Laughing Matters: Just Exactly How Big Is Comedy on the Web?

/ Oct 14, 2013


Of all the sweeping statements one can make about comedy and its role in the world of web video, here is the most obvious one: Comedy videos are big online because laughter is universal. And the constantly growing world of web video is big enough to accommodate all kinds of different tastes and senses of humor.

Shocking information, I know. You like to laugh, so you’re likely to seek out things online that make you laugh.

But exactly how big is comedy in the entire web of video?

That’s almost impossible to figure out. And a lot of that has to do with the simple (or not-so-simple) matter of definitions. How do you define comedy? Is it anything that makes you laugh? Is it anything that was intended to make you laugh? Can a video that is more sweet than funny, but still has funny moments in it, be considered comedy? What’s the difference between comedy and entertainment, and aren’t they often one and the same? Where do we draw the line?

If you look at the top channels on YouTube, they can easily fall into multiple definitions. Channels that YouTube stats providers like SocialBlade and VidStatX define as being in the “Entertainment” category — Epic Rap Battles of History, The Fine Bros., Epic Meal Time, Smosh, RayWilliamJohnson — all are either straight-up comedy channels or feature comedy as a major element.

Moreover, who gets to define comedy?

Look at the “Gaming” category, which features channels/creators like PewDiePie, Machinima, Smosh, and IGN. PewDiePie was one of the biggest YouTube stories of the year, rocketing rather quickly to the top of the charts with more than 14 million subscribers. And how did he get famous? Most people (including yours truly) simply dismiss him as another dude sharing gameplay videos online. But there are more than 14 million people who find his shtick to be funny. If personality is big on YouTube (which it is), then a personality that makes you laugh, regardless of what type of content the creator is actually producing, will be enough to make you subscribe. If your audience finds you funny, does that not make you a comedy creator?

Here’s another sweeping, obvious statement: Comedy comes in many shapes and sizes online — from highly produced sketches to a funny-person speaking directly into the camera.

This is why, of the 10 channels on YouTube to have more than 10 million subscribers, six of them could easily be categorized as comedy: PewDiePie (ranked #1 overall); Smosh (#4), HolaSoyGerman (#5), JennaMarbles (#6), nigahiga (#8), and RayWilliamJohnson (#10). Within this group of six, we have: vloggers, gamers, pop culture commentators, a comedian from Chile, loud/slapstick comedy, animation, just to name a few. It’s a veritable melting pot of comedy, and we haven’t even gone beyond the top 10 channels overall on the world’s biggest video site.

But it’s not just YouTube. Countless business have been created with the simple (or not-so-simple) goal of trying to make people laugh on the web. When looking at it through the lens of video, two comedy brands stand out above the rest: CollegeHumor and Funny or Die. The former was created by a group of friends and has risen to reach 15 million unique visitors and more than 100 million video views per month, according to data provided by CollegeHumor Media. The latter was founded by two of the biggest names in comedy: Adam McKay and Will Ferrell. Today, the Funny or Die site reaches more than 5.5 million unique and generates over 20 million views a month. The brand has also been home to several web-to-TV transitions, including most recently, “Drunk History” on Comedy Central, and perhaps most famously, “Billy on the Street” on Fuse.

Both Netflix and Amazon have optioned high-profile comedy projects as each service looks to expand more into original programming. In fact, Netflix is even now venturing into offering stand-up specials, in addition to comedy series.

Traditional media is not ignoring online comedy video-creation, either. MTV recently launched MTV Other, an in-house production studio developing all sorts of original web series made exclusively for the web. Around the time YouTube launched its original channels initiative, Broadway Video, “SNL” honcho Lorne Michaels’ production company, launched Above Average, an original comedy channel and YouTube MCN. The Onion, perhaps the biggest name in comedy, was involved in YouTube’s original channels initiative; though that partnership appears to have ended, the satirical publication is still known to put some hilarious viral videos and series on the web.

We can go on and on and on about how big comedy is online, and maybe that’s why it’s difficult to put a context around comedy relationship with web video.

Though, it’s not like people haven’t tried. In fact, Pew Research recently came out with a study which said that 58% of internet-using American adults watch comedy videos on the web. It was the most popular content category, followed closely by how-to clips and educational videos at 56% and 50%, respectively.

The data isn’t all that surprising. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s just the simple (or not-so-simple) matter of making people laugh.

Please join VideoInk as we embark on our latest Special Issue, this time covering comedy content on the web. Come back to check out our profiles on some of the top online comedy networks, producers, web series, and YouTube creators. We hope you enjoy.

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