Q&A: Josh Zagoren, the puppeteer whose alter ego is Chad the Bird, talks about TikTok success and how the pandemic changed him

Chad and Josh
Josh Zagoren talks with his puppet Chad the Bird at Montrose Saloon. (Koster Kennard/ MEDILL)

By Koster Kennard
Medill Reports

When actor-turned-comedian-turned-puppeteer Josh Zagoren, 41, heard the Green Mill was shutting down indefinitely because of COVID-19, taking away one of his primary sources of income, he crumpled. 

As the puppeteer whose alter ego is live op-ed columnist Chad the Bird, Zagoren has entertained audiences at the Green Mill’s variety show “The Paper Machete” for over a decade. In 2005, Zagoren built Chad out of some felt he found in the basement of the Cornservatory, a theater in North Center and some googly eyes he picked up at Michaels.

Now the bird puppet is a TikTok star — with 283,600  followers. 

The TikToks range from Chad singing with actor/comedian/pianist Bill Larkin to Chad struggling with a locked door knob as a viral TikTokker, who might lack self-awareness, dances on the other side of the door. Zagoren posts about three videos a week plus promos, which get an average of 20,000 views apiece.

When “The Paper Machete” resumed performances in September, Zagoren pivoted again to meld the live show with his now exploding online presence.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

What made you decide to start a TikTok? 

The pandemic forced me to join the internet and do Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, all that stuff. Like, I (was) on the internet. I (had) used it. I know how it works. I just never did (anything). I would scroll around on TikTok because I thought it was fun, but I never used it. I never thought about getting any of this. I started on YouTube. I did a bunch of videos called “Fireside Chads,” where it was just Chad breaking down a topic for five minutes. And then through that I started a PayPal. PayPal started paying some of my bills because some people were like, “Yeah man, we’ll miss you and here’s some money,” and it was super awesome — people are great. (There) I (was) waiting for someone to tell me, “Hey, you should do TV shows,” like Comedy Central. I never thought, “I have a portable production studio in my pocket” — I could just do that myself.

How did the pandemic change how you performed with Chad?

I have imposter syndrome all the time. Like, who’s going to want to watch this dumb s—. It just was like, “Well, you don’t have a choice.” I was like, “Now I have to use the internet more as this puppet.” That set everything off overnight, which was bonkers. The TikTok thing was a year into the pandemic. I remember posting some standup that I did from wayback when and I was in another show, because we were starting to come back now. And I had to turn my notifications off because I kept getting stuff. I woke up and I was like, “Oh s—, I have like a thousand people following me now. That doesn’t make sense. Why? I didn’t do anything.” So the pandemic gave me the boost to put myself out there that way. And I’ve been f—— dealing with it ever since.

How has it been balancing your performances at the Green Mill with producing TikTok content? 

It’s great. (The performances are) the No. 1 content generator. I will go to great lengths to put a sketch together, film it, edit it, do the captions, get some famous friend of mine to be in it just to boost the views — maybe a couple thousand (views). I post one live — 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 (views). So I’m just like, “People really like the live video.” I think it’s only helped. I was assuming I wasn’t going to be doing that anymore. And it wasn’t hitting, but as soon as I showed the crowd and the reaction — that’s what gets the views every time. I would love to sit down with a sociologist and map out why that is. I don’t know the psychology behind it either, but I’ve been told that there is a social science about people witnessing live on the internet is a big draw instead of actually going there to see it. I don’t know what that is, but it just is.

Is it easier to get people to watch live events on social media than in person because they want to be part of it, but they don’t want the social anxiety? 

I have a good friend who’s a social psychologist and has more than one Ph.D. They would never consider themselves an expert in their field. But, they’re the closest thing to an expert that I know. We were talking over the summer about the differences between what we used to do on the weekends and what we do now. It used to be that I would go to the Green Mill and I’d get obliterated, I would do this puppet show thing for people, and then I would get tacos and the party would move to my place or I would just end up passed out — the amount of drinking I would do while doing these shows. And they were like, “Did you ever think that the reason you were doing that is that you have crowd anxiety?” I never even thought about that, and I was like, “Oh, a hundred-percent; I don’t like being around people.” And it’s weird because people were like, “But you’re an actor.” And I was like, “But there’s a control there. My interaction is controlled. There’s a fourth wall. What I’m doing is rehearsed. Or is at least skilled and is not freewheeling conversation.”

Koster Kennard is a graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @kosterb.