-- Competitive endurance tickling. Not only is it a real thing, but there’s a market for videos of people being the ticklers and the ticklees, where one person is sometimes restrained while another tickles him.
One such video produced by the website Jane O’Brien Media caught the attention of New Zealand feature reporter David Farrier, but he had no idea it would lead him down a strange rabbit hole.
“It’s this sport we found in L.A. where once a month, fit young men from all around the world are flown to Los Angeles to take part in a tickling contest,” Farrier told “Nightline.” “I mean originally, when it was this tickling contest, I just thought this is the craziest story of all time.”
According to Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reeve, there is a menacing side the world surrounding this sport, too. The filmmakers said once they started looking into it, they opened themselves up to taunts and legal threats along the way.
Their new documentary “Tickled” debuted at Sundance and will soon be on HBO. It’s now the focus of a bizarre controversy, with representatives of the tickling community attending the premieres and accusing the filmmakers of distorting what they do.
The filmmakers insist that’s not the case. They say it all started innocently enough.
“I was looking for a story to cover in New Zealand,” Farrier said. “I’m a light entertainment reporter and I reached out to this company saying I’m curious about this tickling competition, what’s it about, and that very first reply on that public Facebook wall was, ‘We don’t want to deal with a homosexual journalist.’”
“That set off alarm bells straight away,” he continued. “I mean, that was such a strange response.”
Farrier said the exchanges became even more hostile from there.
Richard Ivey, who has his own tickling site unrelated to Jane O’Brien Media, said the site is his full-time job.
“People are really passionate about it,” Ivey said. “I started a website, about 15 years ago, and it started out as a foot fetish website for guys, but once I started adding tickling to it, that’s when it really took off.”
His site features men in various stages of undress, but Ivey says the men are completely clothed in 75 percent of the scenes.
“It’s erotica,” he continued. “There’s no sex involved … [it’s] having control over someone that I wouldn't normally have control over, and do it in a safe way, a playful way, a consensual way.”
But Jane O’Brien Media insists its videos are not sexual in any way.
Jane O’Brien said its videos do feature young, fit, ticklish men -- the company calls them “fitness models” -- ages 18 to 25, but they keep their clothes on and promise “very high pay, no adult content ever.”
But the filmmakers allege that Jane O’Brien Media’s practices are not all so innocent. They interviewed former participants, one of which was named TJ, who said he was paid thousands of dollars for appearing in the videos.
In the “Tickled” documentary, TJ tells the filmmakers he eventually had a change of heart while purusing a football career and asked Jane O’Brien Media to take down the videos featuring him. He said the company turned on him after YouTube took the videos down at his request, sending the videos to the high school where he coached.
“He was a football player so they had sent emails to coaches that were looking at recruiting him,” Reeve told “Nightline.” “They sent emails to a school where he was coaching kids, suggesting that he was an out gay tickling fetishist, which I mean it wasn’t true. It was an effort to punish him for dropping out and for not wanting to come back.”
Jane O’Brien producer Kevin Clarke said he shot videos of TJ and doesn’t condone what TJ says happened to him, but insisted he personally had nothing to do with it.
Clarke has launched a website rebutting the “Tickled” documentary point by point. He accuses the documentary producers of paying for interviews and coaching interview subjects.
Clarke posted an interview with one of the tickling models, Jordan, who appears in the “Tickled” film. Jordan has since recanted his story in the documentary and claimed he was coached. Clarke also put “Nightline” in touch with several other tickling models who told us they had a good experience with Jane O’Brien Media. All said the site was not sexual in nature and that it was “easy money.”
“What I do is no more related to porn or soft-core porn or any of the things it’s been called,” Clarke said. “It is not connected in any way.”
One of the documentary subjects, David D’Amato, is taking legal action against the filmmakers, accusing them of defamation and invasion of privacy.
“I was at a film festival a couple months ago in Missouri,” Farrier said. “I was at a filmmakers function and a woman tapped me of the shoulder and said, ‘Are you David Farrier?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ presuming she wanted to talk about the movie and she said, ‘You’re served,’ and handed me two lawsuits.
One of the big questions at issue with Jane O’Brien Media is who owns it.
The filmmakers allege that it’s owned by D’Amato, who served time for computer fraud in connection with tickling videos. In the documentary, there’s a scene where they confront D’Amato in Long Island.
“The conversation was short and didn’t contain any useful information,” Reeve said. “He basically just threatened us with legal stuff.”
“The M.O. of this person is to intimidate,” Farrier said. “Mainly defaulting back to the legal system and so straight away it was threats of, ‘What visa are you here on, the INS is going to hear about this, you’ll be deported.’”
“Because of those lawsuits I’m kind of restricted in even what I can talk about,” Farrier continued. “Everything I saw that’s out there, it just comes back on me in the form of more lawsuits so, like literally, limits what I can say.”
D’Amato was also spotted at the Los Angeles premiere of “Tickled” and spoke at a Q&A session. He declined “Nightline’s” requests for an interview.
When asked if D’Amato was connected to Jane O’Brien Media, Kevin Clarke said, “No, not to my knowledge.”
“That doesn’t mean he isn’t, but not to my knowledge,” he added. “The person I work for would have a much better idea to tell you. I don’t ask my boss who his boss is or who he’s working for. I have no knowledge and I do, like anyone else in the world, have non-disclosures of what I can and can’t talk about, but the answer about David D’Amato is no.”
Clarke put “Nightline” in touch with his boss, a man named Louis Peluso, who says he's the owner of Jane O'Brien Media and who also insisted D’Amato had no connection to Jane O’Brien Media.
The “Tickled” filmmakers say they stand by their film and believe there is a connection with D’Amato.
“We work in television in New Zealand. We don’t have a lot of money and suddenly we’re being faced by these lawsuits," Farrier said. "We have this film behind us and it is telling a lot of truths that haven’t been told before and that gives us, I guess, more power.”