How Jake Novak Bounced Back From an Infamous TikTok Pile-On

He was a rising TikTok star when his playful pitch to join Saturday Night Live went massively, disastrously viral. “I was not able to do anything to move my life forward for an entire year,” Novak tells GQ. And then a new wave of fans began clamoring for his return.

How Jake Novak Bounced Back From an Infamous TikTok PileOn

Photographs courtesy of Jake Novak; Collage: Gabe Conte

Jake Novak doesn’t even want to be on Saturday Night Live.

“If I’m being honest, I don’t think it’s what I was ever really aiming for,” he tells GQ. “It more was a thing that I thought might be good to try [for].”

Novak did try, famously, on June 15, 2022, by uploading a TikTok video that quickly went viral for all the wrong reasons. “I wanna be the next SNL cast member,” he declares in a singsongy, Lin Manuel Miranda–style rap. “Hi, Lorne Michaels, I’m Jake Novak.”

For anyone who was even casually using TikTok in the summer of 2022, those words will likely trigger a flashback. The video, which goes blithely on for over a minute, received eight million views. But it was also soon turned into fodder for stitches, duets, and parodies that saw at tens of millions more views on the app, racking up comments like “Let’s hope not” and “Your singing is good but you forgot one important part which is to be funny” along the way.

Novak avoided TikTok for a few weeks, determined to ride out the backlash. When he finally opened the app, after a good friend messaged him there, he had 26,000 notifications. The first comment he saw: “I wonder if he killed himself.” He deleted TikTok then and there.

What had Novak done to deserve this? The first hecklers to comment on his video were no doubt reacting to his intensely millennial earnestness (Novak is 30), which is decidedly out of step with the deadpan, hustle-averse Gen Z attitude that’s now prevalent on social media. Thirty-six-year-old YouTuber Colleen Ballinger, who recently posted a 10-minute ukulele song as a response to allegations that she had inappropriate interactions with minors online, now exemplifies the rancid turn this particular brand of internet earnestness can take. Novak had done nothing wrong. But those early negative comments likely helped bend the video’s algorithmic trajectory away from his usual audience of musical-theater fans and placed it squarely in front of people more like the bullies who wait outside the auditorium to give the theater kids swirlies.

Novak went into digital—and sometimes even physical—hiding.

“The main thought on my mind most of the time was, What am I going to do to come back?” he says. He only returned this summer, exactly a year later, with a darker, more wry video devoid of music.

When Novak fled TikTok, he left behind a storm of gleeful vitriol. He returned to praise and apologies so earnest it would make even the old Jake Novak blush. What happened in between was a lesson about virality—not just for Novak, but for everyone on the internet.

Jake Novak, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, appeared in his first amateur musical at age nine. By the time he entered high school, he was acting professionally in commercials, and he decided to study musical theater at Emerson College in Boston. It was there he realized that he wanted to be onscreen, not onstage. When he graduated, he moved to Los Angeles and eventually landed small gigs on shows like Sugar Rush Christmas on Netflix and in the Dapper Dans, Disneyland’s barbershop quartet. On the side, he made music videos for the internet.

Novak posted his early videos on YouTube and Facebook. His first hit was a March 2020 song titled “Corona Hoedown (Stay the Fuck at Home!).” It got 604,000 views on Facebook, and drew the ire of some viewers who were angry about pandemic restrictions.

“There’s definitely a dark side to this that I’m not sure I know how to handle yet,” he remembers thinking.

Novak later joined TikTok, where he first went megaviral with an open verse challenge he did with singer Salem Ilese. This was three months prior to the SNL blowup. His other music videos regularly earned hundreds of thousands of views, and were almost always received warmly by commenters. So it didn’t take long for him to notice that something about his SNL video was…off.

“I was like, Oh, that’s not the usual tenor of the comments section,” he says. The negative comments multiplied until the video was seemingly only being served on the For You pages of users that the algorithm determined would hate it.

Creators call this the wrong side of TikTok. The app’s algorithm doesn’t seem to distinguish between good and bad attention. When it picks up on engagement from a certain set of users, it pushes that video out to more people like them. As a result, a video about feminism can go viral among angry misogynists, and one about racism may get pushed to white supremacists. It doesn’t matter to the algorithm who gets served the video, as long as they’re watching and commenting.

Users soon turned their attention to Novak’s past work, discovering a song about gun violence, made after the Uvalde, Texas school shooting, that was cringe at best.

“There is a long history of artists of all genres using their art to respond to tragedy,” Novak now says in response to the criticism. “Just because that video had a serious tone when I had been doing mostly comedic content does not mean it was meant ironically or as a joke. People can be more than one thing.” He also stresses that he didn’t make any money from the Uvalde song (none of his accounts are monetized).

Novak knows his situation isn’t unique. There are plenty of people—Couch Guy and West Elm Caleb, to name two prominent examples—who have been publicly excoriated after going viral for behavior shorn from context. The phenomenon dates back to as early as 2003, when a video titled Star Wars Kid blew up on various early platforms. In it, a 15-year-old Canadian high school student named Ghyslain Raza swings a golf club around like a lightsaber; it is, by 2023 standards, unremarkable. Back then, however, it quickly became one of the internet’s first inescapable memes and resulted in such severe bullying Raza dropped out of school. (His family sued the four classmates who first discovered and distributed the video.)

Even now, victims of internet-harassment campaigns tend to get very little empathy, perhaps because of the misconception that the online world is somehow separate from the real one. But unplugging doesn’t mean the subject escapes the harassment. It just means they’re in the dark about it.

“It’s like, how many people out there know who I am, and if they do know who I am, what is their opinion of me?” Novak asks. “Maybe they like me, but they also could think I’m a joke or really want me to die.”

Novak’s experience soon did bubble over into real life. A month or so after he retreated from the internet, people started posting videos of Novak at his job at Disneyland. They were, apparently, thrilled to have spotted the Jake Novak in the wild.

“I was out there doing my job, and there’s a crowd of people, and I suddenly had this moment where I see all these cameras,” he recalls. “I felt suddenly so unsafe in this place that had for many years felt like a good place, where the vibes are always nice and everyone’s there to have a good time and just smile along and be happy.

“Sometimes there’d be people right as we end a show who would start to rush up toward us and be calling my name,” he continues. “And luckily the guys who I work with and the folks who are stage management and upper management were fantastic and very understanding and very good about managing that.”

Outside of work, Novak was on lockdown. To this day he masks in public, not just because he’s concerned about COVID-19, but to hide his face. He created dummy email addresses to sign up for things and uses fake names at restaurants. There’s no way of knowing if the barista making his coffee recognizes him from TikTok and will give him a hard time or turn their camera on him.

“I was 29 when it happened,” Novak says. “I’m gearing up for this big 30th, and then all of a sudden the rest of that time is gone. I hit this big milestone and I’m just sort of like, What the fuck am I doing? I don’t even have any ideas. I don’t have a life.”

Novak would try to comfort himself with the hope that surely all this attention would lead to something good. Maybe Lorne Michaels would notice, or a different opportunity would spring up. But “that’s completely not what happened,” beyond a few sponsorship offers he turned down because they didn’t feel right, he says. “I was not able to do anything to move my life forward for an entire year.”

Meanwhile, though, TikTok was undergoing a vibe shift. As videos of Novak at work started popping up, commenters finally began to push back on the harassment. New comments on his SNL video, once a wall of hate, started to call for his return. “We’re sorry COME BACK” a commenter wrote in August 2022. This March: “Jake come back pls we need you.”

He wasn’t sure how to stage his return; his ideas either seemed too harsh or too soft. Plus, “I was so scared that my first video back would be deemed cringey again and the whole ordeal would just repeat itself.”

Then he had an epiphany. “Hey, it’s been a while,” a bearded Novak says at the start of his first video back. He’s staring straight at the camera, arm slung over his office chair. “You made it very clear that you didn’t want to hear from me anymore, or even for me to exist. And for a long time I’ve really struggled with how to come back from that. What song could I sing that would make you change your mind about me? But I don’t even know if that’s possible at this point, so I’m just going to say what I have to say.” He swallows. “We’ve been trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty,” he announces, turning to reveal an AirPod in his ear.

The telemarketer gag was a play on a TikTok meme that was popular when Novak left the app; using it was a clever way of acknowledging his yearlong absence. As he continues the spiel, the camera pulls back to reveal a desk littered with takeout containers, empty alcohol bottles, and a printout of an interview he did with Vulture seven weeks after the viral video.

The comments on this comeback video are almost all positive: “This was genius.” “Return of the king.” “Jake there’s been a hole in my soul since you left.” Some are downright emotional: “Hey man I know you probably won’t see this but it makes me happy to see you’re doing okay.”

It’s true—Novak wouldn’t see the comments. As soon as he uploaded his new video, he deleted TikTok once again. He’s aware that he’s gotten a warm welcome back, and GQ read him some of the funnier comments, like those saying he’s in his Reputation era. (“I cannot adequately express how deeply I hope the SNL video isn’t my 1989,” he says.). But while he’s grateful for the show of support, his faith in TikTok has not exactly been restored. “One of the big lessons that I’ve learned from this experience has been that I can’t really give too much credence to any of it,” Novak says. If he’s going to block out the negativity, he has to block out the positivity as well. He has also moved on from the “boundless, possibly naïve enthusiasm” of his early work, and he’s no longer going to chase trends or promise weekly videos. “I feel like I’m really finding what I want to do and trusting that more,” he says.

Still, Novak’s story isn’t a simple one of triumphing over adversity. He doesn’t plan to return to social media because he still fears stumbling across a video that’s about him, or getting a notification of a hateful comment. “Just opening the apps makes me panic,” he says.

Novak also holds TikTok responsible for at least some of the harassment he received. In March, as Congress debated whether TikTok should be banned, he wrote an op-ed arguing that the company failed to adequately enforce its own harassment policies. “I would like to see them just try and draw some consciousness to it and say, ‘Maybe this is good in terms of raw engagement, but is it good engagement? Is it gonna keep people on there and keep them safe?’” he stated. (The backlash against him may have kicked up a flurry of engagement in the short term, but the app also lost a creator who had been steadily generating millions of views.)

Escaping the engagement hamster wheel has had its benefits. “There just wasn’t a lot of time to be a person,” Novak says, “and all of a sudden I found myself with nothing but time to do that.” What does a regular person do? For Novak, it is now opening up to friends—no song and dance, no cutesy rhymes. “Sometimes,” he says, “I just need to talk.”

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