The week of May 31, 2015

Comedy’s not just for professionals anymore

By Jesse Hicks

About a half-decade ago, Andrew Keen published a book called The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the Rest of Today’s User-generated Media Are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values. As you might guess from that hyperbolic mouthful of a title, Keen worried that professional media—newspapers, movies, and magazines in particular—were being destroyed by competition from cheaply produced, freely distributed, and in his mind, universally not-very-good work from amateurs. We were awash in user-generated crap, and soon we would all drown.

Keen’s jeremiad had a kernel (wink) of truth to it, though he probably convinced fewer people than he’d hoped. Luckily, though, his words vanquished all amateurs (from the Latin amator “lover”—amateurs are people who do what they love), and our professional media was saved. Just kidding! That didn’t happen. And while Keen fretted about a looming cultural apocalypse, other commentators responded by declaring the return of the age of the gifted amateur, or the golden age of the amateur, or some such.

We were awash in user-generated crap, and soon we would all drown.

Yes, they argued, the technological changes that so worried Keen had already begun to crack the foundations in the wall between professionals and amateurs, and it was the latter who were going to benefit. With inexpensive means of production (laptops, smartphones, GoPros) and distribution (blogs, social media, YouTube), the talented ones could rival the professionals. Soon you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Keen’s book appeared eons ago in Internet time, but of course, we’re still grappling with questions about professionals versus amateurs, talent versus access, how to get paid for what you love to do, and myriad others. Keen was right to note that most cultural products are not very good, but that’s always been the case; there were never a hundred Shakespeares just hanging around being unparalleled geniuses. What Keen really seemed worried about, though, was de-professionalization: that there would no longer be any (primarily monetary) credentials to indicate who and what is worth your time and attention.

Well, as we know, that ship has sailed. Scroll through your social media feed and you’ll see professional, paid work nestled coyly (sheepishly, even) next to amateur, user-generated content. And it all looks the same, with only residual brand-awareness separating one from the other. How often do you know whether the stuff that consumes your time is professionally produced? How often do you care?

How often do you know whether the stuff that consumes your time is professionally produced? How often do you care?

What does all of this have to do with comedy? I’d argue that comedy has proven itself the most adaptable form for our age of the amateur, when production is cheap and easy and distribution is (virtually) free. Prestige drama has taken over basic cable, becoming so ubiquitous that New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum declared this “the age of TV triage”—it’s impossible to watch every critically lauded show. But as Ryan Carey points out, those shows are expensive to produce; meanwhile, it’s short comedy that owns the online world, from Funny or Die to BuzzFeed to YouTube. Even ephemeral Snapchat has its own comedy subculture.

And it’s no coincidence that as online comedy has ballooned, Netflix—not quite a legacy media company but not quite an upstart, either—has begun to produce standup comedy specials. By offering comics artistic freedom and a little money for production, it’s differentiating itself from both the old-guard Comedy Central (which demands a final cut) and newer venues like YouTube, where most content is free and most revenue comes from ads. Netflix offers comedians artistic freedom and a guaranteed paycheck while helping them build an audience. (Of course, Netflix isn’t the only option: Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster successfully transitioned their WFMU radio show into a great podcast.)

This suggests a couple of things. First, that comedy is as adaptable as the people producing it. And second, that Keen’s bright line between the professional and the amateur was probably never as clear as he wished. As that line blurs, options multiply, and comedy, like everything else, is finding its way.

Photo via John Davis/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)