There is a point in every creative medium where technical prowess develops into artistry. It comes when a creator has form and style and structure all figured out, and can start to focus on meaning. In my opinion, internet sketch comedy has reached that turning point. FilmCow, TomSka, BriTaNick, Cracked, SMBC Theatre, all have shown mastery of their chosen form. The question is: where to go next?
In answering that we need to first understand the form these groups use. Their sketches progress through four stages. The beginning is short, introducing the driving issue within a minute or so. That is followed by the crazy spiral, an uncontrolled plummet down a hole of extremely weird plot progression. For example, in BriTaNick’s A Monologue for Three, a simple inability to remember a line of Shakespearian dialogue somehow leads to Nick’s hand gaining a face and screaming in French. Next comes the conclusion, in which the issue is resolved, if anything even faster than it is introduced. And then, like a cherry on top, comes the twist, providing a final chuckle before the credits roll
This then is a structure that lends itself very well to quick storytelling. Of course this is no accident: the attention span of the average internet consumer would seem short to a toddler with ADD. On the internet, the luxury of prolonged attention is generally only provided to sites with an XXX-rating. However this actually works in comedy’s favour.
See, because the issue needs to be introduced, complicated and resolved within a few minutes, the sketches often possess fantastic comic timing. Beat follows beat with the rapidity of machine-gun fire. From this the sketch gains a kind of comic momentum, like a fat man rolling downhill. If a sketch is good, it is easy to lose yourself in it.
This momentum also makes the crazy spiral work, because you never spend enough time with the weird to have it be alienating. Nothing reflects this better than the films of Filmcow. I have watched videos of theirs in which a whale and a fish hold each other at gunpoint, or llamas discuss the edibility of human faces, without at any point during thinking ‘Wait. WTF?!’
But this momentum is not simply the result of a pan-Internet behavioural disorder. In order to rapid-fire jokes, you need to possess multiple jokes to burn. Luckily the time internet sketch comics have, allows them to meet this need. Writers can afford to burn multiple independent jokes on a single sketch, because they have weeks between each sketch to think of more.
But possessing this time gives internet sketch writers the opportunity to do more than write jokes. Indeed, at this point, TomSka, BriTaNick, Filmcow and the like could probably write crazy spirals in their sleep. As such, they can use that time to start thinking about how to give their sketches meaning.
All creative endeavours have three main targets: body, mind and soul. A mastery of technique provides excellent access to the bodily reaction, the act of laughter. But to get at the others, you need a bit more than that. To get at the mind, you need themes to explore, either through satirical mockery or laughing along with them. Meanwhile getting at the soul requires the interaction of well-developed characters.
But, and most importantly, reaching mind or soul requires a command of tone. You need to be able to transition between serious and comic scenes smoothly, and establish a balance between the two elements. An overly comic sketch will rob the serious moments of their power, while being too serious just makes the whole thing a drag to watch: not what you want from something purporting to be comedy.
It is not easy to hit someone in the brain or soul. But trying is necessary: talent should never be content to rest on its laurels. And already, there are examples that show the progression to artistry is possible. SMBC Theatre and BriTaNick, with videos like God’s Press Conference and Every Academy Award Winning Movie Ever, are groups definitely up to the challenge of satire. The crazy spiral in particular is a great tool for it: nothing like a headlong rush into lunacy for mocking some ridiculous aspect of reality.
Character-based soul-punching meanwhile is less present. For me, the closest any internet group (that I’m aware of) has come to achieving it, is with the series Agents of Cracked. Set in a fictionalised Cracked office, writers Dan O’Brien (straight man) and Michael Swaim (possibly magical lunatic), repeatedly stumble into ridiculous adventures. Yet, despite the general office-based insanity, the series does occasionally conjure up the odd touching scene between the two leads. It’s by no means a flawless achievement. But it shows the potential depth sketch comedy can have, if it takes the time to establish character, setting and some sort of overarching plot.
To wrap up, I would say that internet sketch filmmaking has obvious potential for artistic depth. It has all the tools it needs at its disposal. The writing is snappy, the delivery honed, and the creators have the time to switch to a higher gear. The internet sketch comedy community has found a voice. All they need now is something to say.