Instead, a cheaply made video by an unlikely New York improv troupe has created the only commentary that has truly resonated online: a three-minute spoof that shows BP executives pathetically trying to clean up a coffee spill.
In the last two weeks, the video has been watched by nearly 7 million people on YouTube. By the count of Viral Video Chart, it’s been shared some 300,000 times on blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.
The video was dreamed up by the writers for the sketch show ‘Beneath Gristedes,’ a monthly stage show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. While meeting to work on the show, a germ of the concept came to Erik Tanouye, who worked out the script with fellow writers John Frusciante, Gavin Spieller and Eric Scott.
They shot it two days later and within a week, it was up on UCBComedy.com. The site has had some viral hits — a parody of a Google ad, a spoof of the ‘David After the Dentist’ video — but nothing on this level. UCBComedy.com’s servers immediately crashed under the traffic.
“I couldn’t do my day job,” said Tanouye, 32, who is the director of student affairs for the UCB training center.
It’s been the biggest hit yet for UCBComedy.com, which was founded in 2007 to give its performers an online outlet. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, which has popular theaters in New York and Los Angeles, was co-founded by Amy Poehler.
For more than a decade, it has regularly churned out exciting young comic talent, including ‘SNL’ players Bobby Moynihan and Jenny Slate, and ‘Office‘ regular Zach Woods. Young audiences line up on a nightly basis to pack the 300-seat New York theater, which has a youthful, collegiate vibe.
“What we’re trying to do with videos is get out there to the general public the talent that we have,” says Todd Bieber, 30, the website’s director of content and production. “We can reach New York and L.A. audiences pretty easily, but there’s a whole world out there that we can’t reach through the theaters.”
The boost in visitors to the site has been considerable. From May 21-June 21 last year, the site drew just under 43,000; the same period this year has attracted more than 450,000.
But Bieber, who formerly worked at the Onion News Network, is the only one being paid to work full time on the site. Videos don’t have anything like the budgets of the Onion News Network, which shoots in the style of real news broadcasts.
UCBComedy.com includes a lot of footage of improv performances, which typically have much more energy in person, where the thrill of instant creation is immediate. But the dozens of UCB performers — who are graduates of the theater’s improv training classes — have learned to fashion their comedy to the Web.
“Beta teams” — performers dedicated to producing content for the site — were formed in January. Original series have been created, including one called “Blackouts,” which are short 30-second bites, one punch line at a time.
Bieber says that a viral sensation such as ‘BP Spills Coffee’ can “energize the UCB community” in creating video for the website. Having so much talent at the ready makes UCBComedy.com a little like an amateur version of FunnyOrDie.com, the comedy site co-founded by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, which pulls contributions from famous comedians.
“That’s the hope,” says Bieber. “There are so many terribly ridiculous things going on in the world that there’s plenty of room for commentary. If we can be looked in the same way as FunnyOrDie, that would be terrific. We’d love to get the hits that they do.”
There’s plenty of competition when it comes to topical humor , though, and the oil spill has been a common topic. The slow-motion horror of the spill is utterly serious, but people have long turned to comics to give voice to rage. BP, which is said to have mismanaged the spill, has been an easy target.
David Letterman, Jay Leno and other late-night hosts have made BP jokes practically a nightly feature. Conan O’Brien, perhaps feeling like he was missing out, recently tweeted: “The past 2 months I’ve been on tour and haven’t followed the news. What’s with all the photos of chocolate pelicans?”
‘The Colbert Report‘ and ‘The Daily Show’ have battered the subject relentlessly. Mixing comedy with activism, Colbert Nation has launched a “Gulf of America Fund” to raise donations for the recovery efforts. ‘SNL’ is off for the summer and so has missed the opportunity to lampoon BP.
One of the more interesting Internet-based parodies has been a mock Twitter feed, purporting to be from BP’s public relations department: http://twitter.com/BPGlobalPR. It has more than 175,000 followers. One example: “Investing a lot of time & money into cleaning up our image, but the beaches are next on the to-do list for sure.”
But the success of the UCB’s video could well be a firm foothold in the world of online comedy, and boost the troupe’s national presence.
“People can see these amazing talents come up,” says Bieber. “As awesome as the theater is, at the end of the day, that sketch would have killed for 200 or 300 people, not 6 or 7 million.”
Watch The Spoof Here: