There are a lot of myths about how TikTok works. I know firsthand how many hilarious people struggle to gain any traction with their own jokes. Even if there’s no one secret to going viral, there must be some basic tenants for online success, right?
Confession time: I do stand-up comedy (wait, don’t leave). I’ve gone viral a few times. I wouldn’t call myself a viral creator, but I would call myself an over-analyser who has deep, impressive thoughts about why something does or does not hit home with a large audience online. There must be some social media expert out there who can explain why a video like this is able to rake in millions of likes over hundreds of nearly identical iterations. (If I had to name it? Something to do with controlled chaos.)
Scrolling through my liked videos, I find not a whole lot of professional comedians, and instead a lot of silly one-offs, little kids roasting adults, or this dog on wheels. The challenge of articulating what makes something go viral just goes to show how difficult it can be to try and “hack” the TikTok algorithm. So, what does it take for a scripted comic to cut through the noise?
To figure it out, I reached out to some comedians who have found success making people laugh both on and offline. So while the meat of your content depends on your individual comedic genius, there are key ways to make the most of the TikTok landscape, specifically.
Grab attention immediately
Vincent Ward (@vward98), who has amassed over 100,000 followers for his pop culture-laden comedy videos on TikTok, says that “if you haven’t captured people’s attention within the first five seconds, they’re going to scroll away.” Ward specifically notes how, compared to Twitter, Instagram, or even YouTube, TikTok is unique in that there is no white space. There’s no buffer between one piece of content and the next (often leading to whiplash between light cat videos and heavy conspiracy theories). With that style of speed-scrolling, you don’t get any second chances to keep eyeballs on your content.
“You have to get people hooked within one or two seconds,” says Lukas Arnold, a stand-up comedian and voiceover actor with 2.2 million followers on TikTok (@lukasarnold). To achieve this, go for visuals. Arnold recommends creating a headline or caption that instantly draws people in, or “any visual to give a sense of what’s in store if viewers stick around.” Scrolling through Arnold’s videos, you’ll see his videos labelled such that you get a taste without spoiling the whole thing, like “the most metal joke I’ve told.” We’ve also covered how to use text and captions to efficiently snag people’s attention.
Trim the fat
A common wisdom in the comedy world is that comedy is less about writing, and more about editing. NYC-based stand-up Lindsay Lucido, who has 95.5K TikTok followers (@lindsaylucido), says her top priority is getting her videos as short as possible while still being funny. “I know I scroll away when people don’t get to the point,” so consider cutting anything that isn’t necessary to get the laugh.
This doesn’t mean your video needs to show you talking the entire time, at least not according to Vinny Thomas, who you might recognise from any number of his iconic front-facing videos (but perhaps best from this video of The Galactic Federation interviewing Earth for membership). “It can be nice to include some negative space where you react to what you just said,” so he says to, “maybe wait a few seconds before cutting away.” Thomas goes on to say that sometimes “the funniest part of a video isn’t the words — it’s what happens between the words.”
Similarly, Lanee’ Sanders (@ilovelancelot on TikTok), whose work has appeared in CollegeHumor, Reductress, and Netflix’s Astronomy Club, brings up the fact that “you don’t need to monologue each of your opinions.” It’s a great comedic skill to know when to say, “end of story.”
When it comes to the cutting room floor, always go with your gut. Ward says his number one piece of advice is to “trust your initial instinct.” Like Lucido mentioned, it isn’t always worth it to try and “hack” the algorithm. Otherwise, you risk overthinking what makes the video funny in the first place.
Watch first, post second
We’ve talked before about the value of spending some time on the “For You” page. Arnold also brings up the importance of studying the landscape before putting yourself out there. Arnold, who joined TikTok five days into lockdown in March 2020, says that before posting you should “learn the tempo of videos, understand the sort of content people like, and see where you can fit in.”
Lucido agrees that even though it “feels like the algorithm is constantly changing how it pushes videos out,” she does her best to work alongside the styles of content that get a lot of views. Both Lucido and Arnold note how they like to gradually throw in new styles of material in between the videos that consistently do well. On that note…
Build off what works
One of Arnold’s first TikToks to get more than 100,000 likes combined a popular meme at the time with his Obi Wan Kenobi impression. He says that to capitalise off this, he followed up by introducing some more impressions — at first starting with the Star Wars characters he knew people followed him for, and then gradually working in new material. “Give people what they want, and then follow up with what they didn’t know you can offer.”
In addition to throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, TikTok offers video analytics, which Arnold recommends using if you’re interested in seeing when your followers are most active and want to post accordingly.
Make yourself laugh
Even though it can be fruitful to keep building off the same videos you know your fans like, Arnold says the most important thing is to “stay true to yourself — don’t get cornered into content that you don’t like doing.”
“Keep making yourself laugh,” Ward says. The advice is not purely wholesome, but practical: “If you aren’t having fun doing it, viewers will be able to tell.” Viewers reward authenticity, and maybe even punish a lack thereof.
Likewise, “don’t feel like you need to jump on top of whatever is trending,” advises Thomas. “Make something that feels fun to you.” Thomas also recommends going off-script and throwing in beats of true spontaneity. Or, as Thomas puts it, “always take some time to say whatever pops into that sweet a*s lil head of yours — unscripted.”
If you’re wondering where to start, Sanders says to “share that thing that’s been stuck in your head for years.” All of the creators I interviewed at one point touched on the importance — and fun — of finding a niche that works for you.
Final thoughts: Prioritise your own mental health
Ward shared with me how easy it is to link your identity with how successfully — or poorly — a video performs. He says that something he wished he knew before ever posting was the importance of “separating myself from the character I curated for other people…not only will that hurt the creative process, but it hurts how you see yourself in the mirror.”
It’s no secret that fame isn’t always what it cracks up to be, and the TikTok adaptation of that tale is no different. As someone who has had but a taste of online popularity, I believe we don’t yet have the correct language to describe what it feels like to chase and even achieve medium-level, short-term virality. Nevertheless, the allure of external validation is very real and very tricky.
If you’re chasing online clout, you should understand how fickle it is. Arnold’s words of advice: “Accept just how many things are out of your control, and trust that you’re better than you think you are.”
At the risk of sounding corny: If you’re someone who wants to bring other people joy with your funny videos, then you need to make sure you’re prioritising your own joy first.