The week of May 31, 2015

How fast, cheap, and online became the new king of comedy

By Ryan Carey

When critics talk about a new golden age of television, they almost always mean drama. Stories with gritty anti-heroes have ruled for a while now, from The Wire and House of Cards to Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Episodic dramas practically force us to binge-watch; after all, no one wants to be the last to know what happened to Zoe Barnes.

But comedy is different. The pleasure of a laugh is different from the pleasure of an absorbing drama. With comedy, we may not be perched on the edge of our seats waiting for a cliffhanger ending to resolve. We’re not gossiping about characters the way we psychoanalyze Frank Underwood.

And the way we watch comedy is different. We give ourselves over to drama—the binge-watch—but these days, comedy steals its way into our lives in spare moments, via a smartphone when we’re trying to forget how long we’ve been sitting in fluorescent-lit waiting room at the DMV. We may not all be talking about comedy the same way we do drama, but we’re sharing it: Funny or Die skits, YouTube clips, vines, and BuzzFeed videos. That’s why even if drama earns all the prestige, it’s comedy—short, free, widely distributed, and produced by semi-professionals—that really reflects the way we live now.

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We’re all members of fragmented, overlapping audiences. It’s easy to forget that shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, even as high-gloss cable dramas, had regular audiences in the low millions. Comedy audiences can be even smaller, and with online distribution, you might not even know where Bill in the next cubicle is getting his LOLs. Comedy is subjective, as it’s always been, but with more avenues for distribution, it’s easier than ever to reach even a niche audience. Not everything has to be a network blockbuster.

For every television pilot hoping to get picked up, there are dozens and dozens of independent webseries.

For example, there’s a webseries created by television editor/producer Gregory Fitzsimmons called Jon and Jen are Married. Wife Jen is deep in an existential funk, and husband Jon tries to keep up with her weird midlife crisis. The three-minute episodes are deeply twisted, and the laughs per minute are as high as you can get from the deliberate pacing and style that pays more tribute to Wilfred than the punchline-shrapnel of 30 Rock.

Episode one has 781 views. Episode two has 384.

These numbers seem low, and considering how funny the understated series can be, they are. But in some ways that’s to be expected; there’s just so much out there to watch. For every television pilot hoping to get picked up, there are dozens and dozens of independent webseries vying for the same scraps of cubicle distraction or delivery over the laundromat Wi-Fi.

BriTANicK has been killing it with hilarious video sketches like this one since 2008, and even produced a 15-minute ‘movie’ called Eagles Are Turning People Into Horses.

As we all know, brevity is the soul of wit. And while hour-long dramas mean to immerse us in a whole world, online comedy is content to briefly distract us from this one. That means short pieces that can be squeezed into our already over-scheduled lives. We don’t necessarily watch them together—no Mad Men-style viewing parties—but by ourselves, in spare moments. Then we share them on social media.

Broad City is a perfect example. You may have seen Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s mind-bendingly funny series on Comedy Central. The two UCB alumni, championed by Amy Poehler, ran a webseries of the same name before it was snatched up for syndication. Their Web shorts, while not quite as honed as the sitcom, were clever and brief enough for you to actually watch and then share with something like “This is like my girlfriend and her best friend!” on your social media of choice.

Creators aren’t risking much. The no-budget, DIY ethos of online comedy makes relentless production possible.

Being able to do short work with free distribution lets comedians experiment—the worst that can happen is a collective “meh” from the Internet. Comedian Pete Holmes’ online series of Batman spoofs helped get him a show on TBS, right after Conan O’Brien. The experimental, hit-or-miss nature of his comedy never really found a television audience; the show was canceled despite O’Brien’s personal support. But on the Web, Holmes is still free to experiment with discrete skits, each of which has potential to find its own audience. His hits are undeniable, and the open marketplace of the Web allows him the freedom to take those chances.

Even when experiments don’t work, creators aren’t risking much. The no-budget, DIY ethos of online comedy makes relentless production possible. Six episodes of Luke Giordano’s DoomWizard were made for $5,000, and that ran nearly a third over-budget. Young writers and actors don’t even need to quit their day jobs to produce Web content. Adrianna DiLonardo, Sarah Rotella, and Zach Murray produced their viral “Gay Women Will Marry Your Boyfriends” (over 6 million views) on the side while working their “trying to make it in Hollywood” nine-to-fives. Their absurdist webseries The Unsolicited Project was actually about their L.A. show-biz day-jobs. They’re now working on a feature film—and with a proven audience, they’re turning to Kickstarter to fund it.

Short, cheap, and amateur: It sounds like a recipe for the perfect environment to demonstrate Sturgeon’s law. And yes, if you took “online comedy” as a broadly defined category, you’d find much of it is unimpressive. But so is most mainstream comedy. Online comedy at least opens the gates to people who are passionate about what they’re doing—and who just might have some talent. It’s that vaunted “democratization” we’re always promised when it comes to technology.

Online comedy at least opens the gates to people who are passionate about what they’re doing—and who just might have some talent.

And there are webseries with real pedigree that are moving comedy forward as an art form. Drunk History proved to be such an inexpensive and persistently funny format that, in addition to a Comedy Central deal, it spawned a new genre of comedy. Two now-married Philadelphia comedians sent out a hilarious drunk history of their relationship as their save the date.

Meanwhile, Hollywood A-listers have noticed the potential—and the fun—of online comedy.  The awkward-interview talk show Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis has featured the incumbent president of the United States, while Burning Love—Ken Marino’s Ben Stiller-produced parody of The Bachelor, made exclusively for Yahoo and now syndicated to Hulu Plus—is jam-packed with established and upcoming comedy stars.

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Both can offer escapism, whether it’s through immersing us in another world (drama) or offering a welcome distraction from this one (comedy). Today, we carry distraction machines around with us all the time: tiny screens into which we can peer when we’re bored or tired or hungry or in need of a laugh—that pure, physical release from the present tense. And online comedy provides it, without asking much more than our momentary attention. It offers something weird and funny and unexpected, and we get a laugh. We’re uplifted. Then we can put our phones back in our pockets, steel ourselves, and return to the world.

Illustration by J. Longo