Is technology changing comedy?

Adrian Thompson's not so sure

‘Technology has changed everything!’, said my friend, Mark, an IT-geek who’s shocked everyone by reaching 33 without yet uploading himself into the Matrix. ‘From calculators replacing abacuses, right up to now, where people stream movies and TV shows instead of renting a VHS, or watching TV schedules. It’s so exciting! Computers are changing everything!’ he exclaimed, sending tadpoles searching for an egg in the threads of his boxers.

He’s right of course. Everything from banking, to news, to the High Street, to dating is now defined by its online presence and it got me thinking: could comedy be next? And if so, which way will it go – I mean, computers have been known to enhance things, but that’s not always the case, is it?

After all, one man’s easy, efficient, online shopping experience is another man’s soulless, murdered High Street. Amazon made it convenient to buy pretty much anything online and get it shipped to you the next day, but where they stormed that gap in the market, they left a slew of Starbucks and pound shops behind them. So in that sense, it feels like we destroyed something important for the sake of a quick-win.

Just as Ritz Video were eaten by Blockbuster, who were eaten by LoveFilm and Netflix, just as Tower Records died, Virgin Megastores became Zavvi, who were survived by HMV, who were eaten by iTunes –  the names can change, but the story rarely does. Technology and a market’s desire to make things easier and quicker to access, mean industries reliant on an extinct model are usually the next to cancel your Christmas vouchers.

Regardless of what you may hear about how comedy is an art-form and it’ll remain separate to technology, the evidence is already there that the industry is being at least influenced by the internet, if not changed by it. Established acts and up-and-comers are expanding their fan-base via the mediums of podcasting and YouTube shorts, through to eliminating vendors by selling their own tickets; And even away from the supply-chain of the comics themselves, it’s an age where the Facebook status, the 140-character tweet and the ten-minute clip, can offer the new comic a free, open platform to have something easily digestible and cheaply made, sprawled across the planet in seconds.

While the format of someone standing in front of a mic, telling jokes to a crowd is largely the same as it ever was, the opportunities to share that punchline with more than 15 people a night have multiplied in a colossal, sometimes detrimental way. It seems for the last two Edinburgh Festivals, comedians are succeeding in spite of their jokes being shared so much, rather than because of it.

So to embrace technology, the comedian must learn from the past. Let’s cast our minds back to 2004. Your friend had a band, the band had a MySpace. Their MySpace had 2,000 friends and the tracks had been played 30 times that day.

Just that intro would’ve got your friend laid that weekend. It had never been easier for artists to get their stuff out there than it was at that time. A kid from Hackney had uploaded demos of himself rapping along to an instrumental, attracting attention from Lily Allen and he later exploded as Professor Green. Allen herself has as much to owe to her original MySpace following as she does to her Dad or Jo Wiley.

There were others, of course. Zach Braff famously used the site to find new artists for soundtracks he was working on around the Scrubs and Garden State era. It was a new platform. It gave artists exposure. But by the time it was offering special layouts and magazine pages for budding directors and bands, it was clear that opening the floodgates to all the singers in cyberspace, had diluted the quality horribly. Sifting through the drudge of mediocrity to find anything worth listening to became tiresome and, before too long, Facebook had offered everyone a better social experience and LastFM covered off the new music element.

It’s great when anyone can share their music, but that makes it way harder for everyone to find anything decent. Anyone with an MP3 of their brother rapping had a profile; anyone who had a cat had a YouTube channel – the industries that embraced MySpace, simply moved on to newer, slicker solutions (iTunes, Spotify). The music industry has never truly recovered from that beigeing of standards. It’s simply lowered the bar, then formalised it into major label churn again.

Comedy is now at a similar crossroads. A Guardian article last week expressed frustration at the immediate onslaught of bad puns to flood cyberspace whenever anything half-quirky arises in the news. Richard III? Cue a thousand car-park jokes. The Pope resigns? Cue a thousand Catholic priest jokes. Saturated, Instagram comedy. The one-liner nature of a tweet or a status, the social collateral that people wrap around a ‘likes’ and retweets, the ease with which the most popular entries on Sickipedia can be regurgitated into your feed – technology feels less like an efficiency tool and more like someone waterboarding me with cracker jokes.

Is it pretentious to suggest comedy is the last bastion of orthodox entertainment, in so far as career trajectory is concerned? Whether it’s comedy, theatre or music, all acts used to start off the same way, appearing in local productions, entering competitions, fighting to get a break on TV and maybe, if the right person was watching at the right time, they’d get some sort of deal and ‘make it’.

But the last decade has reduced the ‘rock icon’ to a singing checkout assistant in the form of X-Factor. Video editing apps, online streaming and mobile access are now changing film and television in a similar fashion. Instagram has anyone thinking they’re a professional photographer. The comedian remains that lonely figure on the artistic landscape that still has to write his/her own material, go to local venues, test it out, hone the delivery, gather a following and slowly build something in an age of on-the-spot fame and quick-win commercialism.

The idea of a ‘comedy app’, that somehow takes two news stories, then finds the common ground and cracks a joke from it, sounds like something we would joke about rather than see released to any kind of life-changing success. Anyone pitching a comedy-flavoured online platform, where users download or logon to a remotely performed stand-up routine would receive laughs of an alternative nature, were it ever presented on Dragon’s Den.

And though the reality vehicle has been cellophaned around stand-up in the form of Show Me The Funny, it’s essentially no different to a village talent show from back in the day. It’s still the same product, it still requires that same intrinsic skill and discipline. It hasn’t changed, for anyone.

‘Technology has changed everything!’ said my friend, Mark, excitedly.

‘Not everything,’ I replied, crossing my fingers.  

Published: 20 Feb 2013

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