In Search of the Meaning of Life? Meet Me at the Monkey Bars.

In Search of the Meaning of Life? Meet Me at the Monkey Bars.

They caught up with kids on benches, in front of statues, in the median of Flatbush Avenue. Mr. Shapiro-Barnum wielded his interviewer’s microphone like a magic wand, using it to distract, redirect, conjure and bestow. A consummate director, he double-checked his lighting, or shifted Ms. Ty Goldberg’s position.

Mr. Shapiro-Barnum scrolled through approaches like one would a TikTok feed: off-kilter questioning, imitation, silly voices. At one point, he pretended to be a tiger, wondering if he could befriend a child he also wanted to eat. The child demurred, not exactly not-scared. Occasionally, he’d suggest a retake, asking a child to answer a question again, or face forward when delivering lines he could clearly see as pull quotes for an episode.

In order to preserve his shambolic portrait of childhood (mis)apprehension, he occasionally had to fend off intervention. “Sometimes parents can’t help but give direction. ‘Sit up straight.’ ‘Smile.’ ‘Wipe ice cream from your face,’” Mr. Shapiro-Barnum said. “We like it to be a little more informal.” As a pair of young women walked by, one leaned into the other and said, “That’s the guy from Instagram who makes the kid videos we were laughing at.”

When I asked parents why they allowed a stranger to have access to their children, on camera, for free they had different responses. “I’m a huge fan of the show,” one said. “He just seemed so nice,” another said. “We need this kind of open community connection now,” a third said. The father of a girl who’d appeared on a previous episode referred to the recognition his daughter had received. “The entire school came up to us after it aired,” he said. “She was like a celebrity.” (After filming, the girl requested a treat. “When you hit 100,000 likes, you can have a doughnut,” her father joked.)

Mr. Shapiro-Barnum spun threads of internet gold with his young subjects. He got down on their level — the ground. He echoed their thoughts, encouraging elaboration. He scaffolded their energy with silly riffs. “It just takes an entry point,” he said. “We’re just looking for a bit.”

Some of this ease comes from years of working with young kids. Mr. Shapiro-Barnum taught young children improv at the MacGuffin, a theater and film company in Philadelphia. And he was a creative force in corralling the energies of younger cousins with whom he spent a lot of time in his adolescence. “I like making kids feel comfortable, and making them look good, and making them feel like they’re having fun,” he said.

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