‘I think it’s great that I can talk about my sexuality without fear that it’s holding me back,” Ania Magliano riffs in one TikTok video. “It shows society has progressed. The problem is, I now know what’s holding me back is my personality and my skill set. I miss discrimination.”
Magliano’s TikTok sketches flip between straight jokes and snarling social takedowns about what people’s choices say about them, from e-mail signatures (“Kind regards” — you make a gorgeous cup of tea and your favorite position is missionary) to favorite supermarket (Waitrose — you think Ottolenghi deserves a knighthood and you’re saving for a fold-up bike).
These videos have catapulted Magliano, 24, to comedy fame. When she first posted on TikTok it was during the pandemic and she was working from home for a digital advertising agency in London. Now she has 20,000 followers and 1.4 million likes and is making money from writing comedy, for Frankie Boyle’s New World Order, The Now Show and Have I Got News for You. Starting out as a comedian used to mean a grueling schedule of stand-up, touring pubs and late-night venues. Now one good video on TikTok can launch a career. Magliano has her first Edinburgh Fringe show next week, but her sketches have already been seen by millions.
TikTok comedy favors informal, concise sketches with a DIY aesthetic — there’s a three-minute time limit and the lack of editing makes them feel like the messy comedy of The Young Ones or The Comic Strip Presents. As the number of cocky man-on-the-mike stand-ups who can sell out stadium tours wanes and TV still seems wary of sketch shows, there’s a new wave of young comedians bringing daftness back. What makes TikTok stand out in contrast to Twitter or Instagram is the way its algorithm works. The more a video is seen, the more it will be promoted to users, regardless of whether they follow that person or have searched for it. It’s a gift to up-and-coming comedians, who can show their work to TikTok’s 1.2 billion active users, who each spend an average of an hour a day on the app.
Ali Woods, a 28-year-old who has hit the big time on TikTok mocking Hollywood action movies, says: “It’s meritocratic. My first video got 360 views, while on other social media it would have got zero. On TikTok you can have ten followers but a good video can get millions of views.”
Now she has 20,000 followers and 1.4 million likes and is making money from writing comedy.
Before TikTok he did observational stand-up, but that didn’t work on the app, where his sketches have been more popular. So is TikTok changing comedy — and can sketches that work on social media translate into an hour-long show?
TikTok’s ease of use encourages off-the-cuff sketch comedy, Woods says. He had been snobbish about it. “I thought it was a kids’ dancing app and I’m an artist,” he says. “But I was having a tough time, so I tried it, setting myself deadlines of six TikToks a week. I’d always wanted to do sketches, but I was worried about the reaction — my mates saying it’s cringey,” he explains. “But your mates won’t pay your mortgage and an online audience shows you objectively you are funny.”
Just ask Kylie Brakeman, a stand-up from Los Angeles making her Edinburgh debut this year. “Before the pandemic I was just another comic sending hundreds of e-mails to agents and bookers trying to get a foothold in the comedy industry,” she says. “A few months after my first TikTok video went viral I signed with an agent.”
Brakeman has 187,000 TikTok followers and five million likes and her Fringe show is based on her biggest TikTok character, Linda Hollywood, a trash-talking showbiz agent. Around Hollywood she has built a cast of West Coast weirdos, from health freaks warning that breathing is trauma response to an inappropriate wardrobe mistress from kids’ television.
Lara Ricote, 25, who will also be at Edinburgh, jokes about how she is hard of hearing. “Having sex, I have no access to whispers,” she says. “A whisper feels like a microaggression to a deaf person. Someone is trying to be sweet, but I’m there finding it offensive.”
She did a sketch about being tormented in middle school by a bully who called her “deafy”, but was unable to hear him so asked him to write it down. It went viral and she has built up a following across Latin America, the US and the Netherlands. In the UK she won the 2021 Funny Women stage award. Her Edinburgh show riffs on minorities and climate change. “For most of history we were all trying to be white men and now we’re all trying to be a minority. I can pass as white and not disabled, but now I willfully tick the boxes. So I’ve created a version of me who’s more climate worthy and heckles me all the way through the gig for selling out.”
“On TikTok you can have ten followers but a good video can get millions of views.”
Why are these comedians bothering with gigs when TikTok can get them to a huge number of people? Apart from the satisfaction of being in a room with a live audience, there is the matter of money. TikTok is a tool for showcasing work, but you can’t make money from it alone. And it can also be a good idea to mix it with other social media.
Joseph Parsons, 31, whose riffs about the dating app Grindr haul in tens of thousands of views, says it’s all about a mix of social media platforms. “Sketch does well on Instagram and gives you a stickier audience,” he says. “Stand-up gets bigger hits on TikTok, but the way the algorithm works, you’re less likely to get that audience buying tickets, and on Twitter you have to do satire, but if you smash it they’ll buy tickets.”
There are some TikTok stars such as the Sugarcoated Sisters — aka Chloe and Tabby Tingey, 30 and 28 respectively — who hadn’t even stepped on a stage when lockdown hit, but now have more than 400,000 followers and seven million likes on TikTok for their musical sketches. They had just moved in together when Covid hit — and both had been dumped — so they started posting musical parodies about their heartbreak. Their first — a spoof of the musical Chicago that’s an attack on their exes — went viral. They have created a comedy musical for the Fringe about their lives — Tabby has Type 1 diabetes and Chloe is bipolar. “So it’s bittersweet,” Chloe says. “But funny,” Tabby says.
Agents are starting to realize that TikTok is a place to find the next big thing. Corrie McGuire has signed the double act Stokes & Summers (56,000 followers, 2.3 million likes). She says: “Scouting online is no different to seeing someone live. You can still see the writing and performing skill, and if they’re churning out regular content it also shows a work ethic. I’m surprised more agents haven’t embraced the potential of TikTok talent.
“We don’t yet know exactly how TikTok numbers will translate to ticket sales, but Stokes & Summers have already proven popular with casting directors and the TV industry since I signed them, so it’s naive to dismiss TikTokers as one-trick ponies when a lot of them have a lot more to offer.”
Stephen Armstrong is a freelance journalist who writes for The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The New Statesman, GQ, and Esquire. His first book was The White Island: The Extraordinary History of the Mediterranean’s Capital of Hedonism