Matt Rife, and TikTok as comedy platform

A year ago, Matt Rife was just another struggling comedian, but then he blew up on TikTok. (Photos: NYTimes)
After 11 years in comedy clubs, Matt Rife was selling about 70 tickets per show, sometimes clearing as little as $150 a night.

He was not a big enough name last summer to earn an invitation to the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, an annual showcase for established comics and promising up-and-comers. But he decided to go anyway.اضافة اعلان

During that trip, Rife underwent a surprise transformation from middling road comedian to star, a change he described last week over a cheeseburger lunch in Syracuse, New York.

“Last July, I was in Montreal for a festival I was not invited to,” he said. “I had to fly myself out, put myself up for no pay. I was sitting there at dinner with my friend and my manager. I’m about to post this video of crowd work. I was watching it, and I was like, ‘This is so stupid. Why am I even doing this?’”

The video in question showed him onstage in Phoenix going back and forth with a female audience member who said she had broken up with her boyfriend because, as she put it, “he didn’t do anything” when he came home from his job. During the exchange, Rife learned that the woman’s ex was an emergency room worker.

“Oh, I’m sorry — you broke up with a hero?” he said, to roars of laughter.

Despite his reservations, Rife posted the two-and-a-half-minute video on TikTok, which he had joined a few months earlier. He titled the clip “The Lazy Hero”.

“That video did 20 million views in two or three days,” he said. “It became this massive chain reaction and an explosion of an audience. From then on, every video I posted went viral.”

Over the next few months, Rife, 27, racked up 15.6 million TikTok followers. The online success allowed him to leap ahead of his fellow club comics, making him a significant draw.

When he announced his “ProbleMATTic World Tour” last month, he sold out 260 dates in North America, Europe, and Australia in 48 hours. The flurry of sales — 600,000 tickets in all, each ranging between about $50 and $95, according to Live Nation — crashed the Ticketmaster website. Some resale tickets cost more than $500.

Although Rife has developed an easy stage manner, thanks to the countless hours he has spent at the mic, his popularity may have as much to do with his cheekbones as his comedic chops. Tall and strikingly handsome, with blue eyes, a chiseled jawline and full lips, Rife is something rare in the comedy world: a heartthrob.

He has played his looks to his advantage. A black-and-white glossy photograph on his website shows him shirtless and tattooed in a bad-boy pose. His hair is always artfully tousled like that of a boy band member. He wears rolled-up T-shirts onstage that show off his toned biceps.

His fans tend to be young and female. They shout out to him, ply him with gifts and regularly proposition him. His club dates are often raucous events, more “Magic Mike” than Comedy Central Presents.

He titled his first YouTube special “Only Fans,” he has said, because people were searching “Matt Rife Only Fans” on the internet, to see if he had an account on the adult-themed website. The clickbait worked: The show garnered more than 8.5 million views.

Rife’s material, heavy on intimacy and relationships, and his viral TikToks, which focus on his interactions with people in the crowd, seem to encourage audience participation and add to the fevered atmosphere of his shows.

To keep up with demand, he has been doing as many as 10 performances a weekend. In Syracuse last week, he did six shows over three days at the Funny Bone comedy club — all sold out — in addition to joining two friends who host a paranormal podcast, “Haunted Homies,” for a packed live show at the same venue.

“This time last year, I couldn’t sell out one show in a town,” Rife said. “It’s still so new and exciting that I’m, like, ‘OK, you need to do everything.’”

Gag gifts
As show time neared, Rife rode in a drizzling rain through a desolate part of Syracuse, passing large tracts of undeveloped land. At the wheel of the car was Brandon Manzonelli, 33, a former professional soccer player turned male model who for six years was Rife’s roommate in Los Angeles and is now his road manager.

Rife reflected on a recent career highlight. He was invited to perform at a comedy show put on by Dave Chappelle in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He also hung out with Chappelle.

“We just smoked and talked for, like, four hours,” Rife said. “And he gave me 30 years’ worth of advice.”

What did Chappelle tell him?“He emphasized the importance of staying true to yourself and to not adhere to industry or network standards,” Rife said. “Even today, fighting cancel culture with every show he does, I just admire him for that so much.”

Onstage, Rife spins jokes from topics such as autistic children, pedophilia, and people in wheelchairs, alternating between being sweet and devilish. After he talked crudely about women’s bodies during a February appearance on the “Stiff Socks” podcast, he drew heavy criticism on social media. So far, he has not faced a controversy that has affected his career or made him rethink his approach.

“You’re mad at somebody that’s just trying to make you laugh?” Rife said. “That’s such an insane concept to me.”

By the time Rife ducked into the green room of the Funny Bone, the 300-seat venue was full and buzzing with energy. “You go to places like this and there’s really nothing else for them to do,” he said, explaining his fondness for smaller markets. “They’re so nice and they’re so there for the show.”

Rife missed his junior and senior proms — he was on the road, doing gigs. Then came a decade of grinding. The high points included his stints as a co-host of MTV’s short-lived “TRL” reboot and as a cast member of the sketch show “Wild ’N Out.” He also made an appearance on an episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and saw his name in People magazine when he was romantically linked to actress Kate Beckinsale.

“There are all these young comics now who think they’re going to do what he did with TikTok,” Campanelli said backstage. “You’re not 12 years in. You’re not Matt Rife.”

In a moment, Rife was called to the stage.

“Syracuse, what’s up?” he said to whoops and screams.

After the show, audience members who had paid $150 for a photo with the star began lining up near the stage as Rife relaxed in the green room. As recently as April, he said, he would stay after his shows to mingle with anyone who wanted to meet him. But the lines got so long — “I was there for an hour and half,” he said — that he put a cap on the number of fans.

It’s possible that his fans will rarely see him perform in a place as intimate as the Funny Bone in the years to come. On this night, about 30 people were gathered when he finally emerged. Amanda Alfred, 25, was halfway down the line.

“This is my first comedy show,” she said, adding, “It’s surreal being here. God, I’m nervous.”

When it was her turn for a photo, she told Rife that she has been a fan since his time on “Wild ’N Out.” He laughed, saying, “Whoa, don’t age me like that.”

They turned to face the photographer. Just before the picture was snapped, Alfred put her arm around Rife’s waist and held him there, if only for a moment.

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