It takes a special kind of person to confront random New Yorkers as they go about their business, and Davis Burleson is a special kind of person.
The premise is simple: Burleson wanders over to a stranger, typically in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, and asks an outrageous question before tilting a microphone to their face.
It’s similar to an episode of Billy on the Street, a high-energy pop culture quiz show, in that it’s unpredictable and requires Burleson to be quick to banter with his guests. It’s also frequently heartwarming, like Humans of New York, a photoblog that paired portraits with thoughtful musings from New Yorkers.
In an interview with In The Know, Burleson described his shtick as “a teenager who runs up to strangers on the street and asks them questions, then gives the stranger the space the stage to say whatever they want.”
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The Texas native moved to New York City to attend The New School’s Parsons School of Design in August 2020, and it didn’t take long before his personal TikTok started blowing up. He first went viral with commentary on the Met Gala.
Much of the charm of the What’s Poppin comes from Burleson himself, who manages to stimulate conversation without making the interviews about himself. The comments — thousands on each video — are always directed to the guest star of the video, never the host.
Questions about dating, fashion and the existential dominate his repertoire, but the key to a viral video, Burleson said, lies with his guests. He is “very, very, very, very picky” about who he confronts, and he considers his ability to sense someone’s “vibe” to be one of his greatest talents.
Sometimes his filming assistant will suggest a subject, and he’ll reject them purely based on their vibe. He doesn’t think of questions in advance. He lets his instincts guide him.
“I kind of blackout while I’m [talking to people], then I go back and think, ‘Wow, that was good of me, I love that,'” he explained.
It only takes him about an hour and a half to film a week’s worth of content, and nearly every person he speaks with gets their own video (with a little editing magic, of course).
Fallen Media COO and co-founder Sol Betesh told In The Know that the idea for What’s Poppin developed as the company was trying to figure out how to create an authentic show for a Gen Z audience on TikTok that wasn’t too overproduced.
It was Burleson, though, who made the show into what it is.
“This guy’s got something,” Betesh recalled thinking when he met Burleson. It took a few episodes for the host to find a voice that wasn’t too similar to Billy on the Street. Nostalgic clips from the show had just started going viral on TikTok again, so its influence was hard to escape. But Burleson got there.
Betesh said the host wanted to “actually ask people questions that he’s curious about and that Gen Z cares about” rather than chaotic quips about pop culture, and that’s how an unpredictable but uplifting show was born.
Not long after What’s Poppin took off, another man-on-the-street show called @sidetalknyc went viral on TikTok. Its Coney Island-based videos permeated the platform and gave rise to a number of new slang terms, including “bing bong.”
The two shows didn’t butt heads, though. A fan-favorite from @sidetalknyc, known as both “TJ” and “Joe Byron,” appeared on What’s Poppin to chat with Burleson.
The world of man-on-the-street content can be difficult to navigate on TikTok. When interactions come across as disingenuous or self-serving on the host’s side, people get irritated.
Kurtis Conner, who runs a popular YouTube commentary channel, said in a video that this kind of content can easily become “insufferable.” He criticized a user who attempts “gotcha”-style man-on-the-street interviews that attempt to trip the subjects up rather than let them take the stage.
That highlights what makes Burleson special. When compared to other hosts who walk up to strangers on the street, he’s not trying to make anyone feel bad, nor is he trying to make himself look good.
He’s the ultimate supporting character.
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