June 13, 2024


Life is art

Ben Marshall, Martin Herlihy, John Higgins’s Internet Comedy

Clockwise from top, John Higgins, Martin Herlihy, and Ben Marshall.
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland for New York Magazine

It’s 80 degrees out but feels hotter inside this four-bedroom apartment on the upper Upper West Side, where the AC is off to cut noise and the three members of sketch-comedy group Please Don’t Destroy are on their 19th take of the same 15-second stretch of video. The setup of this sketch is that the guys — Martin Herlihy, John Higgins, and Ben Marshall — are all watching Family Feud when an Anonymous-style hacker intercepts their TV feed and addresses them by name. They consider and film every possible variation on the opening segment like food scientists lab-testing a new variety of Twinkie: Should they lean forward when the hacker appears on TV or all fall back onto the couch? Should they play it like terror or just confusion? At what point should their friend — and today’s cameraman — Pete Christmann whip the iPhone around to catch their reactions?

The hacker character isn’t scary, just extremely lame in that male-coded sort of way where he wants to talk about dogecoin and maybe meet up at Barcade. Partway through, Herlihy realizes that the sketch — which, like many of their videos, will probably get at least 100,000 likes when they post it to Twitter and TikTok — is simply them “just being mean to a weird guy.”

“Yep,” Marshall says. “That’s what comedy is!”

If you are even vaguely interested in comedy and know what a “For You” page is, odds are you’ve seen videos made by Please Don’t Destroy. You probably also have no idea that that’s what the group is called — maybe you have referred to its members as “those comedy boys” or the “funny TikTok roommates.” (They signed off emails to me as “The Boys.”) Herlihy, Higgins, and Marshall — who are 22, 25, and 26, respectively — started going viral over the past year as live comedy was mostly shut down and everyone was feeling the burnout of being at home and online all day. Their frenetic videos usually throw the viewer into a scene between roommates in this exceedingly normal apartment, often starting mid-sentence with one character laying out something balls-to-the-wall kooky as if it’s the plainest fact you’ve ever heard (a new type of dog has been invented, Netflix made a documentary about Herlihy’s boring life) before launching into a litany of absurd and surprising jokes on the main premise, causing even more absurd reactions. Their videos capture what it feels like to share all your space and time with weird roommates, in a way that manages to be comforting: They have the rapport and self-assured rhythm of friends who spent the pandemic making one another laugh.

They had each been posting individual comedy videos to their respective Twitter accounts that would get a few thousand likes; the first time I saw one of their videos was when Herlihy posted a sketch called “Colorblind Glasses” in May 2020, which he says “was the first one that was like, Oh, wow, people are seeing this.” By the fall, the group was posting more sketches that take place in this apartment — where Herlihy and Marshall live with Christmann and Brady Lees — sometimes with just one of the trio talking on-camera to an off-camera straight man, or with all three, or with the three of them plus Christmann and Lees. Then, in March 2021, they exploded: Marshall tweeted a Please Don’t Destroy sketch in which he announces he has been vaccinated, only for the others to realize that whatever happened to him (“I think it was the Dumbrekka?” he says. “It was the cheapest one, like $300 or something”) was definitely not Fauci approved.

The camera alternates between Herlihy and Higgins reacting with horror and Marshall nonchalantly listing off his post-vaxx symptoms, such as “expelling a ton of black bile.” It ends with two punch lines for the price of one: a topical Johnson & Johnson dig and the slapstick beat of Marshall passed out on the floor. As soon as it’s over, you let it loop back to the start to catch the five to ten jokes you missed the first time around.

Heidi Gardner from SNL was one of the big names who shared a Please Don’t Destroy video early on. She first saw the group perform about two years ago, when she was invited to one of the weekly live sketch shows the guys were organizing at the time. “Watching them, they reminded me of when I was a teenager, and it was like the first time I saw [the sketch group] Stella or the first time I saw Jack Black,” says Gardner. “And I was just like, Holy shit. I could watch this all night long. I almost felt embarrassed of how much of a fan I quickly became.”

The group’s results tend to look easy, tossed off, but today the guys have shot a full hour of footage for what will later become a one-minute sketch. We turn the AC back on and settle into the living room, which is like an I Spy game for fans of their sketches: They’re sitting on the couch I’ve seen in videos like “Nothing Like Sundays With the Guys” (you know, the one where they watch a David Foster Wallace interview as if it’s a football game). The fake Shailene Woodley 2K21 video game sits in their media console, and the framed black-and-white graduation photo of Herlihy and his “classmate” SpongeBob SquarePants stands on a bar cart. “They’re less souvenirs,” says Herlihy, “and more us not wanting to clean up.”

The group known as Please Don’t Destroy was founded in 2017 at — like any number of gangly-comedy-boy collectives before it — NYU. Herlihy and Higgins are both from the New York area, while Marshall is from Savannah. Herlihy, who liked to write short stories in high school, jokes that “as a 13-year-old, I wanted Simon Rich’s life.” Marshall made movies at his arts high school, including one that featured a very embarrassing Harlem shake, which he shared in a video he made for Comedy Central’s social media last year. At NYU, he and Higgins joined the student sketch group Hammerkatz. Listening to the three of them explain how they started doing comedy together is like watching those cute old-couple segments from When Harry Met Sally … , if one of the meet-cutes featured a throuple made up of white men in their early-to-mid-20s.

“When I was a senior and Martin was a freshman, we were both in the stand-up club Astor Place Riots,” says Marshall. “Martin was really funny —”

“And Ben was fine —” says Herlihy.

“And we were like, ‘We should start a show to do more stand-up,’ because we just thought we were going to be stand-ups. It was called Please Don’t Destroy My Farm at the PIT, and it ended up being this really high-concept thing where I was an evil businessman coming to destroy Martin’s farm. We were hosting in character, and it was so unnecessarily complicated. We purely did character-based bits. And we had John come on and play a cow, in a full costume, who didn’t say any words the whole time. And then eventually —”

“I begged to speak onstage with these guys,” says Higgins.

They graduated one after another in 2017, 2018, and 2019 and kept doing comedy shows with NYU peers like Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri. They also started making (and still make) slightly longer sketch videos destined for YouTube with sets, costumes, music, and extras that are full of rubes and misunderstandings, calling to mind the Netflix show I Think You Should Leave. During the pandemic, they spent every day writing together — first over video call, then with Higgins walking over from his apartment nearby — and they haven’t stopped. “This is something we were largely doing to keep ourselves sane during the pandemic,” says Marshall. “It’s something to work on and do every day to feel like you’re creating something.”

I find myself applying boy-band logic to their roles in the group: Herlihy’s the meticulous one who always finds the weirdest turn of phrase for a character, Marshall’s the unifier who keeps them all on track, and Higgins is the affable wild card, happy to stick to joke pitching and acting. “They are the brain masters behind the videos,” Higgins says, pointing to the others. “Brain masters,” Herlihy and Marshall repeat back at him. Whoever pitches a sketch owns it: He’ll edit the footage, share different cuts with the group for notes, and put it on his personal Twitter.

Three white guys doing comedy and posting it online is a story as old as video-sharing itself — the Ur-white-boy comedic trio the Lonely Island is key to the story of how YouTube became YouTube. The Please Don’t Destroy guys acknowledge that. “It’s a caveat of this entire conversation,” Marshall says. “We went to NYU and are not drowning in debt. We’re very privileged to have access to what we’ve had access to.” Although Herlihy doesn’t bring it up himself, his father is Adam Sandler collaborator Tim Herlihy, who wrote The Wedding Singer and Happy Gilmore, among many other Sandler classics. Martin was recently credited as Teenage Zombie in the film Hubie Halloween, which his father co-wrote with Sandler. (“Hope my star making turn as Teenage Zombie will be a HUGE part of the piece!!!” Herlihy writes to me when I email him to confirm the connection.)

If their work touches on any identity at all, it’s generational, a zillennial doing away with sketch-comedy conventions — the story arcs, the base reality, all that Upright Citizens Brigade shit. “Especially in the videos they’re putting on TikTok and Twitter, there’s a definite awareness of how everyone has ADHD now,” says Gardner. “So their pacing is incredible. Everything’s fast and loose and wild, but all the jokes are there.” At the same time, the videos feel like an update of the classic sitcom concept of New Yorkers just hanging out on a couch. Please Don’t Destroy’s videos capture the tension and strange, shifting dynamics of being in your 20s and trapped in a tiny space with people like the “guy who loves musicals and also has no awareness of personal boundaries,” who keeps barging in to accost his roommate about musicals that don’t exist with names like Candlelight and Good-bye Toledo. Many of us have lived with that person. Some of us have been that person.

Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland for New York Magazine

Still, the group’s sketches stand out on Twitter and TikTok for being exactly that: sketches rather than strung-together non sequiturs. On TikTok, these guys’ self-uploads are doing Bo Burnham numbers: That vaccine sketch now has over 19 million views. Gardner envisions them going on SNL one day, and their newfound viral fame has gotten them some attention from other established people too. “Patton Oswalt retweets some of our stuff,” Marshall says. “He has been really nice.” What they really want to do next, though, is write a movie or a TV show. I spy a corkboard tucked away in a corner with color-coded index cards on it. “Oh, that was an outline for a movie that we’re writing,” Marshall says.

“We’re writing stuff to star in,” says Higgins.

“The dream,” says Herlihy. They’re about to start pitching around a scripted series they’ve been working on with Anthony King, backed by Seth Meyers and Late Night producer Mike Shoemaker’s production company.

Two weeks after our interview, I go to an outdoor comedy show in the backyard of the City Reliquary in Williamsburg. Just as the opening act goes on, it starts to pour. I find myself pinned in the back behind a herd of umbrellas, with no view of the stage, waiting out the rain as the ground turns into a swamp. After a couple of sets of standard Brooklyn alternative-comedy fare (including, yes, a comedic PowerPoint presentation in the rain), on comes Please Don’t Destroy. A big tent is blocking my view as Herlihy, Higgins, and Marshall stand onstage; I can see only their legs.

For a wet and miserable audience, they pull out one sketch after another, running through them like snappy vaudeville pros. There is one about adults in the Nerf-gun aisle, another about an all-American guy (Marshall) whose son (Higgins) is inexplicably Italian. These are capital-R routines, the kind that work best live. The kind people used to buy Nichols and May records for. It is a brilliant contrast after a year of watching their videos, and they seem stoked to be performing live again, a world away from the experience of video fame — just three pairs of legs sprinting around a stage.