Lost amongst all the hype about how the Internet has changed the business and promotion of comedy content is the fundamental ways in which the Internet has actually changed what people find funny.
Obviously, there’s no real science to figuring out what is funny and that’s a very subjective topic, but I do believe that the Internet has ushered in some cultural shifts that have affected what the comedy audience in general finds funny and that are worth considering as you think about how you try to make people laugh.
Here’s a few things that I think have changed what people find funny…
1. Everybody Thinks They Can Be A Comedian
It’s probably not a shocker that just about every person in the world thinks they’re funny. That’s not new. But what is new is that new technology now allows anybody with a cell phone camera or a laptop computer to actually be a comedian who can reach the entire world with their comedy. In essence, the average Joe has the same potential to reach people with their comedy as a professional comedian does.
Of course, the professional comedian will be much more likely to succeed at making people laugh, but that’s not the point. Because the ability to “be a comedian” has been democratized, that changes the way the average person will perceive your attempts to make them laugh.
Years ago, if you were a “professional” comedian, there was an assumption that you were funny – you got the benefit of the doubt from your audience. But now, audiences are much more skeptical because literally anybody can create a YouTube channel and call themselves a comedian. As opposed to assuming you will be funny, people are now skeptical of your talent until you prove to them that you are.
2. It’s Tougher To Shock People
Not all comedy is based on shock value obviously, but shocking people is often an element in your comedy arsenal. And the Internet has made it virtually impossible to shock people because anything you will say or do has likely been said or done before online.
Years ago, when the average comedy viewer was only exposed to what they saw on television, it was much easier to grab their attention by saying things that they were shocked to hear somebody say. Even 15 years ago, it was a big deal to see somebody’s HBO special in part because it was the only venue outside of a club where you could really see a comedian say anything they wanted. But now, that element of shock is basically gone from comedy. When was the last time you saw an HBO special that included a bit that you were shocked to hear?
3. Audiences Are More Informed And More Fractured
Once upon a time you could use basically the same material and act for a long time in different venues without anybody knowing the difference. But now, thanks to clips of your act appearing online and any television appearances being archived online forever, audiences are much more likely to know your catalog of material. As a result, you’ll have to create more fresh material and update your act more often.
Additionally, the Internet and the wide array of options for people has splintered what was once the broad mainstream audience into a million niches. People can now control where they get their news, what they focus their interests on, and there’s a lot fewer shared references for a comedian to reference. While this can make it harder for comedians who are trying to establish middle-of-the-road, mainstream appeal, it can actually create a lot of new opportunities for comedians appealing to niche audiences like geeks, specific ethnicities, etc.
4. Comedy Fans Want To Participate As Much As They Want To Be Entertained
If you look at just about any of the most popular comedy sites on the Internet, they inevitably will have an element of crowdsourced content. This is because the Internet has created an expectation among comedy fans that they can be a part of the process – that they can create funny things just as well as you can. Whether it’s on a website, or in a video series, or even in your stage act, comedy fans will flock to opportunities to participate in your comedy and the more you let them become a part of what you create, the more bonded and passionate they will feel about your comedy.
This is a very different way of thinking about comedy than the pre-Internet model where no comedy fans felt enabled or interested in becoming a part of the show or comedy they’re consuming.
5. Comedy Fans Have Shorter Attention Spans
This one’s pretty obvious – when was the last time you watched a 10-minute video on YouTube? It’s probably been a while. The most popular form of comedy on the Internet is funny pictures and that’s because they are incredibly quick to look at and browse.
For better or worse, the Internet has led comedy fans to have a much shorter attention span than they used to. So, if you’re planning on putting out a video, you better have a joke in the first 20 seconds because if you don’t, most people will have already bailed before you even get to the funny stuff.