Friday, September 6, 2013

The Speed of Parody

Comedy is hard.

I know, I know, when you see a stand-up, or watch a sitcom, you're probably not thinking about all of the work that went into crafting the jokes- the hours and hours spent in comedy clubs to refine one punchline- making sure that you said three or four words in just the right way to get the maximum reaction from an audience- or all of the lines of dialogue that were written, and deleted, or crumpled up and thrown in the garbage because they "just weren't funny enough."

You're especially not thinking about the years that most comedians spend getting good at their craft, going to improv training centers, watching shows, performing shows for 6 people in a dive bar on Chicago's North Side so that maybe you might get a shot to audition for Saturday Night Live, or the Daily Show. Not to mention the sacrifices you make- working a shitty job at Starbucks or in a Call Center so you can have the flexibility to go on auditions during the day and perform at night.

So just trust me when I say that comedy is hard.

One of the interesting developments in the last few years, something that has, seemingly, made comedy easier, is the internet (specifically video sharing web sites like Youtube), and digital video editing tools.

It can be very, very hard to establish yourself as a comedian. Normally, you have to get noticed (in a positive way) by a "gatekeeper". A Gatekeeper, traditionally, was a TV casting agent, a comedy club owner, or someone like that- someone who owned the means of comedy distribution. Again- this was, traditionally, not an easy task. Usually you had to move to LA, or New York- where the entertainment gatekeepers live- to get their attention.

The internet has made "getting noticed" somewhat (and I really stress the word "somewhat") easier. Now, you can produce a pretty decent comedy video with relatively little money from anywhere in the world. And you can produce a comedy video very, very quickly. It is no exaggeration to say that you can produce a professional looking comedy video in an afternoon if you really put your nose to the grindestone, and know what you are doing. This process used to take days, or weeks in some cases. And then you had to find someone in the TV or Movie industry who actually wanted to distribute your content. Now, you can upload your video to youtube and distribute it yourself. Oh sure, you still need to get the attention of a web site like Buzzfeed, or Funny-or-Die to get your video to go viral, but believe me- this is way easier than getting a video on TV. Way, way easier. Seriously- college kids with 0 industry knowledge have done it.

This has led to a kind of interesting phenomenon. Now, if a non-comedy video becomes very popular- I'll use Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" as an example- it will get parodied a billion times by people on the internet. Not only will it get parodied a billion times, but it will get parodied a billion times within days of achieving popularity itself.

So, on Day 1 you'll have the actual video. You'll see the song itself in your Facebook, twitter, tumblr feeds, etc.:


On Day 2 you'll get some amateurish parodies- videos made by people with iphone cameras and editing software that came built into their laptops. You'll see these in your feed as well. You may even see comments like "Here's a video I made with my friends LOL":


The on Day 3 all hell breaks loose as professionals with production budgets get in on the action:

It's about when the corporate people get in on the action that you'll see comments like "Ugh, I'm SO SICK of "Call Me Maybe" parodies, why won't people do anything ORIGINAL?"

Here's why:

Like I said, it's easy to make a comedy video. It's easy to distribute a comedy video. We're at this point where EVERYBODY thinks they can do youtube comedy videos. Parody songs are also really easy to make. There's very little creativity that goes into them- most of the time. I say "Most of the time" because there are people out there who make AWESOME comedy videos- like Weird Al. But most people aren't Weird Al.

Watch that second video again. It's terrible. Like, really bad. The guys in the video just took the tune from the original song and subbed a bunch of nonsense words in that make no sense in context with each other. Then, they filmed a video with basic recording and editing equipment.

That video has over 3 million views. OVER 3 MILLION!

This is why there a billion song parody videos online. They're easy to make, easy to write, and because people are familiar with the properties, they already have a hook.

"It's Call Me Maybe, but with Cookie Monster!"

"It's Jay-Z's Empire State of Mind, but they're singing about New Hampshire!"

"It's Macklemore's "Thrift Shop", but they're singing about smoking pot!"

These are all descriptions of real parody videos that really went viral. It's not like all parody videos go viral, but people make them by the boatload because they're a low effort, high reward comedy endeavor. To use some business terminology, the return-on-investment from making a parody video is relatively high.

This can kind of suck for professional comedians for a couple of reasons. For one, it's very frustrating to watch a really crappy, not particularly funny, poorly made video go viral. Second, most comedians want their original, non-derivative material to take off, to get noticed, but it gets flooded out by people making "easy comedy" song parodies. So many comedians make parody videos just to get noticed- using those as a hook to get you to notice their original material. I don't begrudge anyone this, at all. You do what you have to do to succeed.

But the third frustration comes when, as a semi-professional, or professional comedian, you get your own idea for a parody of a song (or anything really), like say, I want to do a parody of "the Fox" (which is a song that went viral this week) called "The Lox" about food at a Jewish Deli (Comedy gold!) and you do a google search for parodies of that video the day after a song went viral- and you see someone already made that parody, with the same concept you had, and it's already gone viral.

What does all of this mean? Well it means that as someone involved in comedy, you might want to make a song parody at some point, even if song parodies kind of make you feel gross. They make me feel gross, and I have made some in my many years doing comedy. It also means that if you do want to make one, you have to be fast. Generally speaking, once a video goes viral, you probably only have a few days before the internet is flooded with parodies, and only a few weeks before everyone in the world gets sick of those parodies.

Oh, and then there's the weird thing where people make parodies of parody videos, which is basically the point at which the internet snake starts eating it's own tail. But that's a blog for another time.

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