A forensic investigation into why the "we're just normal men" meme fills us with such joy

We spoke to the puppeteer and CBBC presenter behind the iconic moment as well as a humour expert

Hero image in post
Hero image in post

We spoke to the puppeteer and CBBC presenter behind the iconic moment as well as a humour expert

By Kyle MacNeill22 Jun 2023
11 mins read time
11 mins read time

Here’s a fact for you: we’re just normal men. It’s irrefutable, indisputable, incontestable, indubitable. Why? Because, seven years ago, a puppet dog woofed it into the ear of a children’s TV presenter. But what does it mean? It doesn’t matter, it just is: it’s an a priori statement, a self-fulling prophecy, the purest of truths, an – excuse us – no-strings-attached dogma. Descartes, eat your heart out: this is real philosophy, a stone-cold commandment made for touchscreen tablets.

We are, of course, talking about this viral forty-five-second clip. Taken from a 2016 continuity link between shows on BBC’s kids TV channel CBBC, it sees marionette mutt Hacker T Dog turn towards presenter Lauren Layfield and suddenly ad-lib the phrase ‘we’re just normal men’ leading to Layfield uncontrollably snorting, laughing and howling. “What do you mean, normal men?” she retorts, desperately trying to keep a straight face. “We’re just innocent men,” Hacker adds, explaining absolutely nothing. Lauren loses control. A comic backing track kicks in, seconds of slow-motion laughter ensue, an introduction to the next show gets spluttered out and the clip ends. It’s legendary live TV.

For years, this was buried, like all gold, in a bloopers reel uploaded by Lauren back in 2017. It wasn’t until April 2022 that it went viral, thanks to – the internet is a strange place – a tweet from 90s pop-rock band The Beautiful South's Jacqui Abbott, clocking up 50,000 views in a matter of days. It quickly snowballed, becoming – the “internet’s new favourite meme” and became repurposed for everything imaginable: Harry Maguire's woeful defending, scenes from Normal People, PC test cards, Duke Nukem 3D, Winnie the Pooh illustrations. It even nearly led a prison escape room actor to break character after a visitor uttered those fateful words. “This clip is doing the rounds this morning. Pretty sure that snort is when my career peaked guys,” Layfield tweeted at the time, probably unaware that it would still be doing more rounds than a stag do at a pub quiz a year later.

Now that Meme Studies is very much a thing and there’s a lacuna in the academic literature on We’re All Innocent Men, it seems intellectually necessary to explore the origins of the clip, why it’s still so loved a year later and – crucially – why a puppet dog saying a load of nonsense is still side-splittingly, jaw-achingly, stomach-clenchingly funny.

The memories behind the meme

“Me and Lauren always thought it was funny,” Phil Fletcher, Hacker’s owner and puppeteer, says over Zoom. Like Hacker does with his guests on CBBC, he only addresses me as cocker: a Lancashire term of endearment. “But what made it really pick up last year was Jacqui retweeting it. “I don't know why she did,” he continues. Phil, who appeared on a radio quiz show the night before our chat, says he was told that the clip has now been viewed over two billion times. “It's madness. We'll never beat it,” he says.

Lauren is equally bemused about its staying power. “It’s absolutely unhinged, isn’t it!” she says over email referencing fanart and memes pointing to the government’s lack of innocence. “When it originally went viral, I thought it would be old news in a few days. I never imagined that we’d be here a year later with people making pottery with our faces on it and it being used to hold politicians to account! I don’t really know why it's still going, but I’m so pleased it is.” And while on the subject of quiz shows? “As for Hacker himself, I’m still waiting for someone to pitch us for a teatime quiz show, Alexander Armstrong/Richard Osman style. There’s a gap in the market!”

The clip’s origins are well documented but equally, and rather excellently, provide little explanation for how it came about. Phil explains that the link followed the CBBC skating show Ice Stars, which regularly features a literal head-to-head sequence between competitors where they psych each other out. Lauren and Hacker then mimicked this, facing each other like the Ice Stars competitors. “I can only imagine that's what we were doing as a reference based on the show that just finished," he says.

And why innocent men? “It was just to throw her under the bus. I didn't know what the hell I was talking about,” he says, discounting bizarre fan theories including one that suggests Phil and Hacker were referencing a time they were once pulled over by the cops in Leeds while drunk, proclaiming that they were innocent men. The Reddit user – @timidimage – later clarified that it was all an exercise of Cunningham's Law, an online theory that the best way to get the right answer is to first post a wrong one, popcultural poppycock for us cockers to enjoy.

Something Phil does remember, though, is that the silent moments we see in the clip were anything but; although CBBC is meant to be silly, they are meant to keep it professional rather than crumble into uncontrollable laughter. “What you don't see in that clip is what we have in our (earpieces),” he says. “When we start laughing and losing it, they're shouting to us to get on with it and to stop being stupid and screaming that we're going to get taken off air. I wish you could hear what the backstage producers are saying, it would be much funnier.” For Lauren, it was a try-not-to-laugh game she couldn’t win. “Phil is a tyrant and loves to make you laugh, knowing that you’ll have to try and hold it together for a further minute,” she says. “Clearly I failed.”

"When it originally went viral, I thought it would be old news in a few days"
Lauren Layfield

Its impossible popularity

Even if it made producers perspire at the time, it’s now taken on a life of its own, beloved by both and totally inescapable. “I get asked about it every day of my life. If I ever give an appearance with Hacker everybody wants to recreate it,” Phil explains. “I've done it a million times with people who want to get a video of it.” Does he get hacked off? “No, I love it,” he says. “I'm the sort of person who would have gone up to Vic Reeves and gone: you wouldn't let it lie! (an innocent-men-adjacent line taken from ‘90s comedy show Big Night Out) that person. I'm happy for people to do it with me.”

So much so, he offers to take me to the MediaCityUK studios to recreate it. “I shall make that a reality. I'll show you the actual spot where we stood, where I uttered the immortal words," he says gleefully. “I love it,” Lauren says. “My TV shows have won BAFTAs (CBBC makeover show The Dengineers) we’ve been nominated for Royal Television Society awards and even an International Emmy (her Newsround doc Let’s Talk About Periods), “ she says “But We’re Just Innocent Men is what I’m most known for? Even that is comedic in itself.”

Part of its online domination is thanks to the @wejustnormalmen Twitter account, set up exactly a year ago with one monomaniacally myopic purpose: tweet the clip every single Monday morning with the exact same caption. With over 80,000 followers (and following just Phil, Hacker and Lauren) its weekly posts clock up around a million views a pop, seemingly from the same people wanting to watch it again, and again, and again. Woo made every effort to speak to the account’s founder, but the page is shrouded in air of mystery. Instead, we dove with salmon-like deftness into the replies section.

The clip causes an almost indescribable amount of joy, happiness and snort-out-loud laughter for so many people. “I needed to see this today,” is a classic response, pointing to its near-medicinal, revitalising quality, like a first-coffee-of-the-week or a dopaminergic cold shower. Some provide close readings of the exact moment that gets them – the snort, Hacker covering his eyes, the music cue-in – while others go further.

“In the words of The Great Bob Ross, it’s a happy accident,” says megafan Ant over Twitter. “When anything can happen, we are on tenterhooks, and the surprise is all the more funny; it's a happy suspense. Not to mention the fact we're laughing at their mistake as well as with Hacker’s on-point intonation, delivery and timing,” he continues, explaining the appeal of the contagious laughter. “It does make me laugh each time and helps break up the monotony of my mondays!”

Another fan – Tom – when I ask him more, quips back: “My first question is, why me? I’m just an innocent man.” Joking aside, he offers a deeply poetic take on the clip’s appeal. “Of all the mysteries in the world, the one that keeps me up at night is why this conversation happened, and why it’s so funny. Whatever the reason, I always watch this clip when it shows up in my feed. It’s so funny, so joyful, I could cry tears of pure honey.”

Perhaps the best comment is one claiming that they want it played at their funeral when their “casket heads into the barbecue” (sadly, they’re uncontactable). I tell Phil about it. “It'll be at mine,” he laughs. "I like to go on 'The Twitter' and comment on other people's messages and say thanks for watching cocker. They can't believe I'm commenting directly. But I'm only a normal person!”

So why is it so funny?

While the vast majority of viewers immediately love it, others are perpetually perplexed, desperately enquiring why it’s so funny to so many people. It is, after all, just a puppet saying something that makes absolutely no sense. “It’s just a load of crap,” Phil flippantly quips. So why is it so appendicitingly funny for some of us? For me, it’s akin to sitting next to that classmate in assembly that you cannot even look at without starting to giggle, that feeling of catching infectious laughter. “That’s exactly it,” Lauren agrees. “But instead of school, it was live television!”

Phil revels in its randomness. "Everything about it is perfect and nonsense in equal measure. Neither of them are men which is funny already because it's just nonsense,” he says. “Why would a dog say that? The snort is at the right time, the music comes in at the right moment and it all came together rather brilliantly,” he continues, comparing it to having a hit single. "There is nothing to get because fundamentally it isn't funny. When people say this is not funny it's not. Write it down and read it – it's not funny,” he says. Of course, though, it really is.

Lauren, meanwhile, revels in, well, it basically being a Revels bag of comedic treats. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason it’s so funny is because there are so many individually accidental comedic elements to it,” she says. “Hushed voices and whispering is funny. Puppets are funny. Snorting is funny, Mariachi-style music is funny. I think it’s the combination of them all that’s made it so perfect.”

But seriously, why? Time for some philosophy. “I can see why it’s popular,” says Alan Roberts, author of Philosophy of Humour. He points to four rules for humour – a state of play, contradictions, illogical reasoning and raising arousal – believing that We’re Just Normal Men ticks all the boxes. “It occurs in a play setting, raises arousal by going off script, and involves contradictions,” he explains. “To my mind the main contradiction comes from the dual interpretation of Hacker as a real character versus as a puppet being voiced by someone cracking up,” he continues, highlighting that this kind of humour makes us feel good as it’s a natural, evolutionary reward for discovering errors in our thinking.

He also agrees on my assembly hypothesis. “I definitely think that seeing the presenters laugh themselves contributes to our amusement,” he says. “Laughter is a socially contagious phenomena - we are more likely to catch a laugh from people we know and like - which is probably why fans of the show enjoy the clip even more.” Context, too, is king. “The lack of context for the blooper also contributes to the absurdity of Hacker’s ad lib, heightening the contradictions at the centre of humour,” he says.

Perhaps, most brilliantly, it is as its premise suggests: completely, and utterly innocent. There’s no cheapness or joke at someone’s expense, no controversy, no pain, nothing cruel: it’s pure freude without the schaden. To continue the German philosophy vibe, it’s Schrödinger’s dog of humour: simultaneously funny and unfunny. “It's just an idiot talking rubbish to another idiot,” Phil concludes. “That happened to be on the telly. Some people find it the funniest thing on earth. Other people find it unfunny. And they're both right.”