WINONA — Jeremy Littel will be the first person to tell you he doesn’t fit the mold.

The 42-year-old Winona man is still trying to fully grasp the fact that he’s a TikTok star. His two accounts have nearly 8 million followers combined, with 4.9 million on the account where he reacts to his sons' jokes and 2.9 million on his personal account, where he tells jokes for an older audience.

“I say, ‘Well, why the heck do you want to see me?' Because anyone can tell these jokes,” Littel said. “And my friends will go, ‘No, it's because of you.’ ”

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Since downloading the app in September 2019, he's gotten paid sponsorships and been paid to shoot videos at resorts or on hunting trips. That's in addition to his "regular job" of running his company, Kickass Beef Jerky.

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But Littel said he’s not on TikTok for the fame or the money.

“My hope for doing all of this is to bring a smile and a laugh on someone's face that may not have gotten that from any other place, and if I have that, then I'm doing it for something,” he said.

'Holy crap'

Littel’s father, Charles, started Kickass Beef Jerky in 2001 using old family recipes. A few years later, Jeremy moved to Rochester for college, and Charles and the company followed. Jeremy joined the business in 2010.

“We went from a $500,000 company to a $1.2 million,” Jeremy said of his first year.

He eventually moved the company to a warehouse in Goodview, where he's been running it from since. While it continued to do well, he realized he was missing out on marketing opportunities.

On a family vacation in Mexico, he noticed a difference at the pool. Those who appeared to be 25 and older were in the water and hanging out, and those under 25 had their heads down looking at their phones.

Jeremy Littel watches a TikTok video after creating one with his son Dominic, 6, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at their home in Winona. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Jeremy Littel watches a TikTok video after creating one with his son Dominic, 6, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at their home in Winona. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

At the time, he didn’t have social media accounts besides Facebook, but he knew that needed to change for his company.

“I made a promise to myself that I'm going to go home and post on Instagram three times a day,” he said.

He kept that promise, and slowly grew the account, and sponsorships along with it.

“I had NASCAR driver Spencer Boyd approach me and wanted to do some sponsorships,” Littel said. “I had world record-winning jet skier Anna Glennon approach me, and I became good friends with both of them, and I started sponsoring them and growing, and then I had met a guy that was really big in with people from the outdoors … I figured this is my pitch, and this is what we’re going to do. This is how it’s going to help me grow.”

Anthony Littel, 9, and his dad Jeremy create a TikTok video on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at their home in Winona. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Anthony Littel, 9, and his dad Jeremy create a TikTok video on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at their home in Winona. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

After a year and a half, the Kickass Beef Jerky Instagram account had about 18,000 followers.

“I thought it was amazing,” he said.

He discovered even more untapped potential on social media on a fishing trip in Red Wing in August 2019. On that trip, he went catfishing with a few YouTubers who post outdoor and fishing videos.

While reeling in a catfish Littel caught, one of them posted a video on TikTok called "Kickass catfishing."

“It went viral,” he said. “And he calls and he said, ‘Jeremy, you’re funny, you need to get on TikTok,’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, what do I do?’ ”

He posted his first video to TikTok in mid-September, and it went viral.

@jeremy_littel

I’m sooo ready to hit the ice! It’s time for some hardwater fishing. ##hardwater ##pike ##icefishing ##tipup ##minnesota ##kickasslife ##summersover

♬ original sound - Jeremy Littel

“I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is so much bigger than what Instagram is doing,’ ” he said.

Over the next few months, Littel posted his first “Littel Johnny” video, where one of his sons, 9-year-old Anthony or 6-year-old Dominic, would tell him a joke and he would react to it, as well as hunting and fishing videos. They all went “mega-viral” and received millions of views, he said.

By Christmas 2019, he had about 600,000 followers on TikTok. At the time, TikTok accounts were getting banned, so he created a second account where he would post old “Littel Johnny'' jokes from his original account. Within three days, the backup account acquired 150,000 followers.

Around the same time, Littel started getting burned out with TikTok. The work that goes into creating new content was starting to take the fun out of it, and he thought about calling it quits.

Then he received a private message from a young fan that changed his outlook.

“A kid said that he wanted to commit suicide,” Littel explained. “He was going to watch my videos that day, and on the fifth one, he was going to kill himself, and it made him laugh so hard that it made him realize it's not worth killing yourself. That gave me a purpose. That gave me a reason to do what I'm doing."

Jeremy Littel and his son Anthony, 9, create a TikTok video on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at their home in Winona. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Jeremy Littel and his son Anthony, 9, create a TikTok video on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at their home in Winona. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

'Ding, ding, ding'

Most of the sales Littel makes through Kickass Beef Jerky come from convenience stores and bars — around 80%.

When the pandemic hit the U.S. last year, his sales dropped to the point where he wasn’t sure if the business was going to survive.

“We lost all of it,” he said.

Around the same time, in April 2020, his TikTok account reached over 1 million followers. At that point, he hadn't used either of the accounts to advertise for his business because he wanted to keep that separate.

He had to try something, though. He was running out of options, and it was only the second month into a pandemic that shut down the country and showed no signs of stopping.

On April 23, 2020, Littel made the video he hoped not to have to make.

“I went on there, and I just kind of had a heart to heart,” he said. “I said this is who I am, what's happening, and if you like jerky, check it out. If you know somebody that does, then can you pass on the information?”

Within 10 days, his business was essentially saved.

Littel watched as order after order came through, as if he'd just rolled 7's from a slot machine on the Vegas Strip.

“It was just ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding,” he said.

He was shell-shocked.

“I have seen it time and time again ... we can do some amazing things by the power of the algorithm on TikTok," he said. "I never say it’s an app; I say it’s a family.”

'Make that one person smile'

Once Littel's account hit a million followers, sponsorships started coming in. He was overwhelmed by brand reps asking him to promote their products.

“They’re like, ‘What do you charge?’ and I’m like, ‘Dude I have no idea,’ ” he said.

Jeremy Littel and his son Anthony, 9, create a TikTok video on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at their home in Winona. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Jeremy Littel and his son Anthony, 9, create a TikTok video on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at their home in Winona. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Around the same time, he noticed his views declining on his backup account, so he had another epiphany.

“I know that there's still a lot of kids on TikTok,” Littel said. “So I was like, I should have my kids tell the little Johnny jokes that are not so raunchy as if it was happening to them. ... So I just started integrating that.”

In December 2020, his backup account became his main account. He had 1.6 million followers going into the month, and 4.7 million come the new year.

When you see the Littels make videos, it looks simple, but you also get why they work. The boys are charismatic, putting their own spin on the jokes. And Littel comes across as the fun-loving dad who laughs at their jokes when mom isn’t in the room.

“I like making the videos," Dominic said. "My dad tells me to do it, then I do it right and he’s proud of me.”

Littel doesn't know how long the formula will last, but he’s going to keep riding the wave as long as the boys still enjoy doing it.

That wave may have gotten him his own “Duck Dynasty-like” reality TV show with his Kickass Beef Jerky employees. He’s been in contact with a casting director and is currently working with a “really well-known” producer who found him on TikTok.

Anthony Littel, 9, and his dad Jeremy create a TikTok video on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at their home in Winona. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Anthony Littel, 9, and his dad Jeremy create a TikTok video on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at their home in Winona. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

“We have to put together the ideas and everything for eight shows. Once we put them together, they get sent out to the networks, and they kind of bid on them,” he said. “We’re, right now, thinking of episodes … It’s going to be like a Duck Dynasty meets the Midwest kind of thing. It’s going to be a lot of us at work and just thinking of crazy things we do and how we banter.”

But the lifestyle of a famous TikTokker isn't always as it seems, Littel said. The grind of running his business while continuously creating new content wears on him at times. He added that having success on the app creates doubt when a video doesn’t go viral.

“You start thinking, ‘What’s wrong with my content?’ ” he said.

The internet trolls take their toll, too.

“I’m 42 years old. I’m 5-foot-4, and I’m a chubby guy,” he said. “People will take your faults and just throw them at you. You could have 5,000 amazing comments, and one person can say something, and I don’t care what anybody says when they say they don’t read them. Yeah, you do.”

But when his days wind down, he remembers the reason he’s on TikTok in the first place.

“I'm doing this to make that one person smile, pick that one person that is still my sole reason for doing it,” he said.