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Jill Offman: Why we surf for mirth

Jill-OffmanWhat’s the last thing you liked on Facebook, retweeted or even – to the shame of your teenage relatives – loved on Instagram?

I’ll bet you a pair of Ashton Kutcher’s underpants it was something funny. Whether it’s the latest grumpy cat video, a delusional Benedict Cumberbatch-lookalike or Jon Stewart’s latest sideswipe on The Daily Show, we all love to draw our friends’ attention to the funny things we find online. Once laughter was simply the best medicine; now it’s what binds and defines our virtual social circles.

At Comedy Central our research consistently tells us that comedy is our audience’s number one interest, ahead of films, sport, music and even Sudoku and basket weaving.

Uniquely amongst entertainment forms, it’s equally popular with men and women in our target demographic of 16-34s. And most importantly, it has become the most searched, shared and therefore successful, genre online.

Social media and smartphones have made stand-up comics of us all. Anyone with sufficient megapixels in their camera and a Vine account can offer wry social commentary for the amusement of family and friends. For most of us that means an audience of 37 followers on Twitter, including amateur porn stars, the local dry cleaners and a creepy guy who claims he’s a friend of a friend. For a small but growing number, however, it can mean a global following of millions.

Even the most determined digital refuseniks must surely have heard by now of the likes of Jenna Marbles, a potty-mouthed, twenty-something YouTuber, whose funny, straight-to-camera monologues have earned her 12 million subscribers, one billion clicks and, reputedly, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in online advertising.

The rise of online video changes the economics of funny, lowering the risk of commissioning new comedy. Platforms like YouTube make it easy to measure and analyse the popularity of content.

The rise of these internet stars – and websites and channels that aggregate online comic content – has led to doom-laden predictions about the death of television. The truth, of course, is less dramatic. Young people continue to watch huge amounts of live TV on the large flat screen in the corner, while consuming an increasing amount of video online, via streaming or on-demand, frequently on much smaller portable screens, sometimes at the same time. Video never did kill the radio star.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for TV to learn or earn from the rise of online comedy. Miss Marbles and her ilk command loyal audiences online that make the Nielsen ratings for many network comedies look pretty anaemic. Ignore that kind of popularity at your peril.

The biggest benefit TV can derive from the online comedy phenomenon is as a test bed for new talent. Where once network comedy executives spent their evenings in comedy clubs and August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, now they may be better occupied surfing Funny or Die and The Poke.

Network comedy has a notoriously low hit rate – for every Friends there are a thousand Joeys. It’s also expensive to produce. Little wonder then, that in many countries, mainstream general entertainment networks are extremely shy of comedy written by and/or featuring unproven talent. Even a specialist pay TV network, like Comedy Central, can struggle to find slots for experimenting.

The rise of online video changes the economics of funny, lowering the risk of commissioning new comedy. Web comedy fans won’t blink at threadbare production values online that they would never accept on air. They will consume in short form, long form and every form in between. Platforms like YouTube make it easy to measure and analyse the popularity of content.

Unsurprisingly then, efforts have been ongoing to transplant successful web comedies to television, and there is a renewed appetite amongst TV executives to ‘surf for mirth’.

What is already clear to all of us involved in commissioning comedy is the shortest route to failure is to transplant comedy from one medium to another without adapting it to the different expectations of the audience. Just because 20 million people individually click through to view a funny video on YouTube doesn’t guarantee they’ll tune in collectively to a televised half-hour in peak.

Certainly at Comedy Central we have a number of comedies on air that started life online. Comedy Central US recently premiered Broad City (below) to strong reviews and encouraging ratings. The series, about the misadventures of two young women in New York, began in 2009 as short online webisodes and has already been recommissioned for a second season. The stars of the show, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, appeared on a panel at MIPTV with executive producer Amy Poehler, to explore some of the lessons learned about transitioning a much-loved digital property onto the more mainstream showcase of cable TV.

With Comedy Central International currently embarked on an ambitious push into original commissioning, I hope we’ll very soon be in a position to apply those lessons to our very own web-to-television transplant. What is already clear to all of us involved in commissioning comedy is the shortest route to failure is to transplant comedy from one medium to another without adapting it to the different expectations of the audience. Just because 20 million people individually click through to view a funny video on YouTube doesn’t guarantee they’ll tune in collectively to a televised half-hour in peak.

All this explains why Comedy Central plans to extend our digital footprint internationally. As well as curating what is funniest from the web, this will allow us to commission more new comedy and expose our audiences to a much broader array of comic talent and ideas than is possible on TV. It will make it possible for us to be much more ‘open source’ with development, allowing our audience to influence more directly what gets produced and bought for Comedy Central’s international TV channels. So bring on those grumpy cats!

Jill Offman is managing director, Comedy Central UK and senior VP, comedy, VIMN