Nets take note as the cultural impact of online comedy dwarfs old media
Divide the domestic gross of Adam Sandler’s “Grown Ups” ($162 million) by the average price of a movie ticket in 2010 ($7.50), and you figure roughly 22 million people saw the year’s No. 1 live-action comedy. Not bad, until you compare that to the number of YouTube streams the “Bed Intruder” bit has generated on YouTube since August: 44 million. On a good night, “Saturday Night Live” scores about 7 million viewers, but that’s nothing compared to how many have clicked the “Dick in a Box” sketch online: 24 million on YouTube alone.
The numbers say the Internet has become the place where coveted young auds get their comedy fix today, dwarfing blockbusters and must-watch TV, but there’s a world of difference between the analog apples and Annoying Oranges (367 million views) of old and new media.
Angry cats and sneezing pandas don’t really count (despite their staggering 125 million combined streams). They are to short-form Web comedy what “America’s Funniest Home Videos” was to scripted sitcoms, proving the enduring appeal of caught-on-tape mishaps. But the rest is changing the way industry pros create and package comedy.
“We’re seeing a move from long-form to ADD-style comedy,” says Darrin McAfee, senior VP of digital at Molotov, a division of Levity Entertainment Group. “I’ve got two people on staff who all they do is search for who’s the next Jon Lajoie or the next Bo Burnham. We monitor closely what ‘virals’ and what doesn’t, and almost without exception, long-form isn’t playing in any shape. You have to be funny immediately.”
According to Andy Samberg, “Saturday Night Live” didn’t know what they were getting when they brought him and “The Lonely Island” sketch buddies Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone onboard as writers. “They hired us without any knowledge that we did short films, but they’re always looking for pre-taped stuff,” he says. “One of our first off weeks, we shot a short video,” and that sparked the “SNL’s” Digital Shorts series — reliably the show’s most-watched sketches online.
However broad the appeal of a YouTube fluke like “Charlie Bit My Finger” (255 million, not counting spoofs and spinoffs), Samberg believes that “there’s more room for comedy connoisseurs online” — meaning crazy, outside-the-box experiments have a chance to find an audience. And whatever legitimacy working for “SNL” may bring, Samberg thinks of groups like the Gregory Brothers (the crew behind Antoine Dodson’s “Bed Intruder” remix) as kindred spirits. “The ‘Auto-Tune the News’ guys have been doing it for a few years now, and they get a pretty consistent following. The main difference is we are told that we have to do one every week,” he says.
After that initial broadcast airing passes, their work ends up competing for the same eyeballs online. “The beautiful thing is that if one doesn’t hit, who cares? It’s not like you’re banking on ‘Due Date,’ and if it doesn’t live up to the expectations and marketing budget, people don’t get paid,” McAfee says. “Our phrase is, ‘Fail fast.’ On the Web, if you do something and it’s a dud, people move on quickly and it’s forgotten.”
But the thing about the Web is that even when things catch on, chances are they will soon be forgotten. Will people still be discussing Antoine Dodson in 12 months? Is anyone talking about Judson Laipply today (despite the popularity of his “Evolution of Dance” video, with its 157 million views)? It’s as if Andy Warhol’s 15-minutes prediction has been collapsed to 15 seconds online.
“You have to think that our shows’ place in the zeitgeist is that they’re unavoidable in your daily life,” says Comedy Central’s digital guru, Erik Flannigan, who bolsters the reach of “The Daily Show” by posting the best bits online. “If you’re under 18, nine times out of 10, your water-cooler conversation is about something on the Web. For me, in the sixth grade, it was staying up late enough to watch ‘SNL.’ For my son, it’s a Miley Cyrus parody video by somebody I’ve never heard of.”
According to Flannigan, Comedy Central conducted an immersion study with college and post-college guys that yielded two surprising facts. “First, when they hang out, multiple screens are always on. They’re collaging everything together,” he says. “And second, they liked shows that tried and failed. No word has become more popular in America than the word ‘fail.’ To me, that’s the epitome of this found humor movement.”
The paradox of viral content is that you can’t necessarily plan what people find funny enough to pass along. Witness the 38-second “Best Cry Ever” clip, which has been seen by more people (12 million) than the A&E “Intervention” series from which it was pulled. But nets can aid the process by making the raw material available, then allowing it to take on a life of its own.
“The marketing department is always suggesting, ‘Send it out virally,’ but I tend to think, ‘This is America. They’re going to find it if they like it, and they’re going to excerpt it and pass it around,” says Adult Swim honcho Mike Lazzo, who likens the attention-deficit, channel-surfing way people consume media online to one of his own comedy icons.
“Monty Python’s thing was, ‘And now for something completely different,’ and that became such a cornerstone for modern comedy,” he says. Whereas most “SNL” sketches go on too long by contemporary standards (to say nothing of their track record with features), Lazzo’s philosophy is, “Make it shorter, speed it up,” to the extent the network is commissioning 11 1/2-minute shows where half-hours were once the norm.
“Robot Chicken,” which originated as a Web series for Sony Screenblast, delivers some of its sketches in seconds, and “Family Guy” has mixed up the old sitcom formula by introducing blackout gags — self-contained little flashbacks or asides played simply for a laugh — resulting in densely packed episodes that keep distracted viewers engaged.
“Comedy has always lent itself to abbreviated bites,” Lazzo explains. “Cartoons started as short-forms. You don’t want to see 30 minutes of Daffy Duck. It’s just more potent in shorter doses. But as writing became more cerebral, things stretched out. I think the Web has been a genius equalizer in terms of getting to the point.”