Category Archives: social media

Sketch comedy in the age of Discord

Where do the “Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players” go when there is no more prime time?

demon-cake from baking championship contestant vomiting on another cake

Built into the name”Saturday Night Live” is its nature as “appointment tv”. Wickedly subversive in its heyday, the current incarnation seems to have nothing left to subvert. It’s target age-group doesn’t watch tv anymore, they hang out in Twitch virtual rooms, watch 15 second TikTok videos, or log on to Discord servers.

SNL debuted in 1975, when there were only 3 networks and a handful of VHF channels. You want to talk about an “Influencer”? Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show dominated late night t.v. and had a huge role in defining popular culture. Today the late night genre offers us exhausted “Jimmys” in suits, aping the talk show rituals, sets, and sidekicks of their grandparents era. Ratings are way down: there are too many online and cable alternatives, and the guests are too scripted. You will not find the spontaneity of guests who regularly drank and smoked prior to going on air. The Charles Grodins, Robert Blakes, Angie Dickensens….now that was reality t.v.

Thus the SNL parodies of the time didn’t need to squeeze too hard to get the juice. Remember Dan Ackroyd’s impersonation of Tom Snyder, host of the Tomorrow Show? It was considered wildly over-the-top at the time. Compare it to anything the current show’s breakout star, “walking 4th wall” Kate McKinnon does.

If you believe in Truth in Comedy, it’s important that the writers and performers on SNL reflect the lived-experiences of their age cohort. Instead they are writing and acting in sketches that take place in a bygone reality. I sympathize, they have an impossible task, teenagers and young adults today simply barely interact with each other outside of virtual spaces. What you are seeing in SNL is nostalgia performed by people who never made the memories.  

Imagine a skit set in a Thanksgiving scene: probably a bunch of family members arguing, someone has a secret, there’s a weird overly-political uncle, etc. In reality, although a family will be in the same room, anyone under 30 is going to be glued to their phone, in some version of cyberspace.

So how do you make comedy without interaction? SNL hasn’t figured that out – nor has practically anybody – so they resort to barf jokes, poop jokes, and endless clunky impressions.  

I’m not saying that the original SNL didn’t have some of this. But the shock value of a character throwing-up in a sketch is just not the same the 5th decade in.

The closest I’ve seen of someone seeking comedy in the virtual world is Bo Burnham, who’s Netflix special “Inside” is shot in an attic room, with him alone, singing songs about things like chatrooms, Facetime, Jeff Bezos, and Instagram. In the final frames you see him sprawled out on the floor, alone and surrounded by technology. It’s sort of a “Krapps Last Tape” for the internet age. But it’s more wistful than funny.

Bo Burnham: “Inside”

Is comedy in the same predicament? Throughout the ages comedy has relied on elements like misapprehension, mistaken identity, false bravado, exaggeration, absurd physical action, mockery (especially of the powerful by the powerless), and exposed hypocrisy. Virtualization, mediated reality, and the identity curation endemic to social media, inhibit all of these. How can a status difference “land” when we don’t know anyone’s real identity (“on the internet no one knows you are a dog”)? How can an exaggeration retain its power when every TikTok video features grotesque facial affects and speeded-up helium dialog?

Comedy also can’t exist without consequences. Seeing two clowns bop each other over the head with harmless foam baseball bats over and over gets boring very quickly. When consequences are “virtualized”, e.g. the worst that can happen is you lose armor points in an RPG, or you have to create a second account in Twitter, then there’s is nothing to get worked up about, or to laugh about.

Compare this to a historical phenomenon where the stakes cannot have been higher: “Jonkunnu”, a Christmastime holiday in the U.S. during slavery, during which the enslaved would dress up in grotesque costumes and mock their enslavers – I imagine the subtexts of danger and subversion must have made have made a fertile ground for hysterical laughter.

When considering the harms of mediated reality, I remember a comedy improv class where the teacher, in counseling us towards naturalism, stated that the most fascinating thing in the world was an awake young baby. People are naturally drawn in, because every motion and utterance is spontaneous and true. Which is the opposite of mediated reality.

Don’t make a sad face though. There are 3 trends that bode well for comedy:
1. Ever-greater technological privacy invasions: tracking, biometrics, facial recognition, etc. which remove anonymity
2. The inevitable class exploitation that will take place on the internet, of which Jarod Lanier has forewarned, which will create status disparities
3. Emerging general artificial intelligence’s baked-in inflexibility and tyranny

So we will eventually have a return to consequences, status differences, and cyber-overlords to mock. The question is, will the algorithms allow anyone to tell a joke?

Booking from Facebook


An interesting factoid from life in the advertising trenches concerns the social media habits of teenagers: Coca Cola, anxious to jump on the social networking bandwagon, commissioned a study of teenagers that found their core attitude towards developing a social media presence to be “defensive”.  That is, they felt at risk for losing social status if they did not have an online identity which displayed the proper combination of coolness and connections.  This study further characterized todays teens as overscheduled and stressed.  The agency’s response to this research was to whip up a campaign based on the fizzing sound as a can of coke is cracked open.  Pressure relieved and now you have a minute to yourself.  Not a bad treatment for what it’s worth.

Does this attitude occur in adult social media consumers? Steve Tuttle’s article “Why I Quit Facebook”, along with some other commentary I’ve seen recently, focuses on the banality of “status updates”, short posts where users share whatever thoughts are crossing their minds at the moment.  To me, the subtext of these self-centered messages is a strategic attempt to bolster an online persona and, by reflected LCD-light, increase the status of the user.

In real life, at a party for example, the person who corralls me to tell me that their kid ate an entire bowl of cereal would properly be deemed a “bore”and would be most-likley avoided.  A status-updating (and status-enhancing) Cyberbore faces far fewer consequences than their flesh-and-blood counterpart because they are easier to ignore, and because, in my humble opinion, there is a tacit understanding that posts to newsfeeds are not intended to establish connection, they are intended to advertise.   Although there are token updates in which users wanly express non-hegemenous attitudes, the vast majority of posts hew tightly to a woman’s magazine Weltanschaung: “Joanie just did 2 hours of Bikram and never felt so refreshed, Namaste!”.

I have even seen meta-updates to friends about the number of friends obtained:  “John Doe just added friend number 1,000!”.  This is Onkga’s Big Moka,  writ in pixels. –  the display of a fitness indicator, a cyber-peacock’s-tail. The poster not only indicates that they have the social capital to get 1,000 people to click “Accept”, but they have the energy and focus to monitor and broadcast this.

It’s nothing new that people are always advertising and cloaking their intent in normative memes (“community” or in Huffington’s case, “concern for family”).  The interesting question to me is: “Is this an efficient form of self-promotion?”  I don’t think so.  While some people invest a lot of effort in creating online personas, the audience is fickle.  In order to join an online community, the average user faces a relatively low cost of admission and can leave just as easily.  As the founders of Friendster can attest, and with apologies to  “Project Runway”:  “In social media one day you’re in, the next day you’re out”.  This is the nature of the internet itself, low investment with rapid-switching (e.g. hyperlinking).

OK, let’s investigate fashion as an analog.  Is it a more efficient means of advertising fitness?  It takes energy to seek out fashionable clothing, resources to obtain it, and resilience to withstand the social attention and occasional opprobrium one obtains from wearing it.  It’s an effective fitness-indicator albeit one with greater investment and a lesser reach.  Alternatively the impact of a social media presence is broad but shallow. It seems to me that maintaining a fashionable real-life persona takes greater sacrifice, affects fewer people, but affects them more deeply.  Critiques about the banality of fashion precede those of Facebook posts and probably arise from a similar anxiety – keeping up.  Most people don’t want the pressure of figuring out what is in fashion, or of persuading
1,000 people to electronically approve of them.

The establishment of an enduring community on the internet would require that a social networking mechanism demand greater investment by users, and impose real consequences for their non-participation or departure. Entry would have to be more akin to a barn-raising than to watching Google Auto-Fill complete an online registration form. In real-life communities based on shared sacrifice, such as a farm communities, self-promotion is often viewed with skepticism.  Perhaps the emergence of this attitude is a bellwether for the viability of online communities as well.