Donald Glover's Comedy Origin Story: Revisiting Derrick Comedy
Donald Glover might be an entertainment superhero. As an actor, rapper, singer, writer, comedian, director, and producer, he is the consummate Renaissance man - a jack of all trades, master of… well… all of them? As Atlanta ends its third season, it feels fitting to go back to where it all began for the show’s creator and star – not on an alien planet, not in a chemical factory with slippery handrails, but in an NYU dorm with a group called Derrick Comedy.
When the artist who would later be known as Childish Gambino was a student at the NYU Tisch school of the arts, he started the sketch group Derrick Comedy with his friends Dominic Dierkes and DC Pierson. The trio wrote and filmed some of the most wild, crass, and creative video sketches of the dawn of the modern internet.
Derrick Comedy launched their YouTube channel in 2006, less than one year after the founding of YouTube itself. Together, they filmed many of the defining viral videos that built the content platform into what it is today – if you were in high school around that time, you might remember hits such as “Keyboard Kid”, “Opposite Day”, and “National Spelling Bee” getting passed around on AIM like mono at bible camp.
Donald Glover was arguably the first of many stars to make the jump from Internet Celebrity to Actual Celebrity, blazing the trail from YouTube to the writer’s room of 30 Rock, to a starring role on Community, to a wildly successful music career, to film, to directing, to producing, to— well– anything. Is there anything Donald Glover can’t do?
Donald Glover’s meteoric rise started at the beginning of internet content as we know it, back when Amazon was a bookstore, when Myspace existed, and when YouTube was a place to see Janet Jackson’s nipple if you missed it on TV. His story is the story of internet content itself, and it all started with Fraggle Rock.
Derrick Comedy started strong, releasing four straight videos in early 2006 of Donald Glover dubbing over the intro to children’s shows with vaguely musical rambling. They followed their debut with “Care Bears: Alternate Theme Song,” “Bananas in Pyjamas: Alternate Theme Song,” and “GI Joe: Alternate Theme Song.”
For our younger readers – back before algorithms dictated what content was seen by the masses, word of mouth and email forwards were the only way to share anything. And in those days, taking a widely recognized TV show and replacing the audio with your own random mumbling was the absolute funniest thing you could do on the internet. If you haven’t seen Fenslerfilm’s GI Joe parodies, feel free to jump headfirst down the rabbit hole.
As Derrick Comedy evolved, it expanded into longform sketches in the style of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, a theater where all three members of the group had trained. These showcased Glover’s on camera talent as a comedic chameleon:
The comedic sensibilities expressed in these sketches ranged from silly to shocking, and many of them are not fit to be reposted in the social climate of 2022. In fact, many of the titles are not fit to be repeated. Those who are curious can explore the archives of their YouTube channel.
When YouTube was acquired by Google in October of 2006 at a valuation of a whopping $1.65 billion, the hefty price tag was in no small part due to the success of viral videos created by channels like Derrick Comedy. The skyrocketing popularity of the website propelled certain content creators to the forefront, and early internet stars such as Smosh, Philip DeFranco, Shane Dawson, and Ryan Higa began laying the foundations for what would be long and successful careers on the platform.
YouTube got so popular in the first two years of its existence that by 2007, YouTube traffic alone took up more bandwidth than the entire internet did in 2000.
And in those early years of YouTube, Donald Glover and Derrick Comedy were busy.
Donald Glover starred in fifteen different sketches for Derrick Comedy in 2006 alone. The videos were hits, amassing view counts in the hundreds of thousands to millions at a time when only the most popular videos broke into seven digits.
That same year, Glover caught the eye of 30 Rock producer David Miner who hired him to join the writing team for the first season of Tina Fey’s hit sitcom. Donald would go on to write for the show for three seasons from 2006 to 2009, occasionally appearing as an extra:
Even though Donald was already an Emmy winning television writer at 23 years-old, he and Derrick Comedy continued to make some of the dirtiest, edgiest, grossest sketch videos on YouTube. Donald made another seventeen videos with the group in 2007, including but not limited to “Jazz Man”, a tasteful take on jazz musicians in the Jim Crow South.
The channel blossomed alongside Glover’s TV career, and in 2009, Donald had his first starring role in Community, Dan Harmon’s quippy, idiosyncratic, and intricately crafted cult hit that still has us begging for six seasons and a movie. This would be his first big break – the fan favorite and perennially in peril NBC sitcom was the perfect vehicle for an internet sensation turned TV star.
His co-creators Dominic and DC made numerous cameos on the show over the course of Glover’s time on Community.
Community was a cultural phenomenon for the internet era, with fans of the show so fervent that they started an online petition to get Donald Glover cast as the new Spider-Man. His growing web presence led to him self-releasing two mixtapes in 2008 and 2009 under the moniker of Childish Gambino, famously chosen from an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator.
Even with his star rising in music and TV, Glover remained dedicated to Derrick Comedy, and in 2009 they began to experiment with higher production value and longer, slower sketches:
With Donald Glover’s celebrity growing as a TV star as well as a musician, it was time for Derrick Comedy to set their sights higher. They attempted to outgrow their YouTube platform in 2009 when the group produced their first and only feature-length film, Mystery Team.
Mystery Team was a film starring Glover, Pierson, and Dierkes as the three members of a group of child detectives in the vein of the Hardy Boys. The trio delve deep into the seedy underbelly of their idyllic town as they try to get to the bottom of a double homicide.
Fitting Derrick Comedy, the film was equal parts whimsically stupid, and shockingly nihilistic. It also marked the feature film debut of numerous comedy juggernauts such as Aubrey Plaza, Ellie Kemper, Ben Schwartz and Bobby Moynihan.
Mystery Team opened at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival before having a limited distribution in the US. It sadly failed to garner enough interest to recoup its initial investment, grossing just $90,000 on a roughly $1 million budget.
Derrick Comedy stopped filming sketches after the conclusion of Mystery Team. Dierkes and Pierson both began writing for different TV shows while Glover continued his career trajectory towards multi-platform superstardom.
Mystery Team was the conclusion of a four year project between a bunch of college friends that inadvertently launched one of the most prolific and multi-faceted careers in entertainment. Donald Glover is still one of the most famous people on the internet, and many in his fanbase have been watching him grow from behind their screens since he first opened up iMovie in 2006 to record a fake intro for Fraggle Rock.
While Derrick Comedy no longer creates content together, Dierkes and Pierson have continued to support Donald Glover’s career from behind the scenes. They both watch Atlanta, and they think “it’s so Donald”.
After self-releasing his debut EP in 2011, Donald Glover’s hip-hop career erupted into what is now one of the most widely known and influential acts in music. He is one of the most critically acclaimed musicians, writers, and actors of our time. Oh, also, he did end up playing Spider-Man. A literal superhero.
Donald Glover’s journey to the top is completely unique to any Hollywood success story, besides maybe Bo Burnham’s similar rise from the internet to mainstream artistic success. Donald and Derrick Comedy created online content long before there was a clear path to monetization, back in the wild west of YouTube where nothing was sacred, everything was allowed, and nobody had any clue how huge and culture-shifting the platform would become.
Many points in Glover’s career arc serve as milestones for the merging of internet content and traditional media. Nowadays, it’s completely ordinary for an internet content creator to make the jump to mainstream media and enjoy success on TV or in the music industry, but that wasn’t always the case. Someone had blaze the first trail. Those early internet creators showed the potential of these platforms that we now take for granted, and none were better rewarded for their work than Donald Glover.
Every superhero has their origin story. Superman has Krypton. Iron Man had a cave with a box of scraps. Donald Glover has Derrick Comedy, and about 4,000 fart jokes.
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