(Photo collage by Joy Olivia Miller)
How one UChicago alum turned LOLs into $$$
Adam Levine, AB’12, AM’13, goes down the ClickHole.
Adam Levine, AB’12, AM’13, has been interested in comedy writing pretty much since he can remember. But before he started work as one of the original staff writers at ClickHole, a division of the satirical news publication the Onion, he considered other paths. At one point, doubting the professional viability of an English degree, he thought he might become a scientist. “And then I tried science, and I realized that if I became a scientist, um, I would kill everyone. Because I was very bad at just squirting things into other things.” With science out of the picture, Levine set his sights on a literature PhD program. “That was the path that I was on before ClickHole. I think some of my professors at UChicago think I’m in grad school right now. I sent them emails thanking them for helping out [with PhD program applications], so if they read the web exclusives for the Magazine, they should know that I didn’t go to grad school, but I was about to.” Instead, in the summer of 2013, Levine—who had long been involved in UChicago’s comedy scene as a member of the improv troupe Occam’s Razor—submitted an application for the Onion’s fellows program. The Onion editors liked his stuff enough that they asked him to continue submitting headline ideas, and then, when they were about to launch their new website, ClickHole, they encouraged him to apply. When the Onion originally pitched ClickHole, which launched in June 2014, to its potential writers, the vision was to satirize clickbait—the kind of cloying, hyper-exaggerated Internet headlines that lure users into clicking on the link. ClickHole’s version of this bait can be seen in such headlines as “They Said He’d Never Walk Again. But Who Were They, and Why Were They Saying Stuff about Him?” The editors and writers quickly widened their plan to include more Internet formats: lists, quizzes, blog posts, you name it. Now ClickHole presents itself as “this content aggregator that is very cynically vying for traffic all the time,” Levine says. People on the Internet love cute sloths? Great! ClickHole gives them “7 Sloths Who Are Almost Too Adorable to Throw Off the Top of the Chrysler Building.” The Internet loves personality quizzes, so ClickHole gives it “Which One of My Garbage Sons Are You?” The thing that all ClickHole content has in common—its unifying comedic voice—is that it presumes that everything it posts is exactly what the Internet wants to see. Within this Internet-parody format that ClickHole offers, Levine and the rest of the ClickHole writers share an affinity for a brand of humor that simultaneously points a finger at the often toxic, often amusing tendencies of the Internet while being … well, really funny. ClickHole writers’ first priority isn’t “sticking it to BuzzFeed,” he says, or creating ironic clickbait; it’s producing the kind of humor they all laugh at. From Monty Python to Invader Zim to ’90s British comedy to the Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! to the online comic Achewood, Levine’s comedy tastes tend toward the absurd. Recently, he wrote about a visit to Google headquarters, a piece that “felt very similar," he says, "to the kind of comedy I loved growing up.” As for what kind of comedy that is, Levine says that even joking around with his childhood and College friends "wasn’t just joking around; it was joking around with the intent of getting funnier all the time. I tended to hang out with people who really took comedy seriously, and so we were all trying to make each other laugh, but also trying to make each other laugh harder and in newer ways every time we hung out.” According to Levine, the comedy he likes may on the surface appear “random,” but upon closer examination, you begin to notice its structure and rules. Levine’s favorite comedy establishes an absurd logic, and its funniness lives in the escalation of that absurdity. “I wasn’t, like, going around when I was 12 saying, ‘I’m really into wacky worlds that stick to their own internal logic,’” clarifies Levine. But when you’re forced to think about something every day, its hidden intricacies reveal themselves. ClickHole writers take humor seriously. Many writers show up as early as 8 a.m. to prepare for the 10 a.m. headline pitch meeting, and Levine describes being a ClickHole writer as an “around-the-clock job.” The writers have deadlines they have to stick to, and if they don’t finish their work at the office, it’s common for them to go home and keep writing. A UChicago education, according to Levine, was good preparation for a career in comedy. He learned that “your work is done when it’s finished, and not when the clock says a certain time." “[The work] can be very fulfilling; when you write a thing that people respond well to, it’s amazing," says Levine. But being a comedy writer isn’t always a laugh a minute. "There’s the downside of, you work really hard on a thing and either nobody reads it, or people outright say that they don’t like it, which is extremely crushing. So there’s high highs, low lows, but overall, incredibly fun.” As for how long he plans to be a comedy writer, Levine says, “as long as I can not be terrible at it."