On YouTube channels, comedians shift the punchline
On the debut episode of "Smart Girls at the Party," Amy Poehler sits in a dark studio and solemnly introduces her first guest as a "singer, actor, dancer, musician, feminist, entrepreneur and skateboarder."
Sitting across from Poehler is a 7-year-old named Ruby, who cheerfully displays a just-completed drawing.
Charlie Rose, eat your heart out.
This summer, while much of the TV world is in reruns, a number of comedians have taken to YouTube, including Poehler, Rainn Wilson, Walter Latham and, in a new role, Shaquille O'Neal.
"Smart Girls at the Party" is the flagship show for Poehler's YouTube channel of the same name, part of an ambitious initiative from Google's video-sharing site to plant a crop of niche-oriented channels from show business veterans. The rollout has continued through the year, gradually premiering more than half of the nearly 100 channels that YouTube has poured $100 million into, while pledging to spend another $200 million on marketing.
Comedy is only one of the many genres among the new channels (they range from the gaming hotbed Machinima to The Wall Street Journal), but it's perhaps the most viral-ready: Production value isn't needed to send a funny clip sailing through social media.
Smart Girls at the Party, which has some 7,500 subscribers thus far and has generated more than 400,000 views, is geared toward adolescent girls and young teens with the stated aim to "celebrate individuals who are changing the world by being themselves."
"We wanted to celebrate the non-celebrity," says Poehler. "We wanted to embrace and highlight the cool period in any boy or girl's life where they're just so full of possibility and ideas and passion."
The channel includes shows like "Ask Amy," a weekly check-in where Poehler answers questions from viewers. In one episode, Poehler, who's currently shooting a film directed by David Wain ahead of the next season of NBC's "Parks and Recreation," waxes about managing stress while sitting in a bathtub.
In "Meow Meow Music," Poehler's friend Amy Miles hosts a mini version of a Pee-wee Herman-style variety show. Every episode ends with a dance party.
"YouTube and Google and the Internet in general is filled with so much - I don't know - garbage humiliation stuff," says Poehler, who has two young boys. "We're trying to do stuff that's not focused on people falling down. Although - don't get me wrong - I love people falling down, especially when monkeys fall out of trees. That's my favorite part of the Internet."
Wilson, who plays Dwight on "The Office," also has hopes to shift the online dialogue. His channel is an outgrowth of an earlier SoulPancake website and book, both of which grapple with philosophy and spirituality in a casual way.
"We want to engage users creatively, uplift the conversation, dig into life's big questions and kind of make thinking and feeling cool and fun and irreverent at the same time," says Wilson.
Wilson, a member of the Baha'i faith, hosts the channel's "Metaphysical Milkshake," in which he interviews people in the back of his custom van. He became preoccupied with readying the van for the channel: "I've been spending all this time on eBay and Craigslist looking for bubble windows."
Other shows include "Live a Little," about atypical high schoolers; "Subcultures," about niche communities; and "Art Attack," where artists create something from a suggested "spark." Wilson is particularly enthusiastic about a pilot called "Last Days," featuring interviews of people with terminal illnesses. (He promises it's uplifting.)
Wilson realizes it can be jarring for audiences to see someone who many simply regard as Dwight Schrute discussing such subjects, but SoulPancake has helped Wilson unite his professional life and his spiritual life and mix the profound with the silly. The channel has more than 25,000 subscribers.
"You can ask someone about their toenail polish and then you can also ask them about what they think happens to you when you die," he says. "It just doesn't really happen on television, but that's doesn't mean it's not possible."
As the creator and producer of the popular and lucrative "Original Kings of Comedy" tour, Latham has been a trailblazer before, founding the black comedy franchise that featured Steve Harvey, Bernie Mac, Cedric "The Entertainer" and D. L. Hughley. As a promoter of comedians and a TV and film producer, Latham likes to call himself "the King of Comedy."
"It's the future, man," Latham says of the YouTube channels. "Especially for my career as long I've been in stand-up, always looking for the next Bernie Mac or the next Steve Harvey. They don't have shows anymore like they used to on television to find talent. So YouTube is a really good platform for me to introduce new comedians to a new audience."
Walter Latham Comedy, which has nearly 9,000 subscribers, draws a considerable chunk of its audience from archived video of some of those comedians. The lineup of original programming includes shows hosted by comedians Hughley, Miss P and Michael Blackson. But its signature show, "Comedy After Dark," includes a variety of scantily-clad women including Jenna Jameson.
Latham has found that length of videos has a direct effect on their popularity, having watched classic, nine-minute-long material from Bernie Mac get less response than a lesser joke of two-minutes. "Just get to the joke," is the lesson, Latham says.
The new additions add to the growing comedy presence on YouTube's digital dial, including My Damn Channel, the comedy series that streams a live show daily; the Onion, an offshoot of the satirical news site; Above Average Network, a Web series from Lorne Michaels' production company; and Official Comedy, which features series from Bedrocket Media Ventures.
All of the new channels receive coaching from YouTube on programming schedules and attracting subscribers.
"We really strive to share best practice and at the same time, stay out of the way of the creative process," says Alex Carloss, global head of original programming for YouTube. Carloss says YouTube is pleased at the progress so far, noting that almost 20 channels are past 100,000 subscribers.
Latham told his Internet-savvy 14-year-old son that he wants to be the first black channel to get a billion views. His son was doubtful: "Dad, the only way you'll get a billion views is if a spaceship landed on Earth with a billion black people in it."
Latham said, "Well, I disagree."
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