The basement of comedy

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Comedy Central has existed for 23 years, known for stalwarts South Park, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. Can you name another program on the network? It’s rare for any Comedy Central show to last over three years, and for the ones that have, their audiences aren’t massive. People universally love to laugh, but pure comedy shows are still a niche.

Viewers tend to approach comedy differently compared to regular television. They rarely view a scheduled episode in its entirety. Instead, they watch clips. Word-of-mouth is relied on for buzz. A celebrity impression or clever parody is posted and Twitter does its thing, relaying it to millions. 

It’s an effective model (also utilized by web-only entities like CollegeHumor and Funny or Die) because the internet is a sustainable catalyst and people like sharing funny things. It doesn’t bring actual audiences to the network: internet views are not TV viewers. Even The Daily Show and Colbert are big on “segments” that become clips — panel debates or rants.

This is a blessing and curse for the comedy world. Hundreds of comedians toil away in basement clubs, fine-tuning impressions, writing stand-up, and inventing creative sketches. Few ever achieve the prominence of an actor on CBS. Their stand-up bit might earn 10 minutes on your laptop and that’s all you’ll devote to them. You probably won’t search and peruse their catalogue of work. 

The plateau of comedy is Saturday Night Live, which garners seven million viewers weekly. I wrote about it back in March, and my thoughts haven’t changed: I laugh, but it’s not worth the 95 minutes. Comics have multiple outlets — improv, stand-up, writing, and acting, any of which might land an SNL gig. 

Naturally, SNL is a career propellor: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Andy Samberg, and others have headlined their own TV shows from SNL exposure. Seth Meyers (ex-SNL) will succeed Jimmy Fallon (also ex-SNL) on Late Night, who in turn will succeed Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. Kristen Wiig found deserved fame on Bridesmaids

For a long time though, yet-to-be discovered cast members chipped away at comedy theatres, hoping for golden tickets from SNL overlord Lorne Michaels. Poehler is one of the Upright Citizens Brigade founders (where she met Fey) — UCB was (and still is) a training ground for many prominent comedians today.

Stand-up comedians aim for half-hour or hour-long “specials.” Comedy Central’s The Half-Hour is a place for this, if not HBO’s specials (Sarah Silverman premiered hers last November; Louis C.K.’s “Oh My God” was my favourite of 2013; Aziz Ansari’s “Buried Alive” released on Netflix). 

Like clips, these are one-shot deals occasionally worth watching. Most comics aren’t TV-famous like Silverman and Ansari though, and viewers won’t feel compelled to explore their career. The specials become the largest exposure they’ll ever get. 

Other comedians pay the bills with guest spots on popular TV sitcoms. Nick Kroll (Rodney on The League, now with his own Kroll Show) has appeared on Parks and Recreation, New Girl, and Community. Seth Morris was a cast member on Go On and recurring on Happy Endings. Kate Micuci, one half of the terrific comedy band Garfunkel and Oates, had roles on Raising Hope and The Big Bang Theory

Comedians can be funny actors, but they’re also writing, making podcast appearances, producing comedy records, and cutting web shorts to further their careers. Unless we devotedly follow them, that work disappears quickly into the internet’s vortex.

The opportunities are increasing though. Marc Maron and Scott Aukerman’s podcasts, WTF with Marc Maron and Comedy Bang! Bang!, both earned shows on IFC. After her successful hour special “Mostly Sex Stuff,” Amy Schumer now produces Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central. 

Sketch show Key & Peele, hilarious and thoughtful on its commentary about race, is one of a few CC programs that regularly notches over one million viewers. Twitter has been tremendously helpful for comedians: it’s where Rob Delaney proved his craft, and how Josh Gondelman, author of @SeinfeldToday, landed a TV writing gig (Seinfeld fans MUST follow that feed).

Acting is a tough business to break into. Likewise, comedians are constantly facing obscurity, and doing everything possible to raise their profiles. Comedians don’t have the bright lights of network television though. The steps are incremental. 

You might know Louis C.K. from his stand-up specials (or Louie, where he showcases his filmmaking talent), which took years of hard work. Few simply “make it” in comedy; look at any successful comedian’s career, and there’s at least ten years of stuff you’ve never seen before. Most of the names in this column are already the most visible men and women in comedy.

It doesn’t help that comedy today is consumed via clips (through no fault of our own — it’s just the efficient way to digest it). Not only is being funny difficult, but the non-narrative aspect (which sitcoms have) make it less consumable for TV. If you like laughing though, the comedy world is full of comics ready for an audience.

Andrew Koo (@akoo) misses Happy Endings.

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