CollegeHumor Helped Shape Online Comedy. What Went Wrong?

On a cloudy morning the week after New Year’s Day, at CollegeHumor’s headquarters in West Hollywood, everyone braced for bad news. “We all knew what was about to happen,” writer and actor Katie Marovitch said. “My face was covered in hives, which happens to me when I'm very anxious, which is a lot.” Sam Reich, the company’s creative captain, cried as he delivered the tough update: IAC/InterActiveCorp, CollegeHumor’s parent company, wanted out. “If I can reengage you down the line, I obviously will,” Reich assured the room, shortly before HR representatives in Manhattan and Los Angeles handed exit paperwork to the newly unemployed staffers. People cracked jokes—people always joke in an office full of comics—but the punch lines couldn’t erase the gut punch. More than 100 people had lost their jobs.

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A Black Lady Sketch Show Is a Much-Needed Jolt to TV ComedyCollegeHumor shape-shifted frequently during its 20-year run, but the evolutions were expansions: bicoastal offices, more staffers, higher production values. It branched into novelty clothing (BustedTees), cable television (The CollegeHumor Show, Adam Ruins Everything), and nerd culture spinoffs (Dorkly). In 2016 it launched its own streaming service , Dropout. Now the company has abruptly folded inward, turning back into a bare-bones media startup after decades of growth. CollegeHumor isn’t dead: IAC is selling the brand to Reich, who will continue running Dropout with an aim to resurrect the larger brand later on. Reich is beloved within the CollegeHumor community—WIRED spoke with more than a dozen former employees, and the praise was unanimously effusive, rare for someone who just laid a bunch of people off. But he is the steward of an uncertain future, in a marketplace that rewards a handful of gigantic digital platforms while pinching the rest, and he can only pay a skeleton staff to revive a company whittled into a decimated relic of itself. It’s a formidable task.
The laid-off employees are entering a job market that has been brutal to online comedy. In recent years, digital outlets including NBC’s Seeso and Turner’s Super Deluxe shut down; the Onion has suffered corporate mismanagement and a disastrous redesign; Funny or Die weathered substantial layoffs; and Elon Musk’s satire startup Thud tanked. It’s not all dire. The rise in subscription streaming services has resulted in a corresponding surge in television opportunities, boutique outlets like Reductress and McSweeney’s are surviving and growing, and, it must be said, there is some good stuff on TikTok. But CollegeHumor is joining a swath of medium-sized outlets focusing on shorter-form comedy and general-audience satire that have also been gutted.If this sounds like a groaner you’ve heard before, it is. The challenges faced by the online comedy ecosystem in the past decade are intertwined with the rise of social media, which fueled many outlets’ mainstream popularity but also ultimately complicated their existence. “How the hell can you plan for the future when the platforms where your money comes from are completely opaque?” says Adam Frucci, the former director of development for Dropout. “That’s not exclusive to comedy or video. It applies to all online media.”
Websites of all genres saw their ad-driven businesses crater as people stopped consuming content by visiting individual URLs in favor of reading and watching videos on the social web, especially YouTube and Facebook. Journalists lost jobs after their employers crafted strategies around Facebook video, only to discover that the social network had inflated its video metrics. Facebook ultimately paid $40 million to advertisers and apologized for “overstating” its numbers, but the company denies the inflation was intentional. A Facebook spokesperson told WIRED, “Claims that we kept the miscalculation of this metric from advertisers are false. We notified our partners of this issue when we discovered it, and we’ve taken a number of steps since to improve our detection of metrics issues.” But CollegeHumor has had its fortunes explicitly wrapped up with the dynamics of the internet even more than most media outlets. Its founders were instrumental in the mainstreaming of both meme-sharing and streaming video. For two decades, CollegeHumor rode a number of online trends and movements. The company started as the brainchild of literal teenagers, and it outlived many competitors because of this precocity about the social web. Until, all of a sudden, the social web helped render its business model obsolete.