I’ve been a fan of Louis C.K. since 2006. Up until the whole thing with Dane Cook, I had no idea who he was, and that’s a sad, embarrassing thing to say given what a good comedian he is.
I had my head up my ass for a very, very long time. Not just about comedy, but about everything. One of those things is what we’re going to talk about here.
In the time I’ve been a fan of Louie’s, I also discovered the comedy media.
If you think the tech media is embarrassing, all of the media outlets covering comedians and the world of stand-up comedy, and I really mean all of them, make the tech media look like The New Yorker.
It’s really something to behold … if you can stomach it. If not, just imagine the worst alt-weekly you’ve ever read, and then imagine it being ten times worse than that. That’s the comedy media.
It’s populated by people who didn’t make it in the business, or never tried, sprinkled with the liberal, ignorant sensitivities one gets from spending too much time in Manhattan living among the other white people, or hanging in their dorm room with the other “cool” kids instead of nailing members of the opposite sex.
I know this because, for a long time, I was one of those people. (This group I just told you about are also responsible for a tremendous amount of stuff you read on almost all of the popular blogs and media outlets. The difference is that the ones writing for the comedy media outlets are far less pretentious, but way more douchey.)
Sometimes the comedy media and the tech media team-up to unleash a wave of stupidity that you would normally only see in theaters when you’re observing the kind of people who turn out to see the latest Transformers movie.
The latest thing that they’re both going crazy over is this concept that, by virtue of Louie releasing his new stand-up special directly to his fans on his own website, and not doing it on HBO, he is CHANGING EVERYTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Oh. Sorry. There should be at least twenty or so more exclamation marks following EVERYTHING.
So, here’s the thing: They’re kind of right, but as always with the tech media (and not so often with the comedy media, I’m serious, they’re fucking terrible), they’re half-right.
Yes. Direct distribution does change things. This is true. But whom it changes things for is far more important, and almost never talked about by these parties.
So, there are a few key problems that need to be pointed out, that almost definitely won’t be by these parties, that you should be aware of:
1. This year, Louis C.K. has just about hit the same level of popularity George Carlin had until he passed away in 2008. Louie is everywhere, and he’s hit that cult of personality status that most comics will never reach, and will almost certainly kill for.
So if Louie goes and does something, no matter what it is, his fans are going to go and back him up.
(This is very similar to big corporations going and doing something online, and then the marketers heralding it as some kind of “social media success story” despite the fact that it only “worked” because it was that specific company doing it, and the results, which are often never made public, left a lot to be desired.
More on that in the book. You can pre-order it starting in March.)
I don’t know if there are many other people in the comedy world who could do what Louie did and turn a profit by doing so. There may be a few, but I promise you, it’s not many.
So if anything, Louie is kind of an outlier here, and it’s very dangerous (not to mention, disingenuous) to imply that other comics (or really anyone else) can just start doing this and meet the same kind of success Louie is going to have.
We just don’t know if that’s going to be the case, and the odds are? It won’t be.
2. Bill Maher recently said to The New York Times that by doing his special on Yahoo! and not HBO, “I want to do my act so that millions of people, and not just thousands at a time, can see it.
This is factually inaccurate. Both Maher and Louie are not going to hit anywhere near the number of people you think they’re going too.
Yes. On paper, Maher CAN reach millions, but the odds are he won’t.
For one thing, this is because prime time on the Internet in America tends to be when people are at work (10am to 4pm EST Monday through Friday) and when they’re at home (between 8pm and 11pm EST, which is why Hulu and Netflix run like shit during those hours.)
Can the people at work watch the Maher special? Probably not, although I’m sure some will try. The reason YouTube is as successful as it is (and this is true for web video in general) is because it’s short. So if you’re at work, you can pop something up, make the two minute investment, and then get back to what you’re doing before the boss comes around.
An hour long stand-up special isn’t conducive to that kind of environment. Neither is most stand-up material because of the content of it. I may think rape jokes can be funny, given the right build up, context, and execution, but one stray rape joke may be all it takes to get you fired if the wrong person overhears it.
So, the work day audience can be taken out of the equation.
That means you’re left with people hanging around and looking to fill the hours between after dinner and when they go to bed. That’s Maher’s sweet spot for this special, and I don’t doubt it’ll do well here, but … when people are home and there’s more than one party involved (like a wife) you gotta keep in mind that you’re not the only one making the viewing decision, which adds friction.
The more friction that’s added, the less likely someone is to do something, especially on the Web.
So between these two things we’re chipping away at the number of potential viewers for both Maher (and those streaming Louie’s special). I doubt we’re still in the millions.
Then you gotta consider any foreign restrictions (Yahoo! hasn’t said there will be any for their new comedy channel), and Maher (and any comic’s for that matter)’s niche audience.
Very, very few comedians have that cult of personality status Louis C.K. does, and Maher although he’s been around for a long time, I don’t think he’s at that level.
Especially because he’s smart and liberal, and most Americans are conservative and dumb. So again, we’re cutting away the number of people who are going to be watching this special.
In reality, Maher would have been better off with a special on HBO, not only for these reasons, but because the majority of the population are Baby Boomers, and they’ve been trained to expect to find comedy there because of the success of the Carlin specials, among others.
Even today, despite web video being around in a form that can be viewed in a standardized way since 2006, they aren’t too big into “discovery”. That’s why Boomers like Facebook so much: Because other people (usually their family) are doing the discovery for them.
(I’m generalizing here, but if you look at the statistics on the usage of Facebook, there’s more than enough to back this up for most people’s parents and grandparents.)
The Web is a niche platform. Nobody wants to say that out loud, but it’s not like television. Everyone’s experience is different and there are an increasing amount of factors that are emerging that shape what you’re going to be exposed to while you use it. So by putting something exclusively on the Web, you’re subjecting yourself to that fragmentation (there’s a buzzword for you) that you wouldn’t be exposed to by placing your content on a television station.
Yes … there’s a different set of challenges in placing your stuff on television, but they’re not as extensive. With HBO it’s just a question of whether or not people want to pay to have access to those stations. That’s one issue versus dozens, if not hundreds, when it comes to putting your stuff on the Web.
(Not to mention: The viewing experience on television is way, way better, than it is on a computer. Given the option, most people will always choose their television over the computer.)
3. It’s almost impossible to build up a sizable audience using just the Internet. In most cases, the Internet is all we have to work with. So a lot of us are just plain fucked.
Think of it like this: Self-distribution of Louie’s new special only works because it’s Louie.
There were these moments in time where opportunities existed, and people broke through because of them (see: Maddox and Tucker Max with blogging, Shit My Dad Says with Twitter, Rome Sweet Rome on Reddit, all of the Tumblrs that became books, ect.) Once those people broke through, those opportunities mostly vanished.
I said mostly because I’m sure something CAN break through, but there seems to be a correlation between people breaking out on a certain medium, and then that medium becoming harder and harder for others to do the same. This also has a lot to do with the mass adoption of an activity. All of the things I mentioned above are now very much mainstream (yes, even Tumblr), so the sheer volume of users also keeps the good stuff from standing out.
(The Web may be niche, but everyone has access to it. I know, it seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. That’s just the nature of it.)
The idea that “if something you do is good, it will stand out” that so many people believe is bullshit. That statement is not true when it comes to the Internet. It was up until about 2007, but it’s not any longer.
(Thank the iPhone. More on that some other time.)
Even in these stories you hear about with e-book authors who suddenly “made it” by virtue of putting their stuff on Amazon, you almost always see this caveat buried deep in the article that mentions the person had spent a lot of money on marketing, or in Amanda Hocking’s case, that her books were picked-up and reviewed favorably by a decent number of book bloggers, and as Hocking herself points out on her blog, the book bloggers recommending her book, and not by virtue of being on Amazon, that’s what caused her books to sell so well.
There’s almost always this “one last thing …” deal when it comes to stories about people who became popular on the Internet, especially as it’s gone mainstream. The organic successes almost don’t exist anymore. Even many of the popular memes of 2011 owe their success to that “one last thing … ” caveat. They didn’t just come out of the Web organically like they used too.
Hocking had the book bloggers (who are apparently a dying breed), other people had a few thousand to throw around in advertising. Given the current state of the economy, I’m going to go ahead and assume that all of you (myself included) don’t have a few thousand to throw around on promoting something.
Given all this, if you’re creating stuff on the Web, and selling it directly to people, you’re going to be waiting a really, really long time before you turn a profit, if you ever do.
So it’s not really the “future of publishing”, or any of that other stupid shit the tech and comedy blogs are spewing out.
I used to think that we could be our own publishers and cut out the middle man, but I learned the hard way that it’s only true for some, not all, and I see this truth played out every single day. You do too. But the tech and comedy bloggers? It’s like they’re on another planet. So they kind of bury this and just tell you about the few exceptions to the rule.
Yes. It’s a model that CAN work for the RIGHT people. But you and I? We’re not the right people. Louie is.