Has the Internet shrunk attention spans or expanded comedic taste buds?
Words || by Remy Dunne
‘I can just sit in my dad’s shed, smoke a bong, talk shit into my phone and reach a couple million people with a video instantly’.
The Internet has affected the ways we publicly embarrass ourselves and blissfully avoid reality. Less noticeable, however, is how our sense of humour has changed, ranging from the ways we engage and access content and creator as well as the packaging and presentation of comedy.
The digital challenge to comedy’s traditional forms and mediums has forced creators to adapt, encouraging innovation that paved the way for a new generation of comedians. This ‘new-wave’ uses the power of the online world, particularly the culture of viral exposure, to achieve rapid popularity. But the internet causes new challenges for comedians, forming an important contemporary puzzle.
To better understand Australia’s current comedic landscape, I interviewed two comedians representing different eras and backgrounds: Greig Pickhaver, better known as H.G Nelson from the duo Roy and H.G, and Alex Williamson, the YouTube personality shooterwilliamson.
Today, many performers take for granted their freedom of exposure. These opportunities, Alex believes, mean viewers ‘discover more about Australia each day’, as local comedians – amateur and professional – are enabled to broadcast to the world.
Internationally, the Internet exposure allows audiences to ‘move on from Kangaroo rooting jokes and have formed a genuine fascination in our alcoholic culture and exuberant lifestyle’, as Alex puts it.
‘The Internet is vast. It has opened the world up to a broader range of comedic performers’. Greig, however, experienced a totally different upbringing. ‘When I started, the only choices were free to air television and AM radio’, he said.
As the variety of platforms and material has grown, so has the audience and the means they view it. Always fickle, the problem for comedians, as Greig puts it, is ‘holding onto an audience’ and understanding the best means to connect with them.
‘You can take a few more risks [with the Internet]’, explains Greig. ‘When you work with commercial stations, you inevitably take on board the burden of the organisation, what you can and can’t do, and that you’ve got to be better to get better ratings. The Internet tends to free you from that – you aren’t really constrained by the larger problem’.
So the Internet removes limitations on the distribution and creation of content, expunging the fear of ratings and corporate agendas, while encouraging personalisation and selectivity.
‘On the Internet, only those who [want to] watch you tune in’, Greig said. ‘You don’t have the burden of somehow justifying the program generally to an audience that doesn’t like you’.
From carefully planned sketches to bizarrely dark images, the free-for-all of the Internet means content can be as offensive as its creator desires. ‘You used to have to search hard for darker comedic material’, Alex said. ‘These days all the darkness and filth has come to the fore on the Internet. Some tell jokes that are too crude for television. Others do magic tricks with their cock’.
Aside from seeing two men play the piano with their junk, Alex believes comedy has an important role in tackling difficult topics. ‘We need to laugh about sensitive issues to rise above them as a society […] the Internet is slowly helping us laugh at more than just other peoples misfortunes’.
‘I can just sit in my dad’s shed, smoke a bong, talk shit into my phone and reach a couple million people with a video instantly’ Alex said.
Whether or not this is fact, the increasing interaction with audiences has allowed comedians to augment their material by inviting viewers to participate along with them.
‘If you set the agenda the audience will participate fairly enthusiastically’ Greig said. ‘And often you think: “oh wow that’s a lot funnier than something I could think up”’. Similar to the banter of heckling at live shows, but less disruptive, it can extend the life of material and give audiences a role in the humour.
The temptation is to think that our attention spans for comedy have shrunk, as we search for material more immediate and condensed. But it’s the way we use the Internet during the working week that means certain material comes to dominate. ‘When it’s during the day in the rush of people being at work and school, it’s nice to have a 15 second Instagram video to watch quickly’, Alex said. ‘Instagram’s videos fit nicely with the pace of life’.
Shorter content functions better online, especially over social media, influencing its popularity and the ease we access it. The prominence of Vines, turned viral through their immediacy and suitability for social media, play directly to the rules that govern social media and how we engage with it.
Whilst Vines and the chaotic humour of shows like Family Guy demonstrate the continuing popularity of a ‘quick punch line’, we still consume long form comedy, with audiences now capable of jumping between material and enjoying the available variety. As Greig explains, ‘a long winded act isn’t good on the Internet, but you can get away with one stand-up wise’, highlighting the importance of understanding comedy’s suitability for the platform it’s presented on.
Alex and Greig’s work demonstrates an enduring theme across Australian culture: our capacity to laugh at ourselves. ‘There’s so much humour there, because there’s so many backward cowboys in this country’, Alex said.
‘There’s lots of people who shout at the TV while watching sport, at what the commentators say, they rubbish the back pages of the papers’, Greig said. ‘We [Roy and H.G.] try to find the humour in those relationships, because they want to be taken seriously whereas we find it all particularly funny’. Both comedians see the hilarity in the way Australians view themselves, our trivial concerns and odd habits, exposing the ridiculous ways we live our lives.
As we continue on, serious as ever, there are those around the world who see through us, finding what we say and do curious and amusing. And through the power of the Internet they expose our hilarity to the rest of the world, allowing them to laugh at us, just like we laugh at them.
See Alex at the Enmore Theatre Friday 1 May as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival. Check out the Gig Guide at more-comedy.com for tickets and information.