How the web showcases bright new comedy stars

14th Aug 2010 | 11:00

How the web showcases bright new comedy stars

Offering up-and-coming acts a platform like never before

Taking your comedy online: keep it short!

Back in the early '90s there was a popular saying that went, 'Comedy is the new rock and roll'. And it's true now, too!

There are just as many, if not more, wannabe practitioners of the comic arts today as there were then. Never before have new comedians been able to show off their work to so many people so fast, and it's all thanks to the internet.

Video websites like YouTube and the many dedicated comedy sites out there have created many stars (sometimes not always on purpose) just through contributors clicking an upload button. As the publicity power of viral emails, Facebook memes and Twitter trending topics has become apparent, more and more comedians are looking to the internet to launch them into the world of mega stardom.

Of course, it's not easy to know what will become popular or how to start out, so we decided to speak to some of the talented figures who have made the web work for them to see what tricks they used to achieve their dream.

Funny business

To start with, we tracked down Nat Saunders, one half of comedy duo Worm Hotel (the other is his writing partner Chris Hayward). They have already made a name for themselves writing sketches for programs such as Big Train and Smack the Pony, and are now using the internet to explore a new direction.

"We blindly started writing sketches and sitcom scripts together," Saunders explains, "not having a clue how any of it worked, but sending them off to names we found on the end credits of our favourite comedy programmes, and were lucky enough to get a break early on. The next few years were spent developing sitcoms and film scripts that, for one reason or another, never made it past the pilot stage. We were getting pretty narked with the knockbacks, and really wanted to perform too, so when the whole Web 2.0 thing happened we decided to learn how to write, produce, film and edit our own sketches and movies, with us in them.

"It's taken a few years to get the hang of it all," adds Saunders, "but now we're making the stuff we want to make, doing everything our way, getting commissions, and we're still able to write sitcoms and sketches for other people too. Which basically means we get about two hours' sleep a day."

So how much has the internet helped them in their careers? "For us, who always wanted to do more than just write, it's been the best thing ever," enthuses Saunders. "We simply wouldn't be able to do what we currently do. We'd just be writers, tapping away in our studies, watching other people make our stuff. Now we can show people our sketches, fully fleshed out, rather than try to dryly explain them on paper."

What advice do they have for anybody who is starting out using the internet to advertise their writing/performances? "Well, the first rule of web comedy is to keep it short," says Saunders. "Sketches need to make their point quickly, or people lose interest. Our earlier stuff was all around the five-minute mark – now we try to get everything below two. It's tricky, but it teaches you about honing your work, slicing the flab out.

Rough cuts present

"Then, get a YouTube channel and a Vimeo channel. Upload your skits and start sharing them on Twitter, sending them to the likes of BBC Comedy Extra, or – places where industry pros are on the lookout for emerging talent. Link them off sites like, comedy forums and your Facebook page, that kind of stuff.

"And pray. Pray your stuff isn't rubbish and that someone influential sees it and wants to know more about you. But, mainly, keep it short. The guy that taught me that, Jon Petrie at Popcorn, is a very wise man."

A wise man once said...

Taking this tip to heart, we spoke to the same very wise man, and found that comedy has been his bread and butter for a long time, giving him plenty of experience to draw on:

"I started out as a runner on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and have been lucky enough to work on shows such as QI, Comic Relief and The IT Crowd. I now work with Ash Atalla (producer of The Office and The IT Crowd) as Head of Online for Roughcut Presents. We work with talented film makers to produce material for the likes of the BBC and Channel 4."

Petrie is also the organiser behind Popcorn Comedy. He explains: "It's a comedy night and website that presents some of the strongest, sharpest and funniest videos online." In a strange reversal of the usual pattern, this is a case of internet culture spawning a live show.

Popcorn comedy

"Our live nights feature the country's best stand-up and character comedians as they showcase their own short comedy films. I started the night with comedian Holly Walsh because we felt that there wasn't anywhere for comedians making films to show their work to an audience and get constructive feedback, rather than the useless 'LOL' and 'That was crap' comments that you'd most likely get from viewers on YouTube."

Since its launch, the comedy night has gained a lot of fans and attracted a large range of impressive talent. Petrie elaborated further: "One of the actors from Spinal Tap (Michael McKean) sent us an email to say what a great idea he thought Popcorn Comedy was, which was very cool. We've been very lucky to have live appearances from Peter Serafinowicz, David Cross, Graham Linehan and Adam Buxton at our live shows as well."

There's no doubt that Petrie believes the internet is a very important part in a comedy performer's armoury: "Comedians are now able to bring an idea to life in more ways than has ever been possible before. They can collaborate more easily with animators and programmers who can enhance their comedy films, and they can try out ideas without industry people telling them that they don't think it's funny.

"We now have a situation where comedians can find an audience for their work on their own without having to go cap-in-hand to industry people. Technology is getting cheaper and easier to use. It's very exciting."

If you want to try it yourself, what would Petrie suggest? "Do it! There's nothing to lose and everything to gain. A good tip for ensuring what you're uploading is funny is to ask people who aren't attached to you or the idea to watch it and see if they think it's funny. When you've spent so long filming and editing something, you'll begin to lose sight of where the jokes were in the first place. It's important to be critical of yourself, because if you're not, everyone else will be. Finally, keep it short! People on the internet have awful attention spans. Use the 'YouTube Insights' tool to work out where viewers are switching off – that might give some useful clues."

Taking your comedy online: spreading the word

Another person who knows a thing or two about online comedy is Tim Clark, Editor of UK site Set up by journalism students in 2007, it's a popular networking site for the comedy industry.

Such small portions

Clark also believes the web is playing a very important role for comedy performers: "As a group, comedians have to be among the heaviest web users I know. Almost all of them have an opinion and they like to share it. I think comedy gets less exposure in the mainstream media than other genres, so blogs, Twitter and Facebook have filled the knowledge gap that exists."

And his advice for up-and-coming comedians? "Get involved with Facebook fan pages - and Twitter can help too. A lot of comedy bookers use YouTube to check out new people, so it helps to get a good clip of your act online and be aware of what your online biography (how you are described) is – and keep it up to date.

"If you get a bad review, don't take it too seriously, but contact the editor of the publication about it and ask to be re-reviewed at a later date. Ultimately, people are more in control of their media message (what is said about them) than at any time since the invention of the printing press – all they have to do is take advantage of it."

The last person we talked to is a man with more power than most to highlight new talent: Martin Trickey, the Multi-platform Commissioning Executive for Comedy and Entertainment at the BBC. It's a role he loves, as he says:

"My favourite part of the job is getting to laugh so much at work." It's part of his remit to find new writing and performing talent that the BBC can nurture and develop online – so how does he do it?

"In a variety of ways," he explains. "Some people come to us direct, sending in scripts or YouTube clips. This is great, but unless they have a production company behind them then it is difficult for us to work with them. Both new media and TV production companies pitch us ideas that we can then commission, and we also spend a lot of time online seeing who is popular and making people laugh."

So how does the BBC use its website to help new performers? "Part of the BBC comedy strategy is to use [our site] to showcase new talent – it's a quick and easy way to get new acts in front of an audience and get a reaction. It works well as we try to make quick decisions and turn things around in a few weeks, or for topical stuff, even days."

BBC comedy

What should a new, aspiring comedian get involved with to get noticed by the BBC? "We keep an eye on YouTube and increasingly Vimeo for clips. I think Jon Petrie does a great job with Popcorn Comedy, so I try to go as often as I can or check out his site. I follow a lot of comedians on Twitter and see who they are talking about, and feeds such as B3ta links are really useful. I keep an eye on viral charts, and website Funny or Die has also produced some outstanding work. Mostly though, I get sent a lot of funny stuff via my email."

So there we have it – if there is one common theme across this entire community, it's that the best way to get noticed in the world of online comedy is to get out there and do something, and not to be put off by knockbacks at the start (or, for that matter, the middle).

The final word should go to Trickey: "The internet has made it possible for comedians to find an audience without a broadcaster or promoter and without being on the circuit for 10 years. I think this is liberating – but it doesn't make being funnier any easier."


First published in PC Plus Issue 297

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