by Luv Mehta
Comedy’s quite an underrated genre. We’ll love comedy movies and TV shows, but whenever we have to mention our favourites or give out awards, it’s always the serious stuff. Which is undeserved, because comedy’s a damn fine genre, and quite hard to get right.
Rick’s told you about Community before, one of the best TV shows of all time. I’ll take this opportunity to talk about a different medium altogether - YouTube.
And in the process, get you hooked on to my favourite comedy channel ever, how they work, and what we can learn from them.
This post is sponsored by the Heritage Quiz Festival, coming up on the 31st of March and lasting for three days, and including a pop culture round focused on YouTube. Do come on over!
BriTANicK is a channel made by Brian McElhaney and Nick Kocher, two sketch comedians and occasional actors (the kind of work friends they sometimes pull in for guest cameos are insane - you’ll see why in a bit). The name’s a half-portmanteau of their own names, half-attempt at rhyming with Titanic (by their own admission, they picked it a lot of years ago and are stuck with it now).
Looking at their videos, let’s come to the central question posed by the title again - how to make comedy videos? Let’s look at five pointers:-
1. Take a central concept - and keep changing it up
All stories, funny or dramatic, revolve around a central concept. It could be a simple one, like the princess stuck in the castle, the henpecked office junior who can’t catch a break, a gimp peeing on your butt. etc.
Every comedy sketch, however, be it a single scene, a short video, or a whole film, needs to evolve and change continuously. The audience won’t be laughing at the same joke for five minutes, and you can’t stretch a concept past its potential - so it’s better to change it all up to keep it fresh. Not that you should turn a story about three college slackers into a daring heist on the moon’s stash of space-cocaine, of course.
(Actually, that would be pretty rad.)
As the initial setup suggests, Brian, hurt by Nick making his girlfriend cheat on him, asks him to tell him “everything”. The subversion kicks in, though, when Nick misunderstands his request and takes it literally, quoting history and trivia and pop culture gags. And then the initial concept itself gets subverted, with Brian turning out to have meant it all along, and completely going with it.
2. Don’t give a joke even a millisecond more time than necessary
When you craft a great gag, one sure to elicit a lot of laughs, it’s very tempting to let it carry one entire scene, or at least a huge part of that scene. Allot too much time to it, though, and the joke grows stale and tired.
There are moments where the gag might lie in the joke stretched too far it foes from funny to unfunny to so-audacious-it’s-funny-again, like this, but it’s much, much easier to use snappy editing to make sure the audience is consistently entertained and looking forward to the next joke. This ties in with the earlier point as well, with minimum delay between changing the whole setting up.
This one is about Brian trying to sneak beer out of a store despite being underage, with his subconscious egging him on. This concept is milked for multiple gags, like the “beer” actually being a weak flavoured drink, for example, or Brian accidentally talking to his subconscious out loud, then immediately scrunching up his eyes to think in his own voice, then confusing the two actions of speaking and thinking completely. All this is shown, through some snappy editing and delivery, in one minute and fifteen seconds.
Then, in a flash, the entire gag of the video changes, with the subconscious shown to be sentient and alcoholic, pulling a mental gun on him to force him to carry the beer (complete with sounds of the gun cocking inside his head).
And in thirty seconds, the gag is changed again, with the police officer’s mind and the subconscious engaging in a mental fistfight.
The video only lasts for a little more than three minutes, but it uses the time economically, sometimes even cutting away from a line to make it funnier. As a result, you're always throwing material at the audience, making sure they keep finding something to laugh at.
3. Don’t be afraid to get risky and artful
A lot of great comedy is borne out of high concepts that are difficult to pull off - which makes their accomplishment all the more amazing and successful. This way, you get to explore entirely new avenues to extract comedy out of, pull off unique gags the audience is guaranteed to not have seen or even thought of before.
Along with Danny Pudi from Community (one of the major guests they’ve managed to pull in), the whole video is so technically accomplished that it becomes a sight to behold. All three pull off multiple jokes and puns in perfect synchronization, ultimately culminating in a weird ending (as is usual for them).
This video, on the other hand, takes an analytical look at common Oscar-bait movies and highlights all of them, by literally stating the tropes out loud as they’re executed. Everyone in the movie is bi-curious yet ultimately straight, the requisite Rain Man character shouts, “Catchphrase!”, and Nick delivers a speech at the end, saying “Inspiring final lines of a speech that douchebags will quote on their Facebook profiles!” to great cheers.
4. Don’t be afraid to get weird
Coming from that previous point, even if it’s brilliantly made doesn’t mean it won’t benefit from going completely zany and bonkers.
The central gag of the video, Brian’s self-censoring, ultimately changes into using the “but that didn’t happen” line for really, really weird uses one after the other, the best one undoubtedly being the last one, where the video completely changes format before giving a “this happened instead” explanation through a single line that involves Nick being smeared in mustard and Brian shitting himself (off-screen, for sudden impact).
5. Choose only the best material
By their own admission, Brian and Nick only choose to make videos once they have great material they believe in. And again, by their own admission, “it’s a terrible business model,” seeing how they’ve only released thirty three videos in eight years. However, it did get them a pilot on Comedy Central, a starring role in a Joss Whedon movie (who even appears in one of their videos - I did say they've got some brilliant cameos) and a couple of films, short and full-length, screened at film festivals.
The Foul Line, their most recent video, takes all the above points and plays them to perfection, being released two years after their last couple of videos (one of them featuring Nathan Fillion - yes, really), switching up concepts once every minute, playing every joke and knowing when to cut to the next one, and being technically accomplished while still pulling off some weird-as-hell gags.
Comedy’s a difficult and tricky genre to pull off, and with the dreck that populates half of YouTube (looking at you, Smosh) it’s easy to give up even trying to look. But once in a while, you get something great, insane, and inspiring.
And then you take that inspiration to make your own dreck and upload it.
But, well, isn’t starting something the first real step to learning about it?