Should you ever find yourself in need of a cheap, hassle-free filming location in Los Angeles, by all means check out the Burger King in Highland Park around 2 p.m. That’s where, on a scorching afternoon this past October, the comedians Nick Ciarelli and Brad Evans were huddled next to a dusty Honda Fit, rehearsing their latest sketch. Ciarelli, 29, was dressed as though he’d just robbed a ’90s-only Goodwill: neon-green Mountain Dew cap, skull-adorned bowling shirt, aging-mallrat facial hair. Evans, 31, wore jeans and a black shirt with a name tag that read OFFICER, the legality of which was still somewhat hazy. “If a cop asked why I was dressed like a police officer in a Burger King parking lot, I’d tell him we’d just gone Halloween shopping,” Evans said, his eyes hidden behind aviator shades. “It’s too embarrassing to say, ‘I’m making a comedy video.’”
Despite the suspect attire, no one bothered the two men as they worked. The sketch they were filming that day cast Ciarelli as Jacob, a grating “fast-food reviewer” who records himself alone in his car, ogling and devouring his latest hamburger find, and obnoxiously yelling “It’s bite time!” (The character was based on a few real-life YouTubers Ciarelli had seen online.) Evans, meanwhile, played the cop who approaches Jacob mid-meal, eventually coercing a hilariously shame-filled confession. The video, shot on an older-model iPhone, would take the duo barely an hour to complete. Its total budget: about $6, all of which went toward prop Whoppers. (Once he’d wrapped for the day, Ciarelli—who’s been a vegetarian for years—went home and got sick.)
Not long afterward, the fast-food sketch was posted to Twitter, where it joined several other quick, no-cost videos from Ciarelli and Evans, better known to their fans as Nick and Brad. In just the past few months, they’ve cast themselves as low-rent Cameo stars; documented the meltdowns of fake corporate-Twitter accounts; and spoofed the forced bad-boy banter of Jack FM.
“They churn out so much good, smart, likable comedy,” says Mr. Show cocreator Bob Odenkirk in an email, noting he sees traces of his own pioneering series in Nick and Brad’s work. “In the last couple of decades,” Odenkirk says, “the idea of any short piece of comic riffery being labeled a sketch became the norm. It is not. It is, instead, ‘abbreviated comic riffery.’ Nothing wrong with it, but it’s not a sketch, DAMMIT! Brad and Nick still write sketches that have the body of a sketch. They are never afraid to build something more solid than what passes for sketch these days (I am scratching my white beard and scowling as I write this).”
The duo’s online antics aren’t limited to sketch comedy. They’ve also written a bunch of happily stupid song parodies for the hit podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!, and in early October, Ciarelli and Evans pulled off a web-confounding prank: For the opening weekend of Joker, the duo posted signs at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas, forbidding “guys who look like they’ve never had sex” from seeing the film. Despite fine print noting that the theater “[would] not admit any persons who look like their balls are backed up with cum,” some people believed the signs were real, prompting ArcLight to release a statement. (It took a few weeks, and several phone calls, before Ciarelli and Evans learned they wouldn’t be banned from the theater because of the prank.)
Not so long ago, it seemed as though the internet was overrun by comedians like Nick and Brad: savvy, occasionally savage writer-performers who could get the web’s attention with little more than a well-scripted video. In the late ’00s, it wasn’t unusual for a decent DIY sketch to get a few million views on YouTube, eventually prompting platforms with deep pockets and dopey names—like Seeso and go90—to invest heavily in the online-comedy business. For a brief while, it seemed as though it would be possible to stake out a decent living by making funny shit for the internet.
Then came the deeply unfunny kicker. Thanks to a combination of dodgy Facebook algorithms, flailing media empires, and sheer saturation, the semi-gilded age of online comedy began to steadily decline. Talent-packed writing staffs were gutted, while entire platforms were shuttered for good (and some not for the first time). Ciarelli and Evans witnessed that meltdown firsthand, creating projects for big platforms that soon went under. “We came in at a time when we were more bright-eyed,” Ciarelli says. “It was like, ‘Oh, wow, the possibilities are endless!’” After the collapse, “there was this gradual feeling of things being pulled out from underneath. You see your friends lose their jobs, and you see the frustration about how things are going.”
By then, Ciarelli and Evans’s own tormented relationship with online industry had already become a part of their comedy. The duo often employs the more lowbrow-despicable corners of the internet as both a setting and a target. In 2016, they created the Emmy-nominated online series Tween Fest, about a desert gathering headlined by ding-a-ling influencers and lowbrow viral stars. If that setup seems like an easy way for Ciarelli and Evans to riff on Gen-Z vapidity, well, it kind of was: At one point, the fest’s befuddled emcee, played by John Michael Higgins, excoriates the young crowd by ranting, “You people are like animals! You like the shittiest, crappiest entertainment I’ve ever seen in my life!”
But Tween Fest was more about the way the internet—with the help of advertisers and corporations that stuff it full of junk—has dumbed down all of us. There’s something almost gleefully pre-apocalyptic about much of Ciarelli and Evans’s comedy: a sense that the web has already won, and that all we can do is revel in its ceaseless, shrieking stupidity together. Plus, in 2019, taking on web culture has certain competitive advantages. “There are 6 million Game of Thrones sketches and Love Island sketches,” says Evans, 31. “But there’s not a ton of people making fun of ‘I fucking love science.’ There’s just a vast amount of things on the internet to make fun of.” And for Nick and Brad, it’s bite time.
Ciarelli and Evans met in 2013 in Los Angeles, having arrived a year before from different ends of the country: Ciarelli grew up in Connecticut, while Evans was raised in Orange County, California. The two men shared many of the same cultural touchstones, including Mr. Show, The Simpsons, and Adult Swim. And because both came of age at a time when online comedy-culture hubs like A Special Thing were thriving, they’d seen, from a distance, how the Upright Citizens Brigade had reshaped scenes in both New York City and L.A. “When I was in high school and college, you’d hear about all the cool shows that were happening there, and the comedians that were coming up,” Ciarelli says. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah—this seems like a place I want to check out.’”
The two auditioned for one of UCB’s theaters in L.A., eventually landing on the same sketch team. They were slotted as writers, not performers—which was fine with Ciarelli and Evans, who had little interest in being in front of an audience (for one thing, Evans says, “we were bad at memorizing lines”). So instead they generated material for their teammates, including future Comedy Bang! Bang! mainstay Carl Tart. “They don’t mind over-joking,” Tart says. “Some people get up their [own] ass: ‘Oh, does this sketch have a heart?’ But Nick and Brad can write a sketch that’s chock full of really fun jokes.”
In their early years together, Ciarelli and Evans often focused on the vagaries of internet culture: “We wrote a lot about bad internet videos we liked to watch, and Facebook pages we thought were annoying,” Evans says. But they soon expanded their list of grievances, and by 2017, the two had established a monthly live show at UCB, dubbed “Atlantic City.” That’s where they debuted Martin Sheffield-Lickley, a crass Euro frontman, played by The Other Two’s Drew Tarver. Sheffield-Lickey has lost his wife and son and uses his miseries to help promote his asinine, self-aggrandizing love songs. (The bit had been inspired, at least musically, by ABC’s velvety, somewhat repetitive 1982 Brit-bop “The Look of Love.”)
Sheffield-Lickley was one of several loud, loathsome, and largely un-self-aware male characters Tarver would develop with Ciarelli and Evans, including Tween Fest’s Zayden Ostin Storm, a showboating social-justice prankster. “We’re just fascinated by [gross aggro dudes], because we’re so far removed from them,” Evans says. “We’re just very quiet, writerly guys.” (This is a point echoed by their collaborators: When asked to distinguish between the two men’s personalities, Tarver pauses for nearly half a minute before noting, “I guess Nick is maybe a little quieter?”)
In addition to the regular “Atlantic City” shows, Ciarelli and Evans landed steady TV gigs—including work on Billy on the Street and UCB Originals—and developed the Funny or Die–produced Tween Fest. The series began as a live show and was inspired by a trailer for Teen Roast, an actual web-celeb gathering. Tween Fest was licensed for release by go90, a mobile-video service launched by Verizon in the hopes of luring younger viewers (just the kind of audience, in fact, that Tween Fest was mocking). But less than two years after Ciarelli and Evans’s series arrived, go90 would be dead—yet another failed corporate attempt to woo users by investing heavily in comedy. “In hindsight,” says Evans, “Verizon was just ahead of the curve in being a company that has no TV experience or audience being like, ‘We do TV now!’” The company was one of several outlets the two freelanced for at the time, the names of which now read like an “In Memoriam” segment on CNBC: In addition to go90 (2015-2018), there was Comcast’s Seeso (2016-2017), and Samsung’s Milk Video (2014-2015).
Even when some of those outlets were still alive, Ciarelli and Evans were suspicious of how long the supposed digital-comedy boom would last. “On the surface, it’s already too good to be true,” Ciarelli says. “Then all these weird misguided things that happen along the way. It just fucked over a lot of people.”
Tween Fest would survive go90’s shutdown and was eventually preserved on YouTube. (It also earned an Emmy nomination for Higgins.) Much like an old episode of Mr. Show, or an even older issue of Mad magazine, the eight-part series is equal parts funny and rageful, taking place in a new-media nightmare populated by pimple-popping vloggers, crass advertisers, opportunistic politicians, and gross aggro dudes like Dem Watercup Boyz, a pair of vulgar viral-hit rappers. But Tween Fest also captures the anxious befuddlement the first generation of screen-raised web obsessives often feels about the kids right below them. “There’s a jealousy to it: ‘How are these people getting so many views? Am I doing the wrong thing?’” Tarver says. “It’s like, ‘Oh God—the internet is moving forward without me. What do I do? I guess I’ll make fun of it.’”
A month before setting up shop in the Burger King lot, Ciarelli and Evans were on stage at UCB’s Hollywood theater, as part of a live performance titled “Nick and Brad: Thanks for Coming and Also Sorry.” It was a send-off to a busy summer, one that had found them working on separate TV projects with Odenkirk and producer Daniel Powell (I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson). They’d also created another Comedy Bang! Bang! breakout musical act: Memphis Kansas Breeze, a bro-country duo—played by Tarver and Tart—that write mostly about the private lives of their trucks. The group’s songs, like so much of Nick and Brad’s writing, were at once outlandishly silly and richly detailed. (“They like super-weird specifics,” Tart says. “For Memphis Kansas Breeze, we say, ‘We’re the no. 1 artists for guys who watch stepmom porn.’ That’s, like, the perfect example of a joke they would make.”)
Before the sold-out UCB crowd, Ciarelli and Evans played a few of their sketches from the past year, including one for which they contacted a bunch of low-cost bodybuilders on Cameo, pretending to be a worried mom who needed help to scare her young son into not stealing her fudge (the resulting missives are … unsettling). Before the show ended, they also threw out empty DVD boxes for a made-up 2007 Seann William Scott movie titled Vincey Masters: Born to Be a Karate Meister, which they’ve been handing out in the hopes of generating their own Mandela effect–like phenomenon (the movie even wound up on the actor’s IMDb page).
During their early years at the theater, it would have been hard for anyone who knew Ciarelli and Evans to imagine them willingly appearing on stage. “We got to write for these people that were already so great,” Ciarelli says. “We were like, ‘We’re not as good as them, so why bother performing?’” But with many of their UCB colleagues in demand for other projects, the two sometimes had no choice but to cast themselves. And as they began producing videos earlier this year, they found that they actually enjoyed acting.
Yet the main reason Ciarelli and Evans are more visible these days is because being their own stars simply make it easier for them to create—and in the post-meltdown comedy economy, easier is better. The two shoot many of their sketches at their shared Hollywood apartment, instead of paying for a studio. And rather than posting to YouTube or Facebook—where their work may get lost in a thicket of content restrictions or unpredictable feed behaviors—Nick and Brad simply throw their videos on Twitter, a counterintuitive outlet for joy in 2019, but one that’s nonetheless experienced a recent surge in frills-free, straight-to-the-point comedy.
In the past year on Twitter, you could have watched a frustrated studio engineer holler back at Fat Joe; taken in a series of overwrought Broadway numbers; or witnessed the Succession clan argue about M&Ms. Such bits don’t make the platform any less spirit-sapping, of course, but they can break up the joylessness, even for just a few minutes. And for writers like Ciarelli and Evans, Twitter’s seemingly oppressive creative restraints—videos need be just under two and a half minutes, and video quality is often negligible—can be liberating. “It seems like things have gone back to where they were before all those companies came along and corralled everybody,” Evans says. “It’s kind of like early YouTube times, with people making their own stuff.”
Of course, to create sharp, internet-aware comedy for an equally internet-aware crowd—no matter where they watch it—Ciarelli and Evans must forever be logged on. It’s not unusual for them to be writing about something dumb they found online, only to become distracted after discovering something even stupider. “You’re just soaking in stuff all the time,” Ciarelli says.
For now, it’s a necessary hazard. But it’s not impossible to imagine a day when online culture moves forward without them. Maybe they’ll even need to step away from their screens a bit. Considering how much time they spend investigating stupidity online, a break may come as a relief to Nick and Brad. As Evans notes: “I think we’re on the internet too much.”
Brian Raftery is the author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. His work has appeared in Wired, New York, and GQ.