Aspen, Colo. — A nagging question has been circling just beneath the surface of the YouTube world: Does the viral video space belong to amateurs forevermore? Or is it just a matter of time before the big kids figure out there's money (or at least kinda sorta potential money) in them thar hills and pile into the house that lonelygirl and exploding Diet Coke bottles built?
In Aspen at this month's annual comedy conclave, the HBO-sponsored U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, the subject of the Web seemed to be obsessing everyone, from the big guns of comedy to the up-and-comers kibitzing in the rustic lobby of the slope-side St. Regis Hotel.
"HBO was asking, 'How do we expand into broadband?' and the natural vehicle for us was comedy," said Carmi Zlotnik, executive vice president of new media at HBO. He runs ThisJustIn.com, a joint venture between HBO and AOL, which produces at lightning speed satiric sketches and riffs on the day's breaking news -- sort of a "Daily Show" in real time. The site combines an unfolding blog with videos produced by teams of comedians and producers, along with a satiric news cast.
A veteran TV producer and executive whose past credits include "The Ben Stiller Show," Zlotnik speaks of working in the new medium with the air of one liberated from bondage. "There's an enormous creative freedom working in a lower budget. Big TV budgets make every decision so monumental. Here, someone comes into my office with an idea, it's just -- 'There's $5,000. Get me a video tomorrow.' "
Despite ThisJustIn's late entry into a vast, overflowing field of video, Zlotnik is bullish that his big guns will be able to blast away a clearing for themselves. "If you can say something distinctive that has a unique point of view, it cuts through the cacophony and it's a way to establish a voice."
And whereas online hit-makers of the past with one trick to peddle have blown up and fizzled in quick succession, Zlotnik believes ThisJustIn's constant churn of material, turbo-powered, he hopes, by a regular succession of videos that become viral smashes, will continue to boost the site.
Case in point: ThisJustIn's first major hit, "Condelicious," a rap parody of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice produced for the site by the L.A.-based comedy duo the Message, which shot to the top of the net charts, earning almost 2 million views on YouTube. "Each of these streams brings you to a higher level," Zlotnik noted.
Within the comedy world, however, the Web is also providing a way to break in -- an alternate path around the traditional slog through comedy clubs and showcases. The Message, for instance, is a pair of African American political satirists who met as Harvard University undergrads.
After performing at the festival's Broadband Theater show saluting Web comedy, Message co-founder Diallo Riddle described their humor as "The Capitol Steps raised on hip-hop" (a description that made his partner Bashir Salahuddin cringe). One can imagine, in the old TV network-driven comedy world, the decades-long apprenticeship the Message might have undergone in the relative obscurity of club land while network executives figured out "what to do with them." But if ThisJustIn can make use of its HBO/AOL platform and backing to continue to produce a steady stream of high-quality, distinctive videos, the chance to grow an audience is unlimited. And the Web offers the team the opportunity to grow in a far more organic way than they would ever under the close scrutiny of a network comedy division. "Our HBO corporate masters say, 'Do exactly what you want to do and maybe more,' " Salahuddin said.
In wide circulation
ANOTHER group making waves at Aspen as a result of its Internet exposure was a little New York-based sketch comedy troupe called Olde English. The group catapulted to fame with its much-circulated "One Picture Every Day" video, a parody of the much-circulated itself time-elapsed compilation of a man's aging process -- a Rembrandtesque depiction of time's slow march across one man's face. In the Olde English version, the hero's full life cycle includes a Rastafarian phase, a Wall Street tycoon boom-and-bust phase, a hip-hop DJ phase, a cheating-on-his-wife phase and a pizza-bingeing phase.
The group features its work on another burgeoning mega-comedy hub, the TBS-sponsored Superdeluxe.com. An assemblage of five actors in their early 20s who came together as Bard College undergrads, they already have an oeuvre that includes dozens of videos that rival network quality in their production values and editorial acumen and have used the Internet to make a name for themselves that hundreds of other aspiring sketch comedy teams around the nation would kill for.