“Territory” Battle of Comedy and Audience Attention

In a way, I think many people including myself have been doing the “comedy” game in the wrong way.

Sure, stand-up comedy is an amazing art form and has been around for decades. But in a world where everyone is fighting for attention to further their agenda, sometimes I think stand-up comedy itself is becoming another noise. Just like barkers in Times Square who come across as super annoying.

Whether it’s Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or even live comedy like stand-up, sketches and improv, we’ve always been kinda fighting against each other for attention in the name of entertainment. “Hey I can make you laugh! I can entertain you! Come watch us!” And sometimes for a nominal fee, there’s a fair exchange of money and entertainment. And hence the entertainment industry. And there’s fierce competition on all sides. Comics are not just competing against other stand-up comics but all kinds of entertainment out there. In certain cases, the Medium itself becomes more important than your talent level at any one comedic craft. For example, there’s talented veterans in the stand-up community who lack any audience on Instagram or YouTube. But if you are the kind of person who can hack a popular app, such as recent stars on TikTok, then you’ve just surpassed in popularity and influence more than anybody else.

Granted, a TikTok star never has any ambitions of competing against old stand-up comedians. But in a way, we all are fighting for attention. A teenager who becomes a fierce fan of a TikTok star will probably not switch to suddenly learning about stand-up comedy and following comedians.

So here’s my conclusion. You cannot afford to be pigeon-holed into one form or another. A comic should realize when he or she is turning into a one-trick pony. Even in history, there’s been performers and comics who engage in a rather antiquated form of comedy. The danger is not being able to evolve with changing audience tastes and gain new audiences. There are people out there and ways to reach those people. You have to create a new flavor there. Something different. A unique value proposition and positioning. And you can’t just be different in a small way. You have to create something that people so desperately want … that a small, janky version of that comedy made by an unknown commodity like you can create a popular reaction that serves a large group of people. It’s no different than opening up a business and having a MVP.

In a way, I’ve always wanted “mainstream” success. But how can I fit into that? That’s crazy. I wrote a little bit about Lilly Singh’s show yesterday and me trying to fit into the “mainstream” entertainment may be similar in concept to what’s happening there. I’ve never been the “mainstream” guy so why should I all of a sudden act proper, PC and do traditional kind of American humor? I am not a traditional American, traditional Korean, nor am I a traditional “anything.” Instead, there’s value in freedom and breaking the mold.

“Think Different.” Isn’t that what Steve Jobs and Apple used to say?

Feelings on Late-Night TV

When you google “Late night TV is” into the search bar, the top 2 auto-complete suggestions are “Late Night TV is dead” or “Late Night TV is dying.” Quite popular opinions circulating right now.

We need a new era of transformation in American late-night television (both SNL & talk-shows). Talk-shows especially should no longer be fixated on political monologues mocking Trump or inviting famous celebs for canned interviews because that’s just a horrible representation of America itself as a country with our diversity of interests and backgrounds. Why can’t we shine more light into real topics and people who are struggling to get more deserved attention? Why can’t we talk more about concerns of minority communities? Why can’t we talk more about international news or bring more international celebs? Why can’t we share deeper conversations on philosophy and religion?

Repetitive formats get old and predictable, and bore the audience. If these shows are designed to create laughter, then they have veered away from perhaps the most important element of laughter of them all — creating surprise. Unexpectedness. Unpredictability. If there’s anything I’ve learned from doing stand-up comedy for years is that a limited range of material is boring for the audience. Viewers crave novelty, stimulation, surprises. Different voices, different conversations, different moods. Heck, the viewers themselves are changing. The only thing NOT changing is the late night tv shows.

Having said all that nasty stuff about late-night TV, I have tremendous respect for all these hosts. My favorites are Conan and Trevor Noah.

There is something to say about SNL. According to what I’ve learned, when Lorne Michaels first launched SNL, it really was sensational, something that people had never seen before with amazing skit parodies of current events and pop culture references. SNL itself was considered satiric, groundbreaking and surprising at the time. Which is important to note. Now that audience tastes have evolved, the show formats must evolve with them. In a way, comedy is a moving target that leaves the obsolete behind. You must have your fingers on the pulse of audience psyche and know how to create “difference” from the mainstream so that it breaks the usual pattern. When SNL first came out, it WAS the new pattern, the new kid on the block. Now that SNL is the old dinosaur, there will be NEW patterns and NEW kids on the block that can take down the incumbent. There has to be. It’s a natural pattern throughout history. Even Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart were the new fresh kids on the block when they first started satirizing Republicans. Now, the scale is tipping to the other side.

As a millennial and a racial minority, I badly want to see somebody break that mold in late-night. Many of us are familiar with the traditional formula that has made late night TV successful for decades with stars like Carson, Letterman, Leno and Conan. But that formula itself is being challenged as archaic by a growing portion of the younger demographics in today’s world where people continue to veer away from traditional network TV to YouTube, Instagram and streaming for content. The game that late-night TV should play is to use its massive production scale, strong brand name, existing fanbase and talent pool to push for more original innovation and think outside of the box.

“Desus & Mero” on Showtime is a great example paving the way for the future. The hosts trade jokes with each other in a studio that feels like watching two friends talk about the latest topics. They casually exude authenticity and “real-ness” that today’s viewers are dying to see. It’s also refreshingly different. The references they make and the lingo they use are also spot-on with younger minority demographics, and their Bronx regional specificity gives them a strong niche. It’s a new platform for an under-represented demographic with comedic talent that the people like. People get something they’ve never had before, see things they’ve never seen before.

Another example of disruptive comedy is “The Eric Andre Show” on Adult Swim. That show is genius. He has literally made a career out of satirizing the traditional talk-show format, and the viewers love him dearly. Eric Andre showcases a new possibility that should not be ignored because he dared to change the talk-show game itself and succeeded. These guys came out not to swim in the same ocean as the other late-night shows, but to create their own blue oceans where nobody has gone before. There’s absolutely no competition there because people have never thought of it yet. And there is the prize. I wouldn’t be surprised if Eric Andre and Hannibal Buress spent agonizing amount of hours strategizing and planning absurdity to make “The Eric Andre Show” a success. It just looks funny, fun and crazy from the outside but it takes amazing dedication, courage and divergent intelligence from the right-brain to pull something off like that.

Eric Andre sleeping during his show. His job involves not working at his job.

“A Little Late with Lilly Singh” is a peculiar example (of innovation that has not been executed correctly) that’s been mind-boggling to me. I’ve been a fan of Lilly’s Superwoman days on YouTube because she’s so great at character sketches, impersonations and writing her own relevant and funny content for camera. And then NBC puts her into the same cookie-cutter late-night talk show format that EVERYONE should be avoiding. Monologue jokes. Exaggerated audience reactions. Celeb interviews. It’s like taking Michael Jordan out of the NBA and putting him into Croquet. Go play Croquet, Michael Jordan. Well, why? He was doing so talented in the NBA!

Lilly needs to write more sketches. She needs to be real for us again. She needs to have real conversations with Indian-Americans and Indian-Canadians. I saw a brief segment on her show that showcased her writers, which gave me a little bit of an insight into what might be going on over there. The group of writers looked a bit like intimidated young kids who were well-intentioned but lacked the imagination to shake up the status-quo. They were making jokes about white men, sexual innuendos, socks and etc. That’s not Lilly. What the hell? Was Lilly ever known for bashing white people on YouTube? No, I watched her because of her amazing Indian parents impressions.

But I think to succeed in today’s comedy, you must be more than just a stand-up. More than just another late-night host. More than just another funny guy who can do improv. More than just another guy who can do a tight set on stage. You must be strongly connected with the people of the real world and provide surprise and new perspective. That’s inherently UN-fakeable. The system is authentic.

In a way, there’s opportunity. As long as mainstream TV is unwilling to adapt, it leaves room for small players to act as “startups” and disrupt everything. Like David vs. Goliath.