CollegeHumor Helped Shape Online Comedy. What Went Wrong?
On a cloudy morning the week after New Year’s Day, at CollegeHumor’s headquarters in West Hollywood, everyone braced for bad news. “We all knew what was about to happen,” writer and actor Katie Marovitch said. “My face was covered in hives, which happens to me when I'm very anxious, which is a lot.” Sam Reich, the company’s creative captain, cried as he delivered the tough update: IAC/InterActiveCorp, CollegeHumor’s parent company, wanted out. “If I can reengage you down the line, I obviously will,” Reich assured the room, shortly before HR representatives in Manhattan and Los Angeles handed exit paperwork to the newly unemployed staffers. People cracked jokes—people always joke in an office full of comics—but the punch lines couldn’t erase the gut punch. More than 100 people had lost their jobs.
CollegeHumor shape-shifted frequently during its 20-year run, but the evolutions were expansions: bicoastal offices, more staffers, higher production values. It branched into novelty clothing (BustedTees), cable television (The CollegeHumor Show, Adam Ruins Everything), and nerd culture spinoffs (Dorkly). In 2016 it launched its own streaming service, Dropout. Now the company has abruptly folded inward, turning back into a bare-bones media startup after decades of growth. CollegeHumor isn’t dead: IAC is selling the brand to Reich, who will continue running Dropout with an aim to resurrect the larger brand later on. Reich is beloved within the CollegeHumor community—WIRED spoke with more than a dozen former employees, and the praise was unanimously effusive, rare for someone who just laid a bunch of people off. But he is the steward of an uncertain future, in a marketplace that rewards a handful of gigantic digital platforms while pinching the rest, and he can only pay a skeleton staff to revive a company whittled into a decimated relic of itself. It’s a formidable task.
The laid-off employees are entering a job market that has been brutal to online comedy. In recent years, digital outlets Funny or Die, NBC’s Seeso, and Turner’s Super Deluxe all shut down; the Onion has suffered corporate mismanagement and a disastrous redesign; and Elon Musk’s satire startup Thud tanked. It’s not all dire. The rise in subscription streaming services has resulted in a corresponding surge in television opportunities, boutique outlets like Reductress and McSweeney’s are surviving and growing, and, it must be said, there is some good stuff on TikTok. But CollegeHumor is joining a swath of medium-sized outlets focusing on shorter-form comedy and general-audience satire that have also been gutted.
If this sounds like a groaner you’ve heard before, it is. The challenges faced by the online comedy ecosystem in the past decade are intertwined with the rise of social media, which fueled many outlets’ mainstream popularity but also ultimately complicated their existence. “How the hell can you plan for the future when the platforms where your money comes from are completely opaque?” says Adam Frucci, the former director of development for Dropout. “That’s not exclusive to comedy or video. It applies to all online media.”
Websites of all genres saw their ad-driven businesses crater as people stopped consuming content by visiting individual URLs in favor of reading and watching videos on the social web, especially YouTube and Facebook. Journalists lost jobs after their employers crafted strategies around Facebook video, only to discover that the social network had inflated its video metrics. Facebook ultimately paid $40 million to advertisers and apologized for “overstating” its numbers, but the company denies the inflation was intentional. A Facebook spokesperson told WIRED, “Claims that we kept the miscalculation of this metric from advertisers are false. We notified our partners of this issue when we discovered it, and we’ve taken a number of steps since to improve our detection of metrics issues.” But CollegeHumor has had its fortunes explicitly wrapped up with the dynamics of the internet even more than most media outlets. Its founders were instrumental in the mainstreaming of both meme-sharing and streaming video. For two decades, CollegeHumor rode a number of online trends and movements. The company started as the brainchild of literal teenagers, and it outlived many competitors because of this precocity about the social web. Until, all of a sudden, the social web helped render its business model obsolete.
Like the best sketch comedy, it started with a simple premise and progressed unexpectedly from there. The idea: Two 18-year-old best buds just want to make something new on the internet. “We were just trying to start a business online,” CollegeHumor founder Josh Abramson says, sipping an afternoon coffee at a New York café, remembering the beginning of his partnership with his childhood friend Ricky Van Veen. The pair created a parent company called Connected Ventures in 1999, but the pitch for what it actually did was not particularly fine-tuned. “Someone told me I founded a media business many years later, and I was like, ‘What's that?’”
According to Abramson, he had imagined a way to “take all the funny videos and stuff floating around in the dorms and put them on one website,” while Van Veen had envisioned an online platform for “keeping track of what was happening on college campuses.” (Through a spokesperson at Facebook, where he now works, Van Veen declined to comment for this story.) But nothing was definitive. The process of getting the domain was more about “taking two words and putting them together” than articulating a precise vision. Then they found an available option: CollegeHumor.com.
It launched in January 2000. “I like to remind people that this was five years before Facebook,” Abramson says. The 38-year-old entrepreneur is trim and sandy-haired, and has the sort of perpetually boyish face that’d still allow him to sneak into a campus kegger. However, he reminisces about the website with a wistful distance, as though it all happened in another era. In internet years, he’s right. CollegeHumor’s launch came three years before the launch of MySpace and Friendster; the social web simply didn’t exist in a mainstream way.
“If you wanted to see funny photos, there just weren’t many options,” Jakob Lodwick, Abramson and Van Veen’s first hire, says. While all three men grew up in the same Baltimore suburb, Abramson and Van Veen met Lodwick online, and brought him onboard in 2001. (A fourth founder, Zach Klein, joined later.) After the young men graduated from college, they briefly moved to San Diego before deciding the proper place for media upstarts was Manhattan. They rented a 5,000-square-foot Tribeca loft and made it a home office. There was no work-life balance, but there was cash.
CollegeHumor became profitable almost immediately, since most of its content was either user-submitted or created by writers who weren’t paid. “We didn’t have any expenses,” Abramson says. The site started out hosting funny images the teens collected, and then quickly shifted into a forum for all things sophomoric. For readers who know CollegeHumor from its glossy sketch-comedy heyday, the website’s earlier incarnations might be unrecognizable; it was a chaotic repository for the collective horny collegiate id, more of a precursor to the Chive or Barstool Sports than the showcase for UCB graduates it eventually became. It linked out to “friends” like DrunkStepfather and FatWillie.net, and some of CollegeHumor’s earliest splashes reflect this fratty attitude. In 2004 it hosted the “Election Erection” contest, where young women would submit risque pictures with “No More Bush” or “Kerry ’04” scrawled on their bodies. The team started selling its own merch, including a foam hand called “The Big Shocker,” meant to resemble a sexual finger position.
Its biggest challenge was appeasing advertisers who were squeamish about its commitment to boobs and bros. In addition to bulking up its written content, CollegeHumor offered a premium version called CollegeHumor Raw that offered “jokes that were too offensive” and images deemed “too dirty.” (Internet Archive’s screenshots of CollegeHumor from the time suggest that the dirty images were mostly women’s nipples.)
While it continued offering written content and images for most of its duration, CollegeHumor quickly became focused on the potential for online video. They had an early hit after posting a clip of Ashlee Simpson’s lip-syncing disaster from Saturday Night Live. An idea for a side project emerged, founded by Lodwick and Klein. They named it Vimeo, a portmanteau of “video” and “me.” It launched in November 2004. In early 2005, a competitor popped up with its own name playing on personalized video: YouTube.
“We always had this very contentious relationship with YouTube,” Lodwick says. “They were hot on our heels.” Abramson remembers thinking YouTube’s approach to copyright and moderation would sink the rival startup, as he remembered it as permissive. But then it was purchased by Google and overshadowed Vimeo forever. “In those days, it felt like a failure,” Abramson says. “I certainly kicked myself with decisions we made with Vimeo that prevented us from being YouTube.”
While they weren’t able to become the dominant video-sharing platform, the CollegeHumor team was still extremely well positioned to benefit from the rise in online video. Original comedy clips became its calling card. Although the team had fiddled around with originals fairly early on, “it really started, in all fairness, when we hired Sam,” Abramson says of Reich, who joined the company in 2006 as director of original content.
The CollegeHumor story is all about timing. The young founders’ savvy with online video helped establish the website as a destination for seeing funny content before much competition existed. But they also sold 51 percent of the company before much competition existed. The same year Sam Reich came aboard, 2006, IAC purchased the controlling stake in Connected Ventures. The small, independent company was now part of a much larger corporation helmed by billionaire mogul Barry Diller.
The transition was jarring for the founders, who loved their business as it was. IAC “completely dominated us,” Abramson says. “I would sit in these meetings and get yelled at.”
IAC wanted CollegeHumor to get big, and then bigger. The loft-office hybrid was swapped out for a larger workspace in Union Square, and then everyone was moved again into IAC’s vast, curvaceous glass headquarters, in a Frank Gehry–designed building in Chelsea. They had already started staffing up prior to the acquisition, and the early hires were good ones—Streeter Seidell, the company’s second editorial hire, is now a writer for Saturday Night Live, while another early hire, Sarah Schneider, worked at CollegeHumor for more than five years before also joining SNL, where she became co-head writer before creating the (very funny) Comedy Central show The Other Two. With corporate money and Reich’s appetite for experimentation, CollegeHumor became a full-blown incubator for new talent.
Jake Hurwitz, who began at CollegeHumor as an intern, and Amir Blumenfeld, who started as a writer right out of college, combined their skills for videos they posted to Vimeo in their spare time. The clips, called Jake and Amir, started gaining a following, and soon CollegeHumor was posting them on its homepage. Jake and Amir became CollegeHumor’s longest-running series, racking up billions of views over eight years. Its relationship with Vimeo was symbiotic. “We built channels on Vimeo largely for Jake and Amir,” Lodwick says. (The duo later left to found their own media startup–the podcast network Headgum.)
This internal upward momentum wasn’t unusual. Katie Marovitch began her career at CollegeHumor as an intern, then worked as an assistant before gradually shifting into writer’s rooms and into sketches. H. Caldwell Tanner also started as an intern and became a staff writer and illustrator. (He left to work for Disney.) “I wasn’t a total unknown, but it was a rarity on the internet to have someone on your staff who was a full-time artist,” he says. “I started at the front desk,” Dan Gurewitch, who went on to become a senior writer and one of the most recognizable CollegeHumor cast members, told WIRED. (Gurewitch now writes for Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.)
“It felt like we got to be pioneers,” Gurewitch adds. “We were figuring out how internet video worked as we went, and so was the internet and the rest of the world.”
The phrase “dream job” was used by a number of former CollegeHumor staffers, and it’s clear the company doubled as a beloved community for most. If the early years had been about refracting an Animal House vision of college onto the internet, these golden middle years were about living an extension of the most slap-happy dorm room nights. Adam Conover, who joined the company in 2012 and later went on to star in one of its cable spinoffs, Adam Ruins Everything, described the energy as “infectious.” People worked together all day and then hung out together all night. “There was a time I slept more in the office than at home,” Hurwitz says.
With the median staff age hovering somewhere in the twenties and with business and social lives conflated, workplace romance was common. Somewhat surprisingly for a company which rose to prominence on T&A, the results were resoundingly wholesome: Caldwell Tanner says he’ll always treasure the company for introducing him to his wife, Susanna Wolff, the former editor-in-chief of CollegeHumor. Sam Reich married Elaine Carroll, an actor who starred in one of the company’s most memorable early video hits, Very Mary-Kate. Even Ricky Van Veen’s marriage to actor Allison Williams was connected to the brand—Williams had a recurring part on Jake and Amir.
In 2013, CollegeHumor even produced and distributed a feature film, CoffeeTown, starring It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton, Friday Night Lights’ Adrianne Palicki, and the singer Josh Groban. The film didn’t make much of a splash, but the fact that CollegeHumor made it in the first place demonstrates how much money it had to experiment with at the time. During this flush period, Tanner recalls “individually wrapped jelly beans” as a free office snack. “It was really kind of a sign of something,” he says. “Excess in general?”
Josh Ruben, who wrote, directed, and acted in hundreds of CollegeHumor videos, described the mood in the office as “feeling like we were getting away with something.”
In 2014, Reich pitched Barry Diller on taking a few dozen video employees and moving them to LA, to begin growing the television arm of the company more aggressively. Diller said yes. The business model, in a nutshell, was to use the internet as a massive focus group to pitch television shows. Shorter-form digital shows that performed well, like Adam Ruins Everything, would be retooled and sold as more traditional cable offerings. This worked fairly well, with five shows eventually making it onto basic cable and many more gaining traction as digital-only offerings. In fact, its success got executives thinking: Why cut other companies in at all, instead of bringing everything in-house and holding onto the IP? Why not go direct-to-consumer? And so Dropout, CollegeHumor’s dedicated streaming service, was born in 2016 as a way to double down on the success.
Now, of course, Dropout is the only part of CollegeHumor that is still publishing new work; it has a backlog of material that was produced but hasn’t been released, and Reich hopes to make additional videos using former staffers on an ad hoc basis as he experiments with new modes of funding. There was no one big failure or a colossal money hemorrhage that spelled doom for the company, although it had ceased to be profitable as it expanded. Instead, IAC’s pulled funding presents a question: What, exactly, doomed CollegeHumor?
“People will say that this change that happened in the online content industry is just a case of winners and losers,” Conover says. “That this is just sort of a natural order of events, and there's predators and prey, and we got eaten. I dispute that characterization!" CollegeHumor didn't lose, he says. They got decimated by Facebook's ever-changing platform—not to mention "they aggressively acquired our executives."
Van Veen’s current position at Facebook has rankled some of his former CollegeHumor pals. “Ricky and I have an intense long-term relationship and it’s hard when a friend joins a terrorist group like Facebook, because you can’t really talk to them in the same way,” Lodwick says. Conover has suggested that Facebook hired Van Veen as part of a strategy to dominate companies like CollegeHumor. “Why did they bring him on? I guess to help them figure out how to steal traffic from sites like the one that he founded,” Conover says. (Facebook declined to comment on Conover's allegations.)
Abramson, meanwhile, staunchly defends Van Veen’s career moves and calls the idea that he was hired to lure traffic away from websites like CollegeHumor “conspiracy theory territory.”
Not everyone places the blame so squarely on Facebook; several people I spoke with suggested YouTube was far more central and influential to CollegeHumor’s business model than the social network. (YouTube declined to comment on this story.) YouTube’s centrality to CollegeHumor is such that the company abandoned its website in favor of rerouting CollegeHumor.com to its YouTube channel. But trying to figure out which content YouTube would allow to be monetized became a serious concern, especially for a company producing comedy videos with cursing in them. “If there was a swear, all of a sudden the algorithm would ping your video and there would be no ad on it,” Frucci says. “So this video that you spent however many thousands of dollars on is suddenly not making any money.”
While YouTube and Facebook’s specific impacts on CollegeHumor are difficult to measure, the tech platforms’ larger impact on media companies has been well documented, transforming places that were once hubs for news, commentary, and humor into vassals beholden to these new centralized content distributors. That they had significant roles in helping CollegeHumor first gain a wider audience, and then disrupting its ad-driven business model to profit off that audience, is clear. But IAC’s response to these changes is worth examining too, especially as it may serve as a cautionary tale for future media startups flirting with the idea of taking outside capital.
In recent years IAC has been streamlining, and it plans to spin off its profitable Match Group, which includes Tinder. The sale of CollegeHumor, then, might have happened even if Mark Zuckerberg had decided to delete Facebook or YouTube changed its algorithm to insert sketch comedy clips after every Logan Paul rant. But under the far less favorable circumstances, it seemed likely that IAC would divest from a media business that no longer had the internet winds at its back. This was something that was being at least floated for a significant amount of time; Fortune reported that IAC was considering a sale back in 2014. Abramson doesn’t believe that IAC mismanaged the company; instead, he sees it as a case of misplaced expectations. “Often times, as is the case with any venture fund, there’s a business with the DNA to be a nice, small business,” he says. “Somebody pumps them full of capital, and it either becomes a much bigger business or it fails.”
“In a way, seeing what has happened is a little bit validating for me,” Abramson says, adding that Diller had been “trying to squeeze nickels out of pennies.”
Instead of focusing on scaling up, Reich is now tasked with finding new ways to preserve CollegeHumor’s core. When he announced the sale, Reich said he hoped to save many of the company’s shows, tweeting, “Some will need to take on bold new creative directions in order to survive. You may not agree with all of them.” (“Sam was the best choice to acquire CH Media and define its next chapter. The decision places CH Media with an owner who is beloved by fans, passionate about the business, and sees a future we believe in,” an IAC spokesperson said in a statement to WIRED.)
Even people rooting for Reich are worried about the company’s future. “I'm not entirely sure where the money is going to come from for that level of content,” Conover says. “The companies that are actually dominating the war for eyeballs on the internet are not the companies saying, ‘Hey, we're going to put some money behind some good content.’”
CollegeHumor flourished because it grew in tandem with iterations of the internet that no longer exist, but it hasn’t totally lost its talent for intuiting what comes next. Five months ago, it released a video titled “CollegeHumor Is Shutting Down.” In it, Katie Marovitch (playing herself) walks into the office to discover her coworkers packing up their things because the website they work for is going out of business. “Why are we going out of business?” she yells. “You guys are my family!” People make jokes and explain that there’s no money. It’s a very strange sketch to watch now, as life has imitated art and the people in the video really have packed up that same office. But in the sketch as in life, one of the employees proposes a far-fetched plan to save the company. “How much does CollegeHumor cost?” Katie asks. “Maybe I could help.”
It ends on a cliffhanger.
Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/collegehumor/