Past and Future Market for Web Comedy

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I’ll be posting for IMR next week and only now realized I should have been posting on MediaCommons for years now! By way of registering my regret, I’ll post something I wrote a couple months ago, a general resource to anyone (non-academics) doing web comedy. (For more about me, go here):

Comedy tops virtually every “best of the web” list. From the top web series, top viral hits and YouTube’s most subscribed. Internet video, in many ways, is comedy.

While major television networks search for new comedy formulas — though we might be seeing more classical sitcoms a la Hot in Cleveland and Big Bang Theory — and while drama and action flicks regularly top the movie box office, the web became ground zero for humor for this century’s first decade.

Will comedy continue its reign from 2010 to 2020? An introductory review of web comedy and some trends to look out for. All this is pretty basic, but sometimes stating the obvious brings more complex issues into focus.

A Brief, Inadequate History of Comedy on the Web

Remember the Dancing Baby? Those were the days. Before we had video — fast-streaming video — we had animated gifs, which were, if we can remember the work of Olia Lialina, fundamental to aesthetics of the web.

Then video came. Most histories start with YouTube in 2005, and I see little reason to break from the story now. YouTube crystallized the kind of spreadable, communal consumption of comedy so easily adapted the Internet experience. Accounts of YouTube’s rise — see Jean Burgess and Joshua Green’s book — start with ‘Lazy Sunday’, a video which propelled the site as much as it made its stars. But was there any doubt ‘Lazy Sunday’ and SNL would do well in America’s then-new web 2.0 environment? In retrospect, no. While the media was awash in reports about the death of television, careful watchers new SNL’s bite-sized sketch comedy were perfectly suited for modest download speeds and short attention spans.

Yet before, following and coinciding with YouTube came a slew of other ventures, from CollegeHumor (1999) and AtomFilms (1998), both of which evolved enough to be bought out by bigger companies. Celebrities came to the web in 2006 with Funny or Die, memes became a brand in 2007 with Cheezburger. Somewhere in there 4Chan decided it would dictate what would both annoy and distract — sometimes, revolt — us.

Why do I put YouTube first? Of all the sites from the early, mid-2000s, YouTube solidified its place as the center for user-generated, and often quite innovative, comedy. From Zipster to Philip DeFranco, YouTube churned out star after meme, some of whom have gone on to fruitful, independent careers.

The Business of Web Comedy

Today it is ever more impossible to take an inventory of web comedy. Needless to say, hundreds — likely thousands — of producers and entrepreneurs, from amateurs, independents and corporations, have invested a lot of time and money betting that, if anyone was going to make money in web video, they would make it by being funny.

Soon after YouTube, a host of sites started hoping to be the “YouTube for comedy.” Some were more successful than others. Infamously, those started by the major networks and companies — Turner, NBC, HBO, — failed. While independent entrants — Break, MyDamnChannel — variously thrived or survived, even as it was never easy.

As the surviving sites solidified their dominance — relying heavily on branded entertainment, as online ad rates were slow to rise — mainstream media companies embarked on a parallel effort to support with their home brands. Instead of trying out new sites, they would produce original content for their primary websites. Networks like ABC and NBC bought up and encouraged original web series intended to drive traffic, series like Voicemail, In Gayle We Trust and Ctrl. These efforts had varying degrees of success, so networks started to realize they could use the web to bolster the bigger screen, TV. Online extras became something of a norm, especially for comedy series: from Ugly Betty’s Mode After Hours, Gossip Girl’s Chasing Dorota, and Psych’s teen series, the web became a place to give fans a little something extra, and funny.

All the while independent producers were reinventing the rules of comedy, through web series like The Guild, YouTube vlogs like Fred and Dax Flame, talk shows like What the Buck, and comedians like LisaNova, Nigahiga and the Fine Brothers. A history of YouTube stars and viral videos is worth a short book. Viral videos became all the rage, quickly commodified by savvy entrepreneurs like Barely Political and FAILblog. Characterized by breezy irreverence, wit, charm and natural polish, YouTube’s personalities utilized slapdash editing and homemade aesthetics to quickly connect and entertain audiences by the thousands, and rapidly, millions. While YouTubers made thousands in ad revenue from their videos — through the site’s partner program — independent web series offered a different view of comedy, moving the conversation away from the CPM-based YouTube model (in which videos simply rack up of views) to one where videos compel users to invest in characters and participate in the narratives. Alongside traditional advertising, they would solicit advertisers to sponsor shows, place products and integrate brands as seamlessly as possible.

TV and Web Comedy

It did not take long for the boundaries between television and the web to collapse. One only need look at the kerfuffle between Hulu and Viacom, with comedy stalwart The Daily Show at the center, to see how deep the connections between the web, TV and comedy go.

Cable networks, including Viacom’s MTV and Comedy Central, and HBO, started to air web programming during their off hours. Comedy Central in particular showed a zeal for such crossover deals, with shows like Secret Girlfriend getting screen time. As noted by Tubefilter’s Marc Hustvedt, such deals had a mixed history.

“The fate of web series-to-TV isn’t exactly a golden storybook, most notably being Quarterlife’s creash and burn on NBC back in 2007.  MTV hasn’t yet re-upped on its web-pickup The CollegeHumor Show yet which. And speaking of MTV, we’re still waiting on Private High Musical to make it out of development and see that pilot they ordered,” he wrote.

Yet recently, networks like Comedy Central have seen some moderate success with its programming. Atom TV, a showcase of some of the funniest videos on the network’s own site, has run for three seasons, and Atom’s veep Scott Roesch told me the program pulls in a small but marketable audience at an otherwise dead hour in the middle of the night. With that and the success of the site, Atom has been ordering more online independently-produced originals. Meanwhile, Tosh.0, the network’s webby Soup, has been growing its ratings and winning coveted demographics.

Today, there is a small but potentially growing number of web-to-TV conversions, the most recent and well-publicized being Rob Corddry’s Children’s Hospital migrating from to Adult Swim. Lisa Kudrow’s Hulu series, Web Therapy, was picked up Showtime. But this of course isn’t new, In the Motherhood was a web-to-TV conversion, albeit an ultimately unsuccessful one.

All of this is proof of the possibly increasing marketability of web series, as television seeks out cheap programming aimed at coveted young demographics. At the same time, new channels for distribution are opening up, with services like BOW TV (Best of the Web) and DND (DoNotDisturb) distributing content to hotels — a rare free option amid overpriced films and TV shows in hotel rooms. Mobile distribution is opening up with distribution sites like Babelgum, FunLittleMovies, among numerous others. Hulu distributes a number of web originals, as does YouTube, in a separate section, both of which now offer a combine mobile and web distribution potential. Cheap and short-form, web comedy has proven quite flexible.

The Structure of Web Comedy:

The basic anatomy of a comedic video online is somewhat consistent. If we take a cue from the most successful web series, for example, we see short-form, non-narrative, cheap, sketch/animated comedy performs best. As said earlier, was there ever any doubt SNL would thrive in this world?

“It should be short, easily understood, universal, nostalgic,” CollegeHumor’s Streeter Seidell wrote in the New York Times two years ago.

The conventional wisdom for why this works has been the “cubicle theory,” that web content is geared toward individuals goofing off at work. The theory still has  a lot of credence, though it is somewhat undermined by the college set and the increasingly prime time nature of online video viewing.

These space — where videos are watched — and time — how videos are produced — issues are crucial for differentiating “web comedy” from TV comedy, even as the web mimes classics, from Laugh-In to SNL.

From an industrial perspective, the reasons for web comedy’s rise in the 2000s are quite simple. For one, web comedy — as in film and television — is cheap. This fact has a number of side effects. It allows a select number of independent and amateur creators a chance to enter the market, bringing new ideas and a fresh perspective. Because it is cheap, not only do producers experiment, but they also make a lot of videos. There’s a lot of comedy out there, meaning there’s plenty of content to pull from, plenty of videos on which to serve ads and plenty of ideas to help develop new formulas. It also means the risks are low for mainstream media companies to invest in, produce and distribute, both their own and newcomers’ creations. These dynamics are at the crux of many of the connections between the web and television detailed above.

Second, comedy gets the right audiences. As Seidell put it, refreshingly and plainly: “traditional male comedy — the Stooge-ian variety (with fewer restraints now) — translates better online, which, in turn, attracts more male users.” It is no secret the young, male demographic is the most coveted in both film and television — because it most coveted by advertisers — it stands to reason web comedy, the most amenable to this audience, would receive the a disproportionate share of institutional support.

Lastly, with plenty of places to upload videos on the web, the kinds of censorship and dumbing down endemic to television is a lot harder to maintain. More diverse kinds of humor — from the relatively benign YouTube to 4Chan borderline (and sometimes quite obvious) repulsive — can thrive.

There’s plenty of evidence to support this, beyond the obvious taking stock of what is popular. Scholar Limor Shifman, for intance, has a recent analysis of the most popular YouTube memes (the article, presented at the International Communication Association, is in review at a journal), and found “‘bad’ texts make good memes,” meaning the most simple and cheap videos spread the fastest — think of “Charlie bit my finger” and “Chocolate Rain.” Shifman also found many memes contained “flawed masculinity,” i.e. it was funny to laugh at manhood gone awry, exaggerated, failed or inadequate. Of course, virtually all memes, save a few — Susan Boyle and the like — are funny.

The Future of “Web” Comedy

This analysis may soon be outdated. Certainly the legacy of the “web” aspect of web comedy will live on, but the “web,” as traditionally conceived, may not.

Already the promise of convergence seems ever closer. Yes, people have been talking about the integration of the web and television since the late 1990s, associations have been built around it, media forms have arisen because of it.

But in the last few years it’s really been happening. Many people now hook their computers up to their TVs (Netflix and Hulu being predominant gates into programming). Services like Roku and Boxee, themselves years-old, offer services doing the same. Apple TV brought iTunes to your screen. TiVo and other cable providers buy and show web series through OnDemand menus. This year analysts are optimistic about the prospects for Google TV, which promises to merge television and the web — “a potential game changer”. Even the economics once dividing the web and television may be merging. Nielsen is promising to rate online TV watching alongside regular television series.

What does this mean for ‘web’ video? No one is sure. Changing dynamics of viewing could alter the rules of producing online. Short, punchy and cheap may no longer work. The industrial dynamics, moreover, which allowed dozens of amateur and independent creators a chance at careers may dissolve as television merges with the web, thereby re-solidifying the networks’ dominance over content. As a potential sign of the days to come, mainstream-media scion Hulu is winning the ad war over user-generated YouTube (an oversimplification, to be sure).

Predicting the future is a fool’s game. What we can be sure of is the emergence of new forms of humor and new media business models in the first decade of this already exciting century. What comes next? Stay tuned!