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Does Web Comedy Work on TV?

Aymar Jean Christian May 19, 2010 uncategorized 3 Comments on Does Web Comedy Work on TV?

For the past few years, cable television and web comedy networks have been in an on-again, off-again love affair. Wednesday, Viacom’s Comedy Central and Atom started its third — third! — season of Atom TV, a program of comedic shorts from the site and one of a handful of web-to-TV comedy deals from the past few years.

What can we make of these strange relationships?

WHAT’S OUT THERE

Atom TV features a pretty broad swathe of programming and has been a great way for unrecognized comedians to get a TV credit — I spoke with one such artist, actress Very Mary Kate‘s Elaine Carroll recently. This season, actor Al Thompson’s Johnny B. Homeless, another web series I’ve featured before, will get a bigger screen launch through the service. The program airs 2:30 AM and has also aired on MTV2.

Funny or Die Presents is the other major deal out right now. Partnering with HBO, the site is also providing late night comedic shorts for the pay-cable network. Liz Shannon Miller, NewTeeVee’s resident expert on web video content, says the program is good, but not perfect:

The approach (a collection of shorts) is a much purer one, and also acknowledges that audiences at midnight on a Friday probably don’t have the best attention spans. But it means that Funny or Die Presents lives or dies based on the individual sketches compiled together. And while the first episode starts off with some big laughs, there’s some unfortunate tail-off, and the philosophy behind its programming doesn’t make much sense.

Comparing it to last year’s The CollegeHumor Show, MTV’s collaboration with the IAC prestige property, NewTeeVee says Funny Or Die is closer to showcasing what’s best about the web. CollegeHumor attempted to create a full, seamless half-hour program inspired by its short online programs, which was, reportedly, not quite seamless. Similarly late-night, the program only aired for one season.

In a much more humble move, Break partnered with G4 to produce a segment (“This Week in FAIL”) in its entertaining, if evidently derivative, program Web Soup. Beginning last year, the segment is apparently still running. My Damn Channel recently partnered with hotel programming service Do Not Disturb to bring some of its programming to hotels (Strike TV also has a deal with them). For what it’s worth, it’s a deal they regularly tout and seem quite proud of.

WHY IS IT HAPPENING?

Not to be obvious, but, of course, comedy works online. Comedy is the holy grail. The vast majority of what goes viral is comedic. Comedy has made a host of sites quite successful. Already the mainstream media has tried going the opposite route, from TV to the web for comedy, which hasn’t really worked out. Bringing comedy from the web to TV is the obvious next step.

The real reason is pure industrial logic. If comedy is king online, young men reign on television. They are the hardest viewers to reach and come at a premium for advertisers. It makes sense its networks like G4 and Comedy Central courting web video.

At the same time, these networks are chock full of young male programming; they don’t desperately need web-grown entertainment. So they stick these programs on late-night, when they’d otherwise be running movies or reruns. Web programming is cheap and probably — probably! — captures slightly higher ad rates than yet another replay of The Hebrew Hammer.

IS IT WORKING?

But there are clear differences in genre, viewing experience and cultural context between the web and TV. People watch web comedy during office hours; they watch TV at night. As is often mentioned by those in the industry, standards for production quality on TV are higher — although most of these shorts are just as good if not better than the cheaper end of cable programming.

Certainly that CollegeHumor’s program never went very far doesn’t bode well, given the site’s dominance online and grade-A class of writers. I’m not sure what added value Funny or Die Presents is bringing to HBO, but the network still has hours of on-air time to fill, and, really, not that much original content to fill it. Thirty minutes of low-cost programming, even if only marginally popular, is either neutral or net-positive. Given HBO’s penchant for renewing low-performing scripted shows, I wouldn’t be surprised if Funny or Die comes back. It’s something different, and, true-to-motto, “not TV.”

Atom TV‘s 3-year tenure proves the opposite. But we should probably think about Atom TV not as web-to-TV or Atom-to-Comedy Central but as Viacom-to-Viacom. It’s real synergy, promoting two brands in a low-risk way.

I’m not entirely confident we’ll see more web-to-TV comedy crossovers. Cable networks still need programming, and people will always be bored at 3 AM. But from the looks of it, the relationships are still a bit awkward.

Here’s a sampling from Atom TV’s third season:

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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