The week of May 31, 2015

Inside the fleeting world of Snapchat comedy

By Dave Infante

How do you laugh online? It’s a weird thought, right? You don’t laugh online; you laugh in real life (IRL), then convey your laughter by typing in LOL (or LOLOLOLOL, or whatever.) Or at least, that’s how it used to be.

These days, IRL LOLs are hard to come by. We consume the Internet on our phones, in public settings where it’d be awkward to burst out with an actual belly laugh. So we retweet instead of slapping our knees; we comment “DEAD 😭😭😭” instead of actually crying or dying of laughter when we see a funny Instagram. We do this stuff because part of comedy—a big part—is being “in” on the joke, even if you’re not actually physically laughing at it.

On Snapchat, you are in on the joke, which is why I think the app is poised to change comedy for the mobile age. To learn more about how, I contacted a few of the platform’s funniest power users to chat snap. (GET IT?! Yeah, that was terrible. Moving on.)

While not professional comedians or actors in the traditional sense, these three—Sara Hopkins (handle: SayHop), Shaun McBride (Shonduras), and Michael Platco (mplatco)—are lucky enough to make a living creating funny content on Snapchat and other platforms. (Disclosures: I have warm professional relationships with all three sources. I have never used Snapchat or any other social media platform as a source of revenue, though I do have a moderate following on Snapchat.)

Here’s what I learned from their collective wisdom, tossed in there with a few of my own observations on the genuine comedic opportunities Snapchat offers its users and viewers. (Direct quotations have been lightly edited for spelling and grammar.)

Unparalleled intimacy

Comedy—sketch, improv, and especially standup—is based on connection and risk. Real-deal chuckles demand a personal bond between performer and viewer that’s forged over a shared vulnerability.

Snapchat, with its relatively siloed user experience, fosters that sort of quasi-private connection like no other app can. There’s no comments section, horizontal sharing function, view count, or really any overt signal that a Snapchat story is being viewed by anyone other than you. That’s crazy-personal. You can’t help but feel like you’re in on the joke; the act of watching the snap story is being in on the joke.

The act of watching the snap story is being in on the joke.

Sara Hopkins, 24, picked up Snapchat in college as a way to send her roommates funny faces without taking up memory on her phone, but she quickly realized its relationship-building potential. With around 580,000 Vine followers, 34,000 Twitter followers, 12,000 YouTube subscribers, and just 35,000 Snapchat viewers per snap story, Snapchat isn’t her primary platform. Still, she says, “[Her] Snapchat followers continue proving themselves to be the most active and the most loyal” consumers of the North Carolinian’s sassy, sharp-tongued, short-form comedy.

Michael Platco agrees. “I think it’s the app’s intimacy” that makes it so powerful for humor. “It’s a very private app, when you think about it,” says the 26-year-old, who claims to have around 100,000 Snapchat followers.

Platco makes a living consulting with and creating social media content for brands. “I can’t tell who follows who and no one can see who I follow. I’m not even 100 percent sure who is following me to an extent. I think this makes the stories more personal,” he says.

What you see is what you get…

Reality is crucial, and Snapchat’s near-real-time video and lack of filters make the platform ideal for jokers comfortable in their own skin.

“IT’S REAL,” exclaims Shaun McBride, a 27-year-old former snowboard salesman from Utah, via email. “The content hasn’t been perfectly curated and Photoshopped […] Sometimes you just wanna see what the world is really like through the eyes of a friend.”

Twitter and Instagram don’t obligate such a raw perspective for the audience. On those networks, jokes can be filtered and obfuscated; they can feel like finished products, disconnected from their creators. YouTube and Vine have the opposite problem: Those platforms’ audiences can be hyper-familiar with stars, but their content is more edited, polished, and finessed.

Snapchat videos, by contrast, have a grainy, imperfect look that fits their status as ephemera—who cares, it’ll disappear anyway! This liberates snappers to focus on being funny, rather than relying on post-production effects. And a Snapchat story is inherently about right now.

“It’s real life and what’s happening in the moment,” says McBride. A Vine can be saved for later—popular Viners often bank up content and release it months later—but Snapchat’s official app doesn’t allow that. This limitation strengthens the bond between the snapper and viewer. It’s an implicit promise that what you’re seeing is something close to the real-life personality of the snapper.

…Unless you can draw something else

The glorious exception that proves the rule is Snapchat’s unique illustration feature. With a barebones, MS Paint-esque interface, the app allows creators to draw whatever they want over their photo or video. Most people (including me) suck at this. But when you’re good—really good, art school good—there’s no limit to the visual comedy you can make.

Snapchat, with its relatively siloed user experience, fosters that sort of quasi-private connection like no other app can.

Platco and McBride are both really good at Snapchat illustrations (the former actually did go to art school). They’re part of a growing cohort that’s leveraging its sketching talent into elaborate narratives and delightful punchlines. For example, this collaborative “boxing match” storyline, which the two illustrated simultaneously on their individual accounts. You might say… their punchline… was literal. (Sorry. I’m so sorry.)


The opening rounds of Plato and McBride’s boxing match

Despite being an obvious addition to standard photo or video, illustration still has to be done within the app. So when you’re watching incredibly detailed cartoon boxers pummel each other on your feed, you know that the art wasn’t created by a graphic designer or a team of cartoonists. You’re seeing the genuine artistic ability of a snapper being put to a hilarious end.

• • •

So what’s the future look like for Snapchat comedians?

Despite the incredible talent on the platform, even the funniest snapper can’t go viral without an outside boost.

“I WISH I COULD JUST FOCUS ON SNAPCHAT and people could organically find me within the platform,” laments McBride. (He’s a BLOCK CAPS kind of guy).

For now, Platco says, “there’s no ‘trending’ or ‘featured users’ element to the platform yet, so [snappers] have to rely on those features elsewhere in social media.” For this reason—plus the fact that content can’t be linked to, as Snapchat lacks a Web component—the current app probably won’t attract legions of comedy hopefuls.

Still, Hopkins sees a silver lining. Star power on the app is harder to come by, but more valuable than flash-in-the-pan YouTube fame.

“Anyone who’s created an audience base exclusively from Snapchat really has something special,” she says.

Dave Infante is a writer living & working in NYC. Follow @dinfontay on Twitter and Snapchat.

Illustration by J. Longo