Kyra Kyles ’98, ’98 MS is CEO of YR Media, an educational center for aspiring music producers, podcasters, journalists and multimedia content creators. Kyles opened a new YR Media regional facility in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, offering training programs, paid internships and state-of-the-art audio and video production technology to young people from Chicago, Detroit and other Midwestern cities.
Pre-pandemic, Lukas Arnold ’17 was performing at a New York City comedy club’s open mic when another performer gave him a tip: Get on TikTok.
“‘Just make videos,’ he told me. ‘It’s a great way to develop a following,’” Arnold recalls. He didn’t immediately heed the advice, but when the pandemic shut down the stand-up scene, Arnold gave it a shot.
He never expected that one of his very first videos — about the hit documentary Tiger King — would go viral.
“I did a sketch where I imitated different celebrities and characters auditioning to play [animal rights activist and Tiger King personality] Carole Baskin,” he says. “I did a bunch of impressions of people saying ‘Hey, all you cool cats and kittens’ — just that one line — and that did pretty well.”
“Pretty well” is putting it mildly. Arnold’s video — which includes spot-on impressions of popular characters such as Obi-Wan Kenobi (from the Star Wars franchise), Severus Snape (from the Harry Potter series), Donald Duck and others — got hundreds of thousands of likes and continued to rack up views after Netflix’s official TikTok account commented on his video, praising his impression of Ron Swanson (from Parks and Recreation).
“That got me thinking, ‘I need to put more energy into this,’” recalls Arnold, his face lighting up as he thinks back to that moment.
Steadily, his followers increased. “I started doing more impression videos, and it just skyrocketed. I hit a million followers the day after Thanksgiving [in 2020].”
“I’ll say it once, and I’ll have to say it again,” Arnold says in a sassy tone, recording a TikTok video in front of his bathroom mirror. “None of you can give me an ethnic mix that’s a challenge to make a nickname out of. … Someone wrote in who’s half Korean, half Quebecois — you’re a kimcheese curd. Next!”
Thousands of TikTok commenters shared their multiethnic backgrounds, hoping Arnold would come up with a new “ethnickname” for them as well.
“It started with a one-off joke,” says Arnold, whose father is Jewish and whose mother is English and Sudanese. “Why is it that half-Jewish, half-Italian people call themselves ‘pizza bagels’ when they could more creatively call themselves ‘matzarella sticks’? And then people just started commenting, ‘Oh, can you do me? I’m half this and half that.’” Arnold posted more videos, turning the idea into a miniseries and bringing together a community of followers who can relate to his multiethnic and mixed race experience.
“My natural comedic style is fairly autobiographical,” he says. “Anything that comes up that’s interesting, I tend to write down and then draw from it.”
Arnold now has more than 2.4 million followers on TikTok. His videos range from quick puns or celebrity impressions (some as short as 6 seconds) to longer musings about random life encounters. In one video he asks, “Hey, why are there no cute conspiracy theories? All conspiracy theories are way too intense; they’re like, ‘The Earth is flat!’ or ‘The elections are rigged!’ … I would love it if someone tried to convince me that Aztecs invented the cannoli!”
In addition to his autobiographical content, Arnold has also developed longer sketch series that require some research. In his series “How I think women’s clothing sizes began,” for example, Arnold plays two characters: a devil who is constantly seeking new ways to torture women via fashion, and his devious minion, Jenkins, who concocts ideas for inconsistent sizing, noninclusive styles, poorly constructed designs and more.
The idea came to him when he was trying to buy women’s leggings online for a Halloween costume and became frustrated by inaccurate sizing. “The more I looked into it, the more it seemed confusing by design,” he says. “I was like, ‘Who the hell thought of this?’ And it made me imagine this sort of fiendish, Gollum-like dude in a corner of the room thinking up all of these ways to make shopping for clothes more difficult for women. It just came to me so quickly.”
He’s taken the opportunity to use his platform to promote brands that defy these common fashion pitfalls. “I started doing branded posts as Jenkins for Snag, a clothing brand that is women-owned, women-run and environmentally friendly, and that was really cool,” he says.
THE COURAGE TO STAND UP
While Arnold comes across as unquestionably confident in his TikTok videos and live stand-up, it took some time for him to work up the nerve to pursue comedy.
He majored in theater at Northwestern, where he was “pretty much a straight actor,” he says. “I was entrenched in the theater community. That was my whole world. I was too scared to try stand-up at the time.”
Arnold performed in a number of plays and developed his voice acting as well. Voice professor Linda Gates was “one of my all-time favorite professors,” he says. “I took every single class she offered. She was just so much fun!”
Gates remembers Arnold for his vocal talent and sense of humor. “He has a wonderful voice,” she says. “Most people don’t know this, but a voice has to be trained. And he worked very hard at it.”
After graduating, Arnold started narrating audiobooks and doing commercial voiceovers, thinking that’s where his career was headed. But he soon realized he missed live performance terribly.
“I spent a lot of time in my little studio, and I got very depressed,” he says. “It’s not healthy to just spend all day in one room with very little sunlight. And I realized I wanted to get back into auditioning for live theater.”
In 2019 he changed trajectory. “It was like a trifecta of big changes in my life,” he recalls. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to get back into live performance, get a day job to support the first bit and then get a therapist to support everything else.’”
Prioritizing his mental health made a world of a difference. “I felt myself growing in confidence,” he says. “I thought, ‘OK, what do I want to do with this?’”
The answer came to him loud and clear: “I need to try stand-up.”
Arnold took classes at Carolines Comedy School in New York. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he says. After just a few weeks, he performed onstage in the class’ graduation show. “Two weeks later, I started doing open mics every night in New York City. … It was only because of therapy that I was able to try it.”
While the pandemic temporarily shut down live performances, Arnold has since picked it back up — under safer conditions. To avoid indoor spaces, open mics began cropping up outdoors, on rooftops, in parks and backyards. “It was a wonderful thing because comedy became much more democratized,” says Arnold. “It was comedians running their own shows; there was no longer this gatekeeping thing [that usually comes along with comedy clubs].”
As for his future plans, Arnold isn’t slowing down. He’s continued to gain more followers on TikTok and host his podcast, Two Nosy Meerkats, all while pursuing stand-up.
“I’m definitely still interested in acting, and hoping to do film and TV and all of that. But stand-up is my bread and butter right now. That’s what I’m most excited by.”
Diana Babineau is a writer and editor in Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications.