Earlier this month, more than 100 people — writers, artists, actors — lost their jobs at CollegeHumor, a venerable and seemingly secure online comedy institution. Unfortunately, this kind of thing has happened many times before at similar outlets. A rapidly changing economy, corporate restructuring, and content creators desperately trying to figure out how to crack social-media algorithms have resulted in the decimation of jobs at a number of humor outlets such as Funny or Die, which has endured multiple rounds of layoffs. Also, comedy — be it online, print, or televised — is like any other industry in that people get fired for the traditional reasons, i.e., they’re not a good fit or the work wasn’t what the bosses were after.
But getting fired from a well-known comedy entity just feels different. Here’s this humor brand someone has loved for years. Then they get to work there, and then, all of a sudden, they don’t anymore. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has a much different, more positive relationship with the comedy institution instead of it being a stinging reminder of personal loss or failure. I know this feeling quite well, having landed and then lost a dream of a gig at RiffTrax. It was nothing personal — budget cuts, I was told — but how could I not take it personally?
I wanted to reach out to others who’d been cast off from their wonderful comedy jobs to see how they felt, how they dealt with it, and if they were ever again able to enjoy the comedy created by the place at which they once worked.
A Sketch-Comedy Show
Writing for a sketch-comedy show is “a hard, stressful job in the best of circumstances,” says one writer who held and thrived at such a job up until they were cut loose in 2017, a few months before their contract was up. They got a buyout, which “afforded me the time to figure out what I really wanted,” which was to get staffed at a different show. It turned out to be a much better fit, and the previous job was the best preparation: “There’s no better motivator than rejection,” the writer says. The previous experience was “such a competitive environment that it made it easy for me to navigate and pitch at the next place.”
But what of the old show? They avoided watching it for months, because it kept running material this writer had created during their tenure. “It was a relief to finally get to a place where they’d physically run out of stuff. I remember finally feeling like I could go back in, and then there was a bit in there that was either a thing I’d written or pitched.” That show is “not something I seek out anymore,” the writer says, unless there’s a guest on “that seems really exciting,” or if a clip written by a former colleague whose work they enjoy goes viral.
“It sounds silly to say this, but writing for The Onion was a dream that I had since I was in high school,” says a former contributor. As he finished his dissertation in 2013, he heard the paper was looking to hire some interns. He got the gig, beat out a bunch of other interns for a contributing writer slot, and “in that year, I managed to get only one headline published” out of nearly a thousand submissions. A few weeks later, The Onion dropped him due to that low hit rate. “I was massively disappointed, but I knew that my writing wasn’t good enough,” he says. “I kept reading the publication nevertheless, thinking to myself, That’s okay, but not great. I clearly was trying to delude myself that they made a mistake by letting me go.”
This writer later returned The Onion for another stint, “until one fateful day came when they let almost all of their contributors go. It sucked. A big part of my identity came through writing for The Onion. Poof, that was all gone via one email.” But their bitterness has since given way to gratitude. “After many years of reading every single article and coming up with thousands of jokes in The Onion’s voice, I’ve sort of exhausted it,” he says. “I wish everyone at The Onion well, and I can’t thank them enough for letting me cut my teeth.”
“It took me months before I could read it again, probably about a year, honestly,” says an individual who worked as a contributor to ClickHole from 2017 to 2018. What helped the healing process? When a bunch of other people eventually got fired, too. “Honestly, I felt a bit better, as mean as this sounds, when I learned that other full-time writers were being laid off later.” It certainly softens the blow when it feels like it’s “nothing personal.” Today, the writer says that they’ve made peace with it. “I just feel happy for having been a part of it at all,” they say, although they “don’t read it often, maybe just once a week or two instead of every day like I used to.”
Funny or Die
After moving up from an internship to a staff writing position, this person spent a total of three years at Funny or Die, which they call “truly a dream job.” Despite a friendly, tight-knit group of writers, working there could feel tenuous. “There was certainly always a feeling that the wheels could come off at any moment. Four sets of new head creatives were brought on in the year-plus that I was on the editorial staff, and for at least two of those, a bunch of writers got fired.” It was also challenging to adapt to the company’s constantly evolving strategy. “I still remember a very funny meeting where the heads of the company told us they were rolling out a ‘four-quadrant system,’ where all videos had to fit into one of four quadrants, one of which was ‘Facebook-friendly videos.’ I think the company was pretty much always losing money.”
Indicative of that problem: widespread layoffs, which this person kind of saw coming. “About a week before the layoffs came, our head writer left, they didn’t really give an explanation, and they seemed kind of down.” The following Monday, creatives were told “to just keep writing whatever we wanted” and to work from home. By midweek, employees were told to come to the office and report to the conference room, where HR axed a large swath of them one by one.
Initially, and understandably, it was tough for this former staffer to enjoy the content produced by those who remained at Funny or Die. “There was a brief period immediately after the layoffs when I was jealous when watching their videos, because it seemed like they got to do a bunch of fun stuff.” However, those feelings didn’t last long, and those people were soon laid off, too. The writer remains on good terms with many former Funny or Die co-workers and later returned to the company (in a freelance capacity) to work on several projects.
Someecards was once almost purely a comic site, offering up brutally funny and honest e-cards alongside original humor pieces. It employed a lot of comedy writers and performers, but it’s been forced to evolve to stay alive. Today it’s a source for listicles and viral news written in a humorous style and utilizes a very small staff. “I had no fandom in me by the time I left,” says an employee laid off from the site in 2016. “It didn’t really feel like a comedy website, which it did when I got hired. Plus, I was pretty mad about the circumstances under which I was let go, and who wants to give page views to someone they hate?” The former staffer says they “do not read Someecards” presently, but does “miss the voices of some of my favorite writers there. Luckily, they’re on Twitter.”
A Satirical Website
“I loved working there at first,” a comedian and writer says about their 2017–2018 stint at an online humor magazine (not The Onion). “I had done work for other satire sites, but this one seemed to be speaking to me specifically.” This publication didn’t actually fire this writer — hostile circumstances drove them to quit, which is as good as fired. “The site makeup was almost all men. I often had to convince people how or why a joke meant for women was funny, and they would reiterate that the audience is mostly male rather than attempt to expand it,” the writer explains, adding that what really soured things was when a deserving female colleague was passed over for a promotion. This all went down more than two years ago, enough time for this former employee to read their old site. “When I see a headline I like, I often guess the author correctly, and I try to keep up with people who were nice and whose work I admire.”
A Late-Night Show
In 2018, this writer was hired for the original staff (reportedly a “very nice and professional and supportive” bunch) of this popular show’s run. So while there was no legacy or expectation to confront, they were thrilled to get the gig, “because it was one of my biggest breaks.” But the writers endured a steep and time-consuming learning curve figuring out what they wanted the show to be. “It was higher stress than it needed to be,” this writer says. “Like, if everyone is working until 3 a.m. and on weekends regularly, it’s a sign you’re panicking or dithering or don’t have a vision of what you’re doing.” They add that “more than 90 percent” of what everyone wrote wound up abandoned, which was “a sign of a bad process.” It’s also foreshadows that before long, “someone from above is gonna shake shit up.”
Told their skills were “not the right fit,” the job ended after nine months, but the writer maintains little to no animosity toward the program. They’ve checked out parts of some episodes here and there “out of curiosity,” but admit that “it’s also weird to watch your biggest failure. I guess it’s like watching your ex’s wedding, weekly.”
A Late-Night Show (A Different One)
This writer worked on a post-2000 late-night show “from the beginning” of its run, a position they held for over a decade. Why did it end? The writer “can’t say for sure” even after some distance, although “there were several potential contributing factors, with a primary factor probably being that my boss no longer believed I could give him material he could use.” In other words, his stuff just didn’t mesh with the show anymore. “To me, it feels like sports, though I’m terrible at sports. You can be convinced of your own abilities, but if your coaches aren’t convinced, you won’t play.”
Despite getting fired, the writer still watches the show. “I continue to like and respect nearly everyone there and could still see how I helped shape the show,” they say. While this is one of many gigs over a packed career, its longevity and importance changed the writer’s life in meaningful and tangible ways, and that’s not something they forget. “The job made it possible to pay off our house, pay for college, have excellent medical overage, and become a better writer.”
“It was a dream come true to be hired,” says a former CollegeHumor employee of their near-decade with the company, calling themselves “a huge fan” of the site’s work who enjoyed their years at the job. “It was like any workplace environment in that there were some good people, some not so good people. But the good people were definitely recognized,” they say. But then, this employee, along with almost every other CollegeHumor employee, got the boot in this month after the company was sold.
Those terminated are still processing the news and trying to figure out what’s next, of course, but there’s strength in numbers and sticking together. “We have a Slack where we still talk, and one of the few remaining employees of the company created a website to promote us,” says the former staffer. “There is definitely a lot of solidarity.”
Will they ever again check out CollegeHumor? Maybe, should it ever come back — the site is currently down, and the URL redirects to the CollegeHumor YouTube page. “I’ve nostalgically watched a few videos,” this employee admits. “I still love it. Maybe it’s some sort of Stockholm syndrome of working there so long.” But still — it’s complicated. “I wish the best for the future of CollegeHumor, but it might take time to watch any new content. So much of CollegeHumor content I loved was showing a fun office environment, so it will be interesting to see what they make after a mass layoff.”
Onion Digital Studios
From 2008 to 2013, Matt Klinman — the only staffer in this piece who didn’t request to be anonymous — wrote for Onion News Network and later Onion Digital Studios, which created Comedy Central’s SportsDome and YouTube series like Porkin’ Across America, Lake Dredge Appraisal, and Sex House. After leaving to pursue television projects and to take a position at Funny or Die, Klinman returned to The Onion fold in 2016. After relocating to Chicago, the company restarted its video department in New York and asked Klinman to be the head writer. “I put together a great staff and we did some very successful stuff around the election,” he says. But then, in early 2017, the department was shuttered. “The budget to start the new video initiative wasn’t renewed once it was clear there was no way to make money doing high-quality videos online anymore,” he says, referring to the infamous internet-comedy-wrecking disaster colloquially referred to as the Facebook-driven “pivot to video.”
Losing the gig and the chance to make comedy was frustrating, to say the least. “I passed up a lot of opportunities to go back to The Onion and commit to building up a department,” Klinman says. “So for all that to very swiftly not materialize was really heartbreaking to me. I loved The Onion — its legacy, process, and ethic. It was all just very sad and tragic.”
Klinman thinks that while in the “immediate aftermath of the trauma” of losing a comedy job, it’s normal to avoid those same outlets for a few months. “Sometimes I look at my old work,” he says. “Comedy writers, I think, are all deathly afraid of some mysterious day when they might Stop Being Funny, so I guess sometimes I like looking back to make sure I ever was.”
But failure, rejection, and endings are as much a part of being a writer as words. “It’s not easy being rejected from something, but a lesson I learned early on making comedy is that getting good at this profession is almost equally about learning to do good work as it is learning to deal with rejection,” Klinman says. “Failure is part of this sport, and if you aren’t failing, you aren’t playing hard enough.”
It’s fair to say that the people who choose to devote their lives to writing comedy are also the biggest fans of comedy. But should a comedy writer even take a job on a show they adore? It might not be worth it, just to save yourself from getting favorites forever ruined.
“There is a long list of TV shows that I couldn’t watch after not getting an offer to write on them,” says Nell Scovell, Just the Funny Parts author and TV scribe with credits on classics like Newhart, Late Night With David Letterman, The Simpsons, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. “The good news is that I saved a lot of time by not having to watch every episode of Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Larry Sanders Show. But I’ve learned from this. Now if I really enjoy a show, I wouldn’t pursue a writing job on it. I couldn’t bear the thought of walking away from Outlander or Broad City.”
Or maybe comedy is like pretty much any other industry: It’s fickle and constantly evolving. Anyone who chooses art as the way they make a living knows that rejection is, and will always be, part of the game. Tastes change, the economy changes, and workers get shuffled. So if you get to write jokes for money, that’s still, in the long run, a win.