Dying is easy, comedy is hard, goes the old saw. But dying while doing comedy on the Internet is infinitely easier than doing it in front of a nightclub full of liquored-up revelers.
Some comic giants recently expressed reservations about careers that blossom on the Web in Rolling Stone magazine’s comedy issue.
Albert Brooks worries the net creates an immediacy of opinion that doesn’t allow careers to grow. “I think the Internet is slowly going to take down all creativity,” he told the magazine. “You can take any artist in the history of the world … and if you can have widespread opinion on their first time out, you can kill the great spark that makes them who they are … Large amounts of opinion early in an artist’s life is like a cancer.”
And Craig Ferguson believes the Internet has another ill effect for comics. “I think it’s actually bad for performers who are starting out,” he told Rolling Stone. “They’re not getting a chance to fail in private.”
Comedy had indeed moved out of the clubs and into cyberspace with the white-hot intensity of a Lewis Black rant. YouTube may be the big box store of Internet videos, but there are lots and lots of sites that people can go to for a chuckle. Sometimes the comedy comes in the form of rehearsed sketches, sometimes it’s a standup routine, sometimes it’s an improvised skit. They have all found their places amid the reality-based clips of skateboarding squirrels and rapping toddlers.
But is this comic migration having an adverse effect on the comedy itself?
Kevin Pollak started doing standup comedy at the age of 10. He eventually navigated his way through the nightclub gauntlet as a comedian toward a thriving career as an impressionist and actor (“The Usual Suspects” and “Casino,” among many others). He said the response from live audiences was critical to his development, and may be an element missing in many current-day Internet artists.
“I think I agree in theory in terms of what’s missing from comedy on the Internet,” he said. “For me, coming up in San Francisco, it was all about finding my voice on stage in front of an audience. I can’t imagine developing a point of view by just submitting work on the Internet and checking blogs.
“But it’s happening and it’s a new generation.”
New game, but laughs keep on coming
Yet he isn’t pessimistic about standup comedy in general. The Internet may be changing the game, he said, but there is still a cornucopia of gifted performers taking the stage to ply their trade in front of living, breathing humans.
“I think there is still certainly a tremendous home onstage for standup comedy,” he said. “There are lots of workshops where people can find and hone their comedic voices. Amy Poehler came out of the Upright Citizens Brigade, which is still thriving on both coasts.
“There is a new frontier, which is wide open and which people are gravitating to. But I don’t sense the Internet is necessarily replacing anything.”
The Upright Citizens Brigade, with studios in New York and Los Angeles, is one of the hubs for young comics these days. Most of their humor is of the sketch variety. UCB holds classes in improvisation and sketch writing, and has a Web site where its performers can post their own videos.
Neil Campbell, artistic director of the Los Angeles branch, said most comics these days try to diversify and apply their talents both to live shows and the Internet.
“The best videos I see are the ones coming from people who aren’t just limiting themselves to one medium,” Campbell said. “They’ll go and do live stuff. They get the experience of what works and what makes people laugh. If you’re stuck in an editing bay working on a video, you don’t see that response.
“And if people stick too much to live stuff and don’t try to expand and see if they can take what they think is funny and put it on video, they’re limiting themselves as well.”
Spreading the word online
Campbell pointed out that comedy on the Internet is a way to spread the word, and it creates interest in budding comics across a broad landscape who might become inspired to enter the field.
“I went to college in Iowa and I didn’t get to see good improvisational comedy until I moved to Los Angeles,” he said. “It would have been nice to be in college and be able to see ASSSSCAT (the UCB’s weekly improv show).
“I wish there was more stuff like this when I first got into comedy.”
Internet comedy isn’t exclusively the domain of teens and twentysomethings. But if that demographic figured into the electoral college of comedy, it would dominate by a sizeable margin.
Sam Reich is the director of content for CollegeHumor.com. He said standup is less relevant on his site because sketch humor is more conducive to Internet video clips. “Online audiences’ tastes haven’t evolved much from the era of bears dancing on trampolines,” he said. “We still want to see something visually exciting, and standup isn’t that.
“Secondly, standup isn’t one joke, it’s a collection of jokes, which means I’m less likely to forward it to a friend for a specific reason, and therefore it’s less likely to go viral.”
And Reich disagreed with those who say the net doesn’t allow a performer to learn and grow after receiving feedback.
“Online audiences are brutal,” he said. “If our (viewers) on CollegeHumor.com dislike something, they’ll be the first to say that you should have been aborted. The reaction is so violent and immediate that we can really accurately shape our content to please our users. We’ve done that really well over the last few years, going from an average of 50,000 views to 300,000 views per original video.”
In traditional standup, Pollak said, dissatisfied customers — hecklers, if you will — have their place in the comedy dynamic.
“I don’t want to suggest heckling is beneficial because you don’t want to encourage anyone to participate,” Pollak said. “But if you can survive, surviving is character-building. Overcoming an obstacle might help you discover a new bit.”
Reich said that Brooks and Ferguson have a point in one respect when it comes to success and failure. “Online, the SIZE of your audience depends entirely on the merit of your video,” Reich explained. “In that sense, you have infinite opportunities to fail before you succeed. That’s valuable for an artist who is having a hard time finding his niche. You aren’t famous until it’s for a good reason – unless you’re the Numa Numa guy.”
Whether it’s live or on the Internet, performers face the challenge of trying to build an audience at all. Lenny Bruce worked the clubs, and his legend gradually grew. The same was true of Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld and just about any standup who has ever caused or shared a guffaw at the Friars Club.
Now? In some ways, it’s a lot easier to build a following (see Dane Cook). In others, it’s a bear, because of all the clutter.
“We have become such an exhibitionist culture that comedy has been affected by excess and the ubiquity of content,” said Dianne Lynch, dean of the school of communications at Ithaca (N.Y.) College. “The issue isn’t so much about a comic performing before an audience but that the noise is so tremendous out there and building an audience is more difficult than ever.
“It used to be you went to the clubs, you were terrible, but you had an opportunity to grow and learn. You also built a fan base, a consistent audience that looked for your work. The nature of Internet entertainment and YouTube is that celebrity is immediate and fleeting.”
She said many of her students are pointing at careers at places like Disney, or in newsrooms around the country. But many will also seek jobs as independent Internet content producers.
“There’s an incredible awareness among our students and they’re open to possibilities of other career paths,” she said. “The content they most often access and talk about and pay attention to is on YouTube.
“The Sarah Palin impersonation is the ideal intersection of comedy and culture. More of our students say they’ve seen the Sarah Palin-Tina Fey bit online than they did on television.”