Comedy websites have lacked money, says John O'Farrell
Writer John O'Farrell is launching a topical news comedy website: NewsBiscuit.com. But with a few exceptions, why has the web suffered such a sense of humour bypass when it comes to British comedy?
For me computers and comedy always seemed to go together. I just had to say something like "Is this how you lay out a spreadsheet?" or "They ought to invent a way of sending the same e-mail to lots of different people" and the whole office seemed to erupt into fits of laughter.
And yet I've never been able to find a British website that consistently made me laugh. Sites like TVGoHome or Portadown News have come and gone and Ann Widdecombe no longer has her own page on the Celebrity Fit Club website.
There is clearly a demand for comedy on our computer screens; a topical photo with a funny caption will be forwarded to every in-box in the country.
Every Thursday the wonderful Popbitch newsletter raises a laugh in five continents. So why is there only a sprinkling of obscure and erratically funny UK sites, where is the Private Eye of the net? (Oh, I've just found it - it's at www.private-eye.co.uk).
Perhaps the average British comedy writer has been a little bit cynical about the wonders of the World Wide Web. For me, the glamorous verb of "surfing" never seemed very appropriate unless they were comparing it with the kind of surfing you get in North Cornwall.
You spent a fortune on equipment, you spent ages just waiting around and occasionally something really disgusting popped up to the surface.
Perhaps more significantly there was no money in it. Many of the comedy writers I know can earn a small fortune writing funny lines for snooker players to ruin when they mumble them on They Think It's All Over. Why would they want to sacrifice their fine jokes to some dotcom entrepreneur for less money and no guarantee of an audience?
NewsBiscuit's first lead piece is a spoof on reality TV meeting suicide bombers, plus misunderstood neo-Nazis and love-lorn birdwatchers.
Or perhaps the reason is simply that no-one's got round to providing the right outlet until now? That all it needed was a comedy insider to set up a site, put the word out and hope that friends and colleagues would occasionally donate suitable material.
This was the naive thought that occurred to me when I was staring out of the window, trying to think of ways of avoiding writing stuff that I was actually being paid for. I no longer did a weekly column in The Guardian, so maybe I could spend that time putting the equivalent jokes on a funny website. Or the same old jokes and see if anyone noticed.
But why should this new site, called NewsBiscuit, be any better than any of the others that have been started? Well, I did at least know lots of great comedy writers from my years spent working on shows such as Spitting Image, Smith and Jones and Have I Got News For You.
I explained to them that if they gave me a bit of material then I wouldn't tell the world that they once wrote for Brian Conley. (Ah no, that was me.)
My first instinct was that it should only contain stuff that made me laugh. Then I realised that such a website already existed - it's the "pets and animals" section on YouTube.
Gradually as I wrote up a few ideas the flavour of the site organically emerged. "Zeitgeist-y" without being immediately topical, satirical without being overly political, news parody with a bias towards the quirky or absurd. Oh all right, it's just a straight rip-off of The Onion.
But have a look at it yourself and see if any of it makes you smile. There are two dozen items up there at the moment and a new lead story will hit the front page every day.
If you don't log on for a few days you can catch up by looking through the archives. There is no subscription charge - this is a completely free service paid for by the bailiffs who will be coming to my house a week on Thursday.
Maybe I'll get back some of the cost of running it from ads or the wildly optimistic link where readers can "donate to keep NewsBiscuit running". (And maybe all the soldiers will stop all their wars and skip around picking wild flowers.)
But at the moment the team who put this together are doing it for the love of it. We won't be able to keep writing it forever, but the hope is that once it's established, we can have a submissions board where ideas and stories can be sent in from aspiring comedy scriptwriters.
My plan is to get young talented humourists all over the world to send their stuff to me. Then I can rubbish their material, destroy their self-confidence and hopefully postpone any serious competition in all media for another decade or so.
Whether NewsBiscuit will last and grow I have no idea. We all remember the dotcom crash when all those over-ambitious ventures collapsed within a year or so. I'm told the internet's much quicker than that these days.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
There is no lack of British Comedy on the web, nor any lack of audience. There is however a lack of acknowledgement of its existence. Grass roots humour sites such as www.b3ta.com have had work from contributors recycled into tabloid articles and TV adverts. You get the first laugh for making a claim there is no guarantee of audience and then having a web server that is currently failing to serve pages (presumable unable to handle the high level of traffic).
You should be looking at (and listening to) the hundreds of independently produced UK podcasts... there's lots of comedy there. Some of it is even intentional!
Dean Whitbread, London, UK
Not quite enough bandwidth at the moment? Or has this piece generated a peak in traffic to the site? Also, therockalltimes.co.uk is a reasonable Onion rip off, with a british twist.
Ben, London, UK
Having just looked at NewsBiscuit, I find that there is still no humour on the web.
Just looks like a UK version of The Onion to me...
Flash Wilson, London UK
The finest British political satirical website was the Brains Trust, which I believe was once shut down by its based US hosting company for blasphemy, although it sprang back afterwards. It now seems to have completely disappeared off the internet. Some of its articles still appear uncredited on other sites though - "Depressed man diagnosed as British", "US invades Pakistan by mistake" and "Blair hospitalised in reshuffle frenzy" are some I've found.
Jason Smith, London
Why, if this is for British comedy, is the domain a dotcom rather than a .co.uk? Surely that would make more sense?
R Sayles, Rotherham, England
I've just had a look at the site, and I think it's fantastic. At last - a British version of The Onion!
Lyndsey, York, North Yorkshire
You can make an award for the worst joke.
"Dog biscuit" award.
Chris Gray, Aberdeen
Is it the job of the BBC to give free publicity to external websites?
Amazed you haven't mentioned b3ta.com!
The trouble with spoof news websites these days is that sadly, the real news is just as bizarre, if not more so, than anything sites like The Onion is able to come up with. Since 9/11 the news truth has been stranger than fiction.
Susan, London, UK
Has John not looked at www.therockalltimes.com its a bit ruder than some (in fact quite filthy at times) but its very funny
Andrew Beattie, Oxted
There used to be the brilliant herdofsheep.com again sadly no longer updated. There is dohthehumanity.com but that mainly points out spelling mistakes on the BBC sites. And of course the brilliant (if IT-centric) ntk.net TVGoHome did lead Charlie Brooker into the old media (see his Guardian column and TV series) and Mil Millington also got a Guardian column based on his "Things Me & My Girlfriend Argue About" site. It seems that anything that is good - like http://www.rathergood.com - is co-opted into the mainstream, which usually pays more than doing a website for free that you have to pay to keep online.
The dot-com crash made sites that have no revenue stream a lot more likely to close. There's no development money being thrown at you and advertising pays a lot less than it used to - although it is on the way back up.
Also, The Onion is still funny even if you're not American. Perhaps funnier as we've heard of some of the countries they're talking about...
Silas, London, UK
I recommend www.therockalltimes.co.uk it is a comedy news website and is really rather good although it's not for the kiddies
Mike, Cardiff, Wales
Try the framley examiner.
John-paul McCrone, Kettering
Sorry John, 'young' and talented humourists? Not after new anti-age laws come in on 01OCT - you'll have to give us older fogeys equal humour rights too. More crumbs from the NewsBiscuit table for all! When do we want them? As soon as reasonably possible, please. Er, how do you turn this thing off?
Joel Kosminsky, London
Picky, I know, but why do you have an article about a new website, but no link to it?
Martin Dunsterville, London
You should try the framleyexaminer at www.theframleyexaminer.co.uk.
It's a brilliant send up of a typical local newspaper complete with utterly British humour like the classified ad which reads: "For Sale - stairs, one set. Owner at top and refuses to come down."
Howard, Framley, UK
The main problem with writing about new websites like this is forgetting to mention the URL and forgetting to put a link to it. How are we to find NewsBuscuit? I think a more appropriate name (and one that would translate well for Americans) would be NewsCookie.
Jim Kelleher, London, UK
You're clearly not aware that about 50% of net traffic (and corporate person hours) is used relaying humorous (and 'humorous') attachments to networks of friends - I get emails from personnel at Network Rail, The Health Service, Universities, branches of the Police force, and large corporations, inviting me to share the joke. This is because time-wasting websites are blocked by the IT department
Barry Sherbourne, Devizes, UK
Unfortunately as at 13.05 BST on 18th Sept 2006 the NewsBiscuit site is down so we are no more amused than we were before.
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