Beyond the Edinburgh Fringe: Meet the young comedians taking the internet by storm
The Edinburgh Festival is now so crowded that many comedy acts are instead taking to the web in their attempts to break through. But is it any easier – and are the results worthwhile? Matt Chorley asks YouTube's big hitters
Sunday 24 July 2011
No wonder the guy in WH Smith looked at me a little oddly. Two rolls of Sellotape. A copy of Dogs Today. And a cheap porn magazine. Thankfully he avoided conversation, so I avoided a tortuous explanation that far from being some sort of pet-loving pervert, I was prop-shopping for a comedy show. He didn't need to know that in my bag I already had two cucumbers and a large tub of butter.
This time six years ago, as one-third of sketch-comedy group Big Day Out, I was preparing to load a bunch of hats, musical instruments and 20,000 flyers into the back of a Transit van for the long drive to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. My mates William Kenning, Lewis Georgeson and I were going in search of our big break. Five thousand miles away, three other young mates were preparing to load a bunch of videos on to their new website, YouTube. Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim had rather more success than we did in changing the face of comedy.
Today, no self-respecting stand-up, sketch group or musical act are without a multimedia section on their website. And, as the convergence of internet and television allows people to view YouTube on the small screen, making it even more powerful, it raises the question: could those thousands of acts about to make their annual pilgrimage to the Fringe actually reach more people – and have more impact – with little more than a webcam and some cheap editing software? The short answer is: yes. Possibly.
The web – and the plummeting price of high-quality film equipment – means acts can now bombard agents, commissioners and other comedians with DVDs, memory sticks or web links all year round. During Big Day Out's month-long Edinburgh run in 2005, we played to about 1,000 people in a 60-seat venue. Setting up on Twitter and Facebook k could ensure the same number see a YouTube clip in less than an hour. Barbershopera, a four-part harmony group (see page 24), has enjoyed three successful runs in Edinburgh, but decided against making the journey north this year. Instead, believing they can reach more people online, they have recorded a song dedicated to the festival.
Yet, with at least 60,000 new videos added to YouTube every week, it is difficult to get noticed. Especially given that the past 40 years in comedy is also now online. BBC Worldwide – which uploads everything from Blackadder to Catherine Tate, Red Dwarf to Fawlty Towers – has had more than 543 million views.
Many of this year's 2,500-plus Fringe shows (try standing out among that lot) already boast significant online profiles: The Midnight Beast (see previous page), the pin-ups with an ear for the teenage zeitgeist, for instance, have notched up 38 million hits. Yet the web has a significant double edge: for while it can lead to commissions – Peter Serafinowicz secured a BBC 2 show off the back of a 2006 spoof news clip in which he showcased his impressions of Paul McCartney and Al Pacino – comedians posting their best stuff on YouTube risk giving away their one valuable commodity: jokes. And, for now at least, the internet superhighway is not paved with gold. Last year a YouTube rich list compiled by video-marketing company TubeMogul named 23-year-old Californian Shane Dawson as its biggest-earning figure, but despite securing more than 430 million hits for his foul-mouthed satire, he pocketed just $315,000. k
"TV is where the viewers are, and where the money is," says Dan Johnson of British sketch group Navelgazing (see page 23), which includes Ewen MacIntosh, the laconic Keith from The Office. Yet while this is true, the digital-TV channel Dave commissioned a micro sketch show from Johnson's quartet after it had found them online.
"Comedy at the moment is in a very strange position," admits Steve North, channel head at Dave. "We've had more stand-ups come through in the past five years than ever before, but there is an issue about the next generation – can they still break through? The first thing I can do is check a new act by looking on the web. It's a good starting point, but I don't think it replaces what they do live."
There have been several attempts to make money from comedy online by creating dedicated portals. In 2008, TV producer RDF launched Comedy Demon, offering hit shows including The Mighty Boosh and Gavin and Stacey. It hoped to charge both for ads and full-episode downloads, with ambitions to net a million users by 2010. Yet it flopped and closed within two years. Another letdown was Comedy Box, backed by John Lloyd, the Blackadder and QI producer. Funny Or Die, the US comedy site launched by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay in late 2006, has fared better, with its combination of original and user-generated clips rated as "funny" or "die" by visitors. But while the close alliance between Ferrell and Saturday Night Live places it in the premier league of comedy Stateside, a stand-alone UK version of the site, launched in 2008, failed to take off.
Rather, the biggest recent British online success has been the rehabilitation of Alan Partridge through a ground-breaking partnership between the chat-show king's creators Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci, and the beer brand Foster's. The result – 12 episodes featuring Partridge's "Mid Morning Matters" broadcasts for the fictional North Norfolk Digital radio station – have helped the brand's YouTube channel to 5.3 million views. Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer have just joined the project with a series called Afternoon Delights, a return to the sort of surreal sketches that characterised their early shows, such as The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer.
"We liked the idea of people thinking, 'That sounds like a terrible move; have you really sunk to that because you can't get anything on the telly?'" says Iannucci. "It forced us to bombproof ourselves from the criticism."
As well as introducing Partridge to a whole new generation, the Foster's tie-up has also secured his return to TV. The 10-minute internet clips will be re-edited for a six part series this autumn, paving the way for an "autobiography" by Partridge, and the script for a much-anticipated movie is now, finally, being written. "The online thing was useful in getting Alan out of his box and playing with him," Iannucci says, though he refuses to go into detail about the film. "It doesn't take place in space. Or America."
The 48-year-old Scot has a new day job, as creative director at Baby Cow, Coogan's production company. He says he can now scout new talent without leaving his desk – yet that is no guarantee of quality. "The fact that it is easier for people to make their material public means there is 10 times more of it. The ratio of good stuff to rubbish stuff is the same as it ever was. The quantity is just increasing."
Whether your stage is the corner of a pub or a corner of the web, the same rules apply. You need to be funny. You need work hard to build a following. And you need a sackload of luck. Three things which remain harder to find than a needle in the stack of props gathering dust in my attic.
The Midnight Beast
YouTube hits: 38 million
The astonishing success story of British comedy on YouTube. Stefan Abingdon (22) met Ashley Horne (24) at Sylvia Young's drama school. Stefan didn't fit in and soon hooked up with Dru Wakely (22), playing "all the toilet-music venues" around London. In December 2009, their home-made parody of "Tik Tok" by Ke$ha went global and they have never looked back, with sold-out tours, a shared billing with Michael McIntyre and an E4 TV show in the pipeline for 2012.
"We never thought of ourselves as funny people," says Abingdon. "We did the parody of Ke$ha, one day of filming and a day of editing. We pushed it around Facebook, and it became a bit of a thing.
"We did a guerrilla gig in Brighton in February 2010 and posted it online, saying, 'If you're free, come down.' We thought there would be 40 people; 2,000 turned up. We want to blur the lines between being a rock band and a comedy band – not just release an album, but have a TV show like Flight of the Conchords. We've watched stand-ups playing small venues; we would be petrified to do that."
Youtube hits: 77,000
Trailblazers in British online comedy, and the first to have their internet efforts screened on TV, this foursome – Ewen MacIntosh (35), Jamie Deeks (34), Jack Brough (33) and Dan Johnston (33) – performed at Edinburgh from 1997 to 2002 before moving online in 2008 with a series called Toiboize. Charting the lives of a former boyband through scripted episodes and video diaries, it later transferred to the small screen on digital channel Dave. 4Tissimo, a spoof opera quartet, followed, and this year Dave commissioned seven four-minute sketches to drop into its schedule.
"We were lucky," admits Johnston. "It is just so difficult to push through online now, as it is in Edinburgh. You have to be relentless. There are lots of people who fall by the wayside, whether that's live or online. Viewers give a TV show 15 minutes before switching over but online they have to have laughed within 15 seconds as it's more disposable.
"And you have to finish with a laugh so people forward it to their friends. Whether you're live or online, if no one's laughing, it's not funny."
YouTube hits: 2.5 million
The 25-year-old fashion and promo director has been behind the camera on some of the biggest British comedy internet hits, including "Newport State of Mind", the parody of Alicia Keys and Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind", Boris Gaga, Biebershop Quartet, Bollywood Royal Wedding and most recently for BBC Online, Literally A Festival.
"My boyfriend Leo Sloley came up with the idea for 'Newport State of Mind'. We were big fans of the original song. It was just a stupid idea that took off. I tried as much as possible to make it the same as the video, shot for shot. But we didn't have a helicopter. It was a great challenge to recreate a multi-million-dollar video with a budget of £100. We told our friends, and friends of friends, about it. We never intended it to go huge.
"I'm really enjoying doing more comedy; to come at it from an aesthetic perspective. With comedy, it is often an afterthought: 'Oh, shall we make it look nice?' I love the idea of just trusting the script and letting the visuals make it a bit cool. I try not to do whacky."
YouTube hits: 25,000
Actress Isabel Fay and Tom Hopgood, head of new talent and digital comedy at production company Brown Eyed Boy, produce comedy sketches with industry friends, with payment made in cakes – and clever pies – baked by Fay. Their debut short film, With or Without U2, recently won Best Comedy Shortie Short at the LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival. They regularly work with BBC Online, as well as TV and radio.
"Often a viral success is not down to the content – it's due to good marketing," says Fay. "Videos with a million hits are not necessarily the funniest on the internet. A lot of people are hit-chasers [watching whatever has a lot of hits already]. We are very much about making something that we think is funny.
"Everyone's a critic on YouTube. On one of my videos is a list of comments about whether they would have sex with me. But you also get some die-hard fans."
Youtube hits: 46,000
After taking Barbershopera's four-part harmonies to Edinburgh for three years, writer and founding member Tom Sadler moved to the US and the remaining line-up – Pete Sorel-Cameron (29), Will Kenning (31), Lara Stubbs (28), Rob Castell (27) and director Sarah Tipple (30) – decided to embrace the internet. Their Royal Wedding song, "I Could Have Married Kate", gave them a global audience, and their newest video, "Edinburgh", is a song dedicated to the festival.
"A lot of video stuff is about upping your profile," says Castell. "It is hard getting people into theatres, especially if your idea is a bit left-field, so it can help to entice live audiences. There is an online community now that people are part of, and you want to be part of it too.
"I believe that Barbershopera could be a TV sitcom or a quirky idea such as The Mighty Boosh or Monty Python. We can make a video quickly and easily, which gives everyone out there an idea about what we look like on video."
The Unexpected Items
YouTube hits: 1.4 million
Tom Williams (26) and Matt Lacey (24) make up two-sixths of The Unexpected Items, formed in 2008 after cutting their teeth with the Oxford (University) Revue. They have had hands in some of the biggest online hits: Williams co-wrote MJ Delaney's "Newport State of Mind" and Biebershop Quartet, which features four singing lesbians who look like Justin Bieber. Lacey, meanwhile, wrote and performed "Gap Yah", which has had 3.7 million views on YouTube. The pair are this year taking a double-act to Edinburgh.
"There are so many factors outside your control," says Williams. "We have good stuff – arguably better stuff – on the Unexpected Items YouTube page that has not got loads of hits. At first we hadn't thought about the importance of going viral. We just thought we would film some sketches so people could see our stuff. Then 'Gap Yah' absolutely kicked off. Matt rattled it off at the end of a day. We almost didn't put it up online."
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