Web Comedy Vs. TV Comedy: The SXSW Showdown!

van-veen1To launch his SXSW panel, “Comedy on Television and the Web,” moderator Ricky Van Veen of CollegeHumor.com opened with a provocative but arguable point: Unlike previous technologies, humor and not porn is driving the adoption of online video.

What followed was a smart and (yes) funny conversation between leaders in web-based comedy and a couple luminaries in televised humor pondering how large web comedy can become compared with TV, and how the two mediums will influence each other. From the online world were panelists Van Veen, Keith Richman of Break Media, and Avner Ronen of BoxeeMeredith Scardino, staff writer for The Colbert Report, and B.J. Novak, a star and writer for the U.S. version of The Office represented for old teevee. Here are some of my other favorite highlights, arranged as a series of questions (sometimes posed by the audience or panel, and sometimes by me):

Why are Hollywood stars afraid of Web video?

novakVan Veen notes that besides the occasional exception like Will Ferrell, most Hollywood stars are skittish about web video. Novak (left) speculates that they’re uncomfortable because it doesn’t have much connection with the film industry’s development infrastructure (the personal connections, the talent agencies, etc.) that they’re familiar with. Richman said he believes stars are afraid because the web is a democratic environment, where their efforts can be noticeably eclipsed by the latest grassroots breakout.

How much does a TV show’s Internet audience influence the program?

scardinoScardino (left) notes that The Colbert Report‘s passionate online fanbase, Colbert Nation, is a large part of the show’s success. “They could take Luxembourg’s army if they wanted to,” she says, noting that a Colbert greenscreen challenge to make McCain interesting garnered 1,000 video entries. (“When you can pull off ironic self-aggrandizement,” says The Office‘s Novak, impressed, “you really have it made.”)

In any case, the Internet seems to be influencing television. Boxee’s Ronen (left) says if you Google Boxee and Comcast together, “Beside profanities, you’ll find people are downgrading their cable” as they chuck their TV services for Internet delivery.

richmanWhy isn’t web video monetizing as well as television?

According to Richman, 93 percent of sponsor money is still spent on TV, even though much web programming has larger viewerships than some cable programs, and can often be better targeted to a sponsor’s demographic. “There’s still not a level of respect from Hollywood and advertisers” in the online space, he says. Still, Richman believes sponsors will gradually get used to buying ads for the web. They better: Where $300 once seemed like a lot of money to sped on developing web videos, Richman says some of Break Media’s programming can now cost $5,000-10,000.

How does web comedy go viral?

The alchemy to make a comedy video go big remains a mystery to the panelists, though social network promotion seems to help quite a bit. “We live and die by Digg,” as Van Veen put it; he said Collegehumor.com also gained a million uniques after adding Facebook’s share function. “A good title and thumbnail will go a long, long way” to building viewership, says Richman. Van Veen reports that shortly after going online, their video “Realistic Hollywood Sex Scene” wound up on the first page of Google searches for “sex.”

Just how funny can Web video be?

While comedic web videos with quick punchlines and weirdness do well, the panel wondered if the medium could succeed where TV does well, with character-driven comedies. Most were skeptical, since those require more patience from the viewer. As a counterpoint, Van Veen notes that their “Jake and Amir” show is quite popular, though character-driven. (He noted that it did take a while to build up the audience, however.)

Who will be the winners and losers of web-driven comedy?

Richman believes the web’s future comedy stars will be multi-talented performers who can do a little of everything, citing Sasha Baron-Cohen, as an example; Scardino points to the guys behind Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show.


And the losers? Web viewing will decrease the value of TV syndication. Instead of watching whatever happens to be on, as Novak put it, “people don’t watch stuff they don’t want on the Internet.”

“Those that should be scared are people who are making content that is not great,” says Boxee’s Ronen. And surprisingly, though he sat alongside writers with TV’s biggest comedies, it was probably Ronen who got one of the panel’s biggest laughs. When asked what their favorite online videos were, Ronen answered, “My favorite online video site is Hulu.com” — a wry nod at Boxee’s recent travails with the service.

Disclosure: I was an unpaid adviser during SXSW’s panel selection process. Image credits: Ronen from TV Week, the rest from their respective SXSW profiles.

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