What up, Gen Z? As the oldest members of your generation hit their mid-twenties, is it fair to ask where your breakout comedy star is hiding?  

We’ll answer the first part first -- it is definitely not a fair question. Most comedy notables don’t start really revving it up until they get closer to thirty.  And yet, previous generations have all had their share of comedy megastars who broke out before they were 25.  

Prove it, you say?  No prob, Bob.  At the back end of the Baby Boom, we’ll offer one Eddie Murphy as Exhibit A.  By age 20, he was a cast member on Saturday Night Live and credited with saving the dang show. By the time he was 23, Murphy had made 48 Hours, Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop, making him the world’s biggest comedy star. 

Paramount Pictures

Become the Elvis of comedy by the time I'm 23? I got this.

Gen X can offer up comics like Ben Stiller, who had his own show on MTV by 25, and Adam Sandler, hamming it up on SNL at the tender age of 23. 

Broadway Video

The Sandman still dresses like this.

Young, funny Millennials got it done, son. Bo Burnham was a YouTube phenomenon in his teens; by 20, he had filmed his first Comedy Central special. Pete Davidson was 20 when he started on SNL,  Mindy Kaling only 24 when she became Kelly on The Office, and Aziz Ansari was 23 when Human Giant got its own show (though he only busted out for real on Parks and Rec).

Bo Burnham/YouTube

The first comedy superstar to use social media as a launching pad?

And that brings us to Gen Z, the demo that hasn’t (yet) found its famous comedy star. Is this a case of generational bias, old heads holding the younger comics down?  We doubt it -- studios and media companies crave younger demos. They’d love nothing more than Gen Z comedy star.  So what’s happening? There’s still plenty of time for younger Gen Zers to hit it big at an early age, but we think there are at least four frustrating reasons why that’s less likely than it was in previous eras.  

The media landscape has fractured.

Let’s compare comedy to the music industry -- the business looks a lot different now than it used to.  The biggest selling album in 2000, NSYNC’s No Strings Attached, moved nearly 10 million units.  The biggest in 2020, Taylor Swift’s Folklore, sold barely over one million.  It’s just a different world. 

The same goes for comedy.  Social media outlets like TikTok and YouTube are double-edged swords for comic performers.  On the one hand, it’s never been easier for a young comedian/impressionist/sketch group to get their work in front of an audience.  On the other hand, there’s never been more competition for the eyes, ears, and hearts of comedy fans.

Ask ten friends who their funny favorites are on TikTok and you’ll likely get ten very different answers. We’re all at the mercy of the algorithm--who we see in our feeds depends on the whims of mysterious social media gods. That’s a challenge that earlier generations didn’t face -- mass media was truly massive. If you got your own show on a relatively small cable channel, you were more or less famous.  That’s no longer the case. 

The pandemic moved everyone back two spaces on the game board.

We were all there. Wearing masks, avoiding public places, working from home. If you’re a software engineer, maybe that doesn’t do much to stall your career.  If you’re a comedian?  You’re reduced to doing Zoom sets from your parents’ basement and hoping someone drops in.

The pandemic meant nearly two years of not getting discovered in clubs, not getting cast on the next HBO Max comedy, not killing it with a massive set at the Just for Laughs or Edinburgh Festival Fringe comedy showcases. 

So who knows? Maybe that 22-year-old Gen Z comedy star was on the verge of breaking through in 2020 but that career got paused until some semblance of normalcy returned.  The next few years should tell us if it was a global pandemic that was holding back a funny person. 

The movie business gave up on comedy. (For now?)

Eddie Murphy got those three comedy blockbusters under his belt by age 23.  Today, we’re lucky to get three comedies in movie theaters in a given year.  You could possibly blame this on the pandemic as well, but the trend was underway a few years before Dr. Fauci told everyone to stop shaking hands.

One superpowered culprit is Marvel, the big-screen behemoth that obliterates smaller films at the multiplex.  But we’re pointing the finger at the studios, mindlessly releasing comedies like Jo Koy’s Easter Sunday in the middle of August. What the heck was Universal thinking?  Yeah, the movie only took in $5 million on its opening weekend (against a $17 million budget) but who’s going to an Easter comedy at the end of summer?  

Easter Sunday is part of the movie studios’ self-fulfilling comedy doomsday prophecy: Only greenlight a handful of big-screen comedies; dump the ones you make in theaters at a time when they’re destined to fail; then throw up your hands and say “See? No one wants to see comedies anymore.”

Headlining a movie blockbuster is one of the surest paths to becoming a star.  But if there are no comedy movies, it follows that there can be no comedy movie stars. 

The networks gave up on sitcoms. (For now?)

In earlier generations, television sitcoms were star makers.  In the 1970s, Welcome Back, Kotter propelled John Travolta into movie stardom. In the 1980s, Family Ties did the same for Michael J. Fox.  More recently, Parks and Recreation introduced the world to Chris Pratt -- no Guardians of the Galaxy if Pratt doesn’t get established in Pawnee first.  Mike and Molly and The Gilmore Girls made the world safe for Melissa McCarthy to mess her dress in Bridesmaids. See where we’re going here?

Hit situation comedies (or any situation comedies) are hard to find in 2022.  This past season saw moderate hits in Abbott Elementary and Ghosts, but neither were buzzy enough to launch a superstar. (Any of your friends texting you late at night to see if you caught that crazy episode of Abbott Elementary? Yeah, we didn’t think so.)

Networks have bailed on sitcoms for this coming season as well. Fewer TV comedies than ever mean fewer breakout opportunities for young comedy stars. Another roadblock for Gen Z comics on the rise.

So here’s the good news: There will be hit comedy movies again. And once the Gen Z version of The Hangover or Superbad makes a bajillion dollars, the other copycat studios will rush to make more. Same with sitcoms -- once someone creates the Gen Z Office, a tsunami of situation comedies will follow.  And it’s inevitable that a TikTok comedy star will find widespread fame. Our money is on the next two years, if anyone is taking wagers.  

So hang in there, Gen Z. Your comedy day is coming. And it won't be Easter in August. 

For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:

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