The internet used to be fun. Instead of raging on Twitter and sifting through fake news on Facebook, people used to waste time watching quirky home videos and reading silly jokes making fun of inoffensive things like VH1 countdowns and how Google was the hot new search engine.
At the heart of that goofy, bygone internet was a joke site launched by two college freshmen in 1999 that curated the funniest posts on the internet and quickly grew into a comedy sketch behemoth, drawing more than 100 million page views a month at its height.
CollegeHumor carved out a niche in Web content, handpicking the next funny viral video for an audience of mostly young men who made appealing targets for online advertisers. It also created a network of writers, comics and actors who have also shaped more traditional entertainment, from shows like HBO’s “Girls” and “Silicon Valley” to “Saturday Night Live.”
More than two decades later, CollegeHumor’s reign over hilarious online videos and its influence in the world of comedy may be over.
On Wednesday, the site’s parent company, IAC/InterActive Corp., sold CH Media – the overarching name for CollegeHumor, its streaming platform and a few other websites. The sale left more than 100 employees without jobs. CH Media’s new owner, Sam Reich, publicly announced the layoffs and sale Wednesday on Twitter.
“In words that I’m sure are as surreal to read as they are to type, I will soon become the new majority owner of CH Media,” said Reich, a longtime executive at CollegeHumor. “Of course, I can’t keep it going like you’re used to. While we were on the way to becoming profitable, we were nonetheless losing money – and I myself have no money to be able to lose.”
Dropout, its streaming service, will continue for at least the next six months while it churns out content already slated for release, Reich said. The future of CollegeHumor itself, and other humor sites run by the company, are less certain.
“In these six months, I hope to be able to save Dropout, CollegeHumor, Drawfee, Dorkly, and many of our shows,” Reich said. “Some will need to take on bold new creative directions in order to survive.”
The CH Media staff contracted from more than 100 to between five and 10 employees, according to Bloomberg News.
Founded by Josh Abramson and Ricky Van Veen, CollegeHumor began as a landing pad for funny photos of the two college freshmen and their friends doing “stupid college stuff,” Abramson told the New York Times in 2005. They posted a lot of immature gags, like sticking metal utensils in a toaster and smacking an unsuspecting man with a shovel.
Streeter Seidell, now a writer for “SNL,” described the site’s target audience in a 2008 Times column he wrote while editing and writing for CollegeHumor: It’s for “the kid you’d like to kick out of the house – a son aged 18 to 24 who, say, rises for Pop-Tarts at the crack of noon, or wails on Guitar Hero III – his is the spare time we’re after.”
By then, CollegeHumor had secured its place among a few highly successful comedy websites like Funny or Die and Cracked. The site published jokes so fresh and successful that more established entertainment programs sometimes ripped them off. In 2010, the creators of Comedy Central’s “South Park” apologized for lifting dialogue from a CollegeHumor riff on the movie “Inception.”
The site’s most popular original content was its Web series, from “Hardly Working,” a look at the strangeness and monotony of working in an office, to “Jake and Amir,” which parodied the relationship between two fictionalized CollegeHumor writers and netted about 1 billion views altogether, according to Vice. Those shows often launched expansive careers for the stars, like Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenfeld, who have spun off a podcast and another Web series built on the success of their partnership at CollegeHumor.
Alums of the humor site have spread throughout the entertainment industry. Allison Williams of “Get Out” and HBO’s “Girls,” who was married to CollegeHumor co-founder Van Veen from 2015 to 2019, and Thomas Middleditch, star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” have appeared in the site’s original sketches. Multiple CollegeHumor staffers have gone on to write for “SNL.” Others have gone on to work for critically acclaimed shows like Cartoon Network’s hit series “Rick and Morty” and truTV’s “Adam Ruins Everything.” One former writer is working on a female-driven detective series with producer Joss Whedon.
Many of its past creators mourned Wednesday’s sale online, some with biting commentary for IAC/InterActive Corp.’s chairman and senior executive, Barry Diller.
“Shout out to everyone who worked burnout hours down the comedy mines to make sure that Barry Diller’s Yacht had extra, like, yacht ropes or whatever. Dude definitely deserves it!!” Siobhan Thompson tweeted shortly after news of the sale became public.
She followed up with an account of how CollegeHumor helped launch her career: “I don’t know how I, and everyone else who has ever been in the cast, would have made it into the industry if it weren’t for places like CH. Where are the starter jobs in comedy now? Where can you make things without having the money to make them yourself? It worries me.”
Sometimes the site made the news for forging partnerships with companies like MTV and, eventually, Facebook. Even more often, CollegeHumor sketches were funny enough to make headlines, like when former first lady Michelle Obama rapped about going to college. Or when the site roasted the writing on HBO’s “Entourage.”
But for all of its success, the company’s inclination to make big moves online probably led to its demise, as several former employees noted Wednesday. CollegeHumor’s decision to partner with Facebook, in particular, probably sounded the death knell for the humor site.
“In order to beat YouTube, Facebook faked incredible viewership numbers, so [CollegeHumor] pivoted to FB,” former CollegeHumor writer Adam Conover presciently tweeted last October. “So did Funny or Die, many others. The result: A once-thriving online comedy industry was decimated.”
Facebook agreed to pay $40 million last year to settle a lawsuit after advertisers sued the social media giant for inflating video metrics by up to 900 percent. But many former CollegeHumor staffers blamed the pivot to Facebook, which couldn’t deliver on its advertising promises, for the previously successful company’s collapse. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Thursday.
“The slow (and then quick) death of CollegeHumor, Funny or Die, and your other favorite online comedy sites was not an accident,” Conover tweeted Wednesday. “It was the result of Facebook’s deliberate effort to kill the indie video industry, in part by massively falsifying viewer data.”