Inside the Minds of Internet Comedy Video Executives

videocamerasetupLast weekend, standup comedy luminaries from around the world assembled in Montreal to showcase their talents and make obligatory jokes about poutine. But while the Silicon Valley dudes hashed out the water conservation practices for sustainable dick farming (you water the dicks with their own piss, according to T.J. Miller), across the Hyatt hotel bar a supergroup of online video comedy executives dispensed some frank, detailed and shockingly encouraging advice about what online comedy platforms are looking for in comedy videos.

The panel featured a group of names any aspiring web video producer could benefit by knowing: Josh Poole (Director of Development, Above Average), Mike Farah (President of Production, Funny Or Die), Sam Reich (President of Big Breakfast, CollegeHumor’s offshoot production company), Justin Stockman (Vice President, Specialty Channels, Bell Media), Alex Miyawaki (Director of Audience Strategy for Entertainment at Maker Studios), and Rick Haskins (Executive Vice President, Marketing and Digital Programs, The CW).

Each executive presented a video and discussed what they found instructional about it, giving a pretty accurate look at the web video landscape.

Mike Farah started off showing Funny or Die’s “Monsters of a Rapidly Changing Media Landscape”

Which provides a fairly accurate depiction of the industry’s mood as a whole. Farah commented “I wish you all could be execs for even one of these meetings to watch someone actually take out their cell phone like this,” before almost immediately joking that finding money in a digital space is “a unicorn.” He later explained that almost everything is experimental, with Josh Poole adding “you can try to have rules — keep it under 2 minutes, joke in the first 7 seconds — but then a ‘Too Many Cooks’ comes along and…(shrugs, trails off, audience laughs)”. Miyawaki would later add that yes, viral video is usually short, but it’s okay to be longer and slower if you want to build an audience, it really depends on what your goal and format is.

CollegeHumor presented an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, their explainer series featuring comedian Adam Conover.

Reich pointed out now it is not enough for something to be “merely funny.” They’re interested in ideas, talent, and formats that add an educational or identifiable element and that these are the qualities that “give videos wings.” Think of these as the same elements that allow John Oliver’s 16-minute clips to become viral hits, or even the kind of identity and experiential-based based elements that make BuzzFeed videos so darn clicky. Come for weird things you didn’t know about circumcision, stay for jokes and snappy videomaking. Speaking on additional elements to “merely funny,” Farah added that “nostalgia always works online.”  Funny Or Die even wanted to do a nostalgia-laced “cast reunion” type video for The Blacklist — the joke of course being that The Blacklist is still on the air — but NBC wasn’t into it.

Maker Studios brought the first episode of their now long-running series “Conversations With My 2 Year Old.”

Miyawaki noted the video’s concept easy to explain and understand in a headline, has a shareable hook, and the right combination of repeatable format and talent. “A while after this went up, my mom got in touch with me and asked if I’d seen this ‘Conversations With My 2-Year-Old’ video, which is exactly why this is right for us.”

Much Music played a video YouTube star JusReign promoting his hosting of the Much Music Video Awards red carpet show.

Stockman wanted to find people who have proven they can work well online (JusReign’s channel has over 500,000 subscriptions) and just “hand over the reigns to them and try not to ruin it by being TV.”

Rick Haskins brought a clip from P.E.T. Squad Files, a show on CW’s digital outlet CW Seed (which I just noticed bills itself as “your daily quotient of dick jokes” which actually feels pretty edgy for a CW property. Good job, CW Seed).

Haskins felt this illustrated their best answer to the question “how to get viral?” Capitalizing on what he called “borrowed equity” (using elements people are already fans of including Milo Ventimiglia and The Gilmore Girls) combined with knowing when to release it (the video came out right before a massive cast reunion), the video was seen as particularly “shareable.”

Finally, Above Average’s Josh Poole presented one of their original series, Seriously Distracted.

(Well, he played a sizzle reel of the show… apparently in panels as on the actual internet, anything over two minutes might lose the audience’s attention.)

But what does it all mean? The overwhelming consensus from the panel was “always bet on talent,” but not in the sense of wanting every video to be created by an SNL or star Milo Ventimiglia. Sam Reich said he saw the internet as “a kind of show runner boot camp,” that they’re looking for people who have taken the time and initiative to make something good on their own, and through that have proven not just that they have funny ideas, but that they have the passion and capacity to competently create videos around those ideas. And this specifically referred to production competence, the phrase “know how to light a scene” was repeatedly used (and while you’re at it, make absolutely sure you have a good sound recordist).

Poole clarified that you don’t necessarily have to be a producer, but you have to show you know how to bring those elements together. “We have the ability to put together production teams on a really solid idea, and we do that often. However, I do want to see samples of great past work — and usually that’s in the form of videos.” After the panel, he elaborated on a few of these kinds of stories: “Ben Warheit (the creator of AA’s series Waco Valley) started by drawing dinosaurs on Post-It notes and now writes for Late Night and The Awesomes. The Bilderbergers were making fantastic sketches before we ever made Thingstarter or Idiot’s Guide to Smart People with them. Now one is a staff writer at AA, and we very recently sold a long-form series with them.”

Asked what is the best way to get a meeting with a digital platform development exec – and specifically if it required an agents or manager — Poole responded “Recommendations are really powerful. If someone I know and trust says I should meet someone, then I’m always excited to. That could be an agent or manager or just a friend.”

The entire panel encouragingly expressed interest in seeing more unique and personal ideas rather than chasing after already existing formats and proven successes. Rick Haskins of The CW specifically described being discouraged by people coming in pitching many ideas; he wants to see talent with one thing they are passionate, almost obsessive about getting made (Poole enthusiastically agreed with this sentiment). When asked if they prefer to see videos with huge view counts over work that may be creatively solid but lower-viewership, the panel again stressed confidence, competence, and talent. Miyawaki said we want to see “people who have fans of them, not of their content,” explaining that being able to build engagement and enthusiasm over you as creators is more important than having a massive viral hit no one knows you made.

Mike Farah agreed: “It’s about creating leverage, you want to make people feel they won’t be fired. Be confident in your content and your brand.” When asked to clarify if brand referred to a sense of marketability or a project having a strong sense of self, Poole confirmed “I would mean people with a really strong point of view — not marketability — who know what they’re good at and are writing/performing in a way that showcases that.”

The overall sentiment was that the market for digital video comedy is actually vast (almost every television network now has a digital arm actively looking for content, not to mention Vimeo, AOL, Yahoo!…), and there’s no accepted consensus as to what works and what doesn’t. What is important is actually Going Out And Making Things. And following ideas that are as specific and unique as possible, while proving you can execute them with the highest degree of production competence and confidence available to you. Maybe go read Our Band Could Be Your Life — digital video comedy is a little punk rock D.I.Y. now, in a way. Even if the end goal is getting a division of Viacom to fund your web series instead of selling enough tapes to straight-edge teens to get your van back to D.C.

Photo by Derek Bruff.

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