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@midnight crowned a new generation of comic champions

From left: Anthony Atamanuik, Chris Hardwick, and James Adomian (Photo: Comedy Central)
From left: Anthony Atamanuik, Chris Hardwick, and James Adomian (Photo: Comedy Central)

After Comedy Central’s late-night panel game @midnight ends its 600-episode run on August 4, it’ll be remembered for clogging Twitter feeds with its endless Hashtag Wars, or for being one of approximately nine dozen television programs simultaneously hosted by Chris Hardwick. But for the show’s regular viewers, it’ll have a different legacy: Since 2013, @midnight has been a valuable platform for exposing new comic voices.

Ostensibly, @midnight was a show about modern technology in general, and the internet in particular. After all, its title doubled as a social-media handle, and many of its segments concerned apps and other corners of the web. Beyond that framing device, @midnight was primarily a battle of wits between comedians, one Hardwick often referred to as “Jeopardy! with dick jokes.” While the segments were never entirely improvised—guests were prepped on an episode’s topics in advance—the show nonetheless measured which comic would do the best job of reacting to the news (and wacky internet videos) of the day with the best quips. Often, these winners were relatively unknown outside of comedy-nerd and podcasting circles.

What made winning on @midnight such a big deal? There’s the fact that the show followed The Colbert Report for the first year of its run, meaning a comedian could score new fans from the audience of a Comedy Central flagship on their path to @midnight bragging rights. More importantly, the structure of @midnight was perfect for our ongoing short-attention-span era. At a time when comedy—and comedy stardom—can be delivered in 140 characters or six-second video loops, watching an entire stand-up special can feel like work, especially if you aren’t familiar with the comic in question. The rapid-fire style of @midnight played into the laugh-a-second nature of the 21st-century market. The show could give you some quick laughs, but if a contestant was funny enough in their bid to “win the internet,” viewers might be more inclined to check out the rest of their work.

One of the most successful examples of this is all-time @midnight champion Ron Funches. He displayed ample personality during his appearances, not an easy task considering the brevity required of the show’s contestants. He’s notably quick on the buzzer; in an episode where Funches appeared with Jordan Klepper and Mike Yard (both great comics in their own right), his was the first to buzz four consecutive times. When asked why a water-main break that only affected one person would make the news, Funches quickly chimes in, “Because it was Ariel from The Little Mermaid. His giggling prelude to the joke might actually be more rewarding than the joke itself. Funches was always obviously having a great time on @midnight, and that’s a big part of why he became a fan favorite.

In the time since becoming @midnight’s strongest panelist, Funches has risen to greater prominence with roles on a pair of NBC sitcoms—Undateable and Powerless—as well as the release of his first stand-up album, The Funches Of Us. He’s become one of the more recognizable names in the stand-up world, and his prowess in the @midnight arena certainly played a big part in getting him there.

And Funches is hardly the only person to see their profile increase after appearing on the show. Consider Tiffany Haddish, whose star has risen considerably this summer thanks to her performance in the ensemble comedy Girls Trip. In addition to her roles on The Carmichael Show and in Keanu, Haddish made her delightfully ribald sense of humor known via @midnight. In the segment “Pants On Fire”—where contestants are asked to state lies they’ve told—Haddish has the best response of all, alluding to the show’s host with, “Ooh, Chris, it’s so big it hurts!” Hardwick’s response: “I’m gonna give you points, but I’m also pissed that no one has actually attempted to use that lie!” The moment capitalized on the ad-libbed, relaxed nature of the show, and it also demonstrated Haddish’s ability to be frank and funny when talking about sex, which is a big part of why she’s so great in Girls Trip. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising if Haddish had made her way onto the A-list by this time next year—and she’d have @midnight to thank for helping get her there.

It doesn’t end there: Before he wrote for Inside Amy Schumer and bested all comers in a different Comedy Central competition, Roast Battle, Mike Lawrence was one of @midnight’s earliest guests. Lawrence is the rare person whose pop cultural passions run deeper than Hardwick’s, and he always felt right at home on the @midnight stage, particularly if he was having some fun at the expense of the latest Marvel movie. Anthony Atamanuik currently does a killer Donald Trump impression on The President Show, which wouldn’t exist without Trump Vs. Bernie, the stage show Atamanuik created with James Adomian. But in March 2016, Trump Vs. Bernie was ushered into the national spotlight in a special episode of @midnight. (Adomian had previously done his Bernie Sanders impression in an episode that aired in 2015). Of all the Trump impressions floating around in 2017, Atamanuik’s is one of the most finely honed. And if you weren’t lucky enough to have Trump Vs. Bernie visit your hometown, you got to see him do it on @midnight.

What made @midnight a great source of exposure for up-and-coming comics was that it left you wanting more. You’d see a comic you’d never heard of do an adroit job of riffing on the issues of the day, and you’d wonder what the rest of their act looked like. The late-night world has been introducing us to comedians for years (think of all the comics ushered to the big time after they were waved over to Johnny Carson’s couch), but @midnight was the first show of its kind. It didn’t just give comics a spotlight, it offered them a chance to test their chops against others in their field. The points that Hardwick so enthusiastically awarded might not have mattered all that much in the traditional sense, but there was no better way of knowing that a comedian was worth taking seriously than watching them go toe-to-toe with other, more established names, and come out on top.

For those who never tuned into @midnight, its end might not seem like anything worth getting particularly upset about; one less trending topic crowding your Twitter feed every night—nothing more, nothing less. But while the promotion for the show, and much of its backdrop, was focused on internet culture, the real meat was in the comedic battles. Watching comics spar to see who could put the best punchline on a silly internet video was far more rewarding than the clip itself. Perhaps some exasperated Twitter users will be happy that they’ll no longer log on shortly after midnight and wonder why #AddTungstenRuinAConceptAlbum is trending, but it’s worth remembering that, in spite of its premise, @midnight was never really about the hashtag wars; it was about the comedy wars, and the great comics we were introduced to when they emerged victorious.