Among the other changes of the redesign, one thing I’ll be doing with Dead-Frog is opening it up to voices besides my own. Here’s the first of those voices, Mo Diggs talking about the intersection of comedy and technology today.
The list of categories for the 11th annual Webby Awards speaks volumes about what flies on the web. To boot: two categories for comedy (series and shorts) and one category for drama. The bias does not signal a sophomoric groupthink amongst academy members; for every Matt Groening, there is an Arianna Huffington. This reflects the web’s proclivity for sharp sketches and brilliantly executed pranks rather than ruminations on death or tone poems about alienation. College Humor is huge; college drama is nowhere to be found except Vassar.
That and a buck fifty gets you a subway token in Metropolis until you look at television. NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup got its lowest ratings since 1987. 30 Rock gets mauled by CSI and Grey’s Anatomy. Bob Sassone of TV Squad suggests that NBC make Thursday night drama night to stay afloat. Things obviously do not look good for prime-time television comedy.
The shift becomes apparent when you look at the hit prime-time comedies of the past five decades
50s: I Love Lucy
60s: Gilligan’s Island
70s: Diff’rnt Strokes
80s: Family Ties
90s: Seinfeld, Friends
This decade: Should have been Arrested Development; should have been The Office.
So the Internet makes us laugh, the TV makes us cry.
What about lonelygirl15? Isn’t that a big Internet drama. If only it were about the content and not the production; viewers dropped when they found out that it was a fictional narrative not a genuine voice of repressed despair.
Why is more serious fare a tougher sell online? I can think of several reasons.
- Production values: a dramatic work with a z-movie budget will come off as pretentious
- The workplace: most people, depressed and numbed by their jobs, do not want to open their e-mails and watch Method acting
- Relatively objective response: Acceptable TV and Funny or Die run on the premise that funny videos survive and unfunny videos languish in justified obscurity. Drama deals with more nuanced emotions. Imagine voting on the value of Lost or The Wire after watching five minutes?
- Time: “Dick in a Box” takes five minutes of your life. Hamlet doesn’t.
OK, but why is it harder for television comedy than internet comedy? The Internet, unlike TV, delivers long tail laughs. Different people laugh at different things. For years we’ve pretended to laugh at each other’s shows. But office ladies find funny cat photos online, boomer grampas are finding old Laugh In clips, hipsters are laughing at the latest alt-comedy video. Their paths rarely cross. Edna, the curmudgeonly old lady from accounts payable, never goes on The Onion, opting for all the Ziggy cartoons her heart desires. Now do you expect all these different types of people to find the same show funny? No. Is TV aggressively pursuing all these demos? No.
Drama brings in the numbers because an hour a week is the best growth rate for character development ever conceived. An hour a week online is anathema to web surfers; who wants to spend all that time on an online hospital soap?
Of course there’s hope for both genres in their respective fields. A comedy with the mass appeal of The Simpsons may make its way to the airwaves and as home video equipment improves, the quality of online dramas will impress more viewers. So there’s hope for College Drama after all.