My Instagram Reel just went viral (1.3M views). Here's why that sucks.
"You get into comedy to make people laugh. Yet online, a successful joke is one that makes people fight."
This is the Rubesletter from Matt Ruby (comedian, writer, and the creator of Vooza). Sign up to get it in your inbox weekly. And check out my other newsletter too: Funny How: Letters to a Young Comedian.
This is what I see in my head every time I imagine the algorithm:
An insatiable beast that constantly demands more content. Must. Maximize. Engagement. 💍💍💍
So I’ve been doing my part. After seeing comedian friends level up by posting to social media all the time, I’ve hopped on the bandwagon and have been posting videos daily (ok, almost daily) to the three big platforms. After all, the algorithm is the new industry.
(Speaking of, follow me on Insta, TikTok, and YouTube. Yeah! We all get to be influencer/salesmen/infomercial hustlers now! Watch how this joke slices right through this soda can!)
Lo and behold, a few days ago, one of my jokes went viral. (We still say that, right?) This Instagram Reel is at 1.3M views and climbing.
That’s a good thing, right? Sure, I’ve gotten hundreds of new followers and plenty of positive feedback about the bit. Gimme those eyeballs.
Yet I’ve got mixed feelings about this video’s success – and the shifting emphasis in comedy to breaking out on social. Here’s why:
I’m pulling to refresh like a junkie.
This one’s one me: I keep checking the app to see how the vid’s doing. Mmm, hearts. Ooh, follows. 🎶 Intermittent variable rewards, you send me… 🎶
I don’t know why this Reel in particular took off.
I’ve got other (I’d argue better) jokes that have just a fraction of this view total. And I’ve actually posted this joke before and it did fine on IG, but nothing like this.
So why this Reel instead of all other Reels? (It’s like Instagram Passover!) Maybe it’s because this one was posted by Four by Three Productions, my standup special’s distributor, who sold it to Tubi. (Note: I don’t even know what Tubi is. I think it’s on my Roku. But saying things like Tubi, Roku, and Hulu aloud make me feel like I’m learning Polynesian on DuoLingo.) Four by Three invited me as a “collaborator” to the post so it shows up as a joint post. Maybe IG is going to special lengths to try to popularize that now.
Or maybe it’s because I’ve been posting videos daily lately. Could it be I’m being rewarded for my slavish devotion? Are the social media gods throwing me a bone for sacrificing so many jokes to the volcano? And is this what’s required of me from now on? A big part of being a comedian now is trying to read the minds of algorithm programmers and tech executives, which is rather lame.
Then: Make ‘em laugh. Now: Make ‘em fight.
The joke’s intentionally edgy, but c’mon, there’s nothing racist about it. It’s a joke about language, really.
But man, people sure do love arguing online, especially about anything racial. The whole topic is catnip to Reply Guys. And when a joke like this goes viral, these mooks love to start bringing their baggage into the comments. They start attacking one another and eventually the conversation has practically nothing to do with the joke…
I gotta think this is part of why this Reel has entered the stratosphere. Yes, the joke’s funny, but also, it’s giving people a reason to fight with each other in the comments. And hate is the easiest path to engagement. A bunch of people LOL’ing doesn’t move the needle nearly as much as them screaming.
It’s kinda crazy. You get into comedy to make people laugh. You write jokes to make people happy. Yet online, a successful joke is one that makes people fight. It’s literally the opposite of why I (or anyone else) begins doing comedy. People in a room together unified in laughter is amazing. People isolated in their little bubbles sniping at each other in the comments section is just plain sad.
I ❤️ editing.
The mission now is to deliver an IV drip of content. Every day: Drip. Drip. Drip.
When I started comedy, comics would come out with a special featuring their best jokes every few years which rewarded genuine craftsmanship. Viva honing!
Now, it feels slightly archaic to spend months crafting a longer chunk. Maybe they still have a place onstage or in specials, but they’re not what moves the needle on social media. Even clips of 5-10 minute sets feel like a dying breed. I realize bite sized clips can be a funnel to your longform stuff, but something still feels off.
I feel friction about that because I’m a believer in editing: Good art is about removing things. Kill your darlings. Remove everything you don’t love. Leave only the best stuff on the bone. Chop like Hemingway or Carver and make sure every syllable matters.
But editing fervently and only putting out a tight product every couple of years doesn’t maximize engagement – and that’s what “the creator economy” incentivizes. There is no cutting room floor anymore. Now your job is to release it all and let god and/or the algorithm (what’s the difference, really?) sort it out.
Once upon a time, The Beatles released immaculate albums that were 35 minutes long. Now, we get the original album plus the remixes, the B-sides, the alternate takes, the live tracks, the Cirque de Soleil show, the coffee table book, and the 9 hour documentary about the making of the album. It used to be I Wanna Hold Your Hand, but now it’s Let’s See How Far We Can Ram Our Beatles C*ck Down Your Throat Because You’ll Swallow Anything We Put Out, Won’t You? All You Need Is Love…and they’ll sell it to you on their new $6.99/month Beatles Love Subscription Plan (plus you’ll get a free subscription to The Athletic too). This wring-the-towel-dry biz model creeps me out.
Staring at a screen sucks.
This is comedy now: Editing clips, captioning videos, uploading to multiple platforms, etc. Writing jokes and performing them onstage almost feels like an afterthought.
I have to remember that a big reason why I got into comedy is because I hated working in tech and staring at a screen all day. I wanted to feel more human and be in the same room with other people.
But now, being a comedian is working in tech. Actually, that feels true for everyone these days: Even when you don’t work in tech, you work in tech. It’s like all those cookies these web sites keep flinging at us: We can’t reject them, we can only accept them.
“Hire someone to do this stuff.” And whose gonna pay for that? Comedy ain’t exactly big bucks central. Plus, can I really trust someone to watch all my raw material, find the best stuff, caption it right, etc.? I’m a control freak and it feels weird to outsource it to some agency or a dude in Macedonia. I’m not alone in that feeling, either. I know guys making bank doing standup who still caption their own clips.
Hacks win online.
Here’s the dirty little secret about being a hack: It works. The comedians in the back of the room may scoff at your act, but you can kill in most clubs. One time, I saw a comic on the road yank pantyhose over his face in order to pull his eyes back so he looked Asian and then he did a William Hung impression singing, “She bang! She bang!” It brought the house down (and also killed a part of my soul).
Good comics and comedy nerds know when something is lame AF – and that self-policing is vital for the craft. Yet those exact same bits are often what kill on social media – heckler vids and bits about race, dating, sex, drugs, ethnic stereotypes, etc. The masses on social media are like the worst kind of club crowd – one that’s dumb, drunk, and only wants to hear lowest common denominator material.
Note: I’m not saying you can’t do great bits on those topics (and to be fair, I have jokes about all of the above), but it’s a struggle to find a unique p.o.v. and stay out of hackland when you swim in those waters.
When we measure worth by Likes, quality starts to feel irrelevant; we determine success/failure via binary data. A view is just a view, a follow is just a follow, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
Maybe that’s just something I gotta wrap my mind around and get over. If you’re trying to do fine dining in a fast food world, that’s your mistake.
There’s no context.
Onstage, an audience gets to know you. They learn who you are and hear a joke like this alongside dozens of other bits. Same in a standup special.
Yet on social media, people are seeing this clip randomly, with zero context. They just see some dude with a shaved head prattling on about racialized language. It’s easy to clock the tension but miss the release. Without the nuance of a full set, everything starts to feel more third railish. Watching a whole Don Rickles set makes him seem fun, watching just one of his jokes in isolation makes him seem cruel.
I like a little bit of shock value, but when it’s isolated from the rest of my act, I worry about how that can lead toward bad outcomes – especially since the algorithm can be a pipeline from edgy comedy to hate spewers.
Unleash the joke detectives.
It’s a good not great joke; solid structure with fun examples but not exactly a wildly original premise. In fact, a few commenters have pointed out similarities to bits by Bill Burr and George Carlin. Alas, I’ve never consciously stolen a joke. (And I find it amusing that people think I stole it from both Bill Burr and George Carlin. Does that mean that Burr stole it from Carlin? Hmm.)
People love accusing comics of joke theft without ever considering the notion of parallel thinking. Obviously, I’m not the first one to notice that “people of color” is an odd phrase. Here, I’m just putting my own spin on that observation and doing my best to come up with specific punchlines that no one else would choose.
Comedian Felicia Madison recently wrote this about parallel thinking in comedy in a recent Facebook post:
In fact, there were two jokes in [Ali Wong’s latest] special that are identical to two jokes I have performed on stage numerous times over the years and in fact one of them I performed last night. I mention this not because I think Ali Wong is stealing my material but to prove the point that there is indeed parallel thinking. Many comedians complain that their jokes are being stolen, and not to say it doesn’t happen, but mostly it is a result of parallel thinking. There is no way I stole from Ali-and I’d say the reverse is definitely true as well. However, I am pretty sure if In a month I get on stage and someone sees me who saw her special will say—oh she stole that from Ali Wong.
Who’s in charge here anyway?
At least with the old industry, we knew who the gatekeepers were. We may not have liked them, but at least they were human beings. Now, a black box is in charge.
Good luck if something goes awry for you on one of these platforms. This week, Instagram took down one of comedian Andrew Schulz’ videos and when he posted the takedown notice, they apparently took that post down too. With 2M followers, he can get someone at IG on the phone to deal with stuff like that. But how about the rest of us?
In fact, TikTok has removed some of my jokes for copyright violation. But guess who owns the copyright? Me! They took down clips from a special that I own and made. “You should appeal that.” To who? I checked with my record label and my publisher. Neither knows what to do about it. And try getting a human being at TikTok on the line and lmk how that goes. It’s Kafkomedy out here.
Social media platforms ain’t exactly known for their longevity.
We’re now supposed to build our careers on the back of social media companies, but how long will any of them really be around? And what happens to the followers you accrue if they disappear? After all, it was once a Friendster/MySpace world.
Even if they sustain, what happens to your fans if you get banned? Think about how that impacts the way comics approach posting edgy material. And what’s up with shadowbanning? At least have the decency to come out and tell me you’re throttling my views.
It’s a big reason why I’m out here collecting emails and writing this newsletter. I ain’t looking to get Vine’d.
I guess the safest bet is to post everywhere and avoid becoming too dependent on any single platform. But that just means more posting, more replying to comments, and more being a dork.
Social media is on my mind when I’m onstage.
It’s in the back of my head all the time now: Film every set, do more crowdwork, try more topical material, and, if something feels like it could potentially go viralish, make sure to lean into it. Comics used to hate hecklers, but now we see those kinda interactions as perfect bait for the algorithm. In a way, Mark Zuckerberg is now directing my act – and I’m not alone. I worry about what this all does to the future of comedy and how younger comics will define success and approach the craft moving forward.
Ya gotta keep up or move outta the way.
Despite all the above, I’m gonna keep at it. And I know plenty of other comedians who resisted the pull of social media for a long time have made the same decision. This is just who we are now. Horse and buggy drivers probably complained when cars came around too.
And to be fair, there are plenty of bright sides to this new world. You can reach people who would never come out to a comedy club. You can find a niche audience in a way that used to be impossible. There are comics selling out clubs and theaters based solely on their podcasts and/or social media. I love how they’ve been able to go direct to the people instead of having to please one of a handful of industry execs.
And maybe it’s good that all this is incentivizing me to be more in the moment onstage. I care more now about each interaction with a crowd member. I’m more “in the room” and present and open to something crazy happening. In a way, the algorithm wants me to Be Here Now more. Trés zen.
Also, the comics who will win this race in the long run are, theoretically, the ones who can consistently write good jokes. I like to think that’s one of my strong suits; I have a ton of “content” I can “provide.” Over time, this system should help those who can consistently create quality material and deliver when audiences do show up to see them live.
OK, beast. You need to be fed jokes? Fine. I got jokes.
The Rubesletter • by Matt Ruby (Vooza) is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
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