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Is the Internet the New Way to the Comedic Spotlight?

With social media launching the careers of comedians via 30-second skits, some traditional comics feel that the new batch of wise guys might be missing a key ingredient – live audiences. Some comics agree. Some don't. Can't we all just laugh along?

Always blurred has been the line that separates humor and comedy, and with the rise of the "social media personality," also debatable, as of late, is the architecture of a comedian. A camcorder, some decent lighting and 45 seconds of wit can catapult an unknown into fame. For a clever – or perhaps lucky – few, platforms like Instagram and Facebook have served as a fast pass toward millions of fans and success; stage, microphone and live humans not required. For comedy's up-and-comers, social media has effectively done away with the rules of engagement – and in a genre of expression that's rather rule-discarding at its foundation anyway, this can be especially liberating.

On the flipside, for some comedians that have been grinding it out in the bars and clubs for 10 years, being paid in cheese fries, it may be rather frustrating to watch these social media stars zip by with their shiny smiles and their "be sure to subscribes." But the cleverest of these internet guys and girls know that while they say, "If it doesn't exist on the internet, then it doesn't really exist," it also doesn't really exist if there are infinitely more just like it.

Comedians like Jess Hilarious, DC Young Fly and Kountry Wayne are figuring out how to exist offline, as well as on. In turn, the wisest of the club kids ought to accept that the comedic landscape is indeed changing, and social media isn't going away. Both the stage and the computer screen are machines, and if used correctly, can serve to strengthen those comedic muscles and nudge the art forward.

Playing to the Crowd

After actually being funny, building a rapport with the audience is paramount to a comedian's success onstage and online. "Kountry" Wayne Colley says, "Social media helped me gauge what the people want." The Georgia native's Facebook post went viral in October 2014, and in the years since, he's amassed more than 300,000 followers on the platform and a whopping 1.2 million on Instagram. Just for reference, Mike Epps has 4.2 million. Because even the quietest of mice tend to come alive online, Colley says social media has been an uninhibited pipeline to what his fans want and how they're thinking. "They want things pretty quick; they're not as patient," he says. He got offline and on the road in 2017 with his 150-date Child Support Tour (Colley has nine kids). Colley says he looked at the transition to stand-up as another challenge that he was determined to tackle, saying, "People said I couldn't do it, and I do clean comedy. They said I couldn't make everybody laugh without cursing."

Of course, adjustments had to be made and lessons learned. For one, he wasn't familiar with the concept of "a set" that travels with a comic from city to city. "I thought you had to say something 100 percent new every show," Colley says. So he'd get on stage and freestyle, like he might in a video. But he worked out those kinks, keeping hold of his signature down-to-earth, carefree attitude about the whole thing. "To be honest, I'm not going to lie and give it more credit saying it was a big challenge, because, man, people got bills and trying to pay their bills right now, their doctor bills," he says. "So, it's not a challenge, and comedians get mad at me when I say that, making it look easy. It's not easy, now. I'm not saying it's easy but it's not more challenging than life."

It may not be one of life's great obstacles, but stand-up comedians like Detroiter Melanie Hearn can attest to the fact that there's a certain dexterity needed to play to a live audience. "Nobody can teach you going in front of different audiences and getting their reaction and judging a room and seeing if your material matches the room and having to readjust on the fly," she says. "It's certain stuff you learn by just doing stand-up because you actually have an audience looking at you." For Hearn, the work starts before she even takes the stage. "I feel the room out," she says. She'll sit in the back and people-watch, watch people walk in and take note of how they interact with each other, and she pays attention to how they respond to the comedians that go on before her. "That's how I build a rapport with people, and I kind of figure out, 'Where am I going and in what lane?'"

Certain crowds require certain adjustments. The set for a black crowd is not the same as the one for a mainstream audience, for instance. She says, "If I'm at Mark Ridley's (Comedy Castle in Royal Oak), I may not do as many sex jokes, as many dick jokes. But if I'm at Punchline (Comedy Lounge in Southfield) at the urban club, I may do a bunch of 'em. And sometimes you do tailor your material a little bit just to kind of offshoot the fact that urban crowds are different, our energy is different." She adds, "In the mainstream crowd they'll give you time to set a joke up, and they'll give you time to kind of play with it a little bit, but in urban crowds …" Black clubs want the funny and they want it now, she says.  "The urban clubs make you a little tougher."

Colley had the opposite experience when he started hitting the stage; it was the mainstream audiences that he found harder to connect to. As he says, "I don't do comedy, I just do real life, and it happens to be funny," so his real-life material – like the joy of income tax refund season – won't play with every audience. He was in Canada recently and says, "That was challenging because they didn't know me. One thing about me, I'm gonna keep talking. They weren't laughing that much, but then I hit a nerve." He started telling more jokes about his family. "They may not relate to income tax refunds, they don't know about that, but everybody knows about family. They ain't know nothing about Mary J. Blige and Anita Baker and Betty Wright, but the mainstream, they know about family."

Gaining Entry

As an older comedian who got into the game later in life, Mike Geeter of Sterling Heights says he's had a tough time coming up in the comedy clubs. "A lot of clubs, they tend to lean younger, so a lot of them won't give me a chance." But as one of 17 children, Geeter certainly knows how to get on with people and how to stand out in a crowd. Hearn also contends that the club and bar scene can be a political place – sexist, too. It's not extraordinary to hear things like, "You're funny for a girl," or, "I didn't know girls could be funny." Hosts will often introduce her to the stage by first telling the women in the audience that they've got someone special just for them – the implication being, of course, that she couldn't possibly appeal to the men in the room.

"They automatically assume I'm talking about being on my period, or having cramps, or being bloated and 'I hate men.' I'm not talking about none of that, I'm just talking about regular stuff," she says. Promoters and club owners are hesitant to book more than one woman per showcase because, in their minds, it then becomes a ladies' show. God forbid. Hearn gets respected by her fellow male comedians, though. "Even when dudes are sexist or they're being jerks or whatever, once you get on stage and you destroy, then they already understand." She says, "The problem is the bookers. This guy right here: not that funny, but you'll still book him over me, but I'm funnier." But amongst the comics, she says, "It's a fraternal order; it's a family. Everybody, we stick together."

Of course, not everyone is so welcoming to the comedians, like Colley, who've risen the ranks by way of social media. "I've heard things," Geeter says about the way his fellow club comedians discuss the internet-based comics. When pressed a bit, Geeter says, "I heard that some of these people just aren't funny in a club scene." He admits he hasn't seen any in-person himself but wonders how well what they do online would translate to a live, stage setting. "Comedy is a grassroots thing. There are no shortcuts," he says. "So, no matter how great or how popular they are now, there's going to be a come-to-Jesus moment where they're going to have to prove that they're worthy to stand on stage with this guy, that guy or the other. If you get around some real killers that are comedians, they'll expose you and they'll take joy in it." But he has heard of some who are proving themselves and doing quite well; Kountry Wayne comes up.

Colley says tacking "social media" or "internet" to the front of "comedian" when describing him doesn't annoy. "They can't mess with me on stage. I've been touring for two years straight every weekend. It don't bother me, because I'm like, 'OK, step aside.'" The skepticism amongst stage comedians is fair, after all, since the others are stepping up to a totally different plate in a totally different ballgame. Fair, also, is to suggest that many stand-up comedians may be just plain resentful. Colley says he doesn't associate with many celebrity comedians and instead stays focused on family and God. "I'm with the one that makes the sky blue and the wind blow." Still, he says veterans Bruce Bruce and Earthquake have shown love, and Bill Bellamy: "I've heard him say some good things about me."

A Comedian Make

A comic must transition offline before Hearn will consider him or her simply a comedian, sans the modifier. She says it's "blood, sweat and tears" that make a comedian. "You can just tell when somebody takes their craft seriously. Have you got heckled yet? Have you had some dead silence? Have you gotten booed?" She says, "You have to hit the stage."

Colley agrees. "You got to get offline, because it's getting saturated like the rap game, now. I just knew that early that's why I wanted to come out here and learn this stand-up. You can't stay online because they're losing respect. I don't care who's been following you, but what are you doing? My fans are following me, now, not because of my videos but because I kept going." He adds, "I understand what they're saying" when stand-ups accuse social media comedians of not being real comedians, but says "The internet comedians don't disrespect, though, but (stand-ups) disrespect the internet comedians." He reminds, "It ain't easy to put up a video and make people laugh, either. It's two different talents."

Geeter says, "Every comedian has had a group of people telling them that they're funny. But what I've learned is that there's a difference between being funny and being humorous. You're not funny until you're able to go on stage in front of strangers all around the country and tell those jokes and get those same laughs." He agrees that the terrain is changing with respect to the power and role of social media in comedy, though. "You can't do anything without social media; that's just fact. You have to be able to promote yourself, you have to put yourself out there."

Colley calls having a substantial online presence "the new Def Jam." He rattles off names like Jess Hilarious, DC Young Fly, B. Simone and Detroit native Haha Davis as ones to watch. "It's about 10 people right now that's coming up, and they're starting to head toward that stage." He says they're honing those skills and he expects them to be on stage right beside the "real" comedians within a few years. "When you're funny online, you're funny. You just have to find your funny."

Some, like Colley, expect the internet to out-appeal the three-dimensional world – much like it has with regard to shopping and dating – to become the sole way aspiring comedians make a name for themselves, the new comedy club. Naturalists say we'll begin to sift through the distractions and eventually get back to basics: one guy or girl, one mic, one stage, one audience and one shot at finding your funny.

  • Catch "Kountry" Wayne Colley on his Gift of Gab Tour, which stops into Detroit at the Fox Theatre on Sept. 22.
  • Mike Geeter will be at Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle in Royal Oak Oct. 4-6.
  • Melanie Hearn is also a regular at Mark Ridley's and at Punchline Comedy Lounge in Southfield.

Paris Giles is BLAC Detroit's associate editor.

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