Verbatim Online Comedy
First up, thank you for all your replies last week on the subject of happiness. It was the most replies I’ve ever received to this newsletter, and I will get round to replying to them all, this week is just a little bit hectic. They were also some of the most honest and beautiful responses I’ve ever had, and I really want to thank you all for sharing what you did with me. I was quite overwhelmed by it. Part of my reasoning for starting to work on a project about happiness is because I keep being told that people want to hear stories that are uplifting right now, and not bleak, and I think a story about happiness itself could be timely. Your replies have helped me to believe in this all the more – I think happiness is a really powerful idea that enables real honesty and intimacy, and I’m excited to continue exploring these themes.
Anyway, onto this week’s idea, which is about online comedy. I’ll be the first to admit it – I have a complicated, messy relationship with online comedy. I often claim to not really understand it, and that it isn’t a medium I’m very interested in, and yet that claim doesn’t really stack up against my actions – I do actually make quite a lot of online comedy content myself, and find myself talking about it a lot, and trying to figure out how it works. I often defend that stance by saying things like “It’s an important tool for building audiences and keeping active, so I put stuff on it when an idea occurs to me,” but Miranda often ends up calling me out on that. “If it’s just a useful audience-building platform to keep half a toe in as and when you think of something that fits the medium,” she’ll say, “then why do you keep talking about it as though it’s a problem to be solved?” Why don’t I just use it when I want to use it, forget it when I don’t want to think about it, and move on?
I’ve had trouble figuring out what the answer to these questions is until last week, when I chatted to the amazing Bec Hill about the subject. At last week’s ACMS, Bec roped me into helping her film a meta “Comedian destroys heckler” video. I think Bec and I share an interest in using the tropes of online comedy to subvert the purpose of online comedy (I made my own meta “Comedian destroys heckler” video a few years ago, with a completely different joke and premise to Bec’s, but we’re clearly interested in the same principles). Afterwards, I was trying to explain to her why I keep circling around the medium of online comedy and trying to get my head around it, rather than just accepting it as an area of comedy I’m not an expert on, and concentrating on what I’m good at, and she shared a theory on it that developed my understanding of the whole thing hugely. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on it with you all this week!
One of the things I find fascinating about online comedy is that, on a fundamental level, it seems to operate in a way that is opposite to everything I know and understand about how comedy works. While it’s unfair to reduce an entire medium to one broad generalisation, and I know there are plenty of examples that don’t fit this pattern, I think that if you were to take an overview of all the online comedy content being put out on social media at the moment, the thing it’s overwhelmingly doing is reflecting people’s everyday lives back at them exactly as they are. It’s the “This is so true!” model of comedy, to the extent of people making sketches which, it appears to me, take the form of verbatim renditions of everyday conversations and interactions exactly as they happen. Often there’s very little in there that subverts or twists reality and takes it to somewhere you don’t expect, it just shows you what life is like, and that seems to be what people enjoy about it. I mean to say this as an observation rather than as a judgement or a criticism – I can see that this stuff is often very well-written, but perhaps the reason I find it difficult to wrap my head around is because my understanding of comedy is that it presents you with a “What if?” I like to feel like what I’m watching has imagined something I couldn’t possibly have imagined, and then to marvel at the idea of that. Everything I try to make tends to emerge from a central place of “What if this?” A lot of online comedy, it seems to me, just says “This,” and its audience goes “Yes!” It’s not that one is good and one is bad, it’s just that the two are opposite impulses and I find that really interesting.
y This is my favourite of the attempts at online comedy I’ve made over the last few years, just as an example of the kinds of things I HAVE been trying to make when I engage with it.
History Repeats Itself
What Bec pointed out to me is that my understanding of what comedy is has emerged from a comedic education formed at a specific time – shows like The Mighty Boosh and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace creating surreal, logic-defying worlds on TV, comedians like Stewart Lee twisting the conventions of stand-up to make them eat themselves, and so on. And she shared her theory that the development of online comedy actually mirrors the development of live comedy over the last hundred years or so. When online comedy started, it generally took the form of big-budget, full-scale productions, like the Lonely Island’s sketches, or the sketches made by production houses like Funny Or Die. This approach mirrors the fact that, at the start of the 20th century, live comedy largely took the form of music-hall or variety routines, which were highly rehearsed, scripted, and produced. Now, online comedy has developed into a period where the ability to do it has been put in the hands of people who don’t have access to big production budgets, and in doing so has come to reflect everyday life exactly as it is, just as observational stand-up developed from the 1950s in America through to the 1970s and 80s in Britain. Then, anyone could get up at a comedy club and talk about their own everyday life in a way that was thrilling and relatable to the audiences that could identify with it.
Maybe the next step is for online comedy to morph again so that it reflects the development of alternative comedy in the 80s (still don’t really know what that phrase means, to be honest), then of meta comedy and anti-comedy in the 00s, and so on. (Side note – obviously these dates are rough, I realise people like Andy Kaufman existed, I’m just thinking of ballpark dates for when these concepts were embraced as part of the accepted shape of comedy, rather than being fringe concepts pioneered by isolated outliers). Maybe eventually online comedy will become interactive enough to reflect the boom of clowning in the 2010s, though quite how you’d do that I’m not sure.
I really liked this theory – that the reason why I keep circling back to online comedy and looking at it and thinking “But this doesn’t work the way I understand comedy to work” is because it’s currently following a pattern for humour that live comedy, the medium that formed my understanding of the subject, no longer resembles. Quite what this new understanding will do for my attitude to online comedy going forward I don’t know. I’d like to think it will help underpin exactly that attitude that Miranda keeps trying to get me to adopt – to make something when I have an idea worth making, and other than that to stop going on about it or trying to understand how it works. But for now, I thought it was a really interesting model for looking at what’s happening in that corner of the comedy world at the moment, and I hoped some of you might enjoy it too. Let me know what you think!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Rosie Holt’s NonCensored podcast, on which I occasionally guest as Keir Starmer or Nick Clegg or other centrist saps, has been nominated for an Aria Award! Huge congrats to Rosie, Ed, Brendan and Eshaan for doing so well with it, it’s a pleasure to be a small part of it.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – A moment between Tom and Greg in the latest episode of Succession. I love Succession so much that I would hate to have anyone’s experience of it spoiled by my saying any more about it, but if you’ve seen it I’m sure you know which bit I mean.
Book Of The Week – Reading Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi. This is a memoir about a book group Nafisi set up in Iran in the mid-90s with her students, and the ways the books they read mirrored and reshaped their experiences of life during and after the Iranian Revolution. It’s brilliant.
Album Of The Week – Sound Of Silver by LCD Soundsystem. This is a new band who emerged a a couple of years back, who I’ve just gotten round to listening to. I think they’re going to be big!
Film Of The Week – Not seen any films this week. Saw Rye Lane a couple of weeks ago, though, and forgot to mention it on here. It’s very sweet, and worth a watch.
That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know your thoughts, and if you enjoyed the newsletter and would like to send it to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Here’s me on a film shoot this week, playing the role of a bad, out-of-work actor trying to convincingly portray an Old West prospector. Art imitates life.