A curse, and a blessing.
A plague, and a lifeblood.
A death knell, and a resurrection.
Given that I'm currently in the throes of all things comedic during the 32nd annual Just For Laughs Festival, I was challenged with the question: "What's the role of YouTube for the next generation of comedians?"
The three lines atop this post comprise the wildly divergent answer I will now try to justify without too much vilification. So...
At its best, YouTube is the Garden of Eden; not only for the next generation of comedians, but actually forming the next generation of comedians. It's way more than just a promotional tool.
At its worst, YouTube is the ruthless Angel of Death, and perhaps for an entire comedic genre...namely, stand-up. Gulp.
We'll start with the bad news.
A couple of years ago, in an interview for Wired Magazine, I defined comedy as "a function of two parts familiarity and one part surprise; F2S, if you will." A great joke takes you on what seems to be an expected journey, then jerks you around just when you think you know where you're going. Without the unknown, without the surprise, a joke doesn't exist.
Regrettably, YouTube eliminates a joke's surprise. Well, not specifically YouTube itself, but let's face it, that's where much of the material surreptitiously captured on smartphone cameras eventually ends up being seen. And seen. And seen again.
Smartphones are recording everyone, in tiny basement clubs to major concert halls, and in the process, puncturing comedy balloons before they're fully inflated, weakening the punch in every oft-viewed punchline.
Naturally, this outrages stand-up comedians (see articles here documenting the hardships of Chris Rock and Patton Oswalt to name just two), and many in the field's upper echelons have resorted to hiring squadrons of in-room spotters, looking to extinguish a smartphone's telltale glow...and/or those causing them.
This situation is far from ideal, and is only going to get worse.
The paranoid in me envisions future stand-up shows resembling the fascist rally scene in the Pink Floyd film The Wall, but ultimately, any further attempts at stronger policing are merely closing the proverbial barn door after the horses have fled the stable. If it's not the smartphone, it'll be Google Glass, or the something else about-to-be-invented that will be way less conspicuous and exponentially more powerful at capturing, and circulating, the live performance. It may not be seen as "progress," but you sure can't stop it.
Which means that stand-up has got to adapt...or face oblivion. (I have many theories on how, but that's for another post.)
So, envision the worst case scenario: say pirate video kills the stand-up star. Does that mean comedy dies with it?
Far from it. Despite its seemingly frivolous forward face, comedy is one tough cookie. On a showbiz level, it survived the death of vaudeville only to roar back stronger than ever. More profoundly, it has helped millions get through hardships, be they personal or political. It may struggle and morph, but it will never die.
Which brings me back to YouTube. Comedy is killing it there big-time. And what's working best takes advantage of YouTube's factors of:
Pranks and pranksters are huge (including Just For Laughs' Gags channel, with over 4,000,000 subscribers). So are eccentric people simply talking to their rabid fan base. Most promising is that the low barrier to entry allows infinite experimentation...which will lead to new breeds of humour analogous to the medium (and to its increasing mobile use).
I remember a sobering trip to Los Angeles a couple years back where I discovered the parallel universe being driven by unconventional YouTube-friendly digital comedians, NONE of whom I had ever heard of before. During my meetings in traditional Hollywood--along Santa Monica or Wilshire or Sunset--we talked about "digital comedians," but they were merely savvy analog acts who had a grasp of digital tools like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like.
Once I ventured "below Highway 10" so to speak, the homeland of pure video plays like Maker Studios, Fullscreen and their ilk, I was exposed to a whole new breed of off-beat creators who didn't care about the old rules, and considered the intrusion of cameras a friend rather than a foe.
And today, that dividing line is blurring rapidly.
- Grace Helbig, namesake of YouTube hit Daily Grace, has been anointed one of Variety's 10 Comics to Watch, a list that in the past has brought initial attention to the likes of Jenny Slate, Amy Schumer, Lewis Black, Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis and the aforementioned Patton Oswalt.
- The massively popular Epic Rap Battles of History is being featured in full-page ads on the backs of old-school magazines like Entertainment Weekly.
- Net content pioneer Chris "Nerdist" Hardwick is now the host of Comedy Central's mega-hit, "@midnight."
- One of my childhood heroes, Weird Al Yankovic, is using YouTube to launch eight new videos from his new album (they still make those?) over eight days.
- And if you think Orange is just the new black, you should meet The Annoying Orange, a cloying crossover megastar of web, TV and merchandise.
This is why, at this year's Just For Laughs, my number one priority is welcoming the new-breed YouTube comedy stars to the event, and ensuring that they don't merely meet their more traditional brethren and sistren, but find a way to collaborate with them...and change the humor industry.
For the better.
And undoubtedly, in a most surprising way.