The Internet has brought us many great things: viruses that exasperate but don’t kill, social networking sites which effectively eliminate the requirement to physically meet people while still referring to them as friends, and best of all: streaming videos. Comedians are making a statement on the web and using streaming sites like YouTube, vimeo.com and FunnyOrDie.com as a global megaphone to reach the masses. A revolution of sorts, comedians all over the world (including many Chicago ensembles) are now paring up with actors and a full production crew to breathe life into their ideas that five years ago had no venue or voice from which to speak.
“Portmanteau,” for those anticipating a stint on Jeopardy at some point in the future, is the combination of two words like “smoke” and “fog” to create smog. If you have spent more than a few minutes on the Internet in recent years, you are apt to have come across a “webisode”–a portmanteau of the words “web” and “episode”. While some people over-generalize the definition of a webisode to include any short video one might see on YouTube, it is in fact something more specific. Here is the absolutely official definition that I have officially created: A webisode is a web-based (usually short) video which is part of series. The series of videos must have an element that ties the individual episodes together. This can be an evolving narrative with returning characters; unrelated sketches with returning characters; or thematic continuity with new characters.
The viral nature of the Internet is perfectly suited to getting the word out about an unknown or up-and-coming comedy troupe. The compelling force of a unifying element of the theme or characters gets viewers hooked on the series, creating continued viewership. If you love the obnoxious guys (Brad Morris & Michael Patrick O’Brien) in Almost Pimps as they insult almost everyone in a Japanese restaurant, how could you resist not watching their further adventures on a double date at scuba lessons?
Chicago’s own sketch comedy ensemble Schadenfreude has been performing live to audiences since 1997. Having already achieved numerous accolades for their work, including an Emmy for their WWT pilot “IL-informed,” Schad too has gone viral. Their webisode series “Regrets” examines the contrite confessions of everyday people, such as the indigent admissions of a box-seller and the residual effects of loving the Dave Matthews Band. Improv ensemble The Reckoning have created the Almost Pimps webisodes, which follow two inept sex-obsessed men as they unsuccessfully attempt to impress everyone and anyone around them with their macho bravado. Some other local noteworthy webisodes being produced in Chicago are The Galileo Players’ Science Digest series, Misery and Company, The Guild, Mixed Company by Claymore Productions, and the How to Liz series.
Breaking the mold, Ted Tremper’s completely improvised series Break-ups plays host to different Chicago actors depicting awkward relationship moments. Relying heavily on the premise that comedy hinges on building and releasing tension, Tremper chronicles the emotional roller coaster that ensues when a couple is in the process of ending a relationship. On the darker side of humor, his choice of talented actors leave the audience pondering the sincerity long after they’ve finished.
One of the strangest hybrids to hit the digital world is something called “branded entertainment.” Two great examples are Illeana Douglas in Easy to Assemble for IKEA and Lisa Kudrow in Web Therapy for Lexus. The product placement is unabashedly prominent, as they are paying the bills. As the LA Times commented, “You can look at it as a commercial with a show inside, or a show wrapped around a commercial…” Proving that audiences are numb to blatant commercialization or might even embrace it as a familiar friend, these webisodes have proved extremely popular.
Another long-running webisode produced in L.A. is Showbizzle and, more specifically Janey’s Blog. With dozens of episodes already produced, this ongoing fictional narrative highlights the lives and loves of 20-something Hollywood denizens as they cling and claw up the slippery slope of fame in tinsel town. The episodes take place in a café, and Janey (who never faces the camera) listens and comments on the ramblings of the actors and actresses who sit at her table. It’s addictive and informative, and a naughty habit not unlike watching a soap opera. Because of the reliance of text commenting on the action, co-creator Charles Rosin describes this hybrid as a “blogisode” to distinguish it from a typical webisode.
As comedy ventures deeper into the daunting sink-or-swim market of technology, it’s nice to know that Chicago continues to produce high-quality talent, fully capable of competing for laughs in the global market. The future of comedy, limited only by imagination and the desire to be heard, actors and writers alike now have a chance to reach an endless audience with their brand of humor through online videos. So grab a camera, a few friends, and turn those funny ideas into something we all can enjoy.