The Rise—and Limitations—of Front-Facing Camera Comedy
Front-Facing Twitter Videos Open Doors for Comedians, But They’re Not the Key to SuccessL to R: Rachel Wenitsky, Meg Stalter, Chris Calogero Comedy Features social media
Comedian Meg Stalter’s Twitter video presence has become blurred with her onstage performances in the best way possible. You’ve likely seen her videos before: Stalter as an overenthusiastic girlfriend or the mean girl from church, always projecting the same harried, hyper-confident energy. In a video from this December, Stalter acts out “[t]he scene in the movie where the main girl plays the piano for the first time since her father passed,” which culminates in a bizarre song about pigeons. Now, she’s integrated the pigeon bit into her stand-up. Likewise, fellow comedian Chris Calogero has transferred some bits from Twitter videos—for him, often Italian-American stereotypes or cliche action movie characters—to his time behind the mic.
Then there are performers like Rachel Wenitsky and Simone Norman, who see their other comedic endeavors as highly separate from their fast-paced Twitter videos.
“I don’t think it’s a choice. It just sort of shook out like that,” Wenitsky replies when I ask about the distinction between her Twitter presence (often featuring surreal spins on movie archetypes) and other work, including her comedy music project Friends Who Folk with Ned Riseley. The separation is useful for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon writer, with the videos acting as a key reminder that “not everything has to be turned into, like, a screenplay or a pilot.”
“I don’t want to live my whole life online, and I think the more active you become on a social media website the more it starts to take over your life, so also just being able to step back and say, ‘This isn’t the only place I’m making art art,’ ” she says, adding with a laugh, “That’s such a funny way to describe what I do on the internet.”
This film is called “The Hot Character Who Everyone Thinks Had It Easy Finally Reveals Their Painful Backstory” it cost 40 trillion dollars to make & if it’s not abundantly clear, I just started watching Grey’s Anatomy & I love the shit out of it thank you goodnight. pic.twitter.com/tUSDmnomxS
— Rachel Wenitsky (@RachelWenitsky) April 5, 2019
Norman, who rose to viral fame for her “praxis girl” video parodying controversial leftist podcast Red Scare, says that some people come to her shows expecting her to play the same vocal fried-out character as in the clip. She posits that the tweet—which, at the time of publication, has nearly 40,000 likes and about 5,800 retweets—hit a nerve in the first place because it was “halfway me being able to suss out a situation and halfway maybe an accident.”
“It’s pretty embarrassing, I think, to start identifying with a past piece of success that really happened by accident,” she explains. “Like, I wouldn’t want to do that.”
Instead, Norman operates at the cross-section of politics and performance—she’s producing the Head Over Heels for Bernie: A Comedy Show Fundraiser, which only recently set up a second show—and suspects that front-facing Twitter videos are on the decline, comparing them to oversaturated podcast market.
“Once you start trying, or once everyone starts trying, rather, then it’s dead in the water,” she says, though she plans on occasionally making videos when inspiration strikes, purely because they’re fun. “But I won’t ever sit around and try to manufacture the next viral hit,” she assures me.
Calogero and Wenitsky also acknowledge the recent backlash against front-facing Twitter videos, which the latter suspects may have something to do with the number of women who use the medium.
“I also think there has been some weird blowback of people being very judgmental of women who—’cause it happens to be a lot of women,” Wenitsky explains. “Obviously there are guys making videos that are amazing, but there are a lot of women comics who are making Twitter videos and I feel like there’s starting to be a little bit of a blowback of like, ‘These women are so annoying!’ And so you sort of have to be like, I’m just going to make my thing and ignore this.”
Whether you see front-facing Twitter videos as past their prime or just reaching a fever pitch, the concept is one as old as the internet: a person can make something on their own, quickly and cheaply, with a potential for it to be seen by a wide audience. Wenitsky recalls first making videos on Photobooth on her computer in 2009, to keep herself entertained when her friends all went to study abroad. When front-facing Twitter videos started to gain traction, Wenitsky saw an opportunity to dive back into the medium.
“It was so funny because it was something that I had gravitated to naturally when I was younger but there hadn’t been really like a place for it,” she says, later elaborating, “There was a place to put it, like you could put videos on YouTube, but there wasn’t an easy way to disseminate it.”
A Senator hitting on a girl at a bar pic.twitter.com/J2Hs6bGGCy
— Chris Calogero (@RealChrisCal) January 30, 2020
Back in 2018, Calogero used to be active on the app Laugh Exchange (known as Payge these days), in which comedians would submit videos and the ones voted best would win a cash prize.
“I actually won enough money to file a W2 off of it, which is incredible, but I didn’t just want to put my stand-up up there, a) because I’m not great at making stand-up tapes, for whatever reason, and b) I wanted to push myself to try something different,” he states. His first video that projected him to Laugh Exchange success was “How to Speak North Jerseyian,” which is exactly what it sounds like. On Twitter, his first one to take off was a tweet featuring Calogero as every police chief in every action film.
“I had a lot of fun watching that happen and I had a lot of fun making it and I hold those cliche, especially action movie characters, very near and dear to my heart, so like, it was a joy to do that and then I just started making more movie videos, like cliche movie character videos,” he recalls. Calogero keeps a running list of video ideas on his phone, using a combination of pre-written lines and riffing to come up with his end bits.
Most importantly, though, he tries to record them when his wife’s not around. Despite being a seasoned performer himself and the ubiquity of people staring at their screens, Calogero notes, “I think there is a stigma of anybody pointing their own phone at their face is supposed to be meant to feel weird.”
Stalter feels similarly, though luckily lives with fellow comedians who are also making their own videos, so they have a no-embarrassment rule in their household. Back in Chicago, she often filmed herself in her own car to avoid awkward run-ins.
The scene in the movie where the main girl plays the piano for the first time since her father passed: pic.twitter.com/ouZrPRIkhA
— Meg Stalter (@megstalter) December 28, 2019
Potential awkwardness aside, it’s clear these comedians create these videos not with the sole aim of garnering a larger audience—though it has, in Wenitsky’s words, become a “calling card” of sorts—but mostly because it’s just another way of being funny. Back in July, journalist Luke Winkie characterized front-facing videos as a medium that also brings the viewer and the performer closer in an unexpected way, writing for Vulture, “So perhaps it’s best to think about Twitter videos the way [comedian Chris] Distefano does, as an entirely separate canon that aims to reveal one of the most important empathies in comedy: that the comedian, like you, isn’t perfect.”
For most of the comedians I talked to, front-facing videos seem to be the comedic version of throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks (or as Stalter puts it, “solo improv”). That’s not even in terms of what takes off, virality-wise, but what they simply see as funny and that hones their comedic perspective.
“I think that the only way that you get better at comedy or writing or anything really is just to do it a lot, and when you work in entertainment, it’s a really, really hard business to get opportunities in,” Wenitsky says, “So anything where you can create opportunities for yourself is extremely valuable and I don’t think that anyone should be making things just for the sake of making them. Like, I don’t think you should make a Twitter video because you see it as an end game to a job, but I think that if your goal is just to make as much stuff as possible and get better at it and refine your skills and your taste, then go for it and get started and play around and see what your voice is.”
At the end of the day, it’s just a medium, one that encourages quick creativity and can grow a comedian’s platform. However, that potential isn’t inherent to the front-facing video, but in the talent of the comedian wielding the camera.
Clare Martin writes about comedy, music and more for Paste.