Apart from the Onion, very few dedicated humor outlets offer staff positions. Other prominent sites, such as McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, are essentially one-person operations relying on freelancers. The highest-profile humorist in the US right now is probably Andy Borowitz, whose winking newsletter of fake political stories, The Borowitz Report, was purchased by The New Yorker in 2012.
Comedy is not dead, of course. Some standup comedians have figured out how to make the platforms work for them. Podcasting is lucrative for the wisecracking men and woman of Chapo Trap House, who rake in eye-popping revenue through Patreon. Competing streaming services have created a surge in television shows. Sarah Cooper, whose lip-syncing to President Trump’s speeches captivated boomers across the world, nabbed a Netflix show. Writer and actor Conner O’Malley’s demented short videos helped him land television gigs, including a stint writing for Late Night With Seth Meyers. Writer Samantha Irby cultivated a devoted fan base with her frank, funny blog Bitches Gotta Eat before shifting into books and television. Most of ClickHole’s former staffers have also moved over to writing for television, where the field is wider and the pay is better.
The endgame for a funny writer, in short, is much more likely in television than in prose humor. In recent years, some established humor writers have pinned their hopes on the booming newsletter industry; Irby has one, as does Daniel Lavery, the founder of the Toast, who was one of the first big-name writers on Substack. The model has yet to prove itself.
ClickHole doesn’t immediately map to any of these strategies. It might be too narrowcast to flourish in the unforgiving digital media space and too ambitious to settle into the newsletter pocket. Finding a way forward would mean bushwhacking a third path. In the fall of 2019, that was what Etheridge set out to do.
At the suggestion of Kevin Pang, the founder of Onion Inc.’s food outlet, Etheridge started talking to the Chicago-based entertainment company Cards Against Humanity. Pang was chummy with its employees, and he knew they loved ClickHole. “The Cards partners could recite lines from ClickHole stories verbatim,” Pang says. Might the Cards team rescue its favorite website?
It wasn’t such a wild swing. Cards Against Humanity already had a habit of generous stunts. Etheridge and Levine, potential business plans in hand, began attending secret meetings with Cards. The Cards leadership liked what it saw. After negotiating with Great Hill, Cards Against Humanity agreed last February to buy ClickHole. In an unusual, altruistic twist, the company then transferred majority ownership back to the ClickHole staff, along with an initial loan.
Cards became a hands-off benefactor, providing office space and financial advice but granting the staff total editorial control. Etheridge, Levine, and full-time writers Jessye McGarry and Jewel Galbraith received majority ownership in the company; writer-at-large Jacy Catlin also received equity, as did the sole non-editorial employee, Chelsea Onik. The arrangement is still in flux, and they need to somehow pay back their loan—but the writers are now in charge.
It was a digital media fairy tale. With one deal, the ClickHole staff went from underappreciated employees to worker-owners of their own media kingdom. The model has become a trend among small outlets, many of which are searching for an escape from corporate-media doom. “ClickHole would have shut down if we didn’t get saved in this weird, anomalous situation,” Levine says. The team felt elated. Spring of 2020 would be ClickHole’s big rebirth!
But, well. You know. They had barely settled into the new office when the pandemic began. A planned live tour got canceled. Some advertisers who had seemed open to doing business didn’t bite. Satirical outlet The Hard Times rebuilt ClickHole’s site as a favor. Big-ticket projects have been shelved for now. Plus the team has to quickly learn some business skills. Etheridge is trying out a line of gift cards at Target as one money-making venture. “I have no idea whether we’re doing a good job or a bad job,” Etheridge says. “I guess a bad job, because we’re still in a lot of debt.” He doesn’t have any good jokes about the situation.