Is TikTok good for comedy? | Finlay Christie on what digital comics can learn from older stand-ups – and vice-versa

Is TikTok good for comedy?

Finlay Christie on what digital comics can learn from older stand-ups – and vice-versa

Since putting out sketch content on TikTok and YouTube, I’ve been labelled as a different kind of comedian. One of the digital comics. Armed with podcasts, branded deals, Patreons and Linktrees, we’re a slowly emerging new wave of British comics, carving out an audience and income for ourselves online.

When I started, I wasn’t aware of this digital comedy route to success. I had learned that comedians make a career by doing well at the Fringe, getting on TV and then touring. But this trajectory now seems like a pipe dream.

People often cite Kevin Bridges’ Live at The Apollo as an example of how a single TV appearance could once make your ticket sales skyrocket. Today, it takes much longer to cement yourself in the public consciousness. The online route can help you build a diehard fanbase in a shorter time, without needing approval from the industry (bleurgh). With traditional TV fame seeming less and less desirable, do younger comics have anything to learn from following in their elders’ footsteps?

The answer is, of course, yes. We have absolutely everything to learn from our elders. I did my first stand-up gig at the Comedy Club 4 Kids in 2006. I was six or seven years old, and I went on stage with pink bunny ears because I loved Steve Martin.

Every comic learns their craft by imitating their heroes who have it honed. Writing bits, working a room, dealing with hecklers. These skills come with experience. Many years later, when I started doing comedy for adults, I learned the most from staying at gigs to watch the more seasoned acts - the headliners. These acts taught me how to write jokes, and I use these joke-writing skills when writing sketches for TikTok. I try to make every line in my sketches as punchy as possible so people don’t swipe away to something else.

While circumventing Edinburgh would be a weight off many digital comics’ minds, following the traditional career trajectory also allows you more time to improve as a comic before fame comes calling. It also forces you to do Edinburgh, an intensive comedy training camp that toughens you up, teaches you to structure an hour, and motivates you to write.

Having earned their stripes through arduous Edinburgh runs, it’s understandable that some older comics are sceptical of these online overnight successes. I read an article recently where an older comedian claimed TikTok – which has a sponsorship deal with the Edinburgh Fringe this year – hasn’t been good for stand-up because it deceives you into thinking people are funny, and then their hour-long show isn’t that good.

 While I thank this comedian for tapping into my biggest insecurity, there are many examples to refute this. Nigel Ng, an Edinburgh-nominated act whose Uncle Roger character catapulted him to international stardom, and crowd work king Russell Hicks, who TV hasn’t yet made a household name (for shame), but whose clips on TikTok have given him the fans he deserves.

Granted, these comedians were already well-established on the live circuit, so what about the social media stars blundering through their first ever stand-up sets in 600-seater venues of die-hard online fans? Well, it’s more likely that these stars are putting the younger generation on to stand-up comedy. These fans likely wouldn’t come out to see comedy otherwise. I wonder if comedians who are cynical of social media stars breaking into stand-up were doubtful of Ricky Gervais, who was famous from TV before stand-up.

If someone is funny outside of live comedy, you can be hopeful they’ll have some stand-up chops. The skills you get from writing digital or scripted comedy feed in to those of live comedy. You can sharpen your comedy writing and performing with acting and online sketches just as you can with stand-up. Learning how to think on your feet as an MC will make you a better podcast host, and vice versa.

I like to think most older comics aren’t so cynical about social media. It’s manifestly invaluable for promoting yourself and providing content gives people a reason to love and remember you, allowing you to sell more tickets.

Another huge advantage is it provides you with more cash. As the cost of living goes up and the pay for live gigs remains the same, Ive heard many older comics express their desire to diversify their streams of income. Over the pandemic, a comedian offered to pay me for 'TikTok lessons’ in order to get more brand deals, as he had recently received an exciting £10,000 sponsorship from a golf brand.

Patreon has also allowed comedians outside the mainstream to become multi-millionaires. Top Patreon comedian Tim Dillion earns more than $200,000 a month on his Patreon for his podcast The Tim Dillon Show. Many British comics are following this American blueprint, with Adam Rowe and Dan Nightingale’s Have A Word podcast earning around £80,000 per month. While this is currently the most glaring example of a British Patreon success story, many others will likely follow,

So while the digital comics can look to their elders to learn endurance and comedy craft, the open-minded old-timers can look to their youngers to learn how to build an audience effectively, while making money.  The online boon and the waning popularity of TV does not signal the death of comedy. It simply signifies a continued demand for it, and shows that people now shop online for everything — shoes, food, romantic partners, and laughs.

I understand it’s easy for me, a young person, to tell my elders to get with the times. But chances are my career won’t go that well, and then I can get my segment on GB News, mourning the old days of TikTok on Patreon, and slagging off whatever the new thing is.

Finlay Christie’s debut stand up show OK Zoomer will be at the Gilded Balloon Teviot Wee Room at 6pm during the Edinburgh Fringe.

Published: 12 Jul 2022

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