Comedy on YouTube

Since its beginning, YouTube has been the home of conveniently short and amusing videos, available for the entertainment of the general public. From questionable pranks to cats falling off buildings in time to the music of Awolnation, the variety is huge and the supply is endless. What YouTube is though, or what it can be, is a virtual stage: a platform from which hopeful comedic actors, writers and performers can launch themselves. Becoming a YouTuber is now a possible route into a difficult industry. Happily, this also means that viewers get to see a better quality of content than the usual cat videos (though not necessarily more popular).

Vlogs are a strange mix of stand-up like performance – these YouTubers often do observational comedy just like stage comedians – but with a performer-viewer relationship similar to that which comes with television. From the point of view of the vlogger they are performing to a camera, editing the video, placing the finished product online and waiting for the reaction. The live, instantaneous element of stand-up comedy is not there. The idea of being removed from your audience in this way might be appealing to more nervous performers, but other difficulties arise with this set-up. A comedian on a stage develops comic timing in response to their audience: they might tell a joke, pause for laughter, then expand on a punchline depending on the reaction. A vlogger has no way of gauging the immediate reaction to something they have said. They have to decide where to pause or use facial expressions, edit their monologue into something they find funny, then sit and wait for judgement. Once the video is live, that monologue cannot be edited or improved upon, whereas a stand up show can morph and change. YouTuber Jack Howard performs material like this to camera which he sporadically uploads. In one video he explains: ‘I have to believe that I’m funny because I’m talking to this emotionless, soulless thing with one eye just looking at me, staring at me,  judging me… there’s probably a little girl at home with an eye patch who’s sad now because she thinks I hate her’. Performing to a camera rather than face to face also means that the avenue of audience interaction is not available to the YouTuber in the same way as it is to the stand-up comedian… only it is still there. The difference is spontaneity. Vloggers have a constant stream of opinions and reactions to their work coming in via the comme

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nts, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr… which they can then respond to in their next videos. This conversation still happens, but it is very difficult for vloggers to be spontaneous without that real-time interaction with an audience. The better vloggers understand these differences and use them to their advantage, commenting on them in their videos and making light of them. YouTubers and stand-up comedians are doing a similar thing in some respects, but they also possess slightly different skills which reflect the different challenges each has to face.

One thing that undoubtedly thrives on the YouTube platform is sketch comedy. With enough ideas for short, funny scripts, a good camera and basic knowledge of editing it can be relatively easy to upload videos and develop a following. Many YouTubers and aspiring filmmakers have had huge successes in this way with channels such as Jack and Dean, ChewingSand, Tomska and Tim H Films to name a few. After starting from humble beginnings some of these YouTubers have been offered funding to make longer films or web series, as well as opportunities to work with established actors and directors.

One notable example is ‘Oscar’s Hotel for Fantastical Creatures’, which originally developed out of characters dreamt up by YouTuber PJ Liguori. After the pilot episode was shown on YouTube the project received funding from Vimeo to make it into a six part web series. The general premise of the show involves hapless medical student, Oliver, being left to manage his Uncle Oscar’s hotel for a week. This hotel is home to an array of strange and colourful creatures including a hysterical anthropomorphic mouse, a talking oil painting and an enormous purple octopus. Actor and YouTuber Chris Kendall stars, with guest appearances from other YouTubers including Grace Helbig, Pewdiepie and Mamrie Hart. Besides these, one episode also features the voices of Patrick Stewart and Alfred Molina, as a giant green and purple fish respectively. The show is extremely well made, with a beautiful set, incredible costumes and make up and puppets built by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Because of all the obvious effort put in by so many people, it seems a shame that each episode is only ten minutes long. Although the characters are outrageous and the storylines are fun, it can sometimes seem that the plot only just has the time to get going as the episode ends. Oscar’s Hotel is not like a traditional sitcom in that the

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emphasis is not on joke after joke, but rather on creating a vivid, fantastical world that is charming and funny. In this way it puts me in mind of The Mighty Boosh or Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy; it doesn’t scream ‘look at me! I’m being comedic!’, but it is beautiful to look at and draws you in with its strange humour. In fact many of the laughs come from Oliver, a very ordinary human, reacting to the madness all around him.

The area in which I think YouTube particularly excels, more so than televison, are videos involving two or three people having a chat or doing something commonplace, like cooking. These videos are tricky to explain, which is why I have made them sound so incredibly boring. It is worth mentioning that these types of videos definitely can be dull and samey. However, if done well with the right people and a good idea, they can be smart, snappy and hilarious. A couple of examples of less formal ‘series’ like this are Daniel J Layton’s ‘Baking with Layton’, Hazel Hayes’s ‘Tipsy Talk’ and Hannah Witton’s ‘Drunk Advice’ (It is surprising, or perhaps unsurprising, how many of these examples involve alcohol). All three have very simple premises; Tipsy Talk and Drunk Advice both involve the ‘host’ sitting down with a guest, drinking variable amounts of alcohol and talking to each other (and the camera). What follows is similar to the format of a chat show, only friendlier, less formal, and highly entertaining. Baking with Layton uses a similar idea, only instead of simply drinking and chatting, Dan and his guest will also attempt to bake something (attempt is the key word here). This has resulted in a variety of outcomes

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, from a grilled sponge cake to a meringue fight, interspersed with chat about topics ranging from Margaret Thatcher to pyjamas. Videos like these succeed because they are unscripted and only loosely structured; they are funny because they are reminiscent of the stupid conversations we have with our own friends, and the vloggers who make them are adept at mocking the culture of YouTube as well as their own content. Like all good comedians, they don’t take themselves too seriously.

As a space to upload content and receive honest feedback from your audience, YouTube works well. It also lends itself very well to different forms, from a monologue about going to the hairdresser’s to a fifteen minute short film about a haunted house. However, it is still very difficult to make a career solely from YouTube. Some have done it, and with enormous success (think Zoella), but for many of the YouTubers mentioned here this is not realistic. For them YouTube is more of a stepping stone, admittedly a very important and valuable one, towards careers as writers, actors or directors. In the meantime they have the opportunity to create unique, entertaining and often hilarious content for their growing audiences. And with minimal reliance on silly string and cats.

 

Alice Harper

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