Whatever happened to CollegeHumor? Fans of the Dropout streaming service will tell you at the drop of a hat: The creatives behind it announced a new subscription service in late 2018, made a few ambitious seasons of comedy and live-play Dungeons & Dragons — and then got walloped when their corporate owner, IAC, stopped funding CH Media, resulting in layoffs of nearly the entire staff in January 2020 (which was a totally chill month to lose your job, with absolutely no major upheavals in television production on the horizon).
But CollegeHumor didn’t drop off: IAC sold the brand to executive producer Sam Reich, allowing shows like Dimension 20, Um, Actually, and Game Changer to keep doing the work, and spinning off their most successful formats on Dropout. On Dropout’s fifth anniversary this week, CollegeHumor is “the most healthy and sustainable [it’s] ever been as a company,” says Dimension 20 host Brennan Lee Mulligan. And for Dropout’s anniversary, Reich announced in a new video, the company will cease to be CollegeHumor at all.
Polygon sat down with Reich and Mulligan for the occasion of Dropout’s fifth anniversary to chat about upcoming shows, how a YouTube video brand successfully pivoted to the subscription streaming model, and the big birthday announcement itself: CollegeHumor is no more.
Polygon: Before we dig into the big news, I want to start with another recent announcement you’ve made: The next season of Dimension 20. Brennan, I know this is Aabria Iyengar’s game, but you’re playing in it, and she’s not here and you are. So: Why stoats?
Brennan Lee Mulligan: Why stoats?! They’re a marvelous animal. Burrow’s End is a really fun season of Dimension 20. And I say fun because Aabria’s taking us to this wonderful Secret of NIMH, Watership Down — there’s a certain subgenre. And we find in Dimension 20 that we have our most success when we get specific. It’s not just fantasy, it’s Game of Thrones meets Candyland. It’s not just a mystery, it’s noir, or it’s Agatha Christie — which is actually two of the Side Quest seasons we’ve done, one of which Sam was a player in. It’s about getting specific with the comparisons that you’re reaching out to and where you’re drawing inspiration from.
“Cute little critters” is a quite broad, fantastical storytelling genre — within that there’s a subgenre of perhaps the darkest and most grim stories ever told. You know, I guess there’s adult literature that’s as haunting as Watership Down, but something about the juxtaposition of the cute little bunnies, and a story about death, displacement, horror... Lovecraft wishes that he could have the eldritch horror of rabbits trying to describe a road and the cars that drive on it.
Sam Reich: We want to take our audience and expose them to deep trauma. [laughs] And the way that you do that is by luring them into a sense of comfort and security.
Mulligan: The mental mathematics of the season are also a fun thing. The fact that we go like, Hey, it’s tough being a little furry critter, the woods are dangerous. You know, we see nature documentaries where little stoats and bunnies are getting absolutely eviscerated by falcons and stuff, and you watch it and you’re like, Tough break, buddy, and you move on with your day. But we’ve given them names and voices. And now we’ll see! Now we’ll see how glib they are!
Reich: David Attenborough couldn’t do this!
Sam, that reminds me of something you said to NPR earlier this year, about how you found success with Dropout in, instead of going broad for the viral video, going for “something that feels special to a small group of people.” Has five years of Dropout inspired any advice for creators, or producers, or fans — basically anyone who’s looking to get away from algorithmically powered viral demand, to other platform structures?
Reich: My advice is find a better business model. I think we live in an era of online content right now that is being defined and shaped by algorithms. And that’s true no matter the platform. I think different platforms are shaping content in different ways, and that’s kind of exciting as a creator. Like, Which of these sports am I most excited to play? Lately, TikTok has been prioritizing videos that are longer than a minute, because they’re trying to encourage watch time, while YouTube Shorts still doesn’t allow you to put up anything that’s longer than a minute. So, platforms compete with each other and themselves, and they yield these kind of Frankenstein products. And even in the midst of all of that I am regularly inspired by a lot of the stuff I see on there. I love hanging out on these platforms. I think some of these creators are getting really, really creative.
But I think what the experience of doing Dropout has taught us — and what I would tell others — is for you to make this sustainable you need to have something to offer that’s off of those platforms. There’s lots of ways to do that. One of them is to create a subscription offering like on Patreon and try to drive people to it. Another is to try to leverage your online presence into opportunities in traditional Hollywood. Some folks who aren’t content creators first and foremost are using it as a creative way to market their music or market their physical products, and that’s working out well for those folks.
I think for us, the heart and the soul of what we do is on on Dropout. We are very lucky, very lucky, that social media has turned out to be such a good way for us to market this platform. And we are also gleefully no longer beholden to it.
The story of Dropout’s history recounted in your anniversary video is that you kicked off, and you were raring to go, and then immediately got kneecapped by a corporate sale and a global pandemic, and then you succeeded anyway. If there hadn’t been those hurdles, there would have been other hurdles. I’m sure you ran into other things that surprised you about transforming from CollegeHumor to Dropout. What were the hurdles we don’t hear about because getting dumped by your parent company and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic overshadow them?
Mulligan: Susana, every day I awaken and am hurled Wallace and Gromit-style out of my bed into another day of making content and telling stories and doing the stuff we get to do at Dropout. Being asked what our strategy was — I think Sam is much better, writ large, at top-down, bird’s-eye strategic oversight than I am.
Reich: Zooming out is what you’re saying, I’m good at zooming out?
Mulligan: You’re great at zooming out. Asking me what our strategy was is sort of like — Susana, you’ve pulled up alongside a man sprinting from a bear, and are like, What was the thought process behind going left at that tree back there? And I’m like [unintelligible gasps]. That’s the headspace that I operate from. But to address the hurdles that you were talking about in terms of what lessons can be drawn, or what do we think would have happened had those obstacles not been there? If those obstacles had not been there, well, my god, I would love for those obstacles not to have been there, I would definitely press that button. Mostly to have prevented COVID, which would be a great boon to the world and global civilization—
Reich: See, I feel like you nailed it, Brennan. The big one I was going to point to is that this is relentless. Not in a bad way — like, we spent our lives as entertainers starving, and then at some point, we arrive at the all-you-can-eat buffet — that’s like when we’ve really made it — and we go, My god, I’m gonna have to eat so much, forever. [laughs] Adam Conover, who is one of my dear, dear friends and also remains pretty mixed about digital versus traditional entertainment, he’s not sure where he wants to fall in terms of those those relative opportunities. He’s like, The thing about digital is you create for yourself a jail, and then you have to live in that jail forever, because your audience wants that from you, again and again and again. Whereas in traditional media, you have a certain amount of seasons, and maybe you get canceled, then you move on to something else.
I think Brennan and I both are in jail right now. The way in which we’re lucky is we both jailed ourselves inside anthology series.
Reich: So, thank god for that bit of (it turns out) foresight, happy accident — which is we get to strut our stuff in lots of different ways despite the fact that we’re beholden to these shows, which, so long as Dropout continues to be successful, will never be canceled? Because...?
Mulligan: Yeah, “no gods no masters” is a pretty exciting place to have found that [success]. And to Sam’s point too, yeah, every time that I go, Woof, we make a lot of this show, I turn around and see the ghost of my absolutely starving 25-year-old self being like, [sarcastically] Oh, you got big problems, huh? Ohhh, big guy got big problems! Wow! [villainously] I’ll kill you. And then I go, Ah, yes, back to it.
Reich: Yeah, I watch myself performing at the New York Renaissance faire. And let me just say, those are a bunch of incredibly fierce and talented performers.
I was there last summer. It’s a good time!
Reich: Incredibly talented, comedic improvisers, so good at thinking on their feet. Those long days, on your feet all day—
Mulligan: Just hoping to get a callback — hoping to get a callback for the Orbit gum activation in Times Square, where me and 20 other improvisers will be paid $100 to receive 10 hours of abuse from real strangers on the street.
Reich: Dude, I did a month of background work on Third Watch, which was like the worst Law & Order.
Mulligan: I was a camera PA on Criminal Intent, which was the actual worst Law & Order! And it wasn’t even during the Vincent D’Onofrio episodes.
Reich: Oh my god. Didn’t even have the pleasure of watching Vincent work.
Going back to your big anniversary announcement, I think a lot of folks will think, Oh, wow! Dropout’s got a big anniversary announcement, is it going to be a new series? New content? Guest stars? and I can see a name change puzzling people. You give a great explanation in the announcement video, but in pure layman’s terms, is this a big deal? I feel like a lot of your fans already know you guys as Dropout.
Reich: Yeah, we told ourselves we would do this when it felt most natural to do it. So in a way, it’s not a big deal at all. And I think a piece of that, to your point, Susana, is intentional. More people who are active fans think of us as Dropout than CollegeHumor now, and this message is almost for everyone else. We do, in the back half of the video, race through a ton of new show announcements.
Don’t think I was going to ignore that, Sam!
Mulligan: I would say too, to Sam’s point, I think internally, we’re just “us.” We’re a comedy company and we have enough glibness and irreverence to have a healthy sense of humor about something like a brand change, internally as a company. We’re like, Yes, this is something that of course we’re having fun with, and I think you can see the, like, tongue-in-cheek-ness in the video itself, which is super fun, but also very earnest celebration of all the amazing work that everybody that works on the platform has done.
I would say, Susana, the obviousness of it is a testament to how tapped in you are. People that are very close to us feel in on the joke, people that are very close to us are like, Of course, I’ve known that CollegeHumor was doing Dropout — I was there in 2018 when the thing launched. But I guarantee you every 18 months, some video creator will be like [in a salacious YouTube thumbnail voice] “What happened to CollegeHumor?” and the first 100 comments will be “They’re the most healthy and sustainable they’ve ever been as a company. What are you talking about?” But that video will still go viral.
So there’s a huge track of the mainstream that I think this actually is worth having an internal, well-made, funny statement about. Because it’s definitely saturated our fan base, but my god, every time you go out — there’s even a joke in the video about how your dad will still call us CollegeHumor. That’s kind of an element of what’s being spoken to.
Reich: The truth is — and we don’t go into this at length in the video — we wanted to make the video even before we recognized that we were going to do the name change. We thought five years would be a good opportunity for us to do a little callback to our original announcement video, a kind of update. But we’ve been wanting to do away with the name CollegeHumor almost since Dropout was first formed.
The name was “Dropout” — as opposed to “CollegeHumor Plus,” or “Pro” or whatever else it could have been — specifically because we were itching to distance ourselves from that brand name. It’s been a blessing and a curse for a long time, the blessing being one of the few brands with quote-unquote “staying power” on the internet, so it has recognizability with a few different generations. And the curse being... pretty self-explanatory. We could not be more distant from our frat-y roots at this point.
You got Whose Line Is It Anyway?’s Wayne Brady on Make Some Noise this season, and in a Tumblr post you said he told you, “There are only two people doing taped improv correctly: us and you.” If I said that Dropout is a notable part of the history of improv performance, both in shows like Make Some Noise and Game Changer — and Dimension 20, that is improvised performance — does that activate your impostor syndrome, or is that something that’s been on your dream board for five years?
Reich: Every waking moment of my day activates my impostor syndrome. But at the same time, I love that sentiment. And I think some of that’s been a happy accident. We set out with a lot of scripted content on Dropout, and it didn’t really work. It’s once we broke away from IAC that we started to do more unscripted stuff, simply because it was what was working on the platform. And I think it’s allowed us really to explore the world of improv more than we ever thought we would get to. And Brennan I knew as a world-class improviser and comedic performer even before I knew he was a GM.
Brennan just shot something for us as a part of a new show, that’s an improv-based show, that’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen him do.
Mulligan: Aw, thanks, man. That’s very kind.
Reich: And Brennan’s been through [Upright Citizens Brigade], and I’ve been through UCB, and so many of us have had this training. But Hollywood told us for years and years that there was no great way to capture this on film. And here we are. It’s kind of serendipitous and magical.
Mulligan: Yeah. It’s very special. The impostor syndrome is very real, but I find myself bouncing back and forth between the feeling of — When Wayne Brady says something like that, you sort of can’t accept something that nice. So you deflect it away. But also, I feel like there’s something that would be too glib and dismissive to not be cognizant about the incredible fortune that we’ve had.
If you have a sober eye and look around at the entertainment landscape at other places that are able to celebrate improv and celebrate spontaneous comedy, whether on Game Changer or Make Some Noise and things that push the envelope and play with the form — or even, one of my favorite things to do with Dimension 20 is taking improv comedians, who their entire creative life has been around following game, comedic beats, very in that UCB sketch structure, and let them open their narrative wings and really dip into storytelling in a way they often don’t get an opportunity to do on stage. So on the one hand, yes, very much impostor syndrome, and Oh, something that nice can’t be true. And then on the other hand, I do recognize the rare air we are breathing with having a space like this, so that’s really wonderful.
I wasn’t completely certain that you’d slipped some stealth reveals into the announcement video, but I figured it was pretty likely. Which of them are you most looking forward to? Or, do you have a favorite Easter egg snuck into the video?
Reich: OK, the one that Brennan did the episode of recently that I was wild about is a show we’re calling Very Important People. And it’s a reboot of something we did 12 or 13 years ago on CollegeHumor.
Mulligan: One of my favorite CollegeHumor things of all time when I was a fan at home watching CollegeHumor.
Reich: [And it was] called Hello My Name Is. And the format was that we would put, specifically Josh Ruben, in really ambitious makeup, and we would sit him down for a Charlie Rose-style interview in that character, which he would have only a minute to create. We rebooted that as Very Important People. Vic Michaelis is hosting, and the cast is this rotating cast of characters from our improv world and it’s so... Every once in a while I get what I call the “quality chills”? I got quality chills while I was watching the Dungeons and Drag Queens shoot; this creepy-crawly sensation on your back like, This is really good. Because this is really good. A lot of quality chills.
Mulligan: Hell yeah.
Brennan, do you have a favorite Easter egg from the video?
Reich: There are three seasons of Dimension 20 in that lineup of quick titles...
Mulligan: Do I have a favorite Easter egg? All I’m gonna say is this: The bag of chips I eat in the video was a real bag of chips, and I really ate the whole bag by myself. So when you see me finish the bag on camera, I housed that whole bag of chips. And I don’t want anyone to say that’s movie magic. I don’t want anyone to say that that was fake. That was an entire bag of Cool Ranch Doritos hidden in a Chompsky’s bag that the art department made, and I put that whole thing to bed. I don’t ask for much, but I’m gonna good and goddamn get my credit: I ate the whole bag of chips, OK?
Reich: This is not an endorsement. The Chompsky’s company does not confirm or deny that Chompsky’s chips are in fact Cool Ranch Doritos.