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Why TikTok reels are reshaping comedy

Why TikTok reels are reshaping comedy
Bella Hull
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Bella Hull started standup six years ago. Back then, she lived in fear of a bad set being uploaded to YouTube, where a shaky camera and lacklustre crowd might stain any Google search of her forever. Now, due to the rise of video ‘reels’, popularised by TikTok, Instagram and YouTube during the pandemic, for Bella and other digital savvy comedians, creating online video is a necessity for reaching fresh, young, and more global audiences.

Bella has been publishing funny short-form videos in portrait (AKA TikTok reels) for one year and has amassed over 888k likes on the platform.

Jacob Hawley on TikTok (jacobhawley)

For a lot of circuit comedians, lockdown forced them to put down the microphone and pick up their smartphone. Tatty Macleod (now 113k followers on Instagram) has been doing standup since 2018 and began creating online sketches in December 2020.

'Being a successful online sketch comedian doesn’t mean you’re a great standup comedian and vice versa. Both mediums stretch different muscles, and a live audience is a different beast,' she says. 'Yes, you can definitely adapt material for a live audience but it’s like adapting a book to screen. You have to change the script and think about how you bring it to life in a space without the lens of a camera to help punctuate the punchlines.'

Comedians are finding they’re not just adapting for an audience when producing online content, they’re adapting for an algorithm. 'You watch enough content and then realise there's a certain formula for getting your videos to go viral' explains comedian Finlay Christie (8.6m likes on TikTok) who found himself going viral after creating a David Mitchell parody reel. Forgetting subtitles, omitting an on-screen descriptive caption and sloppy editing – especially of standup clips - are novice mistakes. 'You think that Gen Z's attention span is long enough to watch you walk onto stage before you get into your joke? No way.'

Finlay Christie

Finlay reckons American-style humour performs well on TikTok. If the premise of the joke can be explained in one line, this provides an immediate draw that might make scrolling audiences stop and watch. 'In standup, the punchline usually comes at the end. On TikTok, most people aren't watching until the end,' he warns.

For this new breed of ‘reel’ comedians, online followers convert to live audiences. Tatty admits, 'I’ve sold out shows in a way I don’t think I would have if I didn’t have an online following.' For the most part, these are new audiences to live comedy too. People who have never been to the Soho Theatre before are going for the first time - to see an act who they follow online. Bella saysshe’s even messaged after gigs by people wanting particular jokes and bits to be uploaded so they can share it with their friends.

As with any new medium, there are naysayers who condemn ‘reel’ comedy as just more self-indulgence from the me me me generation. Bella says, “When I was a teenager, even the most seasoned vloggers were subject to accusations of narcissism and vanity for uploading front-facing camera content.” But she’s hasten to add that due to its immense popularity,“TikTok has made this ridicule a thing of the past.”

Despite the public becoming less judgemental towards self-promotional and self-produced content, within the old guard of the comedy circuit, a level of snobbery still exists. Bella’s seencomics rub their hands with glee at famous TikTokers struggling in front of crowds where ‘real’ standups know what they’re doing.

The sneering won’t last though as comedy has never been an industry prone to complacency. Comedian Jacob Hawley says, 'If you split the circuit in half, you’ll find younger acts can all be found online doing podcasts and front-facing camera videos. Whereas older acts are looking at shows like Britain's Got Talent. There are always different paths comedians can take.'

While these comedians are heading to Edinburgh this summer, they’re not dead set on the Edinburgh-to-tour-to-TV-panel-show career path that has been forged by the funniest names of the past twenty years.

Television viewing figures are often dwarfed by the reach amassed by comedy reels on social media. TV also requires acts to succumb to a particular show format as well as sacrifice control over their own material – something they are never forced to do online. 'My set can get edited and what I say can get edited on TV,' says Finlay. 'And whereas on a podcast, you're on with your friends. On TV, you're on with an Olympic bronze medallist from three years ago and you're trying to riff with them.'

And Finlay is onto something. Since lockdown, larger, arena-filling comedians and TV personalities have created hugely successful podcasts. 'All the shows that are in the top 10 podcast charts now, would have been TV programmes five years ago,' Jacob Hawley points out. 'Now it's easier and more profitable for those names to do a podcast.'

Perhaps too, it’s only a matter of time until established comedians find themselves indulging in ‘reel’ comedy – if they haven’t already.