 10-year anniversary version in 4K), and is essentially two minutes of the characters repeating their names to the titular mysterious ticking noise. The short was the winner of the Comedy category in the second-annual YouTube Awards and was so popular among fans that during the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, fans greeted the late Alan Rickman with cheers of “Snape - Snape - Severus Snape.”
The origins of the wacky video started when Neil and Emmy, along with friends Alora Lanzillotta and Julie Becker, were trying to think of something new for their next skit.
“We went through all the trouble of having [the puppets] sewn and we already felt like we were out of ideas,” recounted Cicierega. Someone started tapping on something and it turned into a song; they all found it funny, so they wondered if they could get away with making something that silly.
“It [was] not really what we intended to do with the puppets,” Cicierega added. “But it ended up being this really delightful thing that everyone could get into.”
The Mysterious Ticking Noise is the video that most know, but there’s plenty of other memorable gems: at the request of fans, the Harry puppet brings in a new Draco character — a tiny puppet used by the Harry Potter puppet with Tom Felton’s face pasted on it — and proceeds to thrust it in dangerous situations, eventually setting it on fire; the Ron puppet gets stuck in a mysterious vortex, emerging from it with newfound machismo and swagger; the gang finds Snape’s weepy diary.
There used to be an official Potter Puppet Pals site (and MySpace), with additional features and a store with t-shirts and merchandise. Over the past 10 years, videos have migrated primarily to YouTube and any extra features can be occasionally spotted on the puppets’ social media.
December 29, 2017
Nowadays, Neil works on a variety of other projects, including nine full-length albums under the name Lemon Demon, a host of videos on YouTube and Patreon, and a point-and-click adventure game, but he says the success of Potter Puppet Pals helped make those projects a reality.
“[Potter Puppet Pals] introduced a lot of new fans to my channel and especially in the early days of YouTube, people were just really interested in what other things creators were up to,” he said.
These days, the majority of people who visit his channel and other social media come there because of Cicierega’s other projects.
“There will be people who will be listening to a song that I made or something and then I’ll see them come to the realization that I made Potter Puppet Pals. It’ll kind of blow their minds because they never put two and two together,” Cicierega said. “In that sense, it’s become a fun feature for other projects I’ve done to just watch people realize that they’ve been watching my stuff for longer than they knew.”
Though the Puppets still make occasional appearances at wizard rock band Harry and the Potters’ events and on their Twitter account, Cicierega says that he’s not directly involved with the fan community anymore. The fans at the events he does go to are still very passionate about the series — but what the franchise was and not what it has become.
“There’s every bit as much of a love for Harry Potter as long as I’ve been going,” Cicierega said. “That hasn’t changed, but it is still very focused on the original books, the whole saga there, which I feel like a lot of people feel is like very perfectly wrapped up.”
The Shoebox Project
There are hundreds of thousands of Harry Potter fan fiction stories out there in the world, ranging from longform pieces with formidable word count to brief one-shots in structured formats, from bulleted-lists in Tumblr replies to the single biggest troll piece of our time.
In the mid- to late-2000s, The Shoebox Project stands out for its collaborative writing process and multimedia format. Started on LiveJournal by two writers, the Shoebox Project follows the lives of the Marauders-era characters (namely James Potter, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Peter Pettigrew, Lily Evans and Severus Snape) and is told in the form of letters, photographs, and notes — all snippets that could fit inside a shoebox. Prose surrounds it all, but the unique approach and the careful attention to characters resonated with fans for years afterwards.
The Shoebox Project co-author Jaida Jones is now a published fantasy author. They say that The Shoebox Project initially began as a brief roleplay between them and their co-author, Rave Romanski, where they wrote notes passed between the characters. Jones was particularly drawn to Harry Potter because of the rich world and characters.
“With Harry Potter, anyone could open that book and find a character — whether it was one of the main characters or a tertiary one — who resonated, who felt personal and vital,” they said in an email with Polygon.
The multimedia aspects of The Shoebox Project — little handwritten notes passed between characters, drawings resembling photographs including James Potter in a disco outfit, lipstick-kissed love letters, newspaper clippings — were born of Jones’ interest in telling multiperspective stories, which naturally led to telling them through more than one medium. It’s these quirky facets, as well as the fleshed out true-to-book (yet expanded upon) characters, that drew attention to the fic, amassing a loyal following of self-proclaimed “Shoeboxers.”
The Shoebox Project was initially hosted on Livejournal, which for Jones, blended a story hosting site (think FanFiction.net, Wattpad, and later Archive of Our Own) with a social media hook that allowed fic writers to share content, but also to connect with other fans who were just as enthusiastic about the source material.
“Livejournal was about what you wrote — and you could write a lot,” Jones said. “[It] was primarily fans interacting with other fans, creating for and with other fans...asking meaty questions and seeking to forge representation that canon regularly seemed to lack.”
Fan fiction typically has a wider range of representation than the works they are based on, which draws in readers who identify with the fleshed out worlds, and in turn, inspires them to create their own stories. It’s one big reason why The Shoebox Project, which focused on Remus Lupin and Sirius Black as a couple, garnered such a strong community and also part of the reason why Jones was drawn to writing fan fiction in the first place.
“[Fan fiction] was for me a world of queer romance I had to that point never known could exist,” Jones said. “It was where I found stories about people like me, and the writers, also like me, who were writing those stories.”
For Jones, it wasn’t easy to move away from writing about the Harry Potter world. Fan fiction provides a steady audience, while snagging readers with original content is always a gamble.Still, The Shoebox Project taught them a lot about writing collaboration, both with writers and readers.
“It made me acutely aware that writing does not happen in a vacuum, and that sharing a story is a complex process full of successes and frustrations, oftentimes in the same moment. What one reader adores, another loathes,” Jones said. “You can’t please everyone, no matter how hard you try.”
Since writing The Shoebox Project, Jones has co-authored four fantasy books with their partner Danielle Bennett. The Volstovic Cycle is described on Jones and Bennett’s site as “super queer genre fiction with plenty of magic.”
In 2008, when the first book in The Volstovic Cycle was published, the original LiveJournal page for The Shoebox Project was hacked. Fans feared that the fic was abandoned, but both Jones and co-author Romanski have stated that The Shoebox Project is finished. There was never a final resolution — Lily and James just moved in together, Sirius and Remus were secretly dating, Peter Pettigrew was slowly turning to the Death Eater agenda — but because it was rather faithful to canon, the set-up for where the characters would end up was clear: Peter Pettigrew would betray Lily and James, Sirius would be thrown into Azkaban, Remus would be disgraced.
Jones and Romanski re-published The Shoebox Project on a seperate site, and in 2017, Romanski mentioned on her Tumblr that she and Jones were thinking of writing another chapter to auction off for charity. The impact of this fic still lives on — in Tumblr posts about its greatness, in its Goodreads page, in Wall Street Journal pieces about fan fiction. The landscape of fanfic changes as the landscape of the content it is based upon does.
Jones says that they believe that a lot of the reason some Harry Potter fans are frustrated with the new Potter content is because the fan-generated material — fan fiction, fan art, and others — contains so much diversity that the new canon material lacks. They recognize that Rowling is being dissected through a fan lens that has constructed so much separate material, but says that there are certain “elements of the story that haven’t lived up to the expectations built over time,” the prime example being Dumbledore’s sexuality, which could’ve been explored in greater depth in the Fantastic Beasts movies.
“That’s Rowling’s choice as the creator of the series—nonetheless, it can be disappointing,” said Jones.
A Very Potter Musical
Ask any Potter fan who grew up in the ‘00s and they’ll tell you that one of the greatest pieces of fan-generated Harry Potter media was A Very Potter Musical. Put together by StarKid Productions — a group of then-college students at University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance — A Very Potter Musical (AVPM) was first performed at the University of Michigan under the name Harry Potter: The Musical in April of 2009. The cast put it on YouTube, and from there, it went viral.
Actor Joey Richter, who played Ron Weasley in A Very Potter Musical (and its subsequent sequels), said that the group had no idea how viral the video would get.
“The only reason we put it on YouTube in the first place was because it was too expensive to make DVDs for all the cast and crew,” Richter told Polygon via email. “YouTube seemed like the easiest way we could all show our friends and family over the summer break.”
Though the original video had to be taken down due to inappropriate content, it was recut and reuploaded in June and was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s top 10 viral videos of 2009.
The musical is an affectionate parody of the Harry Potter universe and characters: Draco Malfoy rolls across the floor dramatically and announces he’s going to Pigfarts; Professor Quirrell and Voldemort argue about their sleeping arrangements and sing about their differences; Ron Weasley and Draco Malfoy breaking into song about how hot Hermione Granger is after her Yule Ball glow up.
While a successful parody musical can trod the line of murky legal territory, Warner Brothers allowed Team Starkid to continue to host the musical and own the rights to the music and script, as long as they do not make any money off of it or sell the script for other productions.
That didn’t stop the video’s momentum. Though the sheer numbers were enough of an popularity indicator, Richter says the viral impact hit him a few months later.
“A group of us went up to San Francisco to attend a Harry Potter fan convention called Azkatraz. I will never forget being on an escalator in the hotel and having a group of people spot us and start singing songs from the show as they headed in the opposite direction,” he recounted. “We proceeded to hold an enormous sing-along with all the attendees later that weekend.It was really incredible to see how quickly it impacted so many people, and still does.”
It was after the success of A Very Potter Musical that the group branded under the name Team StarKid and released more collaborations, including Me and My Dick, which was the first charting student-produced musical recording on Billboard, and two more Potter musicals.
A lot of the core group from A Very Potter Musical — including Richter — are still affiliated with StarKid, though the musicals have deviated away from fandom-inspired content and into original stories. They’ve been joined by new members and are currently based in Chicago, producing web series and stage performances. A clip from their most recent stage production, Firebringer, turned viral with a pretty catchy meme. (Yes, that’s AVPM’s Draco Malfoy, Lauren Lopez singing.)
Their members have branched out with their own independent projects: Richter is in a comedy-trio called the Tin Can Brothers and has appeared in various stage, online, and television productions, as well voice-over; Lopez has also been featured in a variety of stage and online works, most recently collaborating with Richter on a web series centered around a podcast; and you may recognize Darren Criss, who played Harry Potter himself, from Glee and American Crime Story. But the group has never forgotten their Harry Potter roots.
“We have always embraced the Potter-fame over the years,” Richter said. “It is an essential part of our history as a group and we are forever grateful for all the opportunities that the boy who lived has afforded us.”
Richter says that the tone of A Very Potter Musical greatly influenced subsequent StarKid projects — a balance of absurd humor and deeply personal meaning behind the production. The original team, he says, has always stayed close.
“If we all were into tattoos,” he joked. “Then that might be an appropriate way to bind us together.”
The success of the group members and the subsequent StarKid productions are only a part of the legacy that A Very Potter Musical left on the greater Harry Potter fandom. There were lines from the musical that held up stronger than J.K. Rowling’s word to the fandom: Hufflepuff’s reputation as particularly good finders, Ron Weasley’s love of Red Vines, the concept of a rival wizarding school known as Pigfarts, the entire opening song as an iconic anthem to Hogwarts are just a few examples.
“It is incredibly flattering to know that fans feel such a deep connection to something we’ve created and consider it a significant work in the wizarding world,” Richter said about the musical’s heralded spot in the minds of fans.
It’s not just the fans who love A Very Potter Musical; some of the actors from the original movies have also embraced the fan-made musical.
Tom Felton who plays Draco Malfoy in the movies has said that “[AVPM] has been one of the greatest things to be a by-product of Harry Potter.” Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood in the movies) even joined the production for one “last romp of magical, musical shenanigans” in a reading of A Very Potter Senior Year at LeakyCon.
Richter is still an active part of StarKid and the group’s next musical is called The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals. He’s also still active in the Harry Potter fandom and attends LeakyCon. While Richter enjoys the new Harry Potter content that’s being put out by Warner Brothers and Rowling, he acknowledges that the output of official content means less fan creation and more criticism.
“With all the new franchises, parks, plays, Pottermore stories, etc., there’s less room for the community to create, just more for them to consume,” he said. “So I feel like it opens the door to more criticism because all that content is being created under the single entity of the Wizarding World.”