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Monday, February 10th, 2014

How '@Midnight' Is Turning Its Internet Hook Into One of the Strongest Shows in Late Night

Considering the ever-expanding role that social media in our lives, it was only a matter of time before there was a television program named after a Twitter account. So when @midnight arrived in late October, it felt like a predictable Sign of the Times. What couldn't have been predicted, however, is how funny the show would be, or quickly it would find an audience. @midnight has only been on the air for eight weeks, and yet it already feels like an integral part of Comedy Central's lineup, having secured a 40-week renewal after strong ratings in its initial four-week run.

For the uninitiated, @midnight is a half-hour game show hosted by Chris Hardwick in which three comedians try to earn points (POINTS!) by competing in various internet-themed games. These games include things like Sad Etsy Boyfriends and OK Cupid or Serial Killer, which is exactly what it sounds like. After three acts, the comedian with the fewest points is eliminated, and the remaining two compete in one final showdown to determine who "wins the internet" for the next 23 and a half hours.

The show could've been much different than how it turned out: on an episode of Bill Simmons' B.S. Report podcast, Anthony Jeselnik mentioned that before he began work on The Jeselnik Offensive, Comedy Central had wanted him to host a four-night-a-week show that would air after The Colbert Report. It's not much of a stretch to think that @midnight is what that show became, and while Jeselnik is often hilarious, it's hard to deny that Hardwick is a much better fit. Jeselnik's deadpan-evil personality is perfect for his standup, but it wouldn't have translated to a game show that carries a such laid-back, friendly vibe. Hardwick combines Jimmy Fallon's charm with Jeselnik's willingness to "go there" and not play things super safe.

Depending on who you follow on Twitter, you may already be well aware of how popular the show is. Night after night, dozens of comedy nerds looking for some brief stardom are sending tweets to the @midnight account. That's because of the popular #HashtagWars segment, which lasts just 60 seconds on the show but goes on for hours and hours on Twitter as thousands of would-be comedians try to get their tweet featured on the next episode, or at least make the top 10 on the show's Tumblr (note: I TOTALLY got robbed for my #KnockoffBands entry, and I haven't completely gotten over it).

Of course, there's a slight danger to all of this. For those who don't watch the show on a nightly basis, the endless stream of punny tweets clogging up their timelines can become a bit much. Sportswriter David Roth (who writes for SB Nation and co-founded The Classical) half-jokingly asked for a special Twitter feature that would prevent people playing the @midnight game from appearing in his timeline. This wish is understandable — not everyone playing each night is a comedian, and there are always gonna be some stinkers. Since the show will likely continue to gain fans over the coming weeks and months, oversaturation could be a problem. When one TV show dominates the Twitterverse night after night, people are bound to get sick of it. Really, though, it shouldn't be a major issue, since the show's strong social media presence is only part of its appeal. After all, they can always ditch or change up #HashtagWars to keep the show fresh.

The show is also wonderfully egalitarian; the three comics on the show are often at varying levels of fame, but they all have the same chance of emerging victorious. In one episode, Kristen Schaal — well known for her work on Bob's Burgers and The Daily Show — was the first contestant eliminated, to which standup Kurt Braunholer remarked "but she's the only celebrity here!" It was a victory for everyone involved. No one thought less of Schaal for going home first (the crowd seemed genuinely sad upon her exit), but it helped Braunholer and runner-up Mike Lawrence introduce themselves to a larger audience.

It's a model that show can use going forward to even greater effect. As it continues to gain steam, we're likely to see more and more super-famous comedians, to the point where it will be weird if a well-known comic hasn't done the show. So far, the most famous contestant is probably Weird Al Yankovic (who ended up winning that night), but several other big names could be coming in the future. How great would a Stewart-Colbert showdown be? And what if they both lost to a relative unknown with only a few thousand Twitter followers? @midnight could serve as both a launching pad for young comics and a chance for the already-established folks to show they haven't lost their edge.

The guests might not even have to come from the comedy world. On a recent show, musician Neko Case tried her luck against two actual comics, and wound up emerging victorious. For those who follow Case on Twitter, this wasn't much of a surprise, as she's often a lot funnier then the dark themes in her music would suggest. Still, Case's appearance represented yet another avenue for the show to explore, as folks from other parts of show business entering the ring against professional comics could be fascinating to watch. Some will thrive as Case did, while others might crash and burn. Either way, it'll make for entertaining television.

It's only been a few months, but @midnight has the potential to become a late night mainstay. The repartee between Hardwick and the contestants is a riot, and the ability to play along on Twitter makes everyone at home feel like part of the show, too. There's a small chance of @midnight getting too big for its own good and causing a backlash, as we saw with Roth's tweet, but the show's ceiling is ridiculously high. When the show's Twitter-inspired moniker first appeared this fall, it might have seemed like a surefire flash in the pan, but those fears have largely gone out the window. If five years from now, @midnight has become a television institution, and outlasts several of the social media apps it's mocking now, it would hardly be a surprise. Based on every early indication, this show is built to last.

John Hugar is a writer based in Buffalo, NY. His work has appeared on The Classical, Deadspin, and Gothic Ginobili. He's been a comedy nerd since he was 12, and he thinks the world would be a better place if Jay Sherman came back.