Goodnight, Sweet Hashtag
Tomorrow night will be the 600th and final episode of @midnight on Comedy Central. As one of the show’s creators and producers, I thought it might be nice to write down what it meant to me.
Seven years ago, as I was about to turn thirty, I looked back at the last ten years and felt a nagging sense that I had, in many ways, wasted my twenties by talking about the things I would try to do someday as opposed to actually doing them. I worked for an online media company, overseeing a network of celebrity gossip sites and blogs that purported to be written by actual celebrities (the Kardashian sisters, for instance). It was about as horrible as it sounds — though we also did a lot of “sponsored content”, so it was actually even worse than it sounds. One day, I actually found myself in the position of having to edit a blog post, sponsored by Tampax, that was supposed to be written by Khloe Kardashian, about the first time she got her period. Spoiler alert: Khloe didn’t actually do a whole lot of blogging herself, so it fell to me, the editor, to write the post even though I am not Khloe Kardashian, nor have I ever had a period. It was one of those vivid moments where I actually remember a sensation of hovering above my body, seeing what my life looked like, and just being like, “Fuuuuuuuck”.
It was also around this time I remember being on Twitter one day, escaping the cruel reality of my day job as a period-blogger by playing along in one of those early hashtag games where amateur comedians would make pun jokes with movie titles in hopes of retweets or Favstars or whatever. I thought my obsessive desire for attention, feedback and validation was kind of profound, if a little sad. So I went to my GDoc where I kept all my ideas for things I was too lazy/scared to do and I wrote down “Game show with comedians competing at hashtag jokes.” (It’s still there. I’m looking at it now.)
A few months later, when I miraculously found the courage to quit my soul-shattering job (I think mostly because I couldn’t bear the indignity of being a thirty year-old celebrity news blogger) and start focusing my time and energy on the ideas and projects I actually wanted to work on, I decided to team up with two similarly-frustrated ex-agents named Jason Nadler and Jon Zimelis to start a production company called Serious Business (It’s probably good we had no idea how insane and deluded it was to just declare yourself “producers” even though we collectively had zero experience in producing anything). And as we began talking about ideas for shows we could try to produce now that we’d decided we were producers, we all agreed there was something to that old idea about comedians and hashtags.
After several false starts and dead ends we finally managed to turn the idea into a format we felt good about: part Jeopardy!, part British panel show, part guided tour of the bottomless Internet hole. We called it Twitterdome. The idea was to do a show about people competing at Twitter that comedically played up the absurdity of anyone actually competing at Twitter. My partner Jason was friends with Mike Farah at Funny or Die from their days working in a mailroom when they first moved to LA, so Mike took the pitch, and took it seriously enough to ask around the office if anyone thought Twitterdome was a good idea for a show. From what we understand, many people there felt it was, in fact, NOT a good idea for a show — but fortunately for us, one person saw something in it: Mike’s assistant, Joe Farrell. Turns out Joe was a hell of an assistant (he would go on to become an executive producer on our show and oversee all of TV at Funny or Die), so his enthusiasm was enough to convince Mike to give it a go, and next thing we know, he had us on a call with Tom Lennon and Ben Garant, two brilliant writers and comedians I had been a fan of since The State (fun fact: one summer when I was fourteen, I spent two weeks at a math & science camp in Alabama, and I performed full sketches from The State and told the other kids I made them up myself and they believed me and I got laid a ton jkjk no one got laid at math & science camp in Alabama). ANYWAY, Tom and Ben actually loved the idea, and immediately had a ton of ideas to make it a million times better and funnier, and suddenly I’m sitting in the president of Comedy Central’s office with my partners and Funny or Die and two comedy icons and I’m babbling about hashtags like an asshole. Fifteen minutes after the meeting, right as I was emerging from my nervousness blackout, we got the call: we’re making a pilot.
We shot the pilot (now, for legal reasons, with the even more cringe-inducing title Tweeterdome) in 2012 at Hollywood Center Studios on the same soundstage where they made “I Love Lucy” (and you know I ‘grammed the little plaque that said so). We didn’t have a committed host for the show, so Tom Lennon graciously volunteered to step in and do it for the pilot, and he was hilarious. Even more encouraging, the format worked, the show was hilarious (probably didn’t hurt that we had Kumail Nanjiani, Natasha Leggero and Weird Al on the panel).
After several anxious months, we got a call from Comedy Central. They loved our pilot and were interested in putting it on the air, but we still didn’t have a permanent host (Tom’s schedule as an A-list screenwriter and actor would never allow for nightly TV duties). Luckily, the network had an excellent idea of their own. They had also recently shot a different pilot with Chris Hardwick, and while they felt the format didn’t quite work, they loved him as a host and wondered if we’d be interested in working with him. I think our collective response was “duh, yeah” — he was literally the perfect choice to host this show, and this would mean that Comedy Central was giving us a one-month test run of sixteen shows, set to premiere in the fall.
We spent the summer further developing and expanding the format (we knew it needed to be less Twitter-focused, and Chris had the brilliant idea to change the title from Tweeterdome to @midnight, which was when we would be airing and also made a perfect social media handle). We did a series of live test shows over two months in the back of a comic book store, with little front desk bells instead of buzzers on the podiums). We hired our showrunner, Jack Martin, a giant man whose heart is probably shaped like the @midnight logo. We figured out the kinds of games that worked and a lot of ones that didn’t. Chris got comfortable with the rhythms of the show.
And on October 21st, 2013, we premiered on Comedy Central right after The Colbert Report. Our first episode’s hashtag war, #FilmPoops, trended worldwide on Twitter (we literally diverted the attention of millions of people on the internet towards thinking of clever ways to combine movie titles with poop — something we can still be proud of). Thus began an amazing four-year run that saw 600 episodes, hundreds of comedians, thousands of jokes, millions of tweets, two Emmy awards, The Daily Show going from Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert going to CBS, Donald Trump going from playing the president in Sharknado 3 to being the actual president of America, all of human civilization subsequently going to shit, and so on. A lot has happened!
And through it all, I got to meet more of my comedy heroes than I can even count. I got to work with comedians I used to do open mics with in San Francisco back in 2004. I got to discover comedians I’d never even heard of who are now some of my favorite performers, and help create a place where they could come and be funny on TV without burning standup material. I got to bring my wife and twin sons to the Emmy Awards a few weeks before the twins were born — and win. I got to make new shows. I got to come to work every day and spend my time on stuff I enjoyed and cared about. I got to laugh a lot. I got to work with some of the best, nicest people in the world. I got to make so many new friends. We’ve heard some rumblings that the show could come back, retooled a bit, at some future date maybe with some other host — but even if that never happens, and this is truly the end, it will have been enough.
It probably seems indulgent to write this many words about a jokey basic cable late night show about dumb Internet videos, but @midnight will always be something I’m proud to have been a small part of. It’s easy to make fun of POINTS or complain about your Twitter feed being clogged by bad hashtag puns (we’re very sorry for blighting your pristine, beautiful Twitter feeds that were previously places only for thoughtful introspection), but to me the thing that made @midnight special was that it brought people together, and it let them be a part of something, and it invited them to be funny, too — and we tried to shine a light on them when they were. Because despite everything that’s happened in my life, seven years isn’t that long, and I still remember what it was like being someone who hated their job and needed to play Twitter joke games to get through the day, and get a little validation, like maybe I can be funny too, maybe I should try to do something bigger…
But now here I am, blogging again.