The first time I met Joel Veitch was at a party. I was amazed at the reaction of a close friend who, admittedly, is a connoisseur of all things cat (both real and virtual). Normally unflappable, she was introduced to Veitch and flapped, “You do all the videos of cats on the Internet! I’m a big fan of your work.”
Having never actually heard a real human say that in actual conversation (as opposed to the fake ones on the tv and in movies), I looked Veitch up. Indeed, he is rather distinguished in the videos-of-cats department. He is a purveyor, producer and publisher of other very amusing things, mostly on his well-loved blog, rathergood. According to himself,
I started rathergood as a hobby, really. I had a big pile of paper with gags and stuff on it that nobody could see, and I wanted to put it all somewhere public. I taught myself how to make a basic web site and some flash, and to my surprise people seemed interested in it.
I had a lot of help and encouragement from Rob Manuel, who went on to set up b3ta. He really got me excited about the possibilities of the net. This was back in 2000, there has been a lot of change since then. Cats are a constant though. They never go out of favour. When humanity reaches a technological singularity and transcends, whatever post-human entities we become will still be laughing at videos of kittens falling off things.
Clearly, this was an online comedy expert in my midst. And so I spoke with Joel about the ways the comedy landscape has been transformed by the web, what works and what just isn’t funny online, and why cats are so darn funny. He kindly provided some ineffable wisdom.
How has the Web transformed the comedy landscape, in terms of production and consumption?
The web has been enormously transformational: it’s a massively democratising thing, this ability to reach an audience directly. When the means of distributing content were controlled by a few people it was extremely difficult for people to break through; you needed to get a commissioner to buy in to your idea. You couldn’t just go and do it yourself.
Nowadays of course it is entirely different: everyone can get a YouTube account and shove their videos up there for the world to see. It means there is a wealth of stuff being created all the time from all over the world, all of it accessible to everyone for free. This is wonderful! It means that anyone whatsoever can get an audience for their material without needing to outlay anything, and without having to sell their idea to anyone. You can just make it, shove it on the web, and there it is.
There is still a place for high-production-value comedy online, for sure, but the point is you don’t HAVE to have access to a large budget or a TV channel to get your stuff out there; you can just do it yourself.
It’s not a great medium for longer-form stuff, because people are generally sat forward watching rather than slouched on a sofa, often wasting time at work or when they’re supposed to be doing something else, so it definitely discourages producing long pieces.
There’s been a lot of attempts to make money out of online comedy, and that has tended to be harder. People can make some money selling ads, and by becoming YouTube partners, but mostly to make a living you need people to commission stuff. The BBC commission web comedy of course, but other than that it’s really the classic routes to monetising stuff: commissions from advertisers to make commercials, virals etc. The impact on advertising has been huge, and this all helps to make some business for people creating stuff.
What works as “funny”? What doesn’t work?
Well, that’s a very hard question to answer. Different people like different things of course, but if there’s one lesson I’ve learned it’s that I can never tell what is going to do well and what isn’t. Sometimes I’ll make something that i think is wonderful and it doesn’t do well at all, and sometimes I’ll make something throwaway and it will do awesomely. There are some themes of course, not least KITTENS! Kittens always do well!
It’s not a science though, that’s the thing. You can’t guarantee what will go down well. Short is good, songs tend to work well, fluffy animals and accidents are always popular. It’s quite interesting to see what Ben Huh’s network of sites do. The successful ones are icanhazcheezburger and failblog - pictures of cats with captions and people falling over, respectively. Worth a fortune. Millions of users. cats and accidents. all generated by the community as well, user generated content, he doesn’t even need to make the stuff. Just keep the public churning out the cats and accidents. That’s not a particularly web thing I think, its a human thing. People have always laughed at anthropomorphised animals, and people have always laughed at accidents. It’s just like you’ve been framed, only it’s on demand.
Some of the stuff that gets popular is completely inexplicable of course - the Rick Astley phenomenon for example. At the moment, right now, Rebecca Black’s song FRIDAY is big news because it is completely awful, possibly the worst song ever made. So yeah, sometimes you can be successful by being crap.
In the main though I think it’s very simple: funny stuff is funny whatever medium you do it with. It’s about the gag, innit.
What defines “works” - the number of clicks or links?
It is possible to manipulate these things if you are trying to prove a point - there is a whole industry built around seeding and promotion. To be honest if something is going down well it does the rounds of the blogs quite rapidly. There’s the classic thing of one big link being worth a great many little ones. If something gets linked from BoingBoing say, or gets on the front page of reddit, that immediately generates a big spurt of activity. You can see what people are saying about your stuff very easily, things like Google Alerts let you know what people are saying, out there in the world, about your work.
How much online comedy plays to the crowd, instead of creating something innovative and new?
I think that’s a question you can ask of comedy as a whole isn’t it? It’s much easier to do risky stuff online as there is nothing much to lose- you can afford to make mistakes if you’re not outlaying loads of money, so it’s much easier to push the boundaries. If you don’t have a commissioning editor breathing down your neck, you are free to make whatever you like, and be right or wrong for yourself.
Obviously there are people who sit and think, “What will be the most popular thing I can make?” and approach it that way round, but much more interesting material is generated by the guys who just make the stuff in their head, that pleases themselves.
I think fundamentally if you are mainly amusing yourself then your work has much more chance of being original and entertaining than if you analyse everything too much.
Why are cats so funny online?Yes. YES. What is the reason? WHAT IS THE REASON? God knows. People just love cats. Especially on the internet. Cats everywhere. I mean. I love cats myself, I have 2 cats, both of whom are complete idiots, and I still have no idea why they are so overwhelmingly popular. We watch kittens doing cute stuff, that makes sense, but we also watch Maru getting in to boxes endlessly in our millions. Why do we do that? WHY? Why do we watch that bloody cat get in to his sodding boxes? I have no idea. I watch him do it. I feel compelled to watch him getting in to his box. Then I wonder why the hell I’ve just spent several minutes watching a cat get in to a box. And I feel disappointed in myself. And then I watch some more cats.
I don’t know, Aleks, I really don’t. They have some kind of power over us. It’s deeply sinister. They do not have our best interests at heart, I am sure of that much.