Hilarity in High-Def
Is laughter leaving the clubs and heading online and onscreen?
By Michelle Kay
If you’re in downtown Halifax on a Sunday evening, you might see a lineup of people snaking past the vacant Sam the Record Man store on Barrington Street. The crowd is young and hip, clad in tight jeans, American Apparel T-shirts and clutching bicycle helmets. They’re not waiting for a band. They’re lining up to laugh, guffaw and chuckle at the comedic stylings of Picnicface, a popular Halifax-based comedy troupe.
Fans line up 45 minutes before showtime at Ginger’s Tavern every other Sunday to be entertained by the troupe’s unique brand of sketch and improvisational comedy. Their shows always sell out, and dozens of disappointed people are turned away, dejected and vowing to come earlier next time.
The eight-person troupe–made up of Andrew Bush (you may remember him from Street Cents), Evany Rosen, Scott Vrooman, Brian MacQuarrie, Bill Wood, Cheryl Hann, Mark Little and Kyle Dooley–performs an absurd kind of comedy, depicting outlandish characters in ridiculous situations somewhat reminiscent of Kids in the Hall skits.
Video plays an integral role in their work, appearing both online and in live shows. The troupe’s performances usually feature one or two video sketches, and if you look at YouTube’s Most Viewed comedy videos, Picnicface’s Powerthirst sketch clocks in with just under 10,000,000views. You could say Powerthirst, the energy drink parody ad for those who require “gratuitous amounts of energy,” helped put Picnicface on the comedic map. The video received a further boost after becoming a featured video on funnyordie.com, a comedy site co-owned by Will Ferrell.
The troupe’s fan base is made up mostly of university students and the high school crowd. That’s not to say that the comedy is immature. On the contrary, the writing is tight, sharp and witty. “Clever juvenilia,” says Little, one of the main driving forces behind Picnicface. “We think it’s funny, but it’s not stuff that would go over the heads of young people. I would say our humour is accessible humour dealt with in an absurd way,” says Little.
When you peruse the thousands of comments made about their YouTube videos, you’ll see that most are just repeated quotes from the sketch itself. “If you think back to when you were in high school and the Simpsons, it’s a cool thing that a kid can just walk in and start saying [lines from the show] and have that in common with all the other kids, ” says Wood.
“You don’t have to think of your own jokes. You can quote us,” quips Hann. “You’re welcome.”
Similar to music, arts and business, having an online presence is advantageous for comedians who want to showcase their work and reach new fans. For David Dineen-Porter, a Toronto-based comedian, musician and filmmaker, videos act as business cards, a sort of free promotion to get people to pay to see your show. “It’s like how bands give away their music for free. No one ever made money selling CDs. They make money from concerts…it’s the same with comedians, says Dineen-Porter”
The idea of freebies as a way to hook consumers isn’t new. Chris Anderson’s article, “Free! Why $0.00 is the Future of Business” in Wired’s March 2008 issue, starts off looking at how King Gillette, the inventor of disposable razor blades, discovered a successful business model called freebie marketing. Giving away razors for free with other products helped boost Gillette’s sales. Anderson writes: Once a marketing gimmick, free has emerged as a full-fledged economy. Offering free music proved successful for Radiohead, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and a swarm of other bands on MySpace that grasped the audience-building merits of zero.
Videos act like comedic bait, reeling audiences in to live shows. Artists have a forum to post their work, viewers can access the work for free and sites like Google and YouTube make money through pay-per-click advertising.
“Video has far more constraints (such as being under four minutes long, generally relying heavily on pop culture references), but it seems artificially more impressive…I prefer video for feeling accomplished and live performances for feeling skilled,” says Dineen-Porter.
Okay, so the comparison between Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails with Canadian comedians isn’t quite the same. Those bands did have a fanatical, pre-existing, fan base prior to their free releases, thanks to the backing of some major labels promoting their earlier work. Still, the idea of freebies can benefit comedians like Dineen-Porter and Picnicface. With television viewership falling and the demographic getting older, online videos are an effective way to reach younger fans.
According to Levi McDougall, an award-winning, Toronto stand-up comic, actor and filmmaker–his films often delve into surrealist comedy, but you probably recognize him as the guy with bad reception in that Rogers commercial–video’s main advantage is its ability to travel regardless of time, venue or other limitations associated with a live show. “It does allow for a larger audience to have access to it. Specifically people in Kansas who are too stubborn to make the trip to Toronto to see a live show in the back of a club on a Sunday night,” writes McDougall in an e-mail.
For Dineen-Porter, videos act as a kind of filter. “Videos promote you; [they help] develop a fan base of people who like you and your style. The old way was horrible. You toured endlessly, opening for whoever; random local comedians with random local audiences. Five percent might be on the same wavelength with you. But if you have a good video presence, like a good online music presence, people who like you know you are coming and come to see you. It might be safer to say that you get better audiences when you have videos spreading your thing in advance.”
Dineen-Porter says he likes the control he has with video. Lighting, scheduling, audio, editing, props, costumes, coverage, etc., those are all the filmmaker’s call. “Video has far more constraints (such as being under four minutes long, generally relying heavily on pop culture references), but it seems artificially more impressive…I prefer video for feeling accomplished and live performances for feeling skilled,” says Dineen-Porter. For him, videos are easier to do; they simply require more time. “It’s very hard to be a good performer. But a video that is good, well-produced, interesting, well written, etc., is a real accomplishment.”
So what does this addition of video mean to live comedy? Does adding the technological element affect the work? Most comedians have learned to partner the two, posting video links of their stand-up or sketch work. Despite the assurgency of video comedy, the live factor is far from dead. Like music, comedy hasn’t moved beyond the stage despite increasing popularity of online videos. Comedy has simply incorporated the advantages and liberties of videos and the far-flung we b of the Internet. The two work hand-in-hand, intertwined in a symbiotic relationship, one relying on the other for success.
The Vaudevillian element of a live performance is still the bread and butter of comedy. Video cannot offer the human element and spontaneous interaction of a live show. “With standup/sketch/improv, you’re physically in the room, and you organically develop a relationship with the audience. With video, you are essentially blasting images at them to make them go, ‘That’s so weird’ or ‘ha ha,'” troupe is content to perform live sketches and produce videos while batting around new ideas. “We’ve actually been talking about the idea of doing a game show…in a quiz show format,” says Hann, “That kind of feeds the idea of combining our videos and live stuff. Take our YouTube videos and ask people about them.”
With an aging demographic of TV viewers, online videos have become an important way for comedians to ensure that they’re connected to their fans. A study published by MAGNA, an American media services firm, found the ages of TV viewers has increased considerably. “The median ages of the broadcast networks keep rising, as traditional television is no longer necessarily the first screen for the younger set,” writes Steve Sternberg, MAGNA’s director of audience analysis. Even once-popular programs such as Saturday Night Live, which served as a venue for sketch comedy and featured the hottest celebrities, have become antiquated in an age where the Internet dominates. From 2003to 2008, the median age of SNL viewers grew from 40 to 45. “I think TV and the Internet will mesh. You’ll have a show on TV that will produce quick little snippets,” says Picnicface’s Wood. “Sketch is perfect for that because then you can take those snippets and put them on the web…in 10years, TV won’t really be watched. Or it will, but it will be watched by people who are 60and never got into the Internet side of things.” Picnicface still dreams of landing a TV show, but for now the troupe is content to perform live sketches and produce videos while batting around new ideas. “We’ve actually been talking about the idea of doing a game show…in a quiz show format,” says Hann, “That kind of feeds the idea of combining our videos and live stuff. Take our YouTube videos and ask people about them.”
Back at Ginger’s, next to a makeshift video screen and projector, the sound isn’t working this particular Sunday night. “This video is going to be good. Really, really good,” ad libs Little. “It’s going to have to be really, really funny now that I’ve pumped it up so much.” There’s a glitch and a delay before Bush is able to get the sound up and running, but it’s of no consequence to the audience. They’re forgiving and laugh at Little’s improv remarks, clapping and cheering when the video eventually works. The imperfections and video hiccups are all part of the live show charm.