I touched the olive-colored olive icon and was in: Pitch, the invite-only joke-writing app developed by Funny or Die. It was the first day of its wide release, in late July, when there were about 900 users. Everyone, but especially the app’s creator, Matt Klinman, and the app’s editor, Tim Racine, were curious to see how Pitch would fare in the real world, technically and culturally.
I was nervous about telling jokes in a new forum, and also terrified of the possibility of having to report in one month to the audience of Splitsider that I hadn’t sold a single joke during my run. At the same time, as a female comic who belongs to a couple of minority groups, I was bracing myself for a community that might not be welcoming, especially considering the amount of anonymity, which always seems to lead to terrible places when mixed with the internet.
I clicked on the “hot” paying topic at the top of the list: Ways To Describe A Horse. There were already hundreds of punchlines by dozens of users, all vying for a chance for a $10 paycheck, a chance to be published, and perhaps even a chance to be noticed.
Hornless unicorn. Land Seahorse. Cowboy car.
I dove in despite nerves and quickly entered “wagon engine” and “the first self-driving vehicle.”
Then I started scrolling to vote. There were some very funny ones (“1/125th carpower” and “a very fast chair that shits”) as well as a lot of pretty okay ones. There were also a small handful of borderline offensive ones involving Sarah Jessica Parker or other women, like “my cheating ex Sharon.” Eyeroll, followed by more scrolling.
When the voting ended, I was impressed that the best jokes managed to rise to the top of the heap. I was also impressed that a few great jokes that didn’t have many votes were bought by the editor anyway (Racine says he reads all the jokes for every topic before he picks). While the not-really-offensive-but-offensively-unfunny sexist jokes weren’t flagged, they also received almost no votes, to my great relief.
I was devastated that my jokes weren’t picked. While my “self-driving vehicle” joke fared pretty well, “wagon engine” was a bust. In a few days, though, I would get used to the emotional rollercoaster of pitching on Pitch.
The birth of Pitch
It’s strange that a great joke-writing app hasn’t been developed before. It took Matt Klinman to get us here. Klinman was a staff writer at Funny or Die and The Onion who also happened to have a bit of a background in tech. When he heard that Funny or Die wanted to develop a joke app, the idea for Pitch unfolded before him. He started with their basic idea of sourcing lots of anonymous headlines from a pool of writers to find the best jokes and went from there. With the help of designer Brad Mahler and developer Yin Zhu, they were off.
A year and a half later, the app is humming with hundreds of daily users, the average user logging in 11 times a day. What’s its purpose?
“I guess our little mission is that we want it to be the best place for a comedy writer to get their start, and for an established comedy writer to dick around and get their beer money,” said Klinman. “It’s so difficult to find the path, and oftentimes it’s about knowing people or moving to the right city. Also, being a comedy writer for eight years, the skills that Pitch imparts for you are ones you use every day.”
Wait, how does Pitch work?
Since Pitch isn’t at all like other apps, it takes a day or two to get comfortable in the space.
The main page lists topics like “Hipster Porn Movies” or “Excuses For Calling in Sick.” Some of these topics are created by users and just for fun, while others are created by Funny or Die and pay a few coins. More rarely (for now, at least), a sponsor like IFC creates topics so that they can buy jokes from an elite pool of users to use in marketing pieces.
Users can write as many punchlines as they like and vote on their favorite punchlines in return. At this point, everything is anonymous. When time runs out (some topics last for an hour, some several days), a “Top Pitch” is picked directly from user votes. At the same time, the funniest jokes and their authors are revealed. For the official, paid Funny or Die topics, an editor sifts through the top picks and buys the best jokes, usually for $10 or $20 each.
Duplicate jokes and offensive jokes may be flagged for removal. Jokes that don’t get many votes remain anonymous forever. All of your stats (which include how often you’ve had a Top Pitch and how often you’ve had a joke bought) are available for public viewing on your profile page.
As the days wore on, I got better and better at pitching. It wasn’t so much that I was getting funnier, but that I was learning about the Pitch community. My first big realization was that very early or very late pitches often get fewer votes regardless of their merit, and sometimes your best gems get caught in a sort of “rush hour” of jokes and disappear in the middle of an onslaught, never to be voted on. This is probably one of the biggest downsides of the app, especially considering that the user base will only grow over time. Matt and Tim say they’re hard at work looking for solutions to this problem, which is one of the most common complaints in the feedback section of the app. Ideas have been floated for shuffling where the jokes appear or limiting the number of pitches, but no changes have been made yet, mostly because changes create other problems, like being able to determine who made a joke first.
Which brings us to another annoyance: duplicate jokes. While there’s a feature that prevents you from typing in the exact joke, word for word, of another user, nothing stops people from taking your ideas and wording them differently except their honor. And, to be fair, on a topic with 400 punchlines, it isn’t always possible to carefully read through everything before pitching. While there is a search function to seek out key words in other users’ pitches (which I use often), duplicate jokes abound – some accidental, but some not. There are also plenty of duplicate jokes from social media platforms, not to mention television shows and standup specials, coincidence or not. The joke duplication issue is a complicated one. Some users think that limited duplication is okay if you add something, take a new angle, or significantly improve the idea. Others are stricter. Either way, the issue (which also exists in basically every other comedy community) doesn’t have a straightforward solution.
I was absolutely surprised by the lack of offensive jokes, especially in the mostly-anonymous world of Pitch. In my month of usage, I never saw a flag-worthy offensive joke, and I only saw two user complaints about legitimately offensive material. In both of those cases, Racine spoke personally with the offending users, though he admits as the app grows, they’ll probably need to put an official policy into place.
As for unfunny jokes: sure, there are a lot. And honestly, that number did seem to grow as the community grew. Lots of jokes seemed to be quick throwaways, others just cheap, others just tired. As always in 2017, a handful of people manage to make a lame Trump joke no matter the topic, while another handful go with meta-Pitch jokes or jokes about improv (we know it doesn’t pay–yawn). But while that issue could probably be quelled with some joke-slinging limits, the overall quality of the jokes is surprisingly high.
The Pitch community
Pitch is still a bit buggy, but the design is beautiful (don’t ask why they chose olives; they don’t know), functional, and simple. The concept balances fun and profit in a way that I didn’t think could work–I have fun when I pitch on non-paying topics, and it’s a sweet, wonderful reward to earn a few bucks with an editor’s pick.
On a community level, for the moment, it’s great. The anonymous approach means that jokes by women and minorities get a chance to be heard without bias, and though it seems that the vast majority of the writers are men, the Pitch team is aggressively recruiting female comics to join. At the same time, when jokes perform well, the writer is revealed, and you begin to learn the names of many of the heavy hitters.
“If someone knows your name on Pitch, it’s because you’re getting voted up, and if you’re bad, no one knows,” added Racine.
Whereas Twitter can feel extremely “branded,” self-conscious, and careful, Pitch has a more joyful feel–and one where the joke comes before everything else, even you. At the same time, no one is performing for free; in most cases, in paid topics, the best jokes are bought and get a wide audience.
“Pitch has the rare distinction of being a place where you can get to know someone’s comedic voice, and that’s all,” Racine said. “You don’t know who wrote what, but you start to notice what you like. Every user is a tastemaker. Most other places online are about getting credit more than making something great. Pitch is a place comedy writers can do whatever they want without having to think about damaging their ‘brand.’”
The community works together to find the best jokes. As Racine explains, the first few minutes or hours of a topic is about getting out the tired ideas and the “first thing you think of” jokes. Then things start to evolve–maybe getting overwrought or silly. Finally, the topic peaks, and out come the “truth nuggets” – the perfect little jokes that surprise you, that delight you, that make you want to write more jokes tomorrow. It’s a process that seems obvious, but one that immediately affected my own writing. The first joke or even the fifth joke is not the best joke. It’s just the road to the best joke.
While I went in thinking that selling jokes would be the best feature of Pitch, I was surprised to find that what I liked most about it was that it felt like going to the joke gym every day. After a month, I’m convinced that the best part of Pitch is that you flex your joke-making muscles every day, and you get better. If writing a joke means making a truth nugget, Pitch is a nugget factory.
Oh thank God, I sold some jokes
As the days wore on, I was getting frightened that I wouldn’t sell a joke. Competition is fierce, and timing your submission is more important than it should be. Sometimes Pitching can feel a lot like the New Yorker cartoon caption contest: way too many people are playing, and everyone has already submitted a dozen iterations of your precious joke. Other times, though, it’s inspiring to see everyone’s contributions, and it pushes you to reach for the next level.
After securing a few editor’s picks in unpaid topics, I ended up selling five jokes–one or two a week–and all related to Game of Thrones for some reason. Whew. The jokes were used in two ways: short videos that Funny or Die shared on social, and traditional Funny or Die articles, with the author listed as “Pitch.” Getting paid was extremely easy.
The future of Pitch
Pitch is still a baby, and there’s work to be done. For now, though, it is mostly a happy, fun place for joke writers. One where a good line can make your day, put a few bucks in your pocket, or net you a few new followers.
For me, it’s a place to put in a few minutes a day toward something that brings me joy, even on days when it seems impossible to find enough time to sit down and write for myself. Over the month, I wrote 103 jokes on Pitch. Many were bad, some were good, and a few got published. But it’s 103 jokes that I wouldn’t have written otherwise.
Sarah Aswell is a freelance writer and standup who lives in Missoula, Montana. You can read her stuff at places like The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, and The Hairpin. She’s also a contributing writer at Reductress. If you want her in your daily life, you can follow her on Twitter.