The Complex Web Of Modern Comedy

What kind of videos would Charlie Chaplin have put on YouTube? How many listeners would the Groucho Marx podcast get? Would Bill Hicks really update his blog every week? 

We will never have the answers to these questions, but without a definite paycheck attached to those modern mediums, would those luminaries of comedy have even bothered to create such brand building content? 

Perhaps the bigger question is would the TV commissioners, film producers or even the viewing public have appreciated their undoubted talents, or would we have lost them under the tidal wave of laughter produced by the internet's democarisation of comedy? 

We have existed in a YouTube laugh-a-clip society since 2005 (I know it feels like much longer) and perhaps only now we are starting to see its impact on a mass cultural level. Before Charlie bit the other kid's finger, before we all knew what a Gap Yarr was, and before the idea of Youtubing a flaming twerk entered our minds, we were all told what was funny by the people that ran mainstream media.

The process of funny people leaving the stage and the night clubs and entering our televisions was a well established path. But now performers are able to call on the power of an online platform that creates a following to move their careers into a bigger, and usually better paid arena. The work of David Earl is a magnificent example of the wonderful power of web comedy, creating web cam style blogs for two of his most precious comedy creations. The claustrophobic Brian Gittins and the anti-cool Cumbo have rightly been rewarded with pilots for Channel 4

But Youtube poses the future of comedy a bigger conundrum; if public opinion creates popular online content, will the comedy cream always rise to the top? Who are the public to decide if something is worthy of 1million hits or not? And will those online hits translate to tv hits? Comedians are no longer just fighting for what is funny, they are fighting for what will be understandable to the majority and therefore conducive to a bigger statistical internet success. For every amazing example of it working, like Owyn Stephen's genius Knightmare Parody, there are countless other failed attempts to win the public's affection through familiarity. 

Sometimes absurdity wins out, which is true in the case of Dr Hooey, a Turkish-ish tv parody of Dr Who created by Rob Hoey. But in traditional YouTube fashion there are now a large number of Hooey-esque parodies of other TV shows, including a genuinely un-comical Downton Abbey video that is laughless but comparable in it's absurdity. It appears that if weird is in, then go weird. 

Maybe we will encounter new genres of comedy through the web, breaking new boundaries of what is funny, because if the zeitgeist values it, then it has value. We wouldn't watch a thirty minute tv show of Breaking Bad parodies, but in bitesize 3 minute bursts, playing around with the popular can clearly make a mark online. 

In the long term our desire for instantly accesable laughs will surely have a detrimental affect on comedy, with the Vine app providing a clear indication of just how far our attention span has dropped. Would Richard Pryor have even got close to a punchline in 7 seconds? its hard to believe Vine is no more than the Christmas Cracker joke of the internet, but it can still produce moments of genius. Carl Donnelly & Chris Martin's Bananarang was a highlight of my day. You can imagine Andy Kaufman having as much fun with Vine as Limmy does, but will we find today's great minds of comedy fiction infected by a desire to just get the hits to have a hit? Will popular ultimately equal funny?

Eight years into surfing the YouTube universe, there is no question comedy has changed forever thanks to the internet. It gives all of us a platform to make laughter, but will the long term affect of this be that we lose perspective on what is actually funny? 

If everyone on your Facebook or Twitter feed was sharing a video called "hilarious pedophile terrorist fail" would you have the sanity to pass on without clicking? 

Of course not, the very nature of social media is to make your media social, so if you're not sharing or liking you're just an anti-social media user. And they'll make legislation against you sooner or later if you're not contributing to the social media society. 

But should the YouTube comedy platform be reserved for the special few who earn it? Only time will tell if it seriously damages the artform. I would have answered this question further but i got distracted by a YouTube clip of a guy repeatedly scaring a French chef.

Words by Howard Cohen