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.)