Reality Check: Internet Comedy Success

What has brought out the forehead slapping in me today is the fascination that my comic brethren have with the repeated mantra of how The Internet will make us all rich and famous.  Like most trends within the comedy biz, it’s not nearly as true as we like to believe…and then like to repeat to everyone else.

According to every comedy podcast, blog, or article that is out there today, we are mere weeks away from doing away with the agents, club owners, bookers, and production houses that run our business.  We are on the verge of a comic utopia, where comedians can and will be rich and famous based on nothing but The Internet and self promotion, traditional methods be damned.  Here’s the rub:

Online Success Is Not As Real As You Think It Is.

We are still, much as we hate to admit it, in the Bronze Age of all things Internet Comedy Boom.  Every open mic comedian is convinced all he needs these days to become famous is a ton of Twitter followers, a great online video, and a microphone.  After all, so many have done it that way, right?

Um, no.  Not really.

“But what about Dane Cook?” People say, “He got famous due to Myspace and his website.  And what about Bo Burnham?  He was a millionaire thanks to youtube”.

A common mistake in the entertainment industry is seeing a fluke and calling it a trend.  One guy finds success doing something new and different, and we all jump to say it’s the way things are for everyone.  But it’s not a trend when it’s not something happening in huge numbers.  Member’s Only Jackets were a trend.  A couple of guys having success with something almost no one else is having success with is not a trend.  Even if you can name ten guys with true success making names for themselves online, it’s still not an impressive number when you do the math. The number of guys who did it the so-called “old-fashioned” way still greatly outnumbers them.  Just because Jenna Jameison was able to take a career in porn and get some mainstream success from it is hardly evidence that porn stars are all going mainstream.

And, most times, people spew out examples without really knowing anything about them.  Dane Cook already had a top manager, several unsold pilots, a nice movie role, several TV appearances (two Letterman spots), and one of the most popular “Comedy Central Presents” specials to date.  The fact that his CD/DVD combo was available in stores everywhere didn’t hurt.

As for Bo Burnham, he’s probably the best example of online success that came literally out of nowhere.  But not every comic is a musical act…nor nearly as talented as he is.

Fun Fact: Musical parodies and original novelty songs generate more online hits than straight “stand-up” clips.  You want more “shares” of your online clips?  Pick up a guitar, kid.  Or, better yet, have a kitten in it.

Still, Burnham’s success was real.  Can’t deny that.  But, again, that’s one guy.  And, ironically, what happened in order for Burnham to really hit it big and start seriously touring and making a living in comedy?  Well, he signed with a top talent agency, then Comedy Central.  So, while he was discovered thanks to the miracle of The Internet, he was made successful the traditional route.  If the Net were the real cash cow, no one would sign TV deals anymore.

I’m not saying (nor would I ever) that success cannot be found thanks to The Internet.  My humor book hit two bestseller lists thanks to a strong online marketing campaign and almost zero in-store promotion.  I’ve seen many comedians successfully promote shows, sell tickets, and team with Groupon for events.  There’s definitely money to be made (and publicity gotten) thanks to The Internet.  All I’m saying is that the traditional comedy business is alive and well.  And still in charge.

Want proof?

Look no further than the fact that, the second anything online is remotely popular, its creators sell it to another medium.  A comic goes viral one day, he signs a TV deal the next.  The moment anyone has any online success, he uses that success to get into the traditional, mainstream medium.  No one ever turns down the sitcom deal to keep the web series.  If The Internet was killing TV, there would be no Tosh.0.

And I say “not yet” because it’s quite possible that it will one day.  But people said that about TV killing radio.  And yet radio lives on (with ad revenues barely down in fifteen years).  In fact, almost every comic out there with a podcast keeps wishing to get—wait for it—his own radio show.

If The Internet were has huge as it could be, no one would call comedy clubs asking about the comedians TV credits. Yet audiences everywhere still equate “Television” with “funny”.  The people booking the top comedy club chains aren’t asking about your Internet popularity when you call trying to get booked there.  Chances are their first question will be about what TV credits you have.

One reason is that the sheer volume of content–good and bad–that is available also ensures that the average viewer will choose more often than not to look away.  Think about how many people got tired of Myspace because of the number of “comedians” constantly bombarding them with promotion.  Or how many Facebook invites to shows you receive (despite being a thousand miles away from the show) that you ignore.  The average viewer is more apt to go to the source he knows he can trust.

That brings us back to TV, film, and radio.  That’s why the comedians who are the most successful in terms of online success are the ones who were already known to begin with.  Lous CK is currently the best example of this.  Not only did he stream his last special himself, but he now sells all of his tickets on his own website.  Jim Gaffigan recently filmed and streamed his own special, as well.  Same goes for comedian Jim Norton.

This, of course, has every comic out there now saying that anyone can do the same thing.  Although technically true, this ignores the fact that all three of the above-mentioned comedians already found success in the business before venturing into the “Do-It-Yourself” territory.  The argument could be made that, rather than being a place for people to be discovered, The Internet is a better place for comedians to keep the audience that has already found them.

And, not for nothing, but all three above comics had specials that–online or otherwise–cost tens of thousands of dollars to make and promote.  Put six figures into filming your stand-up act, and there’s a good chance you could also get a lot of attention for your comedy.  Speaking of “old fashioned”: Having money is still a great way to make money.

The point here is not to be depressing and to dismiss the idea of online success.  As a shameless self-promoter, myself, I applaud the idea of getting publicity (and work) any way you can.  Hell, my own TV special is available for free streaming, I’ve done radio and podcasts and write this blog.   Name a passing fad in this biz, and I’ve jumped on it.  I’m a part of the very thing I am freely criticizing.

But I’m being realistic.

And we could use some reality in our business.  We spend a ton of time telling people “if you’re funny, that’s all you need” when any comedian worth his weight in dick jokes will tell you it takes way more than that.  While comedians are busy thinking that the rest of the world is waiting to discover the next big thing on Youtube, the reality is that most potential audience members are still glued to their television sets.

Now, excuse me while I go Tweet about this article.

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2 comments

  1. great article ! thanks – I can’t tell you how many comedy coach newsletters/posts I’ve read that push the online thing; I feel like – even if I had the time to fiddle with how to attract more whoevers on my facebook fan site – that wouldn’t make me funnier. with the time I do have, I like to write + perform. thanks again for posting !!!!!!

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