Who's the lewdest, crudest, most popular person on Comedy Central?
That's an easy one: Eric Cartman.
But outside the cast of the animated series South Park which after 14 seasons is still the basic cable network's biggest hit the answer gets a little trickier. It isn't fake-newscaster Jon Stewart, or fake-blowhard Stephen Colbert. It's Daniel Tosh, a 35-year-old comedian whose weekly riff on viral videos and Internet jokes, Tosh.0, has by at least one measure become Comedy Central's second-most popular show. As of late July, the year-old program reached some 2.7 million viewers a bigger per-episode audience than those of The Daily Show or the Colbert Report.
The Tosh.0 formula is simple: for most of the show, Tosh stands in front of a green screen, talking to a live audience and deconstructing the latest viral nuttiness on the Internet, from guerrilla hits like "Giant Butt Girl" to classics like "David after Dentist." Think America's Funniest Home Videos meets Best Week Ever and then sniffs glue with the cast from Jackass.
"The idea for the show wasn't a particularly glamorous story," says Charlie Siskel, Tosh.0's executive producer. In spring of 2008, the cable network simultaneously wanted to create an Internet culture show and to find a way to showcase Tosh, a stand-up comedian and former Taco Bell pitchman who had preciously worked on several smaller Comedy Central projects.
But the show's popularity would appear to defy common sense: after all, who turns on the TV to find out what's on the Internet?
For starters, members of the coveted 18-34 demographic: Tosh.0 is the most-watched Wednesday night show on TV by males in that age group. It's an audience with whom Tosh has a uniquely interactive relationship. "People are watching the show with their laptops," says Siskel. "And Daniel will be tweeting things back and forth with them as they're watching." Many viewers contribute to the show's "Viewer Video of the Week" segment and more than a few have filmed their attempts at the Brazilian "Surra de Bunda" dance after seeing Tosh do it. ("Surra de Bunda," in Portuguese, loosely translates to "butt pounding" and has to be seen to be believed although we wouldn't recommend it.)
Liz Miller, co-editor of New TeeVee, a website that tracks the rise of Internet-based programming, says that this interactive relationship is part of what makes Tosh.0 so successful. "It all goes toward the idea of letting people feel connected," she says. "The amount of content online that people have to sift through is vast. You can trust a show like Tosh.0 to provide you with a good summary of what's on the Internet." It might not be the most vital of tasks, but Tosh.0 helps keep its audience up to date on (usually NSFW) web hits like "World of Warcraft freak out kid" conspiracy theories, the worst wedding DJ ever, and the epic and legendary Cinnamon swallowing, Salvia smoking, and Saltine eating challenges.
But Tosh.0's specialty is ferreting out obscure web content and passing it along it to millions of viewers essentially, acting as a giant meme-generating machine for the nether reaches of the Internet. Take for example, the Tosh.0 approach to an old online nude photo of Demi Moore from the 80s. "We were the first ones to do anything with the photo of Demi Moore's... crotch," says Siskel. "To find that and get that out there was a very proud moment for the show." After Tosh mentioned the Moore photo on his show and sent his viewers hunting for it, it became the #1 most-searched for item on Google for five days.
"For something to go viral, curators need to connect into these loops," says Alexandra Juhasz, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College (whose popular 2007 and 2008 class, Learning from YouTube, was taught via YouTube itself). "For millions and millions to see it, the dominant and old institutions still have to be part of the conversation." If his 2.7 million viewers are any indicator, Tosh makes for a pretty good curator. "It's because I'm funnier than they are," Tosh jokes. "Put some emoticon after that so I don't look like a douche."