Late last month, Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari released a brand new, one-hour stand-up comedy special called Dangerously Delicious. Featuring bits on 50 Cent getting confused about fruit and Ansari’s chubby teenaged cousin Harris—a favorite on both this and his previous special—the content of the show was nothing revolutionary, but the method in which he delivered it to his fans was of note. Unlike his 2010 special, Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, which he released via Comedy Central, Ansari uploaded the video to his website and charged a $5 fee to fans wanting to stream or download it.
“It seems like this is the thing to do at this moment when so much is changing and nobody’s really figured out how to do anything,” Ansari said, “In this era, [with] the way people consume media, the way people release media has not caught up.”
This mode of advertiser-free, direct-to-public distribution is the hottest new trend in comedy, a medium in which fans are quick to develop one-on-one ties to their favorite stand-ups. Unlike bands who stand on stages behind instruments and monikers, stand-up comedians dig into the saddest and silliest corners of their psyches to hand you jokes at their own expense. When there’s no falseness or enigma standing between the talent and their fans, why should there be major corporations and sponsors?
“It’s good for comedy that these guys can put the networks in a shitty position,” fellow stand-up Jim Norton told Huffington Post, “It forces the networks to treat comedians differently.”
Norton’s friend Louis C.K. is at the root of the phenomenon, with comedians like Ansari and Jim Gaffigan—whose new special ‘Mr Universe’ went on sale this past Wednesday on his website—following in hot pursuit.
If you’ve been in a coma since Thanksgiving and missed it, the story basically goes like this:
Stand-up comedian and TV showrunner Louis C.K. shot a comedy special titled ‘Live at the Beacon Theater’ with money from his own pocket. Not willing to compromise the content of his act and eager to experiment with new modes of distribution, C.K. built an iron-clad new website where the special could be streamed or downloaded for a cost of just $5. Within 10 days, C.K. had amassed over $1,000,000 in profits—profits that he could see in his own bank account, and not those of his investors—proving the people who warned him about the imminent failure of such a venture at the hands of pirates wrong.
“Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation,” C.K. wrote on his website, “I’m just some guy. I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money.”
The production reportedly cost C.K. $250,000, every penny of which was paid off less than a fortnight after the website went live. As for the other cut of the pie: a quarter went into the pockets of his staff (“Christmas bonus!”), $280,000 went directly to the charities The Fistula Foundation, The Pablove Foundation, Charity: Water, Kiva and Green Chimneys (listen to C.K. explain what each of the charities does to Jimmy Fallon here), while the final portion will go to, “Rent and care of my children.” C.K. added, “In any case, to me, 220k is enough out of a million… I never viewed money as being “my money” I always saw it as “the money.” It’s a resource. If it pools up around me then it needs to be flushed back out into the system.”
The mere fact that people were willing to shell out their money—no matter how small the amount was in comparison to the $20+ price tag on most comedy special DVDs these days—to support an artist like C.K. is a miraculous thing, given that just five years ago diehard Radiohead fans didn’t think twice about downloading their “Pay what you wish” album In Rainbows for nothing. Even those who usually access most of their entertainment using illegal torrenting sites took the release of Live at the Beacon Theater to mount their high horses and school those eager to access it for nothing, despite the artist’s pleas otherwise.
While obviously C.K.’s talent as a stand-up and humility as a human being contributed significantly to the success of this experimental venture, it’s worth wondering why exactly people felt so compelled to access the special with integrity and what other factors influenced the string of Ansari-esque copycats.
One major factor is the accessibility of web distribution. Unlike major television cable networks which broadcast content at specific times of the day to a select few countries and territories, content shared on the web is available everywhere, all the time. By not distributing the special in hard copy DVD or CD formats, C.K. also got rid of the annoying and effectively meaningless region codes. He asked his fans for a small fee, then gave them free reign on how they used his content—”No DRM, no regional restrictions, no crap. You can download this file, play it as much as you like, burn it to a DVD, whatever.” Basically, he trusted the people who supported his career to not be jerks, and rewarded them for it.
“I am incredibly motivated by the courage of Louis to offer his fans direct access for a low price,” Gaffigan explained to TechCrunch recently, “I will self-produce a high quality special with all new material that will be incredibly easy to download and then you will own it. Forever.”
The idea of content ownership is one that is essential to the discussion about the success of the Beacon special; while Americans are willing to shell out a small monthly fee for unlimited Netflix streaming, or sit through ads on Vevo or Hulu before they can access their new favorite videos, when it comes to paying a price for one single piece of content, we want to call it our own.
Some have said the hundreds of thousands of people who signed up to download the special are an anomaly, a direct result of C.K.’s inimitable fame, and that new comedians should not follow suit. And they’re probably right—the classic route of national tours and an eventual special on Comedy Central or HBO are the building blocks to a stand-up’s success in building a name and a fan base. After 25 years as a stand-up comedian, C.K. got his first real taste of success in 2010 with his FX series ‘Louie’, a surreal and vaguely biographical version of his life.
Just like with the distribution of his comedy special, the creation of the series was entirely in C.K.’s hands—it’s what is now known as the “Louis C.K. deal”, and almost every aspiring showrunner in the business wants a chance to experience it for themselves. After his grim but brilliant HBO sitcom Lucky Louie was cancelled after a single season, C.K. became a proven creative force—a profile that was established in 2001 with the release of cult film Pootie Tang, which he wrote and directed, and again in 2010 when his comedy special Hilarious became the first stand-up “concert” film to premiere at Sundance. With this reputation, as well as his cinematic eye and devotion for fresh content—after 15 years performing the same stale material, he began doing as his idol George Carlin did: write an hour of new material each year to ensure people remain interested in what you have to say—the response to the Beacon special was a no-brainer.
Fans will continue to support a comedian like C.K. who speaks to them honestly and promises them quality, it’s as simple as that. He worked hard to format his website in a way that made downloading the special simple (he emphasized that there would be no annoying sign-ups involved), and delivered a high quality show full of polished material. The nature of his comedy and his persona as the vulnerable, divorced underdog who loves his kids and is desperate to get laid made people even more willing to “help him out”.
In the era of crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and subscription-based services like Spotify, it’s been proven that consumers are willing to pay for what they want and love if it means supporting artists and cutting down on the input of advertisers and executives who, up until now, controlled what, how and when we watched and listened to media. By putting the power back into the hands of the creatives, we are ensuring uncompromised entertainment.
“It’s a very rare thing, where you answer to no one at all as a comedian,” Ansari told the New York Times. “Now you can even put it out the way you want.”