Oh boy, has it been 3 weeks? I’m so sorry! I normally let readers know if there’s going to be a period of time without a new newsletter, because I usually know those periods are approaching, so apologies for disappearing into the ether without warning. I didn’t anticipate quite how busy I’d get in June, and it’s been very nice and fulfilling but now I’m finally back to carving out some time to write some Therapy Tape-worthy thoughts! I hope you’ve all had a nice, busy, rewarding few weeks in the meantime too.
This week, it’s time for some thoughts on Instagram reel culture and how it’s shaping the comedy landscape, and whether that’s a good or a bad thing! Yes, I’ve written about my feelings regarding online comedy before, and I’m aware I’m a bit of a broken record on the subject.
“We get it!” You cry. (Don’t cry!) “You feel simultaneously anxious and pressured to embrace the technological advancements of online platforms and the way they’ve democratised the comedy landscape, and also conflicted and resentful of it because it homogenises the comedy landscape and marginalises the kind of comedy you grew up watching. That’s how everyone feels, shut up or fade away, Grandad.” Yeah yeah yeah, I will, I am shutting up, don’t worry, I get it, guys.
Have they gone?
Ok, I think they’ve gone.
So before I shut up for good, please permit me to write another lengthy blog post on the subject!
Nah, seriously, though, last week Andre De Freitas wrote this really interesting opinion piece for Chortle about the subject, and I wrote this thread off the back of it, and it seems to be an active conversation within comedy at the moment, so I thought I’d give myself the opportunity to explore my feelings on it in a little more depth than Twitter allows, having read a wide range of different takes on it and spoken to a bunch of people about it – those who love making reels, those who hate them and have nothing to do with them, those who make them but do it resentfully, etc.
I think empty nostalgia is pointless. I think “Comedy has become so homogenous and risk-free that it would be impossible to make Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace today,” while perhaps a fairly accurate assessment of the current comedy landscape, doesn’t really achieve much as an attitude. It’s really not that different from John Cleese going “You could never make The Life Of Brian today because everyone’s so woke,” which I hope we can all agree is a dogshit attitude.
Yes, most of my comedy peers and I grew up at a time when mainstream comedy was embracing risk and trying unusual ideas and that mindset resulted in landmark pieces of TV like Garth Marenghi and The Mighty Boosh and Peep Show and Flight Of The Conchords and [insert your favourite mid-00s comedy show that “probably wouldn’t get made today” here] Yes, the creative industries have pivoted away from risk in the 2010s and 2020s and that results in the feeling that original, authentic, unusual ideas are given short shrift in favour of stuff that looks like an easy money-maker on paper but is devoid of heart or spirit (*cough*, most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, *cough cough*) – see this brilliant thread by Milo Edwards in response to my thread that explores this transition in more detail.
But do you know what? Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared exists. Stath Lets Flats exists. The Change exists. Taskmaster exists. Colin From Accounts exists (not a UK show, to be fair, but I think the BBC bought it. Does that count? I dunno). The point is, heartfelt, authentic, meaningful, original comedy does exist. Maybe it’s harder to come by. Maybe the creators of it had to fight for it more than they would have done 20 years ago (isn’t this a kind of patronising attitude in itself? Are we suggesting Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade just farted Garth Marenghi out and didn’t fight for it? Are we at risk of glorifying the artistic struggle of our generation and thereby undermining the efforts of the comedy heroes of the previous generation that we claim to idolise?) But the suggestion that great comedy shows simply aren’t being made any more simply isn’t true.
My point here, really, is that a lot of the narrative around the emergence of reels and the short-form “contentification” of comedy focuses on nostalgia – “The process and experience of being a comedian is different from what it was when I was growing up!” – and that’s basically an unhelpful attitude. Rather than looking to the past, I think the fundamental job of someone in the creative industries is to look at the future, decide what they want it to be, and then do that. It’s as simple as that.
So I’ve no intention of pigeon-holing myself as a nostalgic, sentimental fool who thinks any and all change is bad. There are people doing really interesting, inventive, weird stuff with the reels format (Ed Night and Paddy Young are making really great, weird, stupid sketches, like this one, for instance).
“This would NEVER get made today!” – Everyone in comedy around my age
But! But but but! Cognitive dissonance is a thing, and human beings are messy and contradictory, and I do think a lot of the discourse around reels since Andre’s article has exposed the dangers of that culture of short-form, algorithm-driven “content creation.” Quite simply, a lot of the comedians I’ve spoken to who are really good at making reels of their comedy work and are successfully using them to build up an audience that they can hopefully drive towards their other projects, actively hate making reels. I think there’s a real danger in sleepwalking into a creative culture that entraps comedians into a life and a job they don’t enjoy. Nobody asked us to do this. If we allow our job to slowly morph into something we derive no pleasure from, then we really do have nobody to blame but ourselves.
Another thing that’s become clear since Andre’s article is that the most commonly repeated mantra of why the explosion of online comedy – “It’s democratised the comedy landscape!” – is a bit of a myth. The constant pressures of the algorithms, the way they demand people to post daily to maintain engagement, cause intense anxiety and burnout among those who choose to play the game, and effectively transform comedians into one-person production houses. They not only have to write and perform material, they then have to shoot, edit, promote, market themselves, etc etc. Inevitably, those who are going to get the most results out of this landscape are those who have the time at their disposal to take on this enormous workload while they’re building up an audience. Overwhelmingly, who are the people who have access to such large reserves of time? It’s our old friends, the independently wealthy! The idea that online comedy and short-form content busts the comedy industry wide open and lets anyone have access to the same opportunities is true to an extent – at least it makes things less London-centric, for instance. But the idea that it completely dismantles the traditional hierarchies whereby those who already operate from a position of privilege have greater opportunity than those trying to work their way into the industry from the very bottom is completely untrue (and I say this as someone with a bucketload of my own privilege, I’m well aware!)
And I think my biggest concern is that the extent to which we’re constantly exposed to this kind of short-form content, and the way algorithms select and curate a certain kind of content that becomes popular (“What do you do for a living, sir?”) makes it harder than ever for people trying to make creative work to imagine outside of the boundaries of what they’ve seen to be popular elsewhere. As Jamie Demetriou and Diane Morgan pointed out at the BBC Comedy Festival in Cardiff in May, the best way to respond to a popular piece of art is to make something completely unlike it, so that what you make is more likely to have the spark of authenticity within it, but the rapacious hunger of various algorithms makes it harder than ever before for people to discard what they’ve seen has proven popular elsewhere and follow their own instincts towards that wonderful sweet spot of thinking “You know what? I’m gonna make what I’m gonna make.”
Is there a solution to all this? No, not really. I think discarding everything that online culture offers us and clinging to the past is as pointless as throwing all our weight behind the bandwagon of whatever the latest creative trend is is dangerous. Is it important to keep discussing the various merits and drawbacks of any emergent trends within the creative landscape? Yes, absolutely, I think so. I don’t really know what my personal response to it all is. When an idea pops into my head and I think “Oh, that could be a fun thing to film and put on social media,” I tend to film it. When I find myself thinking “I should try to think of an idea to film and put on social media,” I know that no good will come of it, and the best thing I can do is go away and work on one of my long-form projects instead.
When I see people like Ed and Paddy using the reels format to do something that genuinely surprises me and makes me laugh, I’m absolutely delighted. When I hear about people who are doing well making reels but don’t actually enjoy it, it makes me sad. It makes me think of what an odd year I’ve had having stepped away from the Edinburgh Fringe. I made a new Fringe show more or less every year for the best part of a decade, always hoping I would one day end up writing my own sitcom. Then last year I thought “Hang on – I should just write my own sitcom,” and it’s been a very strange, fascinating, rewarding, sometimes painful, elucidating year as I find out what it feels like to really go after the thing you want rather than always trying to move sideways in the hope it will move you forwards. I guess my question is (and here I hope I can make this very comedy-industry-centric newsletter apply more broadly to the lives of my readers):
What do you want your future to look like? Are you trying too hard to make it look exactly like your past? If you let go of that, then can you see what you really want it to be? And if you can see what that looks like, then what’s stopping you from doing it?
Final side-note – I’ve spent much of this year working on a comedy-drama script about the pursuit of happiness and it was longslisted for the David Nobbs Memorial Trust New Comedy Writing Award! I’m really proud of this and just wanted to shout about it, because sometimes a nice thing happens and you want to take a moment to feel good about it. If any readers within the comedy industry are looking for new scripts or projects and would like to take a look at it, do let me know!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – The brilliant Tom Little has made a webseries about anxiety with amazing prodco Daddy’s Super Yacht, co-starring a wealth of talent including Jain Edwards, Chris Cantrill, Mark Silcox, Celya AB, Roisin O’Mahony and many more. I saw one episode screened a few weeks back at Adult Film Club, and the full series launched this week. Give it a watch and support the making of cool new stuff!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I just finished The Rehearsal by Nathan Fielder, which is a MASTERPIECE. I have immediately placed it in my pantheon of “Greatest pieces of creative work I’ve ever seen,” alongside the theatre show that changed my life in 2014. There’s a visual gag in the final episode which made me scream with laughter, ten seconds after I had been sobbing at how beautiful and painful the whole thing was. It’s fuuuuuuuuucking brilliant, please watch it if you haven’t.
Book Of The Week – The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker. This is the sequel to The Golem And The Jinni, which I read earlier this year, and I just love the world of it so much. It’s about a golem and a jinni living in early 20th century New York, and the way their contrary natures – one made for a life of servitude who has lost her master, one made for a life of freedom who has been imprisoned – lead their lives to intertwine. It’s a beautiful pair of books.
Album Of The Week – Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones. Never got into the Rolling Stones. Listened to the hits, thought they were a bit boring. Finally decided to listen to them properly and go through the albums. Beggars Banquet is rubbish. Let It Bleed is fine. Sticky Fingers is really good. I guess they’re ok.
Film Of The Week – No Hard Feelings. This isn’t a masterpiece (and I think hasn’t been very well received?), but it was such a breath of fresh air I didn’t even care, I just had a blast with it. I can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema and saw a fun, breezy, mid-budget comedy. It’s not based on an existing IP! It’s not an arthouse film aiming for awards and acclaim! It’s just…a fun story? With funny charming characters? More of this please, much much much more of this, inject it into my veins.
That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you thought, and if you enjoyed the newsletter enough to send it to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d really appreciate it. Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS The rose garden in Regent’s Park is popping at the moment: