Breaking down the paradigm shift in TV that gave us Broad City, Billy on the Street, and Comedy Bang! Bang!
Ironically, the point at which the Internet became a player in scripted TV development was during the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike. During the strike, TV and film writers couldn’t write much of anything at all. With all of these writers unable to make money in TV and film, they turned to the relatively new medium of Internet content. And suddenly, network executives found a new landscape in which to discover original content that could be brought to TV (after the strike ended, of course).
Sure, executives had adapted shows that had Internet fan bases before. Comedy Central’s Stella had originated as a live show in New York City and had subsequently migrated online. The term Viral wasn’t even in the global vernacular, but fans could find the Internet sketches on slow-loading servers. It was underground and cool, and Comedy Central picked up on it. That is until the network canceled Stella after one season in 2005, unable to attract a larger audience.
What could have been a flash in the pan became an ahead-of-its-time business plan: finding Internet properties and spinning them into gold. The same year Comedy Central canceled Stella YouTube went live. This new dot-com established itself as an oasis for wayward comedy writers, just like Stella, that recognized the potential of the Internet as a delivery system for narrative and sketch videos. Pre-YouTube, there was no website that you could quickly and easily consume original content with high production value. All of a sudden, we could watch The Lonely Island’s “Lazy Sunday” from SNL on our computers in 2006. And it was all for free. The Lonely Island was the gateway to finding truly independent content like Wainy Days (David Wain’s 2007 webs series) and Derrick Comedy (Donald Glover, DC Pierson, Dominic Dierkes, Dan Eckman, and Maggie McFadden’s sketch group which started posting on YouTube in 2006).
So that’s where we found ourselves in 2007: on the brink of a revolution. The WGA strike was the match, and the Internet was the fuse. The dynamite? The recession. Networks were looking for anywhere to cut costs of TV production. That was obviously a contributing factor of the WGA strike, to begin with. With the proliferation of web series and the like, networks could cut costs in development and pilot production.
Children’s Hospital was the first comedy web series to successfully transition from a web series to a TV show. The show was originally presented on Warner Bros.’ website in 2008, and it was made with very little involvement from the studio. So the five-minute videos feel more akin to the content found on an indie YouTube channel than on a stilted network TV show, albeit with higher production value. The entirety of the project was completed for under $200,000, and it collected a Webby for its first season. The success of the low-budget web series set a precedent for other web series going forward: cheap projects can look good, delivering sharp writing and stellar performances.
In the same year, another sharp web series hit the Internet. Lisa Kudrow starred in Web Therapy, a short-form comedy series from Lstudio. If you haven’t heard of the studio it may be because its parent company isn’t known for making smart comedies, or any comedies. For some reason Lexus—yeah, the car company—has a boutique production company. So Web Therapy basically started out as branded content for Lexus. The series was adapted for TV by HBO after three seasons on the web. Again, the production costs remained low, since the network used the footage from Lstudio, adding some extra scenes to flesh out the narrative. Recycling much of the web content for their viewers, HBO demonstrated that web productions could be presented on TV without any alteration other than the addition of connecting scenes.
While the Internet-to-TV path was blazed by web series, the phenomenon did not stay within the format for long. With two quality shows coming from the Internet, networks expanded their search for content. Development executives turned to social media for the next great show idea. CBS, the most conservative of the big three television networks, took a big swing by buying the Twitter profile “Shit My Dad Says” in 2009. It ended in tears, and pretty much all networks have sworn off adapting Twitter profiles into shows. I’d venture a guess that one day we will get a really good show developed from a Twitter profile. This is me sending out a request to the universe for an animated jomny sun show.
By the time CBS had struck out with $#*! My Dad Says in 2011, YouTube was not the only streaming service in the game. Funny or Die had been providing a free streaming platform for independent comics to post their original concepts since 2007. Two such projects were Derek Waters’s Drunk History and Billy Eichner’s Billy on the Street. Drunk History was originally posted on YouTube in 2007, with Funny or Die reposting the sketch in 2008 without Waters expressed permission. However, the added exposure was exactly what Waters wanted. Funny or Die partnered with Waters to produce more sketches, with budgets increasing and cast members’ profiles heightening. Eventually, the show sold to Comedy Central due in part to Funny or Die’s ability to prove the show’s concept was sustainable.
In the same way, Billy Eichner had created his own man on the street videos, which had gotten him noticed by Funny or Die. Eichner and Funny or Die partnered to create a ten minute proof of concept, receiving ten offers for a TV series, ultimately going with Fuse in 2011. In the Funny or Die model, most videos are shot for around $2,000, with a quick schedule. This ten-minute video sent out as a pilot probably cost a little more than their traditional budget, but I doubt it was much more. Though this isn’t the cheapest pilot ever to be sold—*cough* It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia *cough* $6 pilot *cough*—it’s pennies in comparison to a pilot sponsored by a network.
The same year Eichner sold his man on the street show, another New York comic started what might be the most punk talk show ever created. Chris Gethard began The Chris Gethard Show in the wake of his disappointing run as the lead of Comedy Central’s sitcom Big Lake. He was wildly misused in the role, a part originally occupied by Napoleon Dynamite’s John Heder. The Chris Gethard Show aired on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a public access channel in New York City. The reason Gethard chose the channel was that it streamed every show online and studio time was free. In the show’s four years on the channel, it gained fans across the world. Because of the show’s fan base and Gethard’s unique outsider point of view, TV networks began courting the show for a jump to mainstream TV. Gethard was in talks with TBS to be the Late Show to Conan’s Tonight Show. The slot ultimately went to The Pete Holmes Show in 2012 (premiering in 2013), and The Chris Gethard Show was picked up by Fusion three years later. Again, a network picked up a show that had a demonstrated fan base and proof of concept. It’s worth noting that Pete Holmes didn’t get the TBS slot out of anywhere. His podcast You Made it Weird has a huge fan base and demonstrates his talent for interviewing guests.
The year Pete Holmes began developing his short-lived late night talk show, another talk show I wish would live forever hit the airwaves. Comedy Bang! Bang! premiered on IFC in 2012 as a TV version of the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast. Though the show had a somewhat more traditional path to series—a traditional pilot was shot since there was no visual representation of what the show was—the concept would have been incredibly difficult to sell had it not been for the hundreds of podcast episodes and thousands of diehard fans to back it up. Scott Aukerman, host and creator of the show, blames the expensive production costs as the biggest reason the TV show ended before the podcast. Again, the economics dictate the creative form of the show.
By the time Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer finished their first season of the web series Broad City, the precedent of taking content from the Internet and flipping it for TV had become a savvy business model. Thus, the 2010 YouTube series had an innate (though, definitely not eminent) momentum, pulling it toward a TV deal. The show was not predestined for TV. The creators were not huge players in their comedy scene, having no luck getting on house teams at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City, which is usually step one in rising through the comedy ranks in the city. However, they did have an ace in the hole: Amy Poehler. Poehler was a friend of a friend and fan of the show, which was enough to get her to sign onto the show as an executive producer, giving the series the oomph to make it to TV in 2014.
The Vimeo series High Maintenance premiered a year after Broad City’s first run on YouTube. Series creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair credit Broad City for inspiring the distinct voice and point of view of their show, going as far as sending the Broad City creators their first episodes for advice. Their goal for the series was to highlight the incredible actors that they had met in New York. This is maybe the most important and underrated common factor among a lot of successful Internet content. Children’s Hospital, Web Therapy, The Chris Gethard Show, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Broad City, High Maintenance—these shows took advantage of under-utilized acting communities, whether it was because of a writers strike or an impacted comedy community. By the time High Maintenance got picked up by HBO in 2016, Blichfeld and Sinclair had featured virtually all of their actor friends in the series.
So far only niche cable channels have found large-scale success in adapting web content for TV, and I’d venture a guess that other networks (niche, or otherwise) will soon adopt the model. Given, most of the channels featuring Internet-derived content are relatively new. The Internet development process allows for a quick turnaround for these networks that need shows to fill out their airtime. But the thing is, the model has worked.
Looking out on the horizon, what Internet content needs to be adapted for TV? The Doughboys podcast, The Hollywood Handbook podcast, and The Kicker’s Workball web series.
First off, Doughboys is made for a Food Network run. Move over Guy Fieri, Mike Mitchell and Nick Wiger will take us to the places that deserve to be reviewed—chain restaurants. The podcast is hilarious and often times insightful, but when the two recount their visit to whatever restaurant they are reviewing that week—I wish we could be there with them not just hear about it. I also want to see the hosts say they should end the show every week only to come back the next.
Second, The Hollywood Handbook has mutated into something entirely different than when the show first aired four years ago. The characters have grown and defined themselves, becoming oxymoronically broad and incredibly specific. In addition to being a character driven talk show, increasingly bizarre premises now heighten each episode. The show’s hosts Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport are two of the funniest people on the planet, and they deserve a TV show of their own.
Third, the web series Workball is a mix of Jake and Amir and the “This is Sports Center” commercials. The concept is simple: co-workers discuss the finer points of various sports, always with strange and strongly held beliefs. It’s perfect for a channel like ESPN that dabbled in comedic content with Cheap Seats in 2004. Now that the TV world is so fragmented, a show like Cheap Seats or Workball would do well in the niche sports comedy market. Workball is written by many comics who came up with the Broad City creators at the UCB, and the show hits many of the hallmarks of a successful Internet to TV series. It boasts a consistently hilarious ensemble cast, it is distributed by The Kicker (a company founded by Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video), and it has a big name executive producer in SNL head writer Bryan Tucker.
These are just a few of the quality properties that are ripe for TV. They continue the tradition started in 2008 by Children’s Hospital. These series are economical, ensemble shows with original points of view that have a strong Internet fan base. While no show is a guaranteed smash, this model has proven to bring us some of the most entertaining and boundary-pushing comedies of the last decade. Here’s to the next ten years.