4 Ways the Internet Changed Comedy (For Better and Worse)
In the 1920s, JEM Rubber Co. invented the whoopee cushion -- a magical, air-filled device that (when strategically placed on a chair) could make it seem like your friend farted right at the moment he sat down. Comedy would never be the same.
It would take roughly 80 more years for another event of this proportion to shake the humor world, but somewhere in the 21st century, society fully embraced the Internet, and comedy was forever changed for better and worse.
The Good: The Internet Put Production in the Hands of the People
This is the obvious one. The Internet is democracy. People have the power and all that crap, but it's true. We've already begun to take it for granted, but even a decade ago, if you wanted the world to see your schtick, there were fewer choices. People went into stand-up comedy or joined improv groups. They waited to get to college, where they wrote for humor mags, building portfolios for television. Or they just bugged people at water coolers, being "funny" all the time until someone discovered or murdered them. There was a series of uncertain hurdles before you could ever come close to seeing a significant audience.
But comedy sites, YouTube and even personal blogs changed that. There were more ways to put yourself out there, and for much smaller investments you could create a decent product that could be as big as virality would take you. (Hey, remember a time when the word "virality" didn't exist? Y'know, like ten seconds ago before I just made it up.)
Take a guy like Cracked's own Michael Swaim. A few short years ago, he was just a funny college student hanging out and occasionally raping stray dogs. If there were no Internet, his comedy troupe Those Aren't Muskets would probably have been reduced to performing only on Friday nights at the close of their 12-step programs. But the Internet allowed Mike and director/enabler Abe Epperson to create skits directly for the Internet, putting content like this and this in front of increasingly larger numbers of people. And with the glory of the Internet, even an aging talentless hack like me could write a script with Michael, producing this:
And even though I'd only uploaded my first YouTube video months before, I started making videos of my own. And that's why, to this very day, I am still referred to as "That guy. The one who hates the Black Eyed Peas." Comedy on the Internet was available to all. (Swaim and I represent all of humanity in this point.)
The Good: Provided New Comedy E-Fodder
There's an even more basic impact the Net has had on comedy: the role it's played as comedic subject matter. To see that, you need to go no further than Cracked.com. That's right, go no further than Cracked.com. The rest of the Internet is mostly just porn anyway, so don't sweat it. Oh, and MapQuest, but you probably have GPS on your phone now, so really, why leave here? I've written hundreds of columns. Have you read them all? Hold me and tell me I'm pretty.
Oh, so anyway, as I was saying, so much of humor on the Net is about the Net. Most of Swaim's show Does Not Compute comes straight from the World Wide Web to your home. (With almost no trace of the dozens of dogs sacrificed to Michael's creative process.) And then there was his wildly popular "Internet Party" video. Most of my favorite Cody vids have also been about the Net. Videos like his Chat Roulette and Twitter songs, not to mention what I consider to be the funniest video ever on Cracked:
A Helpful Tutorial on the Most Difficult Video Game Ever -- powered by Cracked.com
There are a couple of reasons the Net is such good comedy fodder. For one, if you're reading humor online, then you have the Internet. So right there, the audience is likely in the loop regarding what you're talking about. Also, on the off chance you're tackling something the audience is not hip to, well then getting in on the joke is only a hyperlink away. Like if I told a joke about how many furries it took to screw in a light bulb and you didn't know what a furry was, it wouldn't be such a big deal because you could just click the link back at the word "furry" and find out. I mean, you could if I actually put the right link in, instead of tricking you into watching some of my online content, but come on, give me a break, I'm embedding everyone else's stuff! In any event, let's turn the page for the points that actually motivated this article.
The Bad: Impossibly Lowered the Bar for Humor Even Further
It's great that anyone with a video camera and YouTube account can start making comedy to reach a whole new audience, but let's examine that audience. Yes, it contains some of the very best and brightest, but it also has some of the stupidest people who have ever lived. For all the novel and shockingly talented people you can find online, some of the biggest things online are the worst things ever made. Things like Fred.
Sorry, no embed for you, buddy. If you don't know Fred, he's a kid whose voice is sped up so it's more annoying. The end.
It's fun to be an elitist and pretend that the Internet has gone out and incorporated all the most inbred cretins and jammed them into our demographic, but that's actually not a satisfying explanation for why the bar for comedy is so low on the Net. Maybe it's something about sitting at a computer itself that lowers our attention span or expectations. I'm really not sure. All I know is I'm not being holier than thou here, because I can be worse than anyone as a comedy audience. I mean, I've seen some of the greatest comedies ever made, read the funniest books and watched the best stand-ups. I've written critical essays on Jonathan Swift, and I memorized all of Monty Python before puberty. I have no right to complain about a "stupid audience," because despite that impeccable comedy breeding, so help me, the hardest I have ever laughed in my life were from these two things: Grape Stomping Lady ...
... and Don Cherry's Piano Desk ...
I am the Internet, and I suck, but holy shit is that funny.
The Bad: Taught Unfunny People Comedy Shortcuts
Hey, remember when people told jokes? Like actual jokes about guys walking into bars and farmer's daughters and how stupid Polish people were supposed to be? You might not. It was a long time ago. But people used to do it all the time before the Internet.
Now, I can't remember the last time someone actually told me a joke. These days, people just forward the links, memes and vids they like. Between email chains and Facebook/Tumblr postings, there's no longer any reason to remember little one-liners or story vignettes. One click and boom, you've told a joke. Sort of.
And that's significant because the only people who love jokes more than funny people, consumed with devouring the logic puzzles of humor, are people with absolutely no sense of humor. Unfunny people used to love jokes because they were comedy shortcuts. If you remembered a certain series of words in the right order and spoke them aloud, you said something funny. You didn't need to write the joke or be spontaneously creative, you just had to hit your mark.
But the Internet offers far more than mere jokes when it comes to helping unfunny people look like they have a sense of humor. And it goes beyond just forwarding those stupid old-timey-looking illustrated placards with something snarky written on them. Seriously, have you seen those things? I've been mean online for years, and when I read those, even I'm like, whoa, take it easy, grumpypants.
OK, I made that one up, but just barely.
But I'm not just talking about the way the Internet lets people forward content created by others. I'm talking about how the Internet actually teaches people to be "funny." Perhaps nowhere does this happen more than Twitter. What is Twitter? One description would be that it's a place for cute girls to go to let everyone know how lame they are. But it's more than that.
For me at least, Twitter is a place to stay in touch with the world via short, funny statuses. I mean, right now on Twitter there are comedians like Patton Oswalt, Blaine Capatch, Rob Delaney and Todd Barry who get paid to be funny giving stuff away for free. There are humor writers also killing it like Jason Roeder, Guy Endore-Kaiser, Gerry Duggan, Matt Tobey, Ted Travelstead, Dan Guterman, and me.
And then there are some of the unfunniest fuckers this world has ever known. I don't mean non-professional comedy writers -- there are tons of hilarious people being funny on Twitter in their spare time. I'm talking about people you'd never want to be stuck talking to at a party who think they're hilarious because Twitter gave them a comedy shortcut in the form of a hashtag. For those who don't know (somehow), hashtags are ways to make it appear you're telling a joke without actually saying anything funny.
One tag that I particularly hate is #firstworldproblems. See, you complain about something small and then you type #firstworldproblems after it and suddenly it's supposed to be a joke: "Hey, the barista didn't leave room for my milk. #firstworldproblems"
Look at me. I'm a funny a person. Twitter has taught me how to construct humor out of nothing at all! These are the same people who think they're making a joke when they shout, reflexively, "TMI!" or "Thanks for sharing" after anyone reveals anything personal or off-color.
People say sarcasm is the humor of the weak, but they're wrong. It's hashtags. Fucking hashtags.
I bet some people find that annoying, and if I tweeted it, they'd most certainly tweet back, #AngryMuch? Or maybe they'd go with #YouMadBro? Or whatever cliche they've picked up over the Web that they think fits. Because that's what the Web has become for so many: a place to be exposed to easily recreated, mass-produced humor to be reiterated over and over. Not humor so much as something dressed up to resemble humor.
The Internet has taught us that if you have a picture of your cat, all you have to do is make it say something a person would say and misspell it and you've got priceless LOLcat comedy. So easy. Like this:
OK, I messed that one up, but I had a lot of pressure on me. Shut up!
I guess what I'm saying is, I'm just waiting for the day when #firstworldproblems and LOLcats seem as awkward, unfunny and sad as a guy who asks you if you heard the one about the Polish terrorist sent to blow up a car. Oh, just Google it if you must.
Or instead of Polish jokes, how about looking up the new episode of HATE BY NUMBERS. Follow Gladstone on Twitter and stay up-to-date on the latest regarding Notes from the Internet Apocalypse. And then there's his website and Tumblr, too.
For more from Gladstone, check out The 9 Most Likely Reasons You've Been Unfollowed on Twitter and 5 Things That Make You Happier Than They Probably Should.