As an aspiring comedian, I believe that now is simultaneously the best and worst time to be a comedian. The onslaught of new technologies has brought with it a new media landscape and thus new outlets for comedians to create work, but it has also brought with it a host of problems.
Let’s start with the good. In short, the good thing about technology and comedy is that nowadays there are far more outlets for comedians to create. There is twitter, youtube, blogs, and more. There seems to be no end to the amount of public, readily available, ways for comedians to get their work out.
But therein lies part of the problem. When comedy is everywhere how do you, as a consumer, wade through the bullshit? How do you, as a comedian, distinguish yourself from the bullshit? With all the focus on entertainment and technology in our society there seems to be more opportunity yes, but when there’s more opportunity more people will want a part in it. Being a comedian, putting things on the internet is a lot like being an actor in LA. Sure there’s more opportunities than anywhere else, but everyone there is trying to do the same thing as you. This is just one of many problems that arise with comedy and the internet.
There is also the problem of material showing up online. Comedians live by their material. Their job is to point out things that people haven’t noticed or thought of, but most importantly things people haven’t heard. If a comedians material gets online and he’s not making money on it he’s losing business because people are hearing it for free. Comedian Hannibal Buress not only had a potential joke ruined by having it posted online, he also had a career long shadow come with it. Buress made a joke about Bill Cosby and his various rape allegations, which were until then an industry secret. The video went viral and, well you’ve read the news. While Bill Cosby seems to be, and deserves to be, the ultimate loser in this scenario, Buress now has to live with the stigma of being “The Bill Cosby joke guy”. Now this isn’t as bad as say, being Bill Cosby, but it’s still annoying. So Buress recently teamed up with a company called Yondr to ban cell phone use at his shows (http://www.avclub.com/article/hannibal-buress-has-found-way-stop-people-using-ce-219627) . Yondr doesn’t block cell phone coverage, it simply locks your phone in a sock-like container that needs a special device to be opened. Dave Chappelle has also employed Yondr at his shows(http://www.ew.com/article/2015/12/02/dave-chappelle-cell-phone-pouch-yondr-chicago).
When material ends up online it can cost more than just an annoying stigma. Just ask Michael Richards, the actor and comedian who played Kramer on Seinfeld. At a show at the Laugh factory in Los Angeles he became fed up with the audience and used the N word in retaliation. Cameras caught it and it wound up on the internet, in a damaging career hit (http://www.thefrisky.com/2013-11-28/kramer-from-seinfeld-explains-that-racist-meltdown-he-had-while-doing-standup/). Now this was a moment of anger, not a bit, but many comedians have had to deal with their material or jokes living on in the internet.
Current Daily Show host Trevor Noah knows about twitter and offensive comedy. When it was announced that he would take over the Daily Show for John Stewart most of the show’s young, liberal audience was excited about the future of the show. Noah was, after all, a young multiethnic South African host would surely present an interesting worldview and bring diversity to the airwaves. But not long after he was announced people went digging into his twitter feed, and came back with some skeletons. In his history on twitter Noah had tweeted jokes regarding jewish people, overweight women, and more (http://time.com/3764913/trevor-noah-twitter-backlash/). Noah apologized and everything pretty much went away, but for a while it looked like his new job might not be his at all.
In our age of blogging, hot takes, and outrage culture, it’s sometimes difficult to be a comedian. A comedian’s job is, after all, to think of funny things others wouldn’t. Sometimes people don’t think of these things cause they’re edgy or possibly offensive. Sometimes the comedian thinks something might be funny and the audience doesn’t. He has a bad show and maybe updates his act. But now that failed attempt at a joke might end up online, and lead to the comedian being condemned as a racist/sexist by people who do most of their art from behind a computer and not in front of a hostile audience. (I don’t have time to go into my feelings on these people, but I will clarify that I do not support Donald Trump and I think there’s a difference between being politically correct and being a dick). Such instances have somewhat calmed down since Donald Trump gave people something new to be mad about on the internet, but there was a point at which Jerry Seinfeld received media criticism for even mentioning that people were too politically correct (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/jerry-seinfeld-political-correctness-will-800912), which is kind of ironic considering Jerry Seinfeld has some of the cleanest jokes around.
There are clearly some times when a joke might not be in the best taste or even be offensive, but these trial and error instances are part of a comedian’s journey and craft. Comedy is a subjective art that relies entirely on the audience. Comedians go on stage with jokes they think and hope are funny, but they won’t know until they audience responds. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s all part of the game. What the internet has done is raise the risks of an already risky endeavor and it can sometimes limit what a comedian is willing to try, which is damaging to their craft.
So today there are a million voices on the internet trying to be funny, and as a comedian you have to distinguish yourself, but also not be rub anyone the wrong way while doing so, and also make sure that only what they want to end up on the internet ends up there. It sounds like a hopeless endeavor, as though trying to be a comedian wasn’t hopeless enough, but the internet has also been the saving grace of many comedians.
From Youtube sketches to humor sites to podcasts, the internet has given comedians new ways to express themselves and find an audience. I’ve already written in my last blog about writers who have gotten hired from their twitter accounts. This kind of thing happens more and more now a days. Improv and comedy podcasts allow comedians a full range of possibilities for humor. Comedy Bang Bang, hosted by Scott Aukerman is one of the biggets comedy podcasts, and after giving hilarious performances, often playing more than one character at a time, comedians can plug their work and their audience grows.
And that’s the most important part, an audience. While the internet and technology can sometimes be harmful to comedians and their work, it also gives comedians this one thing they need. I know that if I write a blog post, or make a video and put it on facebook it has a greater chance of being seen than if I kept it to myself or showed it to friends privately. And when people like it, in addition to a sense of pride and satisfaction, I know that I’ve made someone laugh, and by extension made someone happy. And if I don’t get likes, well I made it, and I had fun making it.