At a house party in the north-east of England, teenagers are congregating around a computer, reciting the words to a video made by Picnicface, a group of Canadian comics. It’s an absurd spoof of a tourism advert, with clip art and photos flying across the screen while a hawk screams in our faces. The year is 2008, a time when comedians all over the world began adapting their humour for the internet.
With easy access to quality cameras and microphones still a few years off, a lot of these videos are lo-fi, but no less funny for it. Picnicface have a honed but homemade style. Their videos, including an extreme advert for a drink called Powerthirst that gives you “menergy”, are now clocking up hundreds of thousands of views. Jon Lajoie’s 2007 rap spoof Everyday Normal Guy is also enjoying a renaissance: “I can’t afford a car, I use public transportation / I don’t mind, I read till I reach my destination.”
Before the tourism video ends, someone cues up another. This time it’s local – The Northern Life, starring “godfather of Cramlington” Steven “Buzzcocks” Cox, a character from 2007 created by Adam Raffle and Norman Sheeran that skewers a certain type of north-east man and celebrates local dialect. The lighting’s dodgy and the camera’s shaky, but it feels perfect for this character-led mockumentary.
In 2005, way before Jordan Brookes won the Edinburgh comedy award for his show I’ve Got Nothing (“standup’s answer to Waiting for Godot”), he too was creating homemade YouTube comedies. “At the time,” he says, “ I was hugely into Marion and Geoff, Human Remains. I liked bittersweet melancholic character stuff.” Inspired by an eccentric classmate, Brookes and his friend Charlie Webster created Doug Sklenki, “an excitable loner teenager who wanted to be cool but was very much an outsider”.
“Sklenki” was a word Brookes and his father invented to describe the compulsion to tell jokes. “If we were on good form, you’d say, ‘Your sklenki was up to an eight.’ Or there’d be ‘toxic sklenki’ where you’re overdoing it.”
Through video diaries, Sklenki bared his soul and gained a loyal following. “I was filming on a DV cam, uploading it using a cable attached to an old computer,” Brookes says. “The quality was never great. But that definitely contributed to the melancholy, the bleakness of this kid babbling away, alone.”
Brookes wrote a couple of scripts, but Sklenki never made it beyond YouTube. “It was very inspired by The Office and Alan Partridge. It’s a product from a time we’ve moved past – slight punching down on people we perceive to be less insightful than ourselves. I don’t think I would do that sort of character now.”
It's a reminder that you don’t need pro quality to make something hilarious
The character Buzzcocks also mocked a sidelined demographic, amassing a cult following among viewers to whom he felt very familiar. When the UK went into lockdown, Buzzcocks made a surprise return, albeit with a more mature tone. Other comedians are now making videos for the first time, or returning to the craft, forced by the pandemic to navigate dodgy cameras and other limitations. It’s like a flashback to 2008 – and a reminder that you don’t need pro quality to make something hilarious.
Kemah Bob – a “comedian, writer, improviser and drag king” from Texas who moved to London – has been experimenting with music videos and sketches. “When you look at Saturday Night Live being made on Zoom in people’s houses, and how clunky it was at the beginning, it makes you go, ‘I don’t need to take myself so seriously.’”
Toussaint Douglass had always stuck to standup. Since March, however, the London comic has created a whole sketch show from his bedroom, parodying Mr Motivator, Star Trek and more. “I like riffing off nostalgic cultural touch-points,” he says. “That lo-fi VHS feel chimes with my feeling of being a bit odd and surreal.”
Everything I shoot has to be head to chest because I can't go any further back in my roomToussaint Douglass
Lockdown forced him to get creative. He taught himself how to edit videos and use graphics and green screen, which he ordered off the internet. “Everything I shoot has to be head to chest because I can’t go any further back in my room,” he says. There are also no extras. “I live with my nan. She’s great, but she’s not a comedian.” In May, in an alternative Eurovision song contest organised by the Piñata comedy cabaret, Douglass entered as the Drill Chef, a musician obsessed with cooking, challenging himself to record a song and make a music video.
Meanwhile, back at her family home in Texas, Bob was struck by an idea for a hip-hop track, asking listeners to “drop it low” for American immunologist Anthony Fauci. Her drag king character Lil Test Ease already raps on stage and she wanted to push it further. “I thought it would be fun to record this song,” she says. “I was really proud of the production, then I was like, ‘You know what this needs? A video!’”
Bob’s mum designed a T-shirt and she tracked down a tripod. “It made me laugh and gave me a sense of accomplishment,” Bob says. It’s now been viewed almost 80,000 times, “but until Dr Fauci sees it, it means nothing!” Bob has also collaborated with other comedians, making sketches over Zoom with Sikisa Bostwick-Barnes, Fern Brady and Alison Spittle. Keeping the format simple allowed them to respond quickly to events and improvise characters for a chatshow spoof. “The circumstances have created opportunities,” she says. “I’m excited to do more.”
Creating comedy helped Douglass find the bright side of lockdown: “It has been incredibly positive to know that, even with standup taken away, I still want to find the funny in things.”