TikTok, TikTok... my time posting comedy on social media is limited | - says Alistair Barrie as he weighs up the pros and cons of putting content online

TikTok, TikTok... my time posting comedy on social media is limited

- says Alistair Barrie as he weighs up the pros and cons of putting content online

A few days ago, I read Sam Carrington’s Chortle article ‘Why Comedians Shouldn’t Fear Putting Their Material Online’ with interest because if there’s one thing I haven’t noticed recently, it is a lack of Comedians Putting Their Material Online.

While I don’t doubt Sam’s perspective as a promoter, yesterday I read Sam Serrano’s piece about the pressure on comedians to post ever more content, which chimed much more with my experiences as a stand-up with a tour to promote. So, I thought I’d add a few thoughts of my own, as long as no one minds I’m not called Sam and have a tour to promote.

Gather round children, and let me tell you a story.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when I started on the comedy circuit, I’d had a mobile for two years, which I used mostly as a telephone. Booking was generally achieved through buying Time Out and bothering anyone foolish enough to leave their number in the listings, and a sat nav was another comic sat next to you with a map. At the office I occasionally turned up to as a particularly casual telesales rep, there were two computers – one for the horribly overworked and under-appreciated secretary, and one which was mostly used to look at porn in the lunch break.

If you were filming your gigs, you were either a) on telly, b) Eddie Izzard or c) at The Comedy Store. Your Store video was as much a rite of passage as your first paid gig, even though it only recorded through the onstage mike, so it was extremely hard to tell if anyone was laughing. Generally speaking, you did not want your material filmed because it was your livelihood, and if anyone did, you wanted them to pay for it.

It was, let’s face it, another century.

I missed computers at school by about two years, but breezily assumed my heroic refusal to enter the regular workplace would render this small oversight irrelevant. Just as I was realising how idiotic this was, along came social media, and the game completely changed. My technological skills remain unimpressive, but if necessity is the mother of invention, then the internet has become the daddy of comedy. Whether or not you think that’s a good thing depends, without wishing to get too Freudian, on your relationship with your father.

Before anyone posts memes of me smashing up Spinning Jennies, could I say I am thoroughly in favour of anything that can help promote comedy and comedians? If you object to appearing online, you’re either lucky enough to be Daniel Kitson or refusing to accept the world has moved on since you walked out of The Comedy Store in 1999 clutching a VHS which your mother watched before saying, ‘they’re not laughing very much, are they dear?’

Promoting a tour has been an incredibly steep learning curve. One of the first things I did was to meet a very impressive social media manager who then terrified me with her prices. Thankfully she was also able to offer some very constructive advice, much of it involving ad placement, length, platforms and complex engagement data I hope one day to be able to afford. Social media is proper work – identifying, editing, subtitling and posting content to various different platforms at the same time every day – ideally at the exact moment you’re dropping your kids off at school…

Like most comedians, I have spent much of the last decade building a Twitter following only for Elon Musk to blow it up even more catastrophically than another of his ‘successful’ rocket launches. My social media expert informed me she doesn’t even have X (what a great name for something people are leaving in droves) on her phone any more.


But this is exactly the sort of thing that happens with emerging technologies, and you can either get involved or get left behind. It’s absolutely brilliant to see someone like Mark Simmons on what appears to be a Bob Dylan-esque never ending tour because of his social media game (and his undoubted prowess as a comic.) Name me a comedian who doesn’t want to be ‘adding extra dates’. Similarly, clubs like Hot Water and Top Secret have a hugely successful online output which has been instrumental in making them such successful live comedy venues.

But. I’m a middle-aged British comic. Of course there’s a but.

Someone like Mark has a significant advantage in that he writes a lot of short, sharp gags. Most comedians do not, and their material is less easily packaged into the shorter slots favoured by social media. There are number of knock-on effects of this, beyond excellent one-liner comedians buying bigger houses and nicer cars.

The main two are the explosion in ‘crowd work’ videos and a more general problem with quality control. Now, don’t get me wrong, a good bit of crowd work is the sort of interactive experience which can transform a good club gig into a great one. It is also the reason ‘interactive’ videos gain so much traction. Just ask Jim Jefferies (see here if you don't get that reference).

While this is undeniable, it’s also a bit depressing, because it can reinforce the idea heckling is part of the show (it isn’t.) More importantly, for anyone who feels the need to post constantly without a backlog of material, it can become a default position.

I’m told some American clubs have now banned crowd work because so many acts were desperately trying to create a ‘moment’ for TikTok. An old friend who’s been a top MC for years told me he’d recently been berated by an act for doing actual jokes rather than crowd work before he brought him on. Apparently he began with, ‘In all my four years of comedy…’ and the discussion didn’t last much longer.

Nonetheless, ‘crowd work’ gets the algorithm terribly excited, and I know I’m hardly alone in thinking, ‘Ooh. This’ll do well on Insta…’ every time I start dealing with a heckler at a gig that’s being filmed. You’re not going to change that, so you may as well embrace it. But I do believe it would serve everyone well to do so a little more sparingly. I have massively increased my output on social media in the past few weeks because it really is the best promotional tool available to an established comedian without a huge profile.

I have a sizeable archive of recorded material which I am using specifically to promote the tour I may have occasionally mentioned. Naturally, I’m delighted every time I find a good bit of crowd interaction which I can post instead of actual material. I also know I’ll probably get better PR (and a bigger dopamine hit from the number of views) than I do from a carefully crafted routine from my tour show at The Comedy Store on November 28.

There is nothing more tedious than older comedians criticising newer ones, or failing to acknowledge the industry has evolved. And comedy is ultimately a very individual pursuit - no one is right or wrong, they’re just doing it their own way.

I am always amused when I perform on bills with newer comics at the sheer number of tri​pods which suddenly materialise at the back of the room. It’s easy to sneer, but at the same time, the enormous amount of work that goes into producing content is surely to be applauded. Added to which, one of the best ways of writing I know is going back over gigs and seeing what you might do differently, which it would appear newer comics are doing constantly. I simply don’t know where they find the time.

However, after the tour, I will be cutting back on how much I post. In the most stark terms, your material is a finite resource, and the appetite of the internet is infinite. It takes time to build up material and it is also a constant work in progress – if you are giving it away every day, you are by definition compromising the quality of your output. And anything I do put out, I still want to be the best it can be. I have frequently been told that posting ‘anything you like’ out regularly is better than posting ‘something you like’ irregularly, but that doesn’t mean I believe it is in the best interests of comedy.

As a result of Sam Serrano’s piece, yesterday I watched Matt Rife for the first time. He’s clearly a very charismatic performer, but as Sam so rightly points out, if you’re producing four hour-long ‘specials’ in a year, they’re not all going to be special.

The joke that got him in trouble struck me as exactly the sort of joke a newer comic would do before telling the audience he’s ‘too edgy’ for them (which he essentially does.) No comedian is ever ‘too edgy for an audience’. They just decide if they like them or not.

What is undeniable is Matt Rife has a sizable audience. Whether he holds on to them or not depends on a number of factors, including whether they stick with him as he matures as a comic in a glare of publicity much brighter than anyone from my generation experienced.

The internet has made so much culture disposable, which can give the audience a very skewed perspective on what great stand-up can be. I can in no way criticise him for grabbing his opportunities with both hands, but it is always worth remembering less can be more. Unless you are part of my audience at The Comedy Store next Tuesday.

Alistair Barrie’s Woke In Progress is being performed at The Comedy Store in London on Tuesday November 28. Tickets here.  It's being filmed.

Published: 24 Nov 2023

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