Webbys highlight convergence of digital culture, comedy

The 14th annual awards were the usual mix of big-ticket comedians and YouTube stars, except that now it's getting harder to differentiate between the two.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read
Posing next to a display set up by sponsor Hewlett-Packard, actor and writer B.J. Novak gets ready to host Monday night's 14th Annual Webby Awards. The Webby Awards

NEW YORK--Actor B.J. Novak, host of the 14th Annual Webby Awards on Monday night, was--much like his character on sitcom "The Office"--a little too smarmy for his own good.

"This year, The New York Times is a big winner!" Novak said of the storied media establishment in his opening monologue at the Webbys, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek presentation of Slinky-shaped trophies to both judge- and audience-selected winners in innumerable categories. "The New York Times, accepting an award from the Internet, the very thing that threatened to destroy it! Who knows, maybe next year the environment will be accepting an award from BP?"

He made jabs about the people seated around him at the opulent Cipriani Wall Street venue, explaining that winners would receive trophies, and then explaining exactly what a trophy is because its usual awarding for athletic achievement would obviously be foreign to the tech industry types in attendance. Referring to some of the more arcane Webby accolades, distributed for advertising and marketing campaigns in niche sectors of the market, Novak exclaimed, "Oh, shoot me in the head! Some of this s*** is really boring!"

There's nothing newsworthy about fratty comedians mocking nerds, nor is there anything newsworthy anymore about the quirky structure of the Webby Awards--acceptance speeches limited to five words, a pay-to-play structure that's earned a bit of criticism over the years, and a guaranteed blend of the year's goofiest Internet memes spiced with occasional rallying cries for political causes and open-Web initiatives.

No, what stood out at the Webby Awards this year is that in the junior-high slow-dance between the worlds of geeky pop culture and mainstream comedy, the two partners have grown ever closer. Comedy, it seems, may be the first wing of the entertainment business that can truly claim to be "cross-platform."

(Not that any self-respecting comedian would be caught dead waving around a marketing term like that.)

Funny or Die, co-founded by actor Will Ferrell, has been going strong for three years now, and its Zach Galifianakis-hosted series "Between Two Ferns" netted the "Hangover" star a Webby this year. Gilbert Gottfried, the comedian best known for capitalizing on a set of fingernails-on-chalkboard vocal chords, went onstage with a live duck to accept a Webby for the AFLAC insurance firm, which makes popular TV and Web-based commercials in which Gottfried voices the company's duck mascot.

Last week, former "Arrested Development" stars Will Arnett and Jason Bateman--both in attendance at the Webbys, presenting a "Best Actress" award to Amy Poehler for her Web series "Smart Girls at the Party"--took over the headquarters of IAC/InterActiveCorp to unveil their own online video venture, DumbDumb Productions. DumbDumb, which takes the "Saturday Night Live" skit model and applies it to branded commercials that aim for viral buzz, produces its videos in partnership with the IAC-owned impressively long-lasting digital comedy outlet CollegeHumor.

CollegeHumor, meanwhile, had won several Webby Awards for itself, but its Best Comedy Series acceptance speech for its "Jake and Amir" show had the unfortunate luck of following the acceptance speech for the honorary award given to legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin. CollegeHumor's Jake Hurwitz attempted to make the most of the situation by using his five words to exclaim, "Holy f***ing s***, Buzz Aldrin!"

But as the worlds of digital culture and comedy continue their collision course, have big-name comedians co-opted comedy on the Web--as they arguably have with the Webbys ceremony itself--potentially leaving less room for indie sensations to rise to the top?

Maybe. The big moments of this year's Webby Awards, like last year's event hosted by "SNL" personality Seth Meyers, were on behalf of the marquee comedians and entertainers. Singer Ben Folds replicated his improvised ChatRoulette serenades onstage and then presented a "Breakout of the Year" Webby to 17-year-old ChatRoulette founder Andrei Ternoviskiy, who awkwardly stammered, "Um, Internet is a cool thing" for his acceptance speech. Videos highlighted the high-production viral sensations of the Onion News Network and edgy pop band OK Go, whose elaborate Rube Goldberg machine goes far beyond the grainy "treadmill dance" video that put it on the map.

But there are obviously still ways for an out-of-the-blue sensation to shine. AutoTune The News, a comedy Web series produced by start-up Next New Networks, delivered one of the most memorable acceptance speeches of the night when its creators opted to sing the five words "Everything sounds better auto-tuned" in harmony. And the network of humor sites that runs I Can Has Cheezburger, a perennial Webby winner, was represented once again by CEO Ben Huh, who showed up with a hat shaped like a giant cheeseburger and a date in a crocheted cheeseburger dress.

(Side note: Capitalizing on an Internet fad that's hit the mainstream in a big way, Huh attempted to "ice" host Novak at the Webbys after-party, presenting the comedian with a Smirnoff Ice to chug. Novak reportedly declined.)

And the comedy industry has never forgotten that many of its best and biggest sensations have been found in the back rooms of beer-soaked nightclubs in college towns--the analog equivalent of YouTube, if you will--and perhaps that's why comedy and digital media have paired up so well.

But in turn, the rise of digital media owes a lot to the big-ticket comedy business. Some of the earliest hits on YouTube were pirated videos of Comedy Central political comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. In 2006, Colbert performed a scathing routine at the White House Press Correspondents' Dinner that, when it wound up on the Web, highlighted both the viral power of YouTube and the copyright concerns that would amount to a billion-dollar lawsuit against it on behalf of Comedy Central parent company Viacom. When celebrities started flooding Twitter, comedians like Apple ad star John Hodgman and comic actors like Ashton Kutcher (who was, before his Twitter fame, best known as the protagonist of "Dude, Where's My Car?") were some of the first to use it for self-marketing, amassing huge followings.

Comedians' use of geek culture and digital distribution has given their breed of entertainment a whole new dimension: Colbert, who won a Webby "Person of the Year" award two years ago, taught the masses how to Google-bomb, launched one of the first green-screen video editing contests, and launched a name-dropping deal with Bing to raise money to clean up the oil-soaked Gulf Coast. This is a business that acted with true agility when, as Novak might have put it, new technology "threatened to destroy" just about everything familiar in the media and entertainment businesses.

That said, the transformative power of the Web was far from absent from the Webbys. Receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, "father of the Internet" Vinton Cerf accepted his award with a feisty "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" Film critic Roger Ebert, who has taken to Twitter and blogging after losing his physical voice to thyroid cancer, typed out his acceptance speech on a computer and the sound of his text-to-speech software boomed out over the speakers--"veni, vidi, vici."

Even Novak, in a moment of rare humility, sheepishly introduced himself as affiliated with "BitTorrent's 'The Office.'"