The Just for Laughs festival is the biggest comedy gathering in the world.
Comedians apply like mad to get in, because managers, agents, and talent scouts aplenty attend the showcases. Controversy plagued the event in 2018, however, because a fella named Darren Knight shit the bed performing there. Darren was featured on the “Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch” showcase.
The problem is: Darren Knight isn’t a comedian, he’s a YouTube personality.
Darren is someone with followers. An “influencer.” Darren didn’t get a slot because he was the most original or funny, he was placed in the lineup for name recognition: “Hey, I know that guy from his videos!”
Darren’s set included stolen material—“To our wives and girlfriends, may they never meet,” ~Groucho Marx—and then moved into comments that were deemed sexist and racist.
While the Just for Laughs festival used to be a boon for undiscovered comedians, it has become a manner for already-discovered comedians to get a boost; their managers or agents get them on the bill.
Unknown comedians need not apply.
With Darren Knight, however, an ugly corner has been turned: now instead of managers or agents getting their comedians on the bill, the Variety showcase revealed that instead of wanting to go to the trouble of supporting comedians, they’re willing to just grab whoever has gone viral, because that person has “heat.”
The scary thing is, this attitude isn’t limited to comedy. Success in any field is becoming about notoriety, not ability.
The same week Just for Laughs was showcasing a YouTube “celebrity,” a man named David Casarez went viral in California.
David is 26, and homeless. In a move of desperation, he stood on a median holding a sign that read, “Homeless. Hungry 4 success. Take a résumé.”
Someone thought it was neat, took and Tweeted a picture of David, and it went viral. The picture was shared 128,000 times (as of this writing).
Because of that, David got interviews with (or at least interest from) Google, Netflix, and Linkedin.
Those companies saw the story and dialed him up. Which is great for David, but I have to wonder: what would have happened if he had walked through the front door with his CV. It probably would have ended up on a stack.
A similar thing happened to author Jia Jiang.
In his fantastic book Rejection Proof, Jia tells the tale of becoming a YouTube sensation. He’s not a YouTube personality like Darren Knight, he’s just a guy who posted a video that happened to go super-viral.
So viral, in fact, the CEO of Zappos, Tony Shieh, wanted to meet him. After doing so, Tony offered Jia a position at the company. Just like that.
Attention sells in America.
You can work your fingers to the bone, but you’ll be leapfrogged in the success department by someone that gets eyeballs.
Look at Johnny Bobbitt Jr.
You might not recognize the name, but I bet you know the story.
(Word of warning: if you Google him, make sure you type out “Johnny Bobbit Jr.” not “John Bobbit.” They have two entirely different life experiences. Heh.)
Johnny is a homeless man who spent his last $20 to buy a tank of gas for stranded motorist Kate McClure. She, in turn, was so moved by his gesture that she posted the story on social media. It was (and remains) a great story, and before long every outlet on the Internet was reposting it.
Kate set up a Go Fund Me account to get Johnny back on his feet. She asked for $10,000, and received over $402,000.
I’m not saying Johnny doesn’t deserve the money. Good on him. He has a great history, fell on hard times, did a great thing, and got lucky.
I do find it interesting, however, that when the $10,000 goal was reached, people kept giving. They didn’t pause, or go find a family with medical bills looking for help, or donate to a food pantry in their community.
They kept giving to the story they liked.
Maybe they felt they could trust giving their money to the Go Fund Me for Johnny. After seeing his story, they felt they knew him a little. Better to give their money to someone like him than to a random homeless person, right?
Johnny was viral, and that is a currency more important than need.
I hope everything goes well for Johnny Bobbitt Jr., because going viral and getting a second chance doesn’t always work out.
Remember Ted Williams, the homeless man with the golden voice?He went viral in 2011, when someone recorded a clip of him vamping a radio announcement on the side of the road. Ted was homeless; he held a sign stating he’d read copy for donations.
Williams became an overnight sensation; people loved the video and job offers poured in. The Cleveland Cavaliers wanted to make him their announcer, and MSNBC wanted him for voiceover work. Williams had it made. The world was his oyster.
If not for the pesky drug and alcohol problem that had made him homeless in the first place, that is.
Williams went in and out of rehab over the next few years, and though he landed a few decent jobs, he seems to be out of work again. His Wikipedia hasn’t been updated since 2016, last describing a four-month stint at Williams had an Ohio radio station.
(He did, however, consider making a run at the presidency in 2016. That’s a move that doesn’t really scream “sane.”)
What this all boils down to, is: should going viral be the deciding factor for opportunity?
I don’t know, but it’s the way things are.
In the world of entertainment, getting into the trenches, sending hidden scouts into open microphones to find unknowns so they may be introduced to the word wasn’t supposed to die, but it did.
That doesn’t work out well for anyone, just ask Darren Knight.
(Who, granted, will probably have his own TV show and movie deal by the time I publish this piece, despite his set at Just for Laughs.)
Because America loves notoriety.
If importance, talent, or skill mattered over “SQUIRREL!” then no one would know the name Omarosa right now.
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