Short-Format Comedy: The Forward-Looking Comedians of Instagram and Vine

Artistically Challenged, the first native “television” series to appear on Instagram, is a story told in 15-second episodes – 15 seconds being the maximum length of an Instagram video. I just watched the first season, all 32 episodes, in a grand total of eight minutes. Yes, my head hurts a little. “Did I just have a stroke?” was a thought that crossed my mind more than once during my viewing. And before you ask, no I did not smell burnt toast – but I did laugh a hell of a lot.

The series debuted and completed its first season in July; it tells the story of Nick, an aspiring artist hoping to pass off an unsigned painting as his own while he traverses the tempestuous and surreal NY art scene and comes out on top, or at least with the majority of his limbs intact.

Can a story be told in a mere 15 seconds? Can a career be built out of 15-second videos? The team behind Artistically Challenged is trying to answer those questions. And their answers may impact a world of comedy content creators, who are using so-called “micro videos” – the kind we see on Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat – as a way to bring their vision to mass audiences, relatively cheaply and definitely quickly.

Aleks Arcabascio, Samuel Delmara, and Jeremy Boros, all recent NYU graduates, created the series specifically for Instagram, each chipping in $1,000 and relying on the kindness of friends and strangers. There was no corporate participation by Instagram. According to Delmara, “We came up with the idea within days of when Instagram announced the capability to upload video. We never wrote a single line without knowing that it would eventually have to fit into the context of a fifteen second episode.”

The video makers storyboarded for Instagram’s square video frame and learned “to be disciplined and make the most of the 15 seconds.” According to Arcabascio, they “worked hard to hone down and perfect every moment as much as we could, elevator-pitch style.” The challenges were peculiar to micro video, Arcabascio points out, because “if you have a dull couple of seconds you have a boring half an episode.”

Although Instagram was made for do-it-yourselfers, the Artistically Challenged team decided to use professional quality equipment and relied on their film-school training to elevate the series.  Arcabascio says, “The Netflix TV shows you stream to your laptop probably weren’t filmed on a laptop and the podcasts and music that come through your ear buds probably weren’t recorded on an iPhone microphone. We wanted the control afforded by more advanced cameras, sound equipment, and lighting.”

In writing the episodes, Delmara soon found out that “episodes needed to be faster and tighter,” but, as Arcabascio points out, “most basic storytelling strategies and principles still apply even when it’s only 15 seconds.” A more ambitious second season of Artistically Challenged is slated for release some time this coming February and will incorporate the lessons learned producing season one. Delmara says, “Now that we know a lot more about what fifteen seconds really feels like, we can take advantage of the platform far more than we did the first time.”

While Artistically Challenged has staked the claim as the first series on Instagram, it is far from the only video action on the platform. Since video functionality was launched on Instagram in June of 2013, businesses like Ralph Lauren, Oxygen, and the St. Louis Cardinals have all jumped on the bandwagon, exploring ways to cleverly bend the medium to sell products, gain viewers, and get people in the ballpark. The website Mass Appeal is claiming that its series, “What the Hec?” is the first animation to use Instagram video and Lee Terbosic, a magician/comedian has created “Anything Is Possible,” a magic-themed video series native to Instagram. Still, opportunities for entrepreneurial video makers abound and the world of Instagram video is still in its infancy.

Instagram’s 15-second video length is an eternity for some other micro video creators. Witness the advent of the comedic video on Vine, with its six-, yes six-, second limit. Avery Monsen of UCB’s Beige, Billy on The Street, and All My Friends are Dead fame, is responsible for possibly the most mind-numbingly hilarious use of Vine available today. Monsen cleverly utilizes Vine’s looping feature to give life to disturbing narratives that tread the line between the hilarious and the existential. One of Monson’s recent Vine videos shows him being knocked out by a nefarious robot only to reveal that Monson himself is the robot. Another Monson Vine is simply titled “A wizard tries to impress a girl by summoning infinite soymilk.”

Regarding his choice to create micro videos in his free time, Monsen had this to say: “I’ve always been a fan of optical illusions and recursion and the Droste Effect. Before Vine existed, I was making looping GIFs like this and this and this. There’s something hypnotic and calming about a perfect loop. And trying to create one tickles the mathematical/problem-solving part of my brain that I almost never use.”

By no means is Avery Monsen the end of the list when it comes to comedians creating content on Vine today. Will Sasso, Simply Sylvio, Marlo Meekins, and Danny Jolles are simply a few content creators our intrepid interviewees have recommended for our viewing pleasure. As Vine’s video functionality pre-dates Instagram’s, the field of the Vine micro video is more crowded and websites like Mashable and Funny or Die have already begun to feature the “best of” the Vine comedy videos. If Instagram micro videos are in their infancy, the Vine micro video is, perhaps, approaching an Internet version of adolescence. Still, good content is hard to find. “The truth is,” Monsen says, “there’s sort of a void on Vine that funny filmmakers and comedians can fill. There’s a huge audience! Get in there!”

Although Vine and Instagram are leading the charge in the micro video field, they are not alone as purveyors of the very-very short video. Cartoon Network and its affiliates have begun to seriously prepare for the release of its new 15-second video platform, Cartoon Network Anything, an app that will focus on micro videos. And how have they prepared? Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim premiered an episode of “Rick and Morty” on Instagram by splitting it up into more than one hundred 15-second videos. Variety called the release a “ridiculous stunt” and while this experiment may have been a debacle, it just goes to show that even the big-name cable networks are jumping into the game.

Also putting their money on our ever-decreasing attention spans are MixBit, from the founders of YouTube, and SnapChat, the self-deleting app that is popular with younger audiences. Viddy, Keek, Tout, Klip – where will it end? How short will they go? In fact, there are more micro video platforms out there than one can possibly shake a proverbial TwitVid at. Content creators should take a good look at the merits and setbacks of each and choose wisely.

So, who can say what the future of this new brand comedy will be? As Monson points out, “It seems inevitable, for better or worse. Vine isn’t necessarily for everyone, but I think all entertainers will adopt [super-short] social media in one way or another.” And Arcabascio says, “All our friends our age (and plenty of people of every age) spend so much time staring at Instagram photos on their phone. That’s where the eyeballs are.”

Perhaps only a mythical elder-council of deceased comedians comprised of the ghosts of Red Foxx, Mickey Rooney, and George Burns can read the tea-leaves on the future of the micro video. Short of a consultation with them, one thing is clear for sure: this recent surge is most definitely not the first iteration of extremely short, comedic content and won’t be the last.

Alexander W. Swerdloff is a writer based in New York.

Short-Format Comedy: The Forward-Looking Comedians of […]