Everything is amazing—and nobody's happy. Unless, of course, you're Louis CK, who recently announced on Conan O'Brien's show a bold new business plan for the comedy world. Instead of striking the traditional deal with HBO, Comedy Central, Showtime, or other TV networks to broadcast his sold-out set, he’ll be streaming it himself, making an exclusive, edited version available online scheduled for Dec. 10th, a month after his Nov. 10th performance.
A punk-rock move to be sure—one that's reminiscent of Radiohead's DIY experimentation, but with a very Fugazi-like price tag of $5 a stream. The news may have surprised TV audiences and cable execs, particularly HBO and Comedy Central, content providers that have made comedy specials part of their brand. HBO also hosted Lucky Louie, Louis CK's sitcom that the network cancelled after one season. (FX, the home of his Emmy-nominated series Louie, is not in on the act.) But for fellow comedians and Louis CK admirers, going it solo on his website was a logical next step for the veteran comedian.
"A few months ago, he mentioned this idea to me and asked me if I thought he should do it," says Marc Maron, host of the hit podcast-turned-radio show WTF with Marc Maron. "I told him he should do it. He's worked hard, his stand-up was building, his show is successful—he's built enough of a career, is elevated enough that it makes sense. If people love what you do, why not? There's only a window of time when most of us get to do this, so enjoy that window."
It's also insight into the veteran comedian's timely next act: web innovator. "His announcement didn't surprise me because despite his gruff persona, he's pretty savvy when it comes to technology," says Rob Delaney, a comedian who built his successful career as a professional joke slinger through his wildly popular Twitter feed (which has resulted in a TV show pilot he's developing with Comedy Central). "His old website was a really fun cool site to visit way before any other comedians were even online. He's secretly a big nerd." As well as a savvy businessman in the fractal chaos of the comedy industry. "He's very particular and if he's in a position to control every aspect of production, and then distribution, why not do it? No waiting around for a network to find a spot for it in their schedule. Just upload it and boom."
The online venture also points to a necessary migration from networks such as HBO, that have significantly scaled back on their comedy offerings. "Why should I go through a cable network when I can just give it directly to the people who want to see it?" Louis CK said on Conan last Thursday. "It’s so much easier, and it’s an interesting experiment."
One that other established comedians are eager to try: "I'm so busy touring and writing and acting, that the thought of actually sitting down and figuring out just how this works has been beyond my grasp and energy," says Patton Oswalt, a veteran comedian and actor who's worked prodigiously in stand-up, television and film (including Jason Reitman’s upcoming indie dramedy, Young Adult). "I'm just going to let Louie, who's more comfortable and adept at being on the vanguard, figure this out. But it's always something I've considered—it's something I'm very much for, as long as someone else shows me the way. I'll bet that pretty accurately reflects how most other comedians feel about it."
There’s one aspect that Louis himself didn't get into during his announcement last week: The success of an experiment like this hinges on having enough pop culture pull that his fanbase will follow him to this new digital destination—and be willing to pay for it. It’s a maneuver, it seems, only possible by first getting the exposure from the network in the first place.
But maybe, that's always, secretly been the point. For comedians, television is now a better tool for visibility and exposure, not the Seinfeld-era, Must-See TV it once was. Not that there's anything wrong with that. "I never did HBO or Showtime or Comedy Central for the profit," says Oswalt. "I did it to increase my visibility so I could do more live comedy." And that now more than ever, a comedian’s career is in his or her own hands. "If you're depending on a network to get the word out, you're screwed. You were creative when you wrote your set—now be creative in getting the word out. Every single medium is a stepping stone towards more autonomy. At least, that's the overall goal."
Not to mention with independence comes creative and financial freedom on a scale comedians have never known before. "Louie is the first to do this, I think, and he should be the first," says Maron of the exclusive stream. "We'll see how the market bears out. But I think for any performer, whether comedian or musician, there's nothing like earning your own money through your work. Getting paid by people—not a corporation—is so much better. It goes back to feeling like a performance again—like a real show."
[Image: Flickr user aTROSSity]