Our first entry in our brand-new #KnapChat series is a fascinating conversation with award-winning comedian, actor and writer Ian Smith, who tells us how the digital world has impacted the entertainment industry, his career and the relationships he’s built through gigging and online networks.
Some of you may recognise Ian Smith from The Magic Sponge, the chart-topping Dave football-comedy podcast he hosts alongside fellow comic Rob Beckett and former footballer Jimmy Bullard. Also under Ian’s impressive belt are his many critically acclaimed shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, several television appearances on BBC and Channel 5 (including a starring role in major drama The Ark) and his two YouTube channels (FullTimeDevils and The Football Republic), which boast a collective following of almost 1m subscribers.
KW: So Ian, let’s start by asking: do you see social media as a digital stage for your comedy? Is there as much pressure to be funny online as there is on stage, and do you ever test new material online?
Ian: I think so – I tend not to tweet as much as I should because I probably put too much pressure on myself to be really funny. I went through a stage of tweeting ironically boring stuff, but I think 50% of people found it genuinely boring, which is the risk you take when you tweet, “About to have a baked potato #about #to #have #a #baked #potato”
KW: One of the things people love about social media, Twitter in particular, is that it shows just how funny some people can be – now the world is more open to humour, is it harder to be a professional comedian? And have you noticed people’s sense of humour change at all since the rise of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc?
Ian: It’s definitely the case that some of the funniest stuff I’ve seen this year hasn’t been done by comedians – which is maybe a bit galling for a comedian. The video of a man from Sunderland being driven around on a car bonnet when he was drunk* is one of the best things I’ve seen all year. I guess for me, social media can act as an introduction, and the live shows is where I aim to do my best.
*For the record, the video in question can be found here, and Ian is not wrong, it’s very funny.
KW: How do you foster relationships with your fans digitally? Side-note – I noticed you dissecting the BBC article about your heckler on Twitter* – how do you deal with digital hecklers (trolls)?
Ian: In all honesty, I thought that BBC article was quite bad. There are a number of quotes attributed to me that I didn’t say – which is funny but has made me wonder how many of the more serious news articles I read are just full of completely made up quotes. They also embedded a rare 2018-ironically boring tweet, which out of context just looked like I had no idea what Twitter was.
When I was asked about this in the morning, I wasn’t expecting it to go out via the main BBC News Twitter with 9.6m followers… https://t.co/LMtALMaPFN
— Ian Smith (@Iansmithcomedy) November 29, 2018
I think I just try and put some funny content out – and mainly use it to keep people updated on what I’m working on and how things are going to try and keep people interested.
*The BBC article was posted as a guide on “how to deal with heckling“.
KW: Where do you stand on people sharing footage of your gigs online?
Ian: I think if it’s been filmed without permission it’s just frustrating because you want to control the way it comes out. No one is working on some material for a year and hoping it gets released online via an iPhone recording at the back of the gig with someone’s big head in the way of most of the shot.
KW: As anyone with a bit of experience working in sport and media will tell you, football fans can prove difficult, with most seeing themselves as an expert. How do you engage with Manchester United fans personally? Do you get involved in disputes and debates online or try to avoid them?
Ian: I tend not to tweet too many opinions on football – I find as much as I like it, it can be quite divisive. I like the funny side of it. I’ve spoken to a lot of MUFC fans on Twitter from all over the world off the back of working with FullTimeDevils on YouTube and it’s a really nice community.
I will take the United job. Just putting it out there cos I’m sick of people texting me and begging me to do it.
— Ian Smith (@Iansmithcomedy) December 18, 2018
I try and avoid the more serious debates – I don’t want to keep logging in to Twitter to try and argue with someone I’ll never meet.
KW: How has digital media such as Netflix and YouTube affected the comedy circuit? Have these put less focus on DVD sales and more on live gigs? What do you get from a live gig that can’t be replicated on these channels?
Ian: There’s definitely less focus on DVDs – Netflix is the bigger aim as that has more prestige and viewership now. I think the main thing is that there is potential for a big Twitter or YouTube following to build your audiences very quickly. If you tap into something good, it can launch your career.
KW: What influence has the digital world had on your own comedy material?
Ian: I’ve found a lot of things online that have made it into my shows – I’ll usually have an idea and then research it online to see what else I can talk about around it. You can very easily get lost on Wikipedia, opening up various new tabs. I did a lot of material about untranslatable words that I found online, and a long routine about the various unanswered questions on Wiki-How.
KW: Can comedians get away with having little-to-no digital presence these days?
Ian: I think that completely depends on the route you take – probably not if you’re a mainstream comedian. But, if you’re more focused on writing or acting it’s possible to have a lower profile. Either way, I do believe that if you’re doing live work, digital media is vital for letting people know what you’re up to and when/where you’ll be.
KW: How much of an influence has the Magic Sponge podcast and FullTimeDevils had on your career/life? And what drew you to each one in the first place?
Ian: I think both of them brought more people towards being interested in my work – people follow me on Twitter and have come to see me live off the back of it, which has been really nice. I really like football, but I like talking about it in a fun or silly way – so both of them were good outlets to just mess around and do something I enjoyed for work.
An example of how Ian engages with Manchester United fans through his YouTube channel, FullTimeDevils.
KW: Do you use the digital world to collaborate with other comics, influencers and Podcast/YouTube guests? If so, how?
Ian: I’m starting up a wine podcast with another comedian, Phil Wang. I guess as much as you want to have guests on purely because you’ll enjoy having them on – there’s always a conscious effort to find people with a following that will help build your thing too. When I did videos for YouTube channels it was a similar thing – you reach out to those who are more established in your field and try to collaborate.
The online world, for the most part, is a digital reflection of real life, therefore it makes perfect sense that Ian Smith, a successful stand-up comedian, would look for new material on the likes of social media and Wikipedia. Jokes allow us to connect with one another, defuse anxiety and reframe emerging news stories, very much in the same way Ian debunked the BBC article he featured in.
What’s interesting is that, even in the ever-increasing digitally-reliant world of entertainment, Ian still believes it is possible to progress a career in the industry without an online presence, but not if you want to make it as a “mainstream comedian”.
Ian Smith’s profile has increased tremendously in the last several years, and he has digital media to partly thank for this, with YouTube and podcasting opening him up to entirely new audiences. The next natural step, the “big aim” as he calls it, is to achieve the “prestige and viewership” of a streaming giant such as Netflix.
As he mentioned in our chat, a large social media following is a sure-fire way to grow your audience as a comic and get the attention of influencers. If Ian Smith continues to build relationships with fans through the likes of Twitter, YouTube and podcasting, it’s only a matter of time before Netflix comes a-calling.