The stand-up comedy world is in transition, according to comedian Patton Oswalt. Oswalt gave a terrific keynote address at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival in July. In the speech, Oswalt spoke to both comedians and industry professionals, delivering a wake-up call for everyone involved in comedy: in today’s do-it-yourself (DIY) entertainment world, there are fewer gatekeepers to success.
“The days about luck and being given are about to end,” Oswalt said. “They’re about to go away.”
Recent developments in stand-up comedy support Oswalt’s views. Notably, comedian Louis C.K. released his stand-up special Live at The Beacon Theater exclusively on his website for $5 per purchase. The move earned over $1 million and gained national media coverage. Comedians Aziz Ansari and Jim Gaffigan followed suit, releasing their own one-hour specials exclusively on their respective sites. The success of these moves is great news for comedians with name recognition.
In the era of George Carlin and Robert Klein, comedians had to hope to land an HBO special if they wanted to release a taped, one-hour stand-up comedy show to the public. In recent years, networks like Comedy Central and Showtime have presented stand-up specials, but the general concept remained the same: national television exposure was needed to present a stand-up comedy special. Today, the success of web-exclusive specials shows that an audience will gravitate to a self-released Internet special. The benefits are twofold; the fan gets the special at a cheaper price with completely uncensored content, while the comedian earns a greater share of the special’s profits.
Television executives have scooped up comics’ self-released content, giving promising DIY artists the chance to create a television show based on their self-made work. Comedian Marc Maron recently earned this opportunity, thanks to his wildly popular WTF with Marc Maron podcast, as IFC greenlit a full season of a comedy based on his podcast. Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang Bang also made the successful transition from podcast to IFC comedy. And just this summer, popular New York comedians Sara Schaefer and Nikki Glaser used the popularity of their You Had To Be There podcast to land The Nikki and Sara Show, an upcoming weekly late-night comedy show on MTV.
The ease with which comedians can reach potential fans – through podcasting or Tweeting – lies in stark contrast to the Tonight Show-centered track that every stand-up comedian had to pursue decades ago. A five-minute spot with Johnny Carson launched the careers of comics like Stephen Wright, Jerry Seinfeld, and Roseanne Barr. Today, a comedian like Rob Delaney – whose hilarious tweets @RobDelaney have earned him fans around the world – can become a big ticket-seller without any network television exposure.
Stand-up comedians’ increased exposure from Internet and social media has also led to increased expectations from the audience. Jon Stewart lamented as much in a recent Daily Show interview with Chris Rock.
“In the old days, you had fifteen minutes of material – half of it was stolen – and you’d feed your family for life,” Stewart joked. “Then the variety show comes out, comics do their five minutes,” then return to the clubs to learn that they need to write new material. The prevalence of YouTube, which allows for rapid and repeated viewings of comedy sets, has heightened comics’ need to be prolific writers. Chris Rock agreed with Stewart’s complaints, joking that a musician like Sting can perform “Roxanne” at every concert to happy fans, while comedians cannot repeat the same joke in without disappointing the audience.