In an open meeting room at Plays and Players in Rittenhouse, several comedians are waiting for the show to begin. They lounge; they chit-chat; many of them appear oddly not that nervous. They toss around game plans a little. “I’ve got five minutes, but I’m also preparing to just chuck all that out the window and just riff,” says Christian Mangual. Robert Ecks doesn’t think he can take that approach, and he’s not sure what he’ll do. Well-laid plans will only get them so far tonight. There’s no way they won’t bomb.
Digital Graffiti’s creators Matt McCusker and Shane Gillis book comedians. Each one gets five minutes. Now here’s the twist: There’s a second lineup, a panel, convened to react live to each performer, not speaking their takes, but texting them to each other. The group text is broadcast on big screen TV for the audience to see.
It got started because, as McCusker told it: “We were at a comedy show, just like an open mic. And a lot of times, when one comedian’s on, other comedians will kind of sit there and text each back and forth, kind of just like talking shit, and we were doing that,” he recalled. “[Shane] sent me a really funny picture of one of the comedians onstage.” What if that text convo was behind the comedians while they were up? “That was it,” said Gillis.
The comics on stage can’t see the text feed as they do their thing. Gillis and McCusker say they’re already having trouble with booking.
“After the first show, we’re kind of running out of people,” said Gillis. “Last show, we had three people drop out the day of. They’ll agree to do the show before they have any idea what it is… And then you can tell somebody told them, don’t fucking do that show.”
A comedy show where even the comics are uncomfortable
Q Rose, one of the comics on the bill, said his favorite part was being terrified. “You can run away from a difficult situation or you can head right into and get better,” he said. Ecks, makes an effort to put himself through trials like these; he was in a naked comedy line-up once. Multiple comedians described it as a rite of passage. “There are all types of environments that you can perform in that are still beneficial to you, but one that’s specifically adverse is just the the greater challenge, and the greater challenge is exciting,” Ecks explained. This situation, he said, is “going to make it all the easier to do anything else.”
The only very obviously nervous comedian in the room is Charles Steele. “It’s not going to be good. Even if I did well, it’s not going to be good,” he told me, appearing to race through his thoughts out loud. “I’m an anxious person. I don’t know if you could tell that. This isn’t good for my mental health. Like, I’m the exact person that this show… it might hurt me a lil. I’m going to look at the group chat later, like, why y’all really said that? It’s all stuff that you’re thinking about already. Everyone knows their flaws. But when you hear someone say it out loud, it becomes, ‘Oh you noticed that too? I thought I was hiding it.’ No, everyone sees that shit. People are like incredibly insecure. That’s why the show is great, because it preys on that. It’s vicious. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Why the group text screen works
There is a lot of phenomena at play here, and spelling it out sounds a lot like stating the obvious. Millennials text, a lot. Longer phone calls are just not the move for so many of us. Naomi S. Baron, the author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World and a linguistics professor at American University, sees little difference in a GroupMe convo from the one she’s noticed a group of students having across the quadrangle in person when I reach her at her office Saturday. It’s kind of a cocktail of observed trends. Millennials have been leaning more towards written rather than spoken communication, she explains — like the chat functions and apps younger firms use at work, that college students rely on for group projects. She also notes that socially, we’re headed towards a “group mentality.”
“It used to be, in the dark ages, say 1970 or ’80 or ’90, that people actually went on dates with other individuals,” she said. In those decades, the trend toward group outings could be seen, she clarifies, but it’s more prevalent now: “We don’t go from one-to-one relationships. Except maybe for sexual encounters. So much more is done with groups of people.”
Mekki Leeper is the show’s tech guy. “Shane kept talking about the idea and how excited he was, but he was like, ‘I don’t actually know how we’re gonna make the show.’ And I was like, ‘Well I can make it for you.’” He replaces numbers and names for everyone in the chat with Player 1, Player 2, Player 3, and so on, and then he keeps the feed rolling as the show progresses.
When a meme flies across the screen, it’s akin to the sharp, at times often snide, commentary that friends spew while reacting to the less successful outfits from the Met Gala, or many of the (let’s be real) unabashedly gleeful quips made when the news broke of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden passing. Digital Graffiti is on 40, however, because these are comedians after all. Plus, the cloak of anonymity allows them to say things they normally wouldn’t. McCusker calls this “the YouTube commenter effect.”
The panel included Tommy Pope and John McKeever of Comedy Central’s Delco Proper. Ribald texts began before anyone took the microphone. A gif of Budd Dwyer’s suicide came and looped. Then, somebody on the feed asked, “Are there snacks??”
McCusker, the MC for the night, had barbs flung at him immediately. One text read he had “fucked more black girls than sickle cell.” McCusker seemed like he was planning to tell more jokes, but he didn’t stay up much longer after that one. “You get the fucking idea,” he said, then brought up the first comic.
The winner of the night gets $50, the right to pick a panelist to get of taste of their own medicine for the show’s final set and a spot on the panel next time. First place is decided by audience applause.
A comedy lab of boundary-pushing jokes
Mangual told me that he was doing the set “in the service of comedy.” This was the first time his girlfriend would see him perform, ever.
At the top of his set, a panelist pointed out what might be a tick of his: He licks his lips often. No, not like LL licks his lips. Mangual sucks his mouth in briefly during pauses in speech. Cue the texts commanding us to watch him do it. The panelist might have found it sexy, but that was the source of a joke too: “I would’ve fucked this guy before I saw his comedy.” When tongue emojis floated across the feed, it was instantly awful and hilarious.
Someone chose to pick on Mangual’s appearance with a Gollum photo, and the next text was “Me precioso (sic.)” (Mangual is Puerto Rican.)
When it was Ecks’ turn up, he made a bit about looking lost and scratching his neck. Before then, at the beginning of Ecks’ set, someone texted an Autism Awareness logo, which was followed by the comment, “Looks like someone’s mom ate too much Mercury.” The crowd roared. A woman reacted to the screen, “Rob, that sucked.”
Ecks started moving around, partially in front of the TV. A man in the audience shouted, “You know we can’t fucking see, retard!”
Some of the comics really didn’t handle the situation well. Of one, I wrote in my notes: “frozen, scared, bewildered.” Gracie Canaan laughed along even though she couldn’t see the feed. “Oh my God, it’s the googly eyes going on!!” she said looking at audience reactions. She won.
Backstage, I brought up the joke that made us googly eyed: “I bet her dad snake charmed her out of her mother’s pussy.”
“That was the most absurd joke. And people laughed at that,” said Gillis. “Oh, hysterically,” McCusker recalled. “Stood up and clapped.”
The YouTube commenter effect, for them, is more than going “pedal to the metal.” They’re experimenting with what boundaries they can push. How far is too far? It’s like a comedy lab.
“You could make a fucking terrorist joke. ISIS joke. Anything else got laughs. But police brutality— the white people were like, ‘Don’t do that. Please don’t do that.’ That’s interesting,” said Gillis. “You throw stuff out there and you get to see them react to things, like yea or nay, what’s funny and what’s not.”
“You can be racist to Asians. That’s what we’re finding out,” Gillis told me. “It’s just blatant hypocrisy though.” He notes that he sent out the gif of Budd Dwyer shooting himself in the head. When a comedian made a child porn joke, he sent out a photo of children being escorted out of Sandy Hook. Both got mad laughs. “It’s funny what people will laugh at, compared to what they’re so eager to prove that they’re not laughing at,” said Gillis.
Police brutality and domestic violence were the only two topics that seemed out of bounds. Everything else was swing and a hit. Steele had mentioned that he might not be in the mood to stick around for a post-show interview. Steele, a dark-skinned black teen, got the most police brutality jokes. One of the texts sent on Steele had read, “He looks like a Baltimore piñata.” The crowd gave a loud, rare boo.
Afterwards, he was in good shape, though. His friends had been telling him what the texts said and he wasn’t that impressed. “From what I’m being told, it was kind of weak,” he said. “#Badcomicsmatter, that’s funny. But they didn’t even mess with me on the stuff I thought they were going to say. It didn’t even occur to me that it was going to be like, black shit.”
“You should be able to attempt to make anything funny”
There were lots of texts that were vulgar; there were lots of texts that were racist; some of them didn’t strike me as funny. But the sickle cell text— I’m a black girl— it shocked me. I’m sure I looked crazy when I saw it. I guffawed at that line. I can’t really tell you why I did. There was certainly racial humor that I shook my head at. And the show would probably be more interesting if the panel wasn’t all white guys, and we could see the types of texts comedians of color would sling in that environment. With all that said, I can’t recall laughing that much at a comedy show ever. And I’m including specials I’ve enjoyed on TV. Digital Graffiti is watching six comedians simultaneously.
Gillis and I chatted a couple times about Patrice O’Neal. He was a comic’s comic, and appreciation for him has surged since he died of diabetes in 2011. We talked about the time he went on Fox News to defend Opie and Anthony, the hosts of the self-titled talk radio show where he was frequent guest. They drew fire after jokes over wanting to have sex with Condoleeza Rice devolved into more quips over what it would be like to rape her. At this point, O’Neal was literally becoming the black guy Fox News could call to give a contrarian view when someone said something preposterously racist or sexist. John Gibson welcomed him for a segment on O&A’s comments by calling him “our favorite.” O’Neal was clear: He wasn’t defending the comment, but rather the adventure.
“Funny people should just be left to try to be funny,” he told Gibson. “Funny jokes and unfunny jokes came out of the same the birth. You don’t know if anything is going to be funny. You should be able to attempt to make anything funny.” I asked Gillis if he was trying to find the funny in the way O’Neal had described. Gillis texted back, “Absolutely.”
So how successful were their attempts? Sunday, I was sitting at a bar and I realized: I knew four people who attended the show Friday. With me, it makes five— that’s a panel.