New York visitors travel across the country to see famous sites like the Statue of Liberty, museums like the MET, and iconic movie scene locations like Central Park. Yet, there’s one New York City staple everyone hopes to avoid: the street rats. They’re in the subway, on the roads, and yes to some residents’ dismay, sometimes even in the buildings. Though these rodents are usually avoided, there is one that is taking the spotlight, Buddy the Rat. Buddy is the alter ego of New York City-based actor Jonothon Lyons, and we sat down with him to discuss his city escapades and internet fame.
You may have seen Buddy around the city, dashing on top of the fountain at Washington Square Park, or online in one of his viral videos. Lyon’s Youtube and TikTok page, with a combined 5 million followers, have been a source of global media-user attention over the last five years. His videos usually show Buddy being pet or gawked at by pedestrians, enjoying classic sights around the city, or dragging a kiddie-pool-sized pizza slice through the subway.
Despite his residency in NYC, Buddy’s journey actually began in Portland, where Jonothon Lyons, the creator of the character, was inspired by his first acting job in the play Frogz. “We played actual frog characters and they were a lot like this rat costume, with the whole big beautiful paper mache mask and really engaging physical movement,” said Lyons. “In New York, I would be waiting on the train and see the rats all the time, like them scurrying in the trash. I thought, ‘I might be able to do this type of mask character with a rat.’ The show I was in didn’t have a rat so that’s where the initial idea came from.”
Buddy’s first introduction to the city was at a small-scale theater appearance in Brooklyn. Soon, the character’s popularity took him to the Lower East Side, and then to the catalyst of his fame: Youtube. Lyons added, “To promote the play, we went out to Times Square and we filmed me being the rat in public and we put some of those clips on Youtube and they did pretty good, nothing crazy, but it planted the seed. 10 years later, I was looking back on it and realized doing the character out on the street was way more interesting than anything I could do in a theater on a stage.” Less than a day after Lyons’ decided to take Buddy out in public, people in the city were putting videos of his antics on Instagram and TikTok. Those videos amassed hundreds of thousands of likes.
Soon after, Lyons created Buddy’s current Tik Tok page and the follower count just kept growing until the human-sized rat became something tourists looked forward to seeing. “I think a big part of the reason it’s successful or has the following it has is because it’s so obviously authentic. It’s a conglomeration of all of my own personal skills I’ve pursued over the years.”
We know what you’re thinking. WOW. That’s not something you see everyday. Buddy is certainly a sight, and sometimes a shock to onlookers. But he’s not here to scare anyone, antagonize the audience, or cause a bad reaction. “There is a spectrum of responses to the piece, that’s part of its magic. It’s provocative,” Lyons says. “I pay close attention to how people are feeling and only interact with people that are having a good time. It’s a soft gag for the most part. If someone says ‘Get away!’, I get away. I’m not going for people who don’t like it.”
When Buddy isn’t out making friends during a performance out on the street, Jonothon is out of the rat costume, working as an actor. A lively theater career keeps him satisfied and helps him make a living so that his side project of Buddy can continue. For instance, “Right now,” he says, “I’m the vacation swing puppeteer for Little Shop of Horrors off-Broadway and earlier this year, I acted in the production of an opera called Die Zauberflöte by Mozart at the MET.”
If you’ve ever seen Buddy up close, you must have noticed that his giant mask is actually a carefully crafted, paper mache rat head model. There have been three iterations of the mask that makes the character: one in 2009, another in 2013, and the latest version, made in 2018. The current mask has more advancements that contribute to Buddy’s realism, like eyes that are connected to a mechanism that allows them to blink, and a bigger neck opening that prevents Lyons’ head from popping out of the costume during a performance. “I took time to design (it),” he said. “I worked a lot in professional puppetry and off Broadway and I learned a lot more about building techniques.” The actor’s theater background and desire to improve the design contributed to what it is now.
Behind the costume and the seemingly chaotic act is art and a plan. “At the beginning of 2020, I actually applied to a lot of art grants, describing this plan to travel around the world doing this performance on the streets in an effort to raise awareness of how similar people are across the world, no matter what language you speak, or how you dress, or what culture you are from,” Lyons said. “I’m pretty confident people are gonna have similar reactions to running into Buddy the Rat on the street and if there are significant differences I think that would be interesting to explore.”
While Lyons is more than happy to talk about Buddy, Buddy the Rat is more tight-lipped. “I consider the character to be a non-speaking character. Mostly, because it’s too difficult. I can’t really see in front of me, the mouth doesn’t move, it would just be too bizarre,” Lyons explains. This non-speaking nature also lends itelf to Lyons’ plan to take Buddy across the world. ”Part of why I think it can be effective is that there is no language involved,” says Lyons, “It’s like Blue Man Group. The audience gets what’s happening without there needing to be any language.”
Buddy’s home is NYC, there’s no doubt. But the street rat has begun to take his show on the road. The character has performed in multiple locations, nationally among cities like Miami, Los Angeles, and Maryland, and internationally at locations throughout Turkey. Buddy the Rat is planning to travel even more in the future, starting with an appearance in London at the end of August and hopefully, a three-month European tour to follow. The plan, according to Lyons, is to be in a different city every week for 12 weeks straight. “For like three years everyone’s been watching me run around New York so to get to see me in many different cities over the course of the summer I think would be really exciting for everybody.”
Lyons has some big ambitions for Buddy’s future. He and his new writing partner are currently pitching a cartoon series about the character to film studios. Since Buddy is already so noticeable on social media, trademarking the character with T-shirts, stickers, and toys is something the actor is hoping to make a reality one day. I mean, who wouldn’t love to visit our city and go home with proof of their craziest street interaction?
So, what does New York’s residential rat love about the city? “Definitely the freedom of expression. If anything, New York has a culture of supporting freedom of expression in the streets. I have a ton of dancer friends who dance on the subways, and dance in Times Square, and dance in the street, and produce content where you’re just able to kind of act crazy,” he adds. “You’re going to be supported. Like people are going to be happy about it. Some people won’t but plenty of people will. It’s that and how much you grow as an artist if you’re able to stick it out here.”
Next, check out 15 Famous Animals in NYC