British Comedy Guide


Why comedy video websites fail

Comedybox, Funny Or Die, BBC Comedy Extra, MySpace Comedy.The Internet was supposed to revolutionise comedy. No longer would we be in thrall to someone noticing us doing a deserted review at the Hen & Chickens venue and agreeing to put us on telly at 2am on Channel 5. The old power bases - the TV channels, the big comedy companies, er, Radio 4 - would be cast aside in favour of new industries, web-based TV run by people that understood, maaaan.

They would pay real comedians real money, they would make their own profits from advertising from the big viral hits, and they would make stars at the same time. You'll notice that this hasn't happened.

There are several comics who have made their name from the springboard of the internet, some very good, some Dapper Laughs, but very few that did so thanks to one of the many funded comedy video sites that sprang up and got mown down in the last decade.

Marc Burrows.I've worked for three of them. Comedybox, the joint venture between QI mastermind John Lloyd and DVD label Warner Music Entertainment; MySpace Comedy, the social network of yesteryear powered at that point by Fox; and Funny Or Die UK, a joint venture between the US-based website and Britain's own Hat Trick Productions TV company. None of them, you'll notice, are still around.

The US version of FoD does a roaring trade but stopped supporting their UK cousin years ago; Comedybox flogged their catalogue to MySpace UK, and MySpace promptly succumbed to the Facebook torpedo and drifted to the bottom of the Social Media sea, joining the wrecks of Friendster and Bebo. Their newly acquired comedy channel went down with the ship.

In hindsight, it was fairly obvious these ventures were doomed to failure, purely because the ubiquity of YouTube was always undercutting them. Yes, its original content is limited, but as the go-to point for online video it was always going to be difficult to compete when everyone's first instinct was to stick their stuff in the place it would get the most exposure. Most acts I worked with over those years got a bit grumpy when they couldn't double-up their content on YouTube.

There's more to it than that though. What the three companies had in common, aside from me (and I'm relatively sure I wasn't to blame), was a connection to old media they could never let go of, and it's fairly easy to see how that, in the end, is what did for them.

John Lloyd.Comedybox was a great idea, but the great idea got lost very quickly. John Lloyd (pictured) founded the site with the intention of creating a supported-playpen for comic talent, where real money would be used to support genuinely new ideas and younger or newer acts could take risks. To an extent, and certainly in its early days, this is exactly what happened - the partnership with Warner, whose Kensington offices the company was based out of, pumped in money and genuinely brilliant people were given opportunities, with some great work being produced at a result.

Once a big company starts to pump that money in, though, eventually they want to see it coming back home - preferably bringing some friends. Comedybox stubbornly insisted on being hugely unprofitable. Lloyd's involvement gradually receded, and though a reasonable splash was made from the initial run of videos (including one of the last short films by Ken Russell, the utterly deranged A Kitten For Hitler) the powers that be at Warner started to demand results.

What's more it became clear what they were really interested in was discovering a new star, signing them to a '360' deal and flogging them to the telly. Old media, TV and DVD sales, was still the priority. As these stars failed to arrive and telly failed to bite, budgets for making new material started to dwindle.

As with pretty much every one of these comedy sites, we were asked to find talent who would work for "the exposure" (or "for nothing") while Comedybox met the production costs and attempted to hang on to the rights on the off chance Big TV would come knocking. We created some brilliant stuff with the likes of Idiots of Ants and future stars Susan Calman, Terry Mynott and Dan Schreiber but it became a daily struggle to make the money work and maintain the top-brass's interest. Meanwhile basically no online marketing spend meant no-one was really seeing the material.

MySpace Comedy UK.Eventually Warner struck a deal with MySpace, who were just starting to be left behind as the social media juggernaut moved forwards, powered by other means. MySpace Comedy was launched with great fanfare, buying up the Comedybox archive and commissioning new material from the same team. There were different problems here though, because MySpace had another set of priorities altogether - they wanted viral hits.

The creative drive stopped being "making good comedy" and started being "what will get the most hits, quickest?" Ideas become about lowest common denominators, and the more interesting or less obvious ideas got given a lower priority by the MySpace brass, who at this point were losing Rupert Murdoch's money hand over fist. Staff got let go, the viral hits didn't turn up, and the site was quietly forgotten.

Funny Or Die UK was a better proposition, partly because it was better funded. It was overseen by James Serafinowicz, who had an impeccable comedy pedigree, and had the muscle of Hat Trick Productions behind it, as well as a fully-integrated relationship with its parent site in the US. James' brother Peter Serafinowicz, as well as Matt Lucas and David Walliams were among the comedy names brought in to make original sketches, and true to form came up with some brilliant stuff.

Funny Or Die UK in 2010.Again though, it didn't survive - and again it was a reliance on old media that killed it. Like Warner before them, Hat Trick were eventually looking for a return from their investment, and good quality content costs money, something the TV industry was beginning to run short on as the halcyon pre-internet era receded into the distance. Eventually Funny Or Die, too, succumbed to cuts, its staff let go and its content folded back into the US site. A worthy experiment, but ultimately not one that had worked.

To say that online comedy hasn't been successful is slightly misleading, we've all heard of the YouTube stars who made their name doing short Vines or blogging. BBC Comedy launched their own site a few years ago with some great talent involved, and good work being produced, and with BBC Three moving to an internet-only proposition next year, the Beeb's contribution to web-based funnies looks set to continue. Other, smaller companies like London's ComComedy have survived by embracing YouTube properly, and focusing on filming live stand-ups rather than sketches. They succeed by being a smaller, more niche proposition that serves the proper comedy-geek demographic. Sadly, though, stars are not made that way.

In the end it always comes down to money. To maintain high production values and market successfully there needs to be a decent backbone of cash to support it, and that usually means bringing in someone with deep pockets. Invariably this will change the priorities, change the creative slant and eventually someone starts asking for their money back.

The companies I was involved with could never shake off the old-guard ideals of their financers, the utopian dream of free-comedy online got spoilt by it.

Marc Burrows is a comedian, musician and journalist. You can find him on Twitter at @20thcenturymarc