Did Digital Media Save Comedy?

If, like me, you're old enough to have watched the premiere of "Saturday Night Live" in 1975 and grew to adulthood thinking that Lorne Michaels was the coolest guy in TV, then the start of the show's 37th season with Alex Baldwin as the guest host was cause for celebration.  Sure the show has had its ups and downs over the years, and the formula hasn't changed much since Gerald Ford was president, but it remains the most consistently exciting show on TV, one that appeals to both Baby Boomers and their kids. 

Or maybe it just seems exciting because it is so frequently buzzed about online.  For years, we've debated whether digital media would undermine or strengthen the television business.  The fear has been that if viewers could see television highlights online, they wouldn't bother to watch the actual show.  Or that if they recorded an episode, they would fast-forward through the commercials.  But if "SNL" is any kind of test case, I would say that, for now, digital media is a net plus for television.  

Social media plays a critical role in "SNL"'s marketing and promotion. The cast tweets about a show before it airs, but the real power to create buzz is with the hosts and musical guests; if the guest has 11 million followers, as Lady Gaga did when she appeared last May, then the ratings can be impressive.   

Then there's the water-cooler effect. The rise of Facebook coincided with the resurgence and increased relevance of "SNL." Fans now post their favorite skits on their Facebook pages, amplifying in the online world the conversation that is occurring in the real world.   Chances are that if your friends are talking about a show -- in the real world or over the Internet -- you'll be more likely to watch in the future.

Earlier this year, Wired magazine put "SNL" star Andy Samberg on its cover with the headline "How the Internet Saved Comedy."  This refers in part to the Samberg-inspired "Lazy Sunday" digital short (http://bit.ly/kNvZT), one of the first TV videos to go viral on the Internet.  After "Lazy Sunday," Samberg teamed with Justin Timberlake in a more calculated effort to create an Internet sensation and came up with "D**k in a Box," (http://bit.ly/ie74XY). The unanticipated success of these two videos provided a roadmap for television marketers, who have been trying to use the Internet to generate buzz ever since.

It's probably going too far to say that the Internet "saved" comedy, or even "SNL", since people are going to laugh anyway.  But comedy does benefit more than any other genre from Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other Internet-based communication.  Monologues, brief interviews, short sketches, all of which can be digested in three to five minutes, are eminently suited for distribution over the Internet.  You can't as easily excerpt a short clip from a drama because it would make no sense out of context, but you can easily grasp a Jon Stewart rant or a Weekend Update bit.

I would go further than Wired, though, and say that it wasn't the Internet alone that increased the relevance of TV comedy, it was digital media more broadly understood.  In particular, I'm thinking about the DVR.  To take "SNL" as an example again, in the seven days after the original airing, an average of 800,000 people (or 14% of the audience) watched "SNL" last year on DVR.  Without the DVR, "SNL"'s audience would have dropped steadily over the past decade.  Instead, thanks to the DVR, the average number of total viewers has held steady

Many of the best comedy shows, including Letterman, Leno, Colbert, "The Daily Show," and of course "SNL," are on during the late-night period.  Sad to say, there is no way that I or many of my other Baby Boomer cohorts can routinely stay awake to see any of these shows live.

In the days before DVR, I had essentially given up watching "SNL."  For me, the '90s were "SNL"'s lost decade, especially after my son was born and late night television fell off the to-do list. Indeed, I recently looked up a list of guest hosts from the 1990s and was astonished to learn that Nancy Kerrigan, Jerry Seinfeld, Rosie O'Donnell, and Kiefer Sutherland all hosted "SNL" at one time or another during that period.   But since getting my first DVR six years ago, I haven't missed a show.

I am particularly excited about the upcoming season of "SNL" because it's an election year.  The last time the show was white-hot relevant was during the 2008 campaign, when Tina Fey did her Sarah Palin imitation.  And sure enough, the opening sketch this season spoofed the GOP presidential debates (including an eerily dead-on Michelle Bachman parody by Kristen Wiig.)

Thanks to the miracle of digital media, I watched the season premiere first thing Sunday morning, then tweeted about it and posted a clip of the debate spoof on Facebook. Without digital media, "SNL" would have been just a rumor for an aging Boomer like me -- but thanks to digital technology, it's as relevant to me now as it was when I was in college.

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2 comments about "Did Digital Media Save Comedy?".
  1. Mark Walker from aka Media Mark , September 27, 2011 at 5:26 p.m.

    The DVR also makes it palatable to actually watch SNL- when a show has more commercial content than actual program time it is PAINFUL!

    I used to call it the "SNL Pad Between Commercial Breaks Program" and that hasn't changed in over 20 years- one skit, a break, one skit, a break, one song, another break- you get the idea. NBC better be careful, or they might actually make some money of a late night TV show!

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston , September 27, 2011 at 7:16 p.m.

    Too bad you chose a spectacularly unfunny episode as your example. My wife and I are fans and really enjoyed the final show of last season, but with the exception of the first 30 minutes, the first show of this season was a huge dud. Really, Seth? That was a funny newscast? Very weak, as was the final hour. Just the worst in many years.