Like generations of Hollywood hopefuls before him, Adam Waheed moved to Los Angeles in 2017 to become an actor. “I was trying to get auditions. I was trying to get a manager. I was trying to get an agent. I got no roles, no gigs, nothing,” he said.
Four years later, he’s become a multimillionaire doing comedy. And yet, he’s never appeared at a comedy club, or been a guest on a late-night talk show.
“Now I have about 19 million followers across the internet, and 12.6 million on TikTok,” Waheed told correspondent David Pogue.
That’s right: TikTok, one of the most popular phone apps in the world. The company says more than 700 million people use it every month, mostly young people. The app plays very short videos, one after another, tailored to your tastes, all made by other people.
There’s a lot of lip-syncing, and dancing, and funny animals, and comedy skits, like the ones that Waheed has been making almost every day for four years.
“I do a lot of visual comedy, things that anybody can laugh at,” he said.
“Your stuff is family-friendly, it’s clean,” Pogue said.
“That’s absolutely by design. As your audience gets bigger, you start to realize, ‘There’s a lotta kids who watch this.'”
If you’re a popular TikToker, TikTok pays you about three cents for every thousand views your video gets. But the big money is in sponsorships, where companies pay popular TikTokers to plug their products.
That’s the kind of success that up-and-coming TikTok comedians dream of, like high-school student Harry Liebow:
… corporate consultant Sara Barnitt:
and Sam Ramsdell, who also happens to hold a Guinness World Record for having the largest mouth of any woman alive. “One of my most viral videos was fitting an entire Subway sandwich in my mouth,” Ramsdell laughed. “I think that got 32 million views.”
Pogue asked, “When you think of a traditional comedian starting out, they hone their craft in front of an audience. They hear the laughter, they see the rocking of bodies, they sculpt their material according to the reaction. There’s no reaction when you post a video, is there?”
“Yes, there is,” Liebow replied.
“Not in real time?”
“It’s not immediate,” said Barnitt.
Liebow said, “If there’s one line from the video that people thought was very funny, they will, like, quote it and comment that.”
“So, you guys all look at your comments?”
“You learn what works, what doesn’t,” Barnitt said.
And what does work on TikTok?
“Very large mouths!” Barnitt replied. “There’s a lot of physical comedy. And you don’t have a lot of time to set the context of something, which is something that you have to do in stand-up.”
Ramsdell said, “I’ll go through and edit those pauses so no one is bored for two seconds to flip it.”
Andy Engel is the owner of the Manhattan Comedy School, where our three young comics take classes. “Club owners are always saying, ‘Can you put bodies in my seats?’ I know for a fact there are comics now that are getting jobs because of their TikTok followings,” Engel said.
He has some words of warning for aspiring comics on TikTok: “I would caution that if somebody is very successful on TikTok, that doesn’t translate necessarily to being successful in stand-up. They’re two different worlds. If you’re an active New York City comic, you’re getting onstage maybe 1,400 times – and I’m not exaggerating – a year. They’re running from club to club to club.”
But not every comedian hopes to go from the small screen to the big stage. Sometimes, they go the other way.
Veteran stand-up comedian Carmen Lynch has been on all the major late-night talk shows, and has released two comedy albums. But during the pandemic, the clubs were closed.
“I was so bored, you know?” she told Pogue. “So, I started making these weird videos and there was no one around really to stop me from posting them!”
“So, you weren’t thinking, ‘This could be my new income source’?” Pogue asked.
“I don’t know if it was an income source more than it was just a way to try and get new fans, and hopefully that would translate into seats when everything opened up again,” she said.
Pogue noted, “A lot of your videos you’re doing lying down.”
“That just makes me look younger!” Lynch laughed.
“You do see the comments, you do see the likes. Is that the same feedback as applause and laughter in the club?”
“There’s nothing like a live show,” said Lynch. “When it’s packed, it’s great. There’s nothing else like it.”
But comedy megastar Adam Waheed is perfectly content to remain on TikTok … for now.
Pogue asked, “Are you thinking of TikTok as a stepping stone to the traditional comedy clubs, Netflix special, ‘Saturday Night Live’?”
“At first I did think of it as a stepping stone,” Waheed said. “And then when I got there, it was honestly, like, the end goal. I’m able to reach so many people every day. I mean, I don’t know what life holds for me. One of my biggest goals is to be the biggest comedic actor, writer, and director of all time. If I’m using TikTok as that vehicle to get there, you know, I’ll continue to use it.”
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Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: Ed Givnish.
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