How the internet is creating a new, global language of comedy

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

For those of us raised on sitcoms and standup, comedy on YouTube can be a bit abrasive. Okay, it can be like eating sandpaper. PewDiePie, YouTube’s reigning king of chuckles, is a 25-year-old Swede who cries and screams and busts a gut laughing at his own jokes, usually while playing a video game. He is also the most watched personality on YouTube ever, eclipsing superstars like Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Eminem.

Though PewDiePie is distinctively Scandinavian, he is a global comedic sensation with over 35 million subscribers. What’s his claim to fame? Sitting in front of his computer and recording a “Let’s Play.” Just imagine a madman doing stream-of-consciousness commentary over Resident Evil. His rants range in topic from Harry Potter fanfic to unicorn simulators—in other words, things that are natively funny to people online.

His success is outrageous (literally so: outrageous), but also important. You could make the case that PewDiePie’s videos are pioneering a new kind of post-national comedy via the Internet.

PewDiePie’s videos are pioneering a new kind of post-national comedy via the Internet 

It’s not just PewDiePie, either. His nearest rival in terms of YouTube popularity is HolaSoyGerman, a Chilean humorist with an appetite for SpongeBob plastic figurines and fast-spoken silliness. Not far behind HolaSoy is the comedy duo Smosh, who became Internet famous for lip syncing the theme song to Pokemon and ran with it. They hail from California, but have enormous international appeal.

Collectively these young men are the triumvirs of the video-sharing funny business. While they each live in discrete geographical locations, you can detect in their performances a style and cadence that isn’t Chilean nor American or Swedish, but, well, World Wide Web-ian. “We have to consider Internet communication as a kind of subculture now, with rules and structures and limitations,” says Joel Warner, author of the Human Code. And even though maturity may be foreign to these guys, their routines show that the Net is mature enough to develop a sense of humor that’s uniquely its own.

This is pretty fascinating when you think about it. Comedy is not natively universal. It is cordoned off into separate countries, regions, cultures, and social classes. Warner tells me the reason why lawyer jokes only work in the US, for instance, is because few other countries consider their code of law so sacred.

In writing The Humor Code, he shadowed humor researcher Peter McGraw around the globe, investigating how sense of humor fluctuates from society to society. This quest ultimately led him to Japan, a country known for its impenetrable humor, where he watched several baffling performances, including a game show host dunking his face in a vat of very hot soup. At that point both he and McGraw “came close to saying, no, you can’t find universal lines between comedies,” he tells me.

Unlike opaque Japanese comedy routines, however, the Internet is appreciated all around. Comedy that is homegrown on YouTube or Twitch live streams blows across borders, spreading a common language of lulz. Shows like PewDiePie’s Let’s Plays appeal to people unified by a url, not necessarily a physical boundary. This gives comedians a potentially huge audience, but it isn’t easy being funny on a global stage.

“We always talk about how great the Internet is for comedy, but comedy is all about context, and when the local context is lost, jokes can fail in ways that have never before been conceived of,” Warner says. He gives the example of amazing comics who bomb late night talk shows because their jokes are catered to local comedy clubs. Overcoming vast cultural differences is an even bigger hurdle for comedians to clear.

But it’s also worth the effort, for science as well as our funny bone. “By looking at what jokes work well online, we can learn a lot about society,” Warner says. In that light, funny people like PewDiePie are doing a remarkable job at letting us all in on the joke.