How TikTok and Instagram supercharged stand-up comedy

How TikTok and Instagram supercharged stand-up comedy

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Stand-up comic Nimesh Patel sometimes asks his audience: Who is here because of TikTok?

“The first thing I noticed was the diversity,” he says. His TikTok videos brought out comedy fans in their 20s and 30s, Indian parents with their adult kids, retirees in Naples, Fla. — and, one time, an 80-year-old White woman who told Patel this was her first comedy show. Ever.

“It was an eye-opening thing that this platform — for all the evils I’m sure lurk behind the scenes — has made comedy a lot more accessible to people who would never go to a comedy show otherwise,” says Patel, nodding to both the liberating and the pernicious aspects of social media.

Stand-up comedy’s explosion on TikTok and Instagram has introduced performers to whole new audiences, even turning some comics from relative unknowns to headliners seemingly overnight.

The dynamic has created opportunities for performers to cultivate larger fan bases. It has also saddled them with new tasks, from having to pay full-time staffers to edit and post videos honed for virality to finding creative ways to manage the expectations of a crowd that knows them through bite-size clips pushed by the algorithms of social media companies.

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“We absolutely see audiences who haven’t been here before,” says Wende Curtis, owner of ComedyWorks in Denver. When a comic’s agent inquires about booking her club, her staff will first check the comic’s following on social media — it’s an indicator of whether they can sell out the club.

Comedy clubs have long had in-house camera and audio equipment to record sets. Places such as ComedyWorks and New York City’s Comedy Cellar have upgraded their audiovisual capabilities in recent years. Cellar owner Noam Dworman said he did a “big upgrade” about four years ago, and he bought “this very expensive internet connection that they have at news networks” so they could instantly transfer videos to comedians. “It benefits the comic,” he says.

Plus, says Curtis, “anywhere they send or use that clip, there’s my name in the back. There’s my brand and logo.”

Before the advent of social media, most people discovered comics through coveted late-night sets and television specials. But when comic Sam Morril tried to get people to watch his 2018 special at an appointed time on Comedy Central, he says, it felt like “speaking another language, because some people don’t consume entertainment like that.” It wasn’t until Comedy Central posted a clip from his special on Instagram that he gained a legion of new followers.

He started doing the same.

“I saw a baby in a coffee shop the other day wearing a T-shirt that said ‘I love life,’” Morril says in a clip from the special that he uploaded on his social media. “I was like, ‘You’ll grow out of it.’”

He also posted his third special on YouTube free as “an act of desperation,” and then clips of his comedy-club performances on Instagram. Those clips “absolutely” drive ticket sales, he says. He went from working clubs to becoming a theater act — and hiring people to handle his social media presence.

“When you’re building an audience, you have to make it as easy as possible for people to find you,” says Morril, who is currently touring clubs to develop material for his next special. He considers his Instagram and TikTok clips to be “a trailer for people to see me on the road, because that’s where the money was, to me: on the road.”

But how do you create a trailer that doesn’t give the whole movie away? One way is crowd work: spontaneous interactions between comics and audience members that are filling your social media feeds.

Many comics favor posting crowd-work clips to avoid “burning material” — broadcasting carefully honed jokes for the world to see online — rather than reserving them for fuller, in-person shows.

“I love hoarding my bits and putting them in an hour,” says comic Jordan Jensen. “The bits are the secret gold you don’t get on the internet.”

Preserving honed material is one reason that Jensen posts videos of crowd work. Before social media, her crowd work was ephemeral.

“I’ve been doing [crowd work] so much that magical things do happen, and then it’s like, ‘that’s gone,’” she says. “And now it’s not.”

Those clips of audience interactions can also influence audience members’ expectations. Jensen probes her audiences about their mental health issues and breakups. “I thought you were going to rip on us way more,” people sometimes tell her after shows. But comics also employ strategies to orient their crowds to the live-show experience.

Patel does question-and-answer sessions at the end of his shows partly to generate interactions that he can post online. But the Q&A also “usually satisfies any desire people have to fully interact,” he said. “I make sure to manage expectations. But I also gave them what they want, without fully giving them everything.”

He says his audiences are mostly respectful, but he’ll get the occasional hecklers interrupting because they’re trying to get on TikTok.

Comic Zarna Garg, who built a following of new stand-up fans through TikTok, tells her crowd at the start of her shows to put away their phones but promises “at the end, we’ll have a TikTok moment. It relaxes the audience because they know they’re going to get it.”

TikTok and Instagram present both opportunity and peril. According to TikTok, 150 million users in the United States — more than a third of the country — are on the platform, and some states and lawmakers have tried to ban the app, arguing its ownership by a China-based tech company makes it a national security threat. (Patel named his first special “Thank You, China,” as a nod to that. “I really owe China. Without TikTok, I don’t know where I’d be, touring-wise.”). Then there’s Instagram — which says more than 2 billion accounts worldwide are used at least monthly — and its impact on the mental health of teenagers. And that’s nothing to say of what these apps have done to our collective attention spans.

Plus, what mystical force surfaces certain videos into your feed? It can’t just be your prior viewing habits; the algorithms push you into highly-specific subcultures online (some of us have landed in Mexican-roofer TikTok, and have no clue why).

Some comics are wary of focusing too much on feeding your feed. “If you base your comedy around the algorithm, you’re doomed,” says Morril. “You have to do what you think is good for comedy, and not think about the sharing.” And for users, consuming stand-up this way can also be strange, like walking past a comedy club and cracking open the door in the middle of a comic’s set.

“Some people will go ‘Oh my God, what did he just say?’” Morril says. “But then someone else is opening the door and is like, ‘Oh. I like this dude.’”

Garg says that social media has distorted some new fans’ perceptions. She’s not just a digital creator who exists on a feed in someone’s palm. Sometimes when she drops in for a set at the Cellar, “I can hear the gasp in the audience, like, ‘Oh my God, you’re real!’” Garg says. Social media has also created a sense of familiarity — Garg also posts videos of her at home and makes it a point to always respond to her online commenters — which can sometimes prompt them to overstep boundaries (like the time a group of women tried to physically pull her to dinner with them in between sets in Virginia).

“I’m honored to have that love,” Garg says. “It’s beyond anything I would ever have expected. I’m also learning how to navigate it and handle it.”

The pandemic supercharged all of this, when TikTok and Instagram became an escape from the horrors of the world. People trapped at home, desperate for distractions, scrolled through their feeds, which served up comics and their podcasts.

The pandemic “made non-fans into fans” and “took fans and turned them into superfans,” says Curtis, of ComedyWorks.

The closure of comedy clubs and other venues left few places to work out new material, and TikTok turned into an open mic, Jensen says. “It became a way from doing six bar shows a night to maintaining some sort of growth in comedy writing.”

Patel, a former staffer at “Saturday Night Live” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” had a backlog of material he filmed previously that he started posting during the pandemic. When he got back in front of live audiences, he would type out his upcoming show dates in his video captions. “We started converting views to ticket sales” — according to his informal polling at shows — “and realized fairly quickly, oh, this could be a business model.”

The pandemic felt like the end of Garg’s career, which started later in life and had just picked up momentum. Her teenage son kept pestering her about posting on TikTok, but she resisted. “Back then, we thought TikTok was 14-year-old girls twerking,” Garg recalls. “What am I going to do on TikTok?”

Then he posted a clip in May 2020 from a headlining set she did a few months before.

“You see, naming a baby is just not a big deal in India — and neither is the baby,” she says in the clip. “No one in India says, ‘come see the baby!’ What’s to see, unless it’s missing a foot?” The clip eventually racked up more than one millions views.

The impact of TikTok, Garg says, was “monumental.” She’s currently opening for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on the road.

Social media may have made in-person comedy more rewarding — whether it’s because comedians are reserving their best material for actual shows, or because a comedy club provides an opportunity for us to put away our phones altogether.

“I’m not selling my jokes, I’m selling a vibe,” Garg says. Her audience is not coming “to hear the punchlines. They’re coming because they feel a certain way when they’re in the room with me.”

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