Laughing all the way to the bank

By Alex Fiore

It used to be frowned upon, but it seems mainstream comedians are now going for a cheap laugh.

An interesting trend in the comedy world is starting to take shape: Stand-up comics are taking the release of their content into their own hands, as opposed to the traditional HBO/Comedy Central special.

Stand-up comic Louis C.K. is credited with starting the trend. In light of a more traditional release, the star of the hit FX show Louie decided to release his performance at the Beacon Theater in New York City on his website for a one-time fee of $5.

The move was seen as a leap of faith by C.K., who implored fans not to illegally download the show, which was released in December.

“To those who might wish to ‘torrent’ this video: look, I don’t really get the whole ‘torrent’ thing,” C.K. said in a news release. “I don’t know enough about it to judge either way. But I’d just like you to consider this: I made this video extremely easy to use against well-informed advice. I was told that it would be easier to torrent the way I made it, but I chose to do it this way anyway, because I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without ‘corporate’ restrictions.”

The decision to skirt the middleman seems to have made a splash in the comedy community: stand-up comic Jim Gaffigan relased a 75 minute special called Mr. Universe exclusively on his website in April for $5.

Additionally, $1 of each purchase of Mr. Universe will be donated to the Bob Woodruff Foundation, a charity that helps veterans and their families.

Independent releases are not new in the entertainment industry: Radiohead’s “pay what you want” model for its 2007 release of In Rainbows was met with critical and financial success.

However, the Radiohead method has not necessarily taken off within the music industry. By the time Radiohead released In Rainbows, the group had already established itself within the music community and developed a rabid, cult-like fanbase.

It seems to me as though for this model to work within the music community, the artists independently releasing their material need to have already established themselves somewhat.

Websites like allow independent artists to host their material and sell it in a pay what you want fashion, but costs for a musical artist tend to be higher than those of a comedian. When most bands are splitting revenue amongst band members, and have to maintain equipment and/or a crew, allowing people to pay what they want (including nothing) simply doesn’t work.

For comedians, it’s different. Comics like Gaffigan and C.K. take all the risk, but they also take all the revenue.

So for comedians: make it cheap, make it accessible. It could pay off in the long run.