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August 11, 2007

Comics’ Future May Loom on a Monitor, Not a TV

By PETER KEEPNEWS

Midway through the recently concluded Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal, her first as vice president for programming, Maureen Taran was talking with a veteran stand-up comic who wondered, with evident envy, why so many young sketch groups were generating so much industry interest, and how he could get that kind of attention.

Her answer, she recalled, was simple: “Pick up a camera and do it yourself.”

This year, Just for Laughs was, as it has been for 25 years, largely a showcase for stand-ups from throughout the English-speaking world and a gathering place for comedy professionals. As usual, there were comedians who seemed poised to break through to a bigger audience (Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis) or who were ready to face North American audiences (Jim Jeffries from Australia, Stephen K. Amos from Britain). But in at least two ways, this year was a little different.

With the sitcom format in decline, more than one festival participant was heard to remark that the days when a stand-up could come to Montreal with a solid set and leave with a network development deal are long gone. That may at least partly explain why two of the hottest topics at Just for Laughs this year were sketch comedy and the World Wide Web.

Sketch comedy, never more than a sidelight at previous editions of Just for Laughs, was prominent this year. There were performances by, among others, the reunited Kids in the Hall and the anarchic British troupe Spymonkey. One of the most anticipated events was “The Lineup,” a showcase of six up-and-coming sketch groups, with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross of the fondly remembered HBO series “Mr. Show” as hosts.

Also present in greater numbers than ever, Ms. Taran said, were executives in search of Internet content, for television networks and cable channels, as well as for comedy Web sites like Super Deluxe (superdeluxe.com) and Funny or Die (funnyordie .com).The two phenomena are not unrelated. The Web is proving to be a very hospitable place for sketch comedy, if not yet a very lucrative one.

Few people were willing to go as far as Mark Krantz, a veteran comedy producer in Montreal seeking talent for Super Deluxe, who said in an interview after the festival that “the Web just might be the future of all things comedy.” But comedy in general, and sketch comedy in particular, is already a big deal there.

Posting a clip on YouTube or MySpace can jump-start a comedy career: homemade digital videos helped propel Andy Samberg to “Saturday Night Live” and led to cable series for the sketch groups Human Giant and the Whitest Kids U’Know.

If the Web is still more a means to an end than an end in itself — getting on television remains most comedians’ goal — the ability to produce sketches quickly and cheaply, and to show them to the world almost as soon as they’re made, is changing the comedy landscape. Sites like Super Deluxe (a unit of Turner Broadcasting) and Funny or Die (which is run by Will Ferrell and the writer-director Adam McKay) have the clout to make the Web not just a place to post clips but also a career option, for established comedians as well as for unknowns.

“The Web has opened things up,” said JoAnn Grigioni, the director of talent for Comedy Central, who was at Just for Laughs scouting acts both for the cable channel itself and for its Web site, comedycentral.com. “There’s so much more that you can do with talent that might not fit in a show on the air.”

“Comedy in general works really well on the Web,” Ms. Grigioni said. “It’s the only genre where you can be successful in 10 seconds or five minutes.”

Mr. Krantz of Super Deluxe agreed. “Sketch comedy is primarily short-form,” he noted. “You have to get in and you have to know when to get out” — which makes it, he said, “perfect for the Web.”

The Los Angeles comedy team Leon and Andy, who were featured in the Montreal sketch showcase (although they did not actually perform; they stayed backstage while their clips were shown to the audience on a big screen), echoed that sentiment. In an e-mail interview, the two comedians, Leon Mandel and Andy Fisher, whose bizarre shorts can be seen online at www.weepirate.com, said: “The Web is an amazing venue for sketch comedy. It’s practically built for it. People want short, easily digestible pieces that they can ingest on their lunch breaks and share with their friends.”

Mr. Mandel and Mr. Fisher said the Web had become their primary outlet. “We used to perform live a lot more than we do now,” they wrote. “But when you can spend your energies making films that you can propagate onto the Web for perpetuity, performing for a crowd at a bar loses a little of its luster. We still love it, but we do it sparingly.”

The situation is a little different for the Buffoons, a troupe affiliated with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York that was also on the “Lineup” bill, jolting the crowd with what might be called Three Stooges routines for the new millennium.

In a telephone interview, Bobby Moynihan of the Buffoons said the group had been “approached primarily by Internet people” at the festival and, with possible deals being discussed, faces the challenge of making its visceral comedy work online. “We’re a very physical group,” he said. “That’s one of our biggest obstacles right now, because it’s hard to translate that to film or television or the Internet.”

Still, he said, the Buffoons are ready; they expect to be well represented online in the near future, when the Upright Citizens Brigade site (ucbtheatre.com) begins posting videos. He has had a taste of Web fame already through his bit part in a raunchy clip by another sketch troupe, Derrick (derrickcomedy.com), which he said was shot in one afternoon and which has been viewed three million times on YouTube.

“It used to be you’d do stand-up and you’d have an act that could be turned into a sitcom,” Mr. Moynihan said. “Now if you have 20 seconds, you can put it up there and you’ll be more famous than someone who spent years developing an act.”

That sound you just heard is the collective click of comedians everywhere turning on their cameras.