With views peaking in the low millions, attention-grabbing pop-culture themed titles, a popular platform to launch from and now entering its third season, Cracked After Hours is the internet comedian’s holy grail. But is Cracked After Hours’ success simply linked to the popularity of it’s host – the blindingly popular Cracked.com?
Building on the foolproof formula of commentary on nerdy shibboleths, pop culture from the 80s and 90s and, oddly, lists, Cracked is one of the biggest comedy success stories of the Internet age. Starting as a poor man’s Mad magazine in the 50s, Cracked’s brand nearly went under. That is until their website run by Jack O’Brien, took off in 2007. Going in a more forward-looking direction than the now-defunct magazine, it was soon bought by Demand Media. Cracked has doubled its following on a yearly basis since then, and as of last year attracted over 300 million pageviews, making it the biggest comedy website in the world.
Any comedy series starting on that site has the best chance to make it; this is the Internet comedy elite. As a result it could be easy for a series to get complacent, they are on Cracked after all, they could just phone it in and watch the views pile up. And they have piled up, After Hours is the most viewed web series on Cracked, even the award winning Agents of Cracked doesn’t have videos with views breaking the 1 million mark.
It is probably testament to the integrity of Cracked that the quality really hasn’t dipped. After Hours is good; really good. There are four reasons why After Hours succeeds as a web-series and in true Cracked style, Comedy TV is Dead will list them for you here. Sit tight budding Internet comedians, this is how it’s done right.
When you are writing a show, the best thing you can do for your audience is to give them characters that they want to watch, and After Hours has done just that. Firstly, they keep it sparse, four people, meeting in a diner at night after a hard day’s Cracking (what else does one do at Cracked?), discussing the nerdy stuff they’re into. That’s it. Secondly, the four people they cast are engaging, individual and seem genuinely at ease with one another. Hints about the characters’ relationships come as a result of their conversations. It may seem irrelevant to other genres but there is an important message there – the characters drive the plot forward, and character development is revealed through that plot. It’s a kind of feedback loop… thing.
Anyway and most importantly, they play themselves in a funny light, Michael Swaim is amoral and unpredictable, Dan O’Brien is obsessive and easily wound up, Soren Bowie is arrogant and elitist, and Katie Witterd is nitpicky and cynical. They play themselves as characters, but in a natural-feeling way and they’re not limited to these attributes. The four characters we see on After Hours are funny, likeable despite their flaws, and most importantly of all, human.
What filmmakers have to remember is that in the attention-deficit world of comedy on the web, the watchword is simplicity. Each episode of After Hours focuses on one particular subject and the various tangents the characters come up with. There are no unnecessary attempts at special effects, no major changes in environment and setting, and no overblown set pieces. The visuals are simple, as is the production, meaning two things. Firstly, it’s cheap to make; any money they make easily covers their running costs. Secondly, it means that the viewers aren’t being distracted by the filmmakers’ shiny toys, and are able to focus on the two most important things in film, plot and dialogue. I’m not saying by any means that you can’t try to have cool sets and nice effects; it’s just that those kinds of things are decoration, and need to serve the plot. The only bits of decoration After Hours has are the titles and cartoony drawings used to demonstrate the points they make. These drawings are simple, often not animated and are only ever on screen for a couple of seconds at a time. They are effects yes, but there are only there when they’re needed, they’re funny, they serve their purpose and then they disappear. It’s ok to use flashy production techniques, but like After Hours teaches us, they have to be appropriate.
It’s kind of a cliché that all great comedy is original in some way, and it’s also a cliché that nothing creative is ever entirely unique. Finding the balance between these two is what all successful comedians, and artists in general, do. After Hours, once again, show us how the balance is struck. On the face of it, After Hours does not take very original subjects as its basic material. References to nerdy pop culture are perhaps some of the most accessible subject matter you could find (more on this later). Like all creative work, they have to take what comes before and make something new from it. That is exactly what they do. Much like the articles that made Cracked famous, After Hours takes much debated nerdy subject matter, (Star Wars, Batman, TNMT etc) and ads a bit of lateral, or logical, thinking to the mix. Often they come up with some quite profound responses to cultural tropes. For example, in the video “4 Terrifying Psychology Lessons Behind Famous Movie Monsters”, written by Robert Brockway, aside from being very funny (nowhere else will you hear the phrase “transsexual arachna-gina”), they come up with an actually quite original theory of horror movie monsters and political alignment – liberals fear zombies and conservatives fear vampires. The point is that it doesn’t matter how commonly discussed your subject matter is, how common the basic sources of your plot, it is what you do with it, how original your conclusions are, that matters most.
If there is one thing Cracked knows it’s their audience. Another cliché of filmmaking is “know your audience”, and there’s a reason it’s a cliché, its important. The Cracked audience would seem to be nerdy kids in their teens and 20s, exposed to mass media as children they grew up with the same cartoons, the same films, and the same tropes, even if they’re not American. They get references to D&D, Buffy and Firefly, as well as to cereal commercials, these things are very accessible to their audience. As a result, because they know what people are talking about, they know what other subjects are related or can be related to them, for example, horror films and the political divide in America. Whatever their subject, After Hours always keeps the show tight, the characters might go off on occasional tangents, but the vast majority of the 5 or so minutes of the videos are dedicated to the title subject. The lesson we can all learn from this is that to be successful, if someone clicks on your link because of the title, they expect to see a video about that title. Your title draws people in and sets expectations, so your video damn well better meet (or amusingly defeat) those expectations or you’re not getting anywhere.
In conclusion, if you’ve not already seen it, check Cracked After Hours out, its witty, clever and very well done, and anyone wanting to follow in their footsteps could do a lot worse than study how they do it.♦ End