Has The Internet Ruined Comedy?

Alex English should be on summer break when I call him on a Thursday afternoon, but instead he’s fresh off of two stand-up sets in New York City, and is last-minute packing for a red-eye flight to London, where he will take the stage at the Top Secret Comedy Club that weekend. The work never ends when you’re, well, a working comedian.

Since joining the SNL writers room in 2021 (season 47), English has shown an uncanny knack for the kind of humor that hits you in all the right places (all the more impressive considering he had no prior sketch experience before SNL). In his short but remarkable tenure, he’s blessed audiences with “Hot Girl Hospital,” “Nice Jail,” and the instantly iconic “Lisa from Temecula,” which he tells me was inspired during a holiday trip to Detroit, his hometown.

English says the source of his humor is found not on social media but in analog experiences. “I talk to people, to my family. I read the paper. I also read a lot of books,” he says. “I love to people watch. I’m an old man.”

English belongs to the next generation of exciting—and excitingly queer—comedians that include humorists John Early, Bowen Yang, Sam Jay, and Joel Kim Booster. What they strive to achieve is not a viral moment, which English says too many new comics thirst for, but a common understanding through life’s absurdities. In fact, English is adamant that social media ruined not only the art of comedy, but also our relationship to it. So I asked him to explain how we got here, and how we might get back.

Jason Parham: What frightens you about the state of comedy right now?

Alex English: I was on a flight recently. Another passenger was watching a clip on their phone and I was like, “Oh, I know that person.” Within seven seconds of the video, he just scrolled off of it. I’m sure that time was the comic setting it up or talking to the audience. That scared me. I was like, “I don’t want anybody to do that to me. I don’t want anybody scrolling off of me.” You know what it is, also—because everybody’s doing it now, it becomes so saturated. There’s no uniqueness to the videos I’m seeing. That’s no diss to people doing it. I just feel that’s not the way I should be doing it.

That’s fair.

Long gone are the days where you could go and perform at a club, someone from the industry sees it, and they want to put you on a platform to elevate your work. Instead, now the business is, do you have 500,000 followers from burning material that you put out on the internet or talking to an audience. When it comes to crowd work, I’m the one who came to work. The audience didn’t come to work. They came to laugh. I don’t understand this obsession with that. When I’m on stage, I don’t care that much about the audience. Like, “Are y’all dating?” Who cares? There’s no unique story to that. And they didn’t pay for that.

Whose fault is that?

I realized, especially after the pandemic, the Instagram and TikTok of it all when it comes to comedy has really ruined a lot of audiences. It’s changed the audiences’ perception of what comedy—specifically stand-up comedy—actually is. I did a show a few months ago that went well. This woman comes up to me after the show. She’d been sitting in the front. She said, “Oh my God, I thought you were gonna talk to us tonight. I thought you were gonna make fun of us.” I said, “Is that what you think stand-up is now?” There’s an expectation from audiences now because of what they’re consuming online.

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