Early last winter, while browsing Manhattan’s Strand bookstore, roommates Carina Hsieh and Claudia Arisso came upon a keychain featuring a tiny version of the totemic, subway-friendly Strand tote bag. “Claudia said, ‘I wish there was a ‘Commuter Barbie’ who came with a Strand bag,’" Hsieh recently recalled. “And I was like, "Oh my God—we have to do that.”
The two women had never written together before, but they quickly devised a script for a “Commuter Barbie” sketch. Hsieh and Arisso, a packaging designer, created an array of Barbie-sized accessories, including a beanie—made out of a black-dyed baby sock—and gave Commuter Barbie a tiny pair of pink headphones (to help “tune out the creeps when you’re stuck in the middle seat”). After recruiting a pair of young actors, and hiring a jingle writer, Hsieh and Arisso used their Brooklyn living room to shoot the video, for which they spent around $1,600 of their own money. “The production value was a really big concern for us,” says Arisso, 24. “We wanted to make sure people kept watching after three seconds.” After a few weeks of editing, Hsieh and Arisso had a sharp, spot-on three-minute commercial parody ready to go.
Now, they just had to figure out how to get people to watch it.
Only a few years ago, the solution would have been obvious: Throw “Commuter Barbie” on YouTube, and watch it go viral. That’s the way it had worked since “the halcyon days of sketch video,” says Hsieh, 24, who’s also an editor at Cosmopolitan.com. “You'd get a link from a friend, and it would already have three million views.”
The site’s arrival in 2005 had led to a boom in viral comedy videos, allowing D.I.Y. digital sketches like “Chad Vader” or “Bird Poops in Mouth” to dominate the web for weeks or months, eventually earning millions of views. But that era, Hsieh knew, was long gone: YouTube was so now overstuffed, it was near-impossible for a sketch to randomly break out, and they worried Facebook’s unpredictable algorithms made it tough to know how a video would be seen (or by whom). At one point, Hsieh and Arisso could have uploaded the sketch to Funny or Die to see if it could get some votes—but that site was hardly the hit-maker it once had been.
With no other options, the two women decided to push “Commuter Barbie” via Facebook and Twitter last April, to see how it would play. (They also put the clip on YouTube, but mostly as an afterthought: “That site was just a dead zone to us,” says Arisso). As it turned out, the “Commuter Barbie” creators had more than just a great sketch; they also had excellent timing. The video debuted just as behavioral problems with the New York subway—and the men who ride it—were becoming a city-wide concern, and within 24 hours, “Barbie” had earned write-ups in Gothamist, BuzzFeed, and the The Washington Post’s website (which declared it a “parody masterpiece”). It wound up getting nearly 900,000 views, more than half from Facebook—a hit by modern standards—and the attention helped land Hsieh a manager. Even the official Barbie Instagram account gave its seal of approval.
“We got lucky,” Hsieh says. “It was the ideal version of going viral–even if the numbers don’t necessarily tell that story.” But only a year later, she says, the rules for what works and what doesn’t online have totally changed. “I don’t even know how I’d release future videos,” she says. “It just feels like a weird new landscape.” And even Commuter Barbie doesn’t know how to navigate it.
It’s a common comedy-world dilemma now: In an era of niche audiences, social-feed upheaval, and an overcrowded/underfunded competitive space, the future of the scripted digital-comedy bit—once a staple of online culture—is looking appropriately sketchy. “It seems like a dead scene to me, man,” says comedy writer, performer, and director Matt Klinman, who’s worked with such outlets as Adult Swim and the Onion. In a Twitter thread last month, and in a subsequent interview with Splitsider, Klinman put the blame on Facebook, which he says has harmed publishers with its shifting algorithms and generally closed-off-feeling ecosystem (a common complaint among media executives).
But that’s just one of several factors that have made online sketch-comedy increasingly difficult to pursue. “I know a lot of people who just want to make something for fun and for free, and we have no idea where to put it,” Klinman says. “Where can you put a sketch where people would even see it?”
A good online sketch still has the chance to thrive in 2018: Performers like Jimmy Tatro and Dylan Marron regularly command big numbers on their videos, and as do established outlets like Smosh and College Humor. The recently revived Super Deluxe, meanwhile, has found success with a series of smart, strange, Facebook-friendly bits (including the work of Vic Berger, the best political sketch-artist of the digital era). And the medium itself can still produce the kind of must-watch sketch that comes out of nowhere, as with last month’s hilarious Stranger Things send-up “Joyce Byers’ Master Class.”
But the golden era of online sketch, when the goofiest idea could hit eight-figure views, is clearly over. Earlier this year, Funny or Die—which recently announced it was migrating its original website to Vox—announced a round of layoffs that included several short-form writers. Last summer, NBCUniversal shut down Seeso, an all-comedy digital platform that had commissioned a handful of sketch shows. Seriously.TV, a Facebook-heavy, millennial-aimed comedy platform launched with support from Verizon, hasn’t released a new video on its social feeds since last fall. And with the exception of Saturday Night Live segments—always popular, especially if they involve Trump—it’s rare for a short-form web sketch to even approach the million-view mark anymore. To put it in Monty Python terms, online sketch is the parrot at the bottom of a cage: It’s hard to tell if it’s deceased, or simply stunned. But it’s definitely flat on its back.
Low Risk, High Reward
The modern web-sketch boom began, appropriately enough, on a lazy Sunday: In the early hours of December 18th, 2005, someone uploaded a ripped version of SNL’s “Lazy Sunday” digital short to YouTube, which was then just a few months old. The bit earned millions of views, as well as the wrath of Paramount, which had it pulled down a few months later. But the real measure of the sketch’s success was the numerous parodies it inspired, many of which went straight to YouTube. “Lazy Monday,” and “Lazy Muncie” were low-budget and star-free, yet they earned hundreds of thousands of views.
Suddenly, you didn’t have to be on SNL to get your crazy-delicious sketches in front of viewers audience. And while sites like College Humor had been increasing its comedy-video output for years, the sudden rush of sketches onto YouTube was proof that sketch comedy—a long-running artform that had already proved adaptable to stage, radio, and TV—was finally ready to spill on to the web. Soon enough, YouTube was a comedy Narnia, birthing dozens of hit clips, from the “Literal Video” of a-ha’s “Take on Me” to “Sexy Pool Party” to the music-spoof “Potter Puppet Pals”.
The platform’s egalitarian ethos and gatekeeper-free structure made it possible for young, unknown comedians to get millions of views, launching several careers along the way: Broad City began as a series of YouTube clips, while Insecure creator Issa Rae’s breakthrough came via her web series “The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl.” “It was like, ‘Oh, wow—with a little bit of production value, and a funny idea, you can be huge on YouTube,” says Nate Dern, a comedy writer and former artistic director at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade, or UCB. “At the time, that felt like a realistic way to like make it in comedy.”
One advantage of YouTube was they way it offered high visibility at a low budget. “Drive Recklessly,” by the sketch troupe The Midnight Show, starred Heather Anne Campbell as a car-crashing driver who suddenly finds herself staring down Hitler (approximately 43,147 sketches have been performed about Hitler in the last decade; “Drive Recklessly” is one of the few funny ones). The video was shot on a single weekend afternoon, and cost about five bucks. “I think we broke a CD jewel case and threw it in my face for the broken-glass effect,” says Campbell, who wrote the sketch. It went on to earn more than 4 million views, and landed Campbell, already an established writer, some high-profile meetings.
In the years following YouTube’s launch, these kind of cheap digital sketches functioned as the web-culture equivalent of a pop single: Three-minute blasts of distracting fun that were best enjoyed in the company of others. And they were everywhere. Comedy troupes with names like Olde English and Waverly Films were regularly knocking out cult-hit videos, and UCB eventually launched its own short-video arm (its biggest hit, “BP Oil Spill,” earned 13 million views).
It didn’t take long for investors to show up. In early 2007, Anheuser-Busch teamed with a raft of comedy writers for original-sketch depot bud.TV. A few months later saw the arrival of Funnyordie.com, which enjoyed instant infamy via Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s potty-mouthed “The Landlord,” which wedded the frills-free look of early YouTube clips with Ferrell’s Blades of Glory-era star power. Funny or Die attracted big names and sizable venture capital, thanks in part to its somewhat stumbled-upon formula for success: Tailor a sketch around a famous person willing to perform “undercover karaoke,” and you’ll get the web’s attention—as well as the attention of other celebs, who will want to get in on the act.
“That’s why those videos went so big: ‘Oh my God, Marion Cotillard put boobs on her face,’” says former Funny or Die writer and director Alex Fernie, who went on to such shows as Childrens Hospital and Do You Want to See a Dead Body? “It was shocking that we could get people to do these things.”
Between 2012 and 2013, sketch comedy reached its cultural zenith. Not only was it still possible to pull in several million views for a cheaply made short—often with the help of social media—but sketch was dominating TV for the first time since the mid-’90s, when In Living Color, MAD TV, The Kids in the Hall, and Mr. Show were all challenging the sagging SNL. Fifteen years later, Comedy Central had Key & Peele, Kroll Show, and Inside Amy Schumer, while IFC had Comedy Bang! Bang! and the Peabody-winning Portlandia (which itself had gotten its start as a series of short online videos, under the name ThunderAnt).
The demand for sketch, in every format, was so widespread that Funny or Die released what might be its finest, most self-lacerating bit yet: “Gungan Style,” about a comedy writer whose Star Wars spoof forces him to confront his own existential anxieties. (It’s the ultimate “make sure you watch all the way through” clip.)
“Gungan Style” may have been the first warning of the burnout that was yet to come, among both audiences and performers. “It expresses the exhaustion of being a sketch comedy creator,” says Heather Anne Campbell. “There’s this moment of self-actualization, of wondering, ‘What is this going to mean to people when I'm dead?" Online sketch comedy may have started as venue for realizing low-fi, almost throwaway ideas, but it had become a 24-hour industry that constantly required new material—especially now that Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel had adopted Funny or Die’s celebrity-participation model.
Meanwhile, YouTube was so overstuffed that amateur comedians were no longer competing for views with the sketch team down the block; they were competing with segments from The Colbert Report and SNL itself.
“All the homegrown stuff that was big in the birth of YouTube doesn’t exist anymore, because you have the glossier, fancier version of it online,” says Sachi Ezura, a producer on The Rundown with Robin Thede who has worked in development at such outlets as IFC. “So why would you watch something that looks like it was made in someone’s basement for 100 dollars?”
In the last few years, as view-counts started dropping and fewer comedy sketches seemed to be bubbling into mainstream awareness, even the most optimistic writers and performers were starting to wonder: How much web comedy could audiences stand? When will the bubble burst? And how was anyone making money off this? “I was getting paid to do whatever sketches I thought were funny,” Fernie says of the 2010-2013 golden age. “But if you’d asked me then, I would have said, ‘In no way is this sustainable.’”
Live By the Feed, Die By the Feed
In November 2016, Klinman released a short he’d written, called “Geologist’s Nightmare,” to UCB’s Facebook page. In the bit—which he produced with his sketch team, Whale Thief—Klinman plays a rock-lover haunted by the thought of some people being unable to spot a schist. By that point in his career, Klinman had worked for numerous comedy outlets, had a pretty good idea of what would work online (the Funny or Die video “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Man”, which he’d co-written with Dern and some others, had earned more than 7 million views). But the geologist sketch racked up just over half a million views on Facebook. “It did really well among geologists, which was awesome,” he says. “But there was no conversation around it. Before, if you did a big sketch, blogs and media would pick it up too. That just doesn't happen anymore.”
“Geologist’s Nightmare” was released not long after Facebook began pushing publishers toward native video—a move that would convince dozens of outlets to place their trust in the power of the feed. In recent months, a few companies have retreated from the strategy, notably Vox, which recently laid off several native-video employees. Klinman thinks online comedians would do well to back off from Facebook, too. “If you talk to the people who are doing the best stuff online right now, they’re all struggling,” he says.
Klinman claims Facebook’s discouragement of outbound links, as well as its opaque algorithms, has made comedy videos difficult to distribute, not to mention monetize. “It's completely out of your hands how your work gets out to people,” he says. “And if you make something ambitious, there’s no guarantee it won't get swallowed up by some algorithmic change that you have no control over.”
“We are committed to better supporting publishers and creators as they connect with and build their community on Facebook, and while we don’t always get it right, we think we are making progress,” Facebook responded through a spokesperson, name-checking comedy shows on the company’s Watch platform like "Charlene's World" and All Def Digital's "Dad Jokes." “News Feed still remains important for partners as a discovery surface, where people can find and engage around content that matters to them.”
Another Facebook hurdle, says Ezura, is that the platform tends to favor videos that are quickly digested and visually vibrant, and that can be viewed with captions on—not exactly the elements of a self-produced, three-minute comedy sketch. The site’s glut of clickbaity content, Ezura notes, can be demoralizing for those who got into comedy to make smarter, more daring material.
For anyone working in digital media in 2018, that complaint surely sounds familiar. But digital comedy—which rewards viewers who are willing to take risks on unknown, unconventional performers and ideas—has taken some significant hits in the last year. The recent Funny or Die layoffs, as well as the SeeSo shutdown, are a troubling sign that even the most resourceful comedy outlets are having trouble figuring out an increasingly iffy media landscape (though Funny or Die has had significant success in TV, producing such hits as American Vandal and Billy on the Street, and recently launched a new interview-focused web series with IMDb). Unless you’re making sketches for SNL, or for an outlet with a long-established audiences, the odds of reaching even a few hundred thousand people are slim.
Less Premise, More Person
But while many of Klinman’s peers agree that Facebook hasn’t been great for sketch comedy, they also point to a confluence of factors, from audience fragmentation to larger, web-wrought changes in comedy itself. The early ‘00s was a good time to be part of a smart troupe with a dumb name, but in the social-media era audiences prefer stand-alone personalities rather than group efforts. “I've pitched TV shows in the last couple of years,” says Dern, who’s writing a dissertation on comedy. “And especially in the last year, the powers that be are very interested in whether you're an influencer, or how many followers you have.”
A few years ago, it seemed as though sketch and improv had supplanted stand-up as the best-paved road to a comedy career. Now, says Klinman, “the smart comedians are going back into stand-up.” Solo performing can be cheaper than sketch, and it certainly fits the dynamic of social media: Facebook, for example, has helped earn big numbers for comedy series like “Help Helen Smash” and “Funny in Public,” single-performer shows that earn million of views.
But for a generation that came up with a team-focused comedy philosophy–who spent long nights in airless rooms, bouncing ideas off one another until one of them stuck–the retreat from sketch cam be a bummer. “The best comedy, and the comedy I came up doing, is collaborative—making great stuff with others,” sighs Klinman. ”And you just can't do that anymore.”
There’s also the possibility, of course, that sketch comedy is simply resting—and not in the dead-parrot sense of the word. In the nearly 15 years since YouTube made digital sketches an easily accessible form, humor has undergone several digital mutations: Blip-length Vine sketches; weirdo memes; punchline-providing GIFs; and a raft of comedy podcasts, which have become a major creative focus for performers who, years ago, would have been filming videos in their backyard. “The way that you can tell jokes now is more varied,” says Campbell. “I've laughed more at memes in the last year than I have at any individual sketch. And just look at the way Tumblr threads work—it’s like piling on jokes in an improv scene. Perhaps a two- or three-minute sketch is a little bit tired at this point.”
Campbell’s current gig is on the forthcoming Twilight Zone reboot—just one sign that, even though the sketch-boom has ended, the talents behind many of those hit videos have moved on to long-range, long-form success. Comedy Central’s dark satire Corporate was created by members of WOMEN, a Los Angeles-based sketch group that hosted YouTube videos for years. Members of the Birthday Boys, which created the classic 2010 sketch “Pool Jumpers,” landed an IFC show before they became fixtures on hit podcasts and within high-profile writers’ rooms. And on Sunday night, the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay went to Get Out’s Jordan Peele—one of the most celebrated sketch stars of the last decade (even if some fans still confuse him with football ace Equine Ducklings). “The people who cut their teeth on sketch are starting to tell bigger stories,” says Campbell. “They want to make movies, or things that emotionally affect people, because we’re all looking for a larger catharsis right now.
And in the next few years, there’s always the chance that some these sketch-vets will return to the form that made them famous—or that a new generation will take their place. After all, comedy is cyclical: In the early ‘00s, when there were only a handful of sketch shows on TV, the internet made room for a new form of short-form comedy, one that was raggedy and strange, but that eventually worked its way back into the mainstream. It’s a good bet that that some new strand of sketch—or some new form of online humor altogether—is taking shape now, simply waiting for the right moment (and platform) to announce itself. “I think we’re probably at that point now, where I bet we would start seeing something pop up that's a new voice, or a new interesting thing,” says Fernie. “Comedy likes living underground.”