In the early ’00s, few web endeavors seemed less bound for long-term glory than CollegeHumor.com. The site launched in 1999 as a video and sight-gag repository “dedicated to grinding your academic efforts to a halt.” Early on, that meant lots of bro-friendly distractions, like photos of students passed out on lawns, naughtily titled JPEGs, and video series like “Husky Dave the Fat Guy”. There was enough low-brow, high-bandwidth material on CollegeHumor–and enough users eager to submit their own homemade juvenilia–that, at one point, the site kept a running list of high schools that had banned it from their classrooms.
But in the decades that followed, CollegeHumor’s users aged out of school–and so did the site, which began focusing less on campus hijinks, and more on office-space goofiness and even politics. Along the way, it built up a healthy YouTube following, with the official CollegeHumor channel alone claiming more than 13 million subscribers. And in recent years, following a relocation from New York City to Los Angeles, the company found success with TV shows like truTV’s Adam Ruins Everything. CollegeHumor became one of the web’s few legacy companies, surviving while numerous other web-comedy companies grind to a halt.
Now the long-running company–which has been majority-owned by media heavyweight IAC since 2006–is matriculating into the unpredictable subscription-service realm. Today CollegeHumor announces DROPOUT, a streaming platform that will serve up a mix of original videos, online comics, and chat stories. Available initially as a mobile-web offering, with an introductory price of $3.99 a month, DROPOUT marks a sort of declaration of independence for the company: Thanks to increased restrictions on YouTube, not to mention the audience-friendly demands of network TV, CollegeHumor was experiencing “a little creative repression,” says Sam Reich, the company’s Head of Video. “Now, we get to do whatever we want.”
DROPOUT’s initial slate features more than ten shows, including See Plum Rum, a school-election-themed revival of CollegeHumor’s popular Precious Plum series; the nerd-knowledge game show Um, Actually; and the dating series Lonely & Horny, featuring returning CollegeHumor stars Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenfeld. Also in the works is next year’s WTF 101, an animated program featuring a bunch of in-detention teens “learning the most fucked-up things about our world,” says Reich. “It's a show we couldn't do on TV, because it's way too R-rated.”
The hope is that the company’s more grown-up material–not to mention its decades-old fanbase–will help CollegeHumor succeed where several other streaming-service efforts have failed. Last year, the NBC-owned comedy site Seeso–which featured material from Saturday Night Live, as well as original shows like HarmonQuest–folded after less than two years. The Verizon-launched free service Go90, which featured a handful of comedy offerings, closed for good this summer–not long after the millennial-aimed upstart Fullscreen announced it was shutting down.
And at a time when Facebook is serving up an endless stream of personalized comedy videos, getting viewers commit to to a stand-alone service is riskier than ever. “If I can get funny videos on the internet for free, how does somebody like CollegeHumor break through?,” asks James McQuivey, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “The blue-humor angle gives them a way to rise above the noise. And I think that could work–at first.”
The bigger challenge for a service like DROPOUT, McQuivey says, is keeping users around after the initial few months of enthusiasm. “You have to produce original content at a high volume,” he says. “If people are only coming back once or twice a month, they won’t pay for it. They have to come back once or twice a day.”
Reich and his colleagues know long-time fans might balk at the idea of handing over a few bucks each month for DROPOUT. Yet they believe it’s a fair trade-off for CollegeHumor’s newfound freedom. Reich says conversations about an on-demand outlet began in late 2016, after a TV series CollegeHumor had been developing with a big network–Reich is prevented from saying which one–went belly-up. “I was in this vulnerable place,” says Reich. “We’d just done what I thought was the best pilot to ever come through our company, and it was summarily rejected.” Eventually, Reich says, “we all stopped and looked at each other and went, ‘How do we take back more ownership?’”
CollegeHumor isn’t halting its TV efforts: In addition to Adam Ruins Everything, the company produces the series Hot Date for Pop. But DROPOUT allows the company to circumvent the restrictions that are an inevitable part of the development process, as executives have to pay heed to advertisers’ wishes. And it gives CollegeHumor an alternative to YouTube. The company still releases an average of 3-4 new videos to YouTube a week. But recently, Reich says, the platform “has become less and less friendly a place to be even a little bit outrageous.”
That’s caused problems for some of CollegeHumor’s videos from the past year, including “Our Weirdest Sex Misconceptions” or “CH Does The Purge”–both of which were flagged by the service as being inappropriate for some viewers. Such restrictions make it harder for CollegeHumor to get those clips in front of viewers. According to Reich, YouTube’s algorithm “sometimes interprets a ‘comedy video about sex as being a ‘sex video.’” CollegeHumor can contest the ruling, but they don’t always wind up winning.
It’s not just YouTube’s recent crackdowns that have been a turn-off. Reich says the platform was never much of a money-maker for CollegeHumor. And for comedy creators, YouTube is hardly the eyeball-jackpot it used to be: Even four years ago, a CollegeHumor hit like “If Google Was a Guy” could go on to earn more than 40 million views–a number that seems impossible for any comedy sketch in 2019. “These days,” says Reich, “if a video gets over a million views, we consider that a hit.”
Ultimately, DROPOUT represents way for CollegeHumor to move toward a less YouTube-tied future-as well as an attempt to recapture the lawlessness of the web’s not-so-distant digital past. “It’s not the frattiness we’re trying to get back,” says Reich, who’s been with the company since 2006. “But ten years ago, the internet used to be a haven for creative experimentation.” To get that back, “we needed to create our own platform, so we aren't dependent on anyone else.” Just the people willing to pay for yet another subscription service.