YouTube Bets Big on Laughs with Its First-Ever “Comedy Week”

The online video giant will feature comedy programming all week—but can a website create sitcom-viewing habits?

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Does your idea of humor include a cooking show that teaches you how to order 75 fast-food hamburgers and turn them into a truly epic lasagna? If so, you’ve got company: the comedy team behind “Epic Meal Time” has 4.7 million YouTube subscribers. This week, with its first ever Comedy Week, running from May 19 to 25, YouTube is setting out to make sure that number climbs.

“We have amazing YouTube stars who have such passionate fan bases, who a lot of people walking down the street have never seen,” says Danielle Tiedt, VP of marketing at the company. “Many people have never heard of Epic Meal Time, but they should. That’s my goal, to make those names as recognizable as possible.” YouTube’s latest star, a perky blonde entertainer who goes by the nom du Net Jenna Marbles, who was recently profiled in the New York Times.

But drawing new viewers and subscribers to comedians on the website isn’t the only goal of Comedy Week. YouTube is also trying to boost its own centrality to well-established comedians known for their off-line work, get more views and subscriptions across the board—and, no big deal, maybe just change the way people everywhere get their dose of humor.

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Here’s how Comedy Week works: YouTube is already devoting a good chunk of their spotlight to comedy, but starting May 19, the site will be flooded with 150 videos made specifically for the event, with new episodes of popular funny webseries and with comedy playlists curated by famous comedians. There will also be a stage show broadcast live May 19 (at 9 pm Eastern) that will then be archived for future watching; the live show features Seth Rogen, The Lonely Island, Tig Notaro and others.

It will be hard to watch YouTube without encountering Comedy Week videos, which the company hopes will mean viewers are exploring new channels and spending more time on the site, and the promise of new content throughout the week may bring those potential fans to check back the next day. Not that there isn’t already a strong relationship between YouTube and comedians. About a third of YouTube’s top 100 channels are comedy-related, and the impact of online video can be felt throughout the world of humor.

For example: on a recent rainy morning on New York City‘s Upper West Side, at a shoot for one of Comedy Week’s original videos—involving a tiny piano and a woman dressed as a 1950s housewife (and goes live May 20)—it was clear that the YouTube–comedy connection is more than about attracting new subscribers. Mike Antonucci of the sketch group Captain Hippo (dressed, at this moment, as Christopher Columbus) explains the basic thinking behind their creating content for YouTube: rather than playing for laughs in a live room, they play for online thumbs up. “We’re trying to be conscious of what will be popular on YouTube,” he says. “while maintaining our sense of humor.” He also sees YouTube tropes as unique artistic styles—and a source of another layer of comedy, as the video filmed that day shows:


This particular Captain Hippo video was made under the auspices of Above Average, which is the online-video arm of Broadway Video (the production company behind Saturday Night Live) and a partner in YouTube Comedy Week. Above Average works with about 40 different comedians and comedy troupes to produce about three videos a week; utilizing Broadway’s resources, their videos are several notches above DIY production values, but they still fit the YouTube aesthetic—which is no longer confined to YouTube. Jennifer Danielson, Above Average’s head of content, says that the impact of that look can already be seen in mainstream TV comedy: audiences are used to the faster pace of online video, and creators are less worried that viewers will miss something.

Danielson worked as a producer for SNL for more than a decade before moving to online video and continues to find differences working in a new medium. While it’s important for online videos to be viewable out of sequence (and less important for them to go live at a scheduled moment); she’s discovered that measuring viewer engagement isn’t alway analogous to TV ratings. Still, Danielson describes YouTube and Above Average’s presence on the site in very television-friendly terms: “The reason we like YouTube is it’s the biggest destination there is.”

That concept—“destination” online video, like must-see TV—is where YouTube stands to make a real change during Comedy Week, if the habit of checking back to see what’s new and funny continues after the big week ends.

(MORE: Why YouTube is Launching a Music Service)

YouTube’s Tiedt calls the audience she’s trying to reach “Generation C”—a demographic driven by curation, creation, connection and community—and Comedy Week, particularly with the addition of the live stage-show broadcast, combines those values with a more traditional television viewing pattern. The change isn’t just watching one five-minute clip versus watching a sitcom-length run of them; YouTube also wants viewers to come directly to the site to seek out comedy rather than stumbling upon videos haphazardly and one at a time. Instead of sitting down in front of the TV for a half an hour at 8:00, the the kind of viewers Comedy Week should attract will sit down in front of their computers and watch a playlist of funny clips over a similar chunk of time—or longer.

“In theory, the user could create their own Comedy Week every single day,” says Tiedt.

Comedy Week is the first time YouTube has tried something to this scale but, if that happens, expect more: she won’t say no to the possibility of future YouTube theme weeks. Make-up tutorial week, here we come!