How YouTube's changing sketch comedy | By Aunty Donna © James Penlidis

How YouTube's changing sketch comedy

By Aunty Donna

We’re more than two weeks into our first ever Edinburgh Festival Fringe: a rite of passage for young Australian comics for decades. We are Aunty Donna, a sketch group from Melbourne who have been working for just under four years, both on the stage and through YouTube.

YouTube has had an undeniable effect on audience expectations of what a sketch is. Simply put, the internet is brutal - if a viewer is bored for even a moment then they will open a new tab or skip the video completely. Where a sketch writer once had a captive audience, today’s viewer needs to be convinced to stay with you for the punchline. If the sketch is not shorter than two minutes, then it needs to have something else to keep people interested. Since starting our YouTube channel we have been constantly pushing ourselves to get to the joke faster, to find the core of the joke and to make that clear. We have spent the last two years cutting the fat, an attitude that has undoubtedly bled into our live shows.

The internet has also created a great shift in show structure. Sustaining a sketch show, either live or filmed, that runs for more than half an hour has always been a challenge. Monty Python often talked about the challenges of sustaining film-length running times when not aided by a narrative. For us, the question is: how do we take on this challenge, especially considering people are now much less likely to sit down and watch a half hour show? Much like iTunes saw the death of the album, so the sketch show has moved aside for individual YouTube videos – so how do we entertain a crowd so used to four minute vignettes over a show more than ten times that length?

Our live performance style is loud, over-the-top, and incredibly theatrical. We want to grab the audience’s attention immediately. We rarely let them breathe or think. There's a flowing stream-of-consciousness at times and at other times we cut in with new sketches before the previous scene has fully finished. There is never a blackout in an Aunty Donna show, never a costume change and very few props. Unlike the choose-your-own style of viewing of YouTube, there's no time to judge sketches on their own, to compare one sketch with another. Otherwise we wanted our show to be as quick and as hard as watching something on the internet, with all its infinite distractions.

We've played with narrative before, in varying degrees of success, but it was when we pushed our live style to represent the viewing habits of our generation that our show began to feel more complete. This was the opposite of what we expected.

It's not only the creative elements of sketch that have been affected by the advent of online content, in fact that's not even where the most drastic changes have occurred. It's the way sketch groups are now able to engage with and develop their audiences that has shifted seismically in recent years. YouTube has changed the ways in which a sketch group can reach an audience. No longer does a comedian have to wait for a TV channel to be looking for a quirky half-hour sitcom or a radio station to need a new host, they can begin to develop an audience and a filmed profile now. It's exciting that we can be developing our skills not just on stage, but on screen as well.

Another simpler difference between live performance and YouTube is the ability to convey our style and content to first timers, and the ease with which we can do that. While our online content can be quite stylistically different from our live performances, now is the first time that a comedian can use their content to sell a show. Where once, a well written blurb, a great publicity shot and good poster design were the only way to convey the work being marketed, you can now use the actual content to market your work, rather than just marketing collateral. The less we have to rely on marketing collateral to sell our show, the better - because a comedian’s content will always convey who they are and what they do better than any blurb ever could.

When we performed our first show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival a few years ago – we genuinely believed that this was a passion project with no future. We all loved sketch, had grown up watching it but from what we could see – the majority of casual comedy fans were not watching sketch any more. We were making this show for ourselves and the few friends we could drag along.

It was only when we uploaded our first attempt at filming our sketches a few months later that we realised that sketch was actually at its most popular. Although the half-hour sketch show format is being commissioned less and less, the audience for short, stand-alone videos on YouTube has never been greater. And if that brings people into the comedy theatres, or turns them onto sketch artists from yesteryear – then we’re doing alright.

Aunty Donna are on at the Gilded Balloon at 22:00 until August 25.

Published: 18 Aug 2014

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