At a recent open mic in Los Angeles, Mike Glazer donned a silver mask and a hoodie, climbed onto the stage, and began a standup routine. If you didn’t know his secret, watching his set would’ve been extremely awkward. His jokes felt ill-rehearsed. Glazer read them directly off his phone’s screen. Actually, the jokes weren’t even his.
But instead of heckling, the audience let loose hoots of laughter. This wasn’t a hack ripping off one-liners: This was a performance of “The Masked Comedian,” an anonymous comic superhero dreamed up by Glazer and fellow comedian Matt Klinman. The two had imagined a standup stand-in: someone who could channel jokes written by comedians around America who couldn’t get in front of a mic themselves. All the two needed to make it happen was a mask and a new app called Pitch.
Pitch launched in July at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal, but Klinman, along with co-founders Brad Mahler and Yin Zhu, has been working on it since 2015, when Funny or Die asked him to create a joke-penning app for freelancers. Klinman envisioned a digital room where comedy writers could collaborate and work together efficiently from afar. He structured it loosely on the pitching process he’d learned at The Onion. “I don’t think they knew what it was going to become,” Klinman says. “I certainly didn’t.” Pitch now has more than 1,000 users, and has become a promising tool for young writers trying to break into the professional world of comedy writing. It also has the potential to prove comedy crowdsourcing’s viability online.
Members must be invited to the free app by current users or send Klinman an application over email. Once accepted, they can generate “Topics,” or joke set-ups, about any funny premise that comes to mind (like “Worst two survival items for Naked and Afraid“); then, for 24 to 48 hours, the entire community can access these topics to write “Pitches,” or punchlines, for each set-up (like “Seasons 1 and 2 of Naked and Afraid“). The topics and pitches appear anonymously. Users vote on their favorites by “starring” as many pitches as they like without knowing which pitches have already gained stars. After the 24- to 48-hour period, pitches with few stars disappear and the rest are revealed, along with their creators’ usernames. The winner gets a “Top Pitch” credit in his or her profile. The process, users say, combines Twitter’s punchiness, Reddit’s upvote system, and a quippy, pop-culture-laden style of humor pioneered on the recently defunct TV show @midnight.
The vast majority of Topic threads on the app are unpaid exercises in writing jokes, and one of the app’s main purposes is simply giving comedians a place to try out material. (There are also team workrooms where disparate groups can work on individual projects, like the Masked Comedian routine.) But administrators and editors are constantly trolling through the app’s user-generated topics in search of strong threads, buying the best jokes to turn into Funny or Die content. Topics and jokes that are bought for things like listicle-style stories and social media posts pay $10. Branded content—like when the app’s creators took over the Twitter feed of Avocados from Mexico during the 2016 Super Bowl—pays $75 per joke. (For the Avocados Pitch session, Glazer sold a joke that was an idea to Photoshop two halves of an avocado in place of the cups on a set of coach’s headphones.)
The app has its problems. Repeated jokes (intentional or otherwise) plague some topics. And Pitch-created content pales in comparison to an outlet like The Onion. Still, its crowdsourcing elements—anonymity, variety, democracy—provide benefits for both comedians and Funny or Die. It also, Wisdom of Crowds author James Surowiecki notes, allows FoD to “cast a wide net and find individuals in the crowd who might have the chops that you’re looking for.”
Twitter has had a similar effect on comedy—like when Bryan Donaldson, a 40-year-old family man and IT professional living in Illinois, scored a writing job on Late Night with Seth Meyers thanks to his Twitter feed as @TheNardvark. For shows looking to hire new talent, a stellar series of tweets can be “like flipping through somebody’s comedy notebook,” Alex Blaze, the head writer who hired Donaldson, told Vulture.
Pitch offers the same archive of evidence for employers, and it can similarly mine for comedy where the traditional market for writers is lacking, giving a voice to comedians outside of major urban areas, or to women and people of color, who are often underrepresented in writers’ rooms. Amy Barnes was recruited to the Pitch app from a women writers’ group on Facebook when the app’s creators recently made a push for greater diversity. From her home in Nashville, she can now participate in a community that has always gravitated to LA, Chicago, and New York.
Louie Aronowitz, a composer who is at the top of Pitch’s “Most Stars,” “Most Top Pitches” and “Most Pitches” lists, says he “wasn’t much of a comedian” before he started using the app, but now regularly makes more than $100 a month on Pitch and has sold jokes to Funny or Die and IFC. Because of his success on the app, he’s become a regular FoD contributor, one with the ability to pitch stories rather than just jokes and potentially reach an audience of millions.
Even a seasoned comic like Glazer, who has seen the inside of a writers’ room, lists his Pitch stats near the top of his resume. Other comedians use the app as a resume, a place to make professional connections. That could pay off. Pitch is currently owned by Funny or Die, but Klinman says he’s working to make it its own entity so that it can be used to contribute to a wider range of media outlets.
After his masked set in LA, Glazer strode offstage to riotous cheers, despite the bumpy performance. He later posted a private YouTube link of the performance and shared it with the Pitch comedians whose jokes he’d told, all of whom were stoked to see people cheering for their punchlines.
“When I first started using Pitch, I hadn’t gotten any writing credits for TV yet,” he says. “For me to feel like I was in a writers’ room, which as a comedian is a dream, and see the best ideas win and have some of my ideas be those best ideas, was validating. That’s what this is about. Validation from strangers, for the greater goal of making very funny comedy.”