The Future of Standup Comedy

[Update on Dec 29, 2017: Nine years after writing this post, this is now the new reality for comedians. Listen to Joe Rogan and Neil Brennan talking about this dynamic on Joe’s podcast.]

Here is the biggest problem with comedians:

They are paranoid about getting their material stolen. 

Just watch this video of Joe Rogan tearing into Carlos Mencia, or listen to this clip of Dane Cook stealing from Louis CK.

No one wants their hard-earned material that they’ve fine-tuned for months to be taken by some lazy moron who can’t write their own jokes.

Because of the potential for theft, amateur comedians will scoff at the idea of having Youtube clips of themselves working out fresh material.

“What if someone on the other side of the country steals my jokes and gets rich and famous as a result?!”

This fear of joke-theft is actually hindering their success.

The only way to overcome the fear is to make their jokes available to everyone, even if they’re not perfect yet.

The first aspiring comedian who truly dominates on Youtube will change the standup game forever.  Here is why:

  • Gain an online following. Fans will subscribe to your channel and watching every video you post.  Slowly but surely, your jokes will spread and your following will grow.  And the high school kids who aren’t allowed into the clubs, but are in love with standup…  they’ll get to hear your jokes, too.  And guess who they’ll want to see once they’re old enough: You.
  • Dated record of the jokes. If someone else takes your joke, you can now prove that you were the first to post it online.  Your fans will respect you even more, and the thief will lose credibility.  Jokes will no longer be something you hold close to your chest until the time is right.  Instead, there will be a race to publish them first.
  • More accurate metrics. You no longer have to wonder why a joke is inconsistent (“Is it falling flat because the crowd wasn’t in the right mood, because someone was heckling me during the punchline, because the preceding comedian brought them down?”)  Now you can just look at the view count, ratings, and comments from thousands of people.  You can test, test, test to your heart’s desire on Youtube.  You can post jokes relentlessly to see what’s working.
  • More people will pay to see you live. The online jokes are great and free. Imagine how fun it’d be to see your entire set in-person!
  • Tap into the long tail. When a great joke is told in a comedy club, it’s heard once by (maybe) 100 people.  When a great joke is told on Youtube, it will be heard by several thousand people in different countries as many times as they want to hear it.  It will be embedded on Myspace pages, saved on Delicious, emailed to co-workers, talked about at parties… you get the idea.
  • Inspire others. Even if you post the same joke five times told on different nights, there are fans out there who are interested in watching all five videos.  These people will be fascinated by all the nuances in your delivery, tone, wording, etc.  What seems nerdy and boring to casual observers is actually amazing to the fans.

If you’re a comedian who’s just getting started, you absolutely have to leverage this medium.  And if you’re terrified that it’s just going to enable others to steal your jokes, you’re an idiot.  First of all, you’re not that original or creative.  Other people have thought of everything you have.

For instance, Maddox came up with some of the same jokes Chappelle told years later.  It wasn’t because Chappelle stole from Maddox – they just had the same train of thought (albeit, a very funny one).  Secondly, if people steal your jokes, GOOD!  That means you’re funnier than they are.

Your lazy competition will force you to come up with even better stuff.  I know any comedian who reads this will roll their eyes at that, but you’re playing by old rules.  And those rules need to be broken.

My favorite line from No Country for Old Men is when Anton Chigurh says,

“If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

Exactly.  Even if you’re a moral comedian and you never steal from anyone, it won’t matter because some of your jokes will probably be stolen at some point.  Now, I’m not saying you should ignore the code of not stealing; I’m saying you need to stop worrying and focus on getting your jokes heard by as many people as possible.  Once you’ve established a loyal fanbase, you’re golden.

When Dane Cook started interacting with his fans on Myspace years ago, it changed things.  He wasn’t the funniest comedian, but his album sales were suddenly in the hundreds of thousands.  He was performing in arenas.

Why?

Because he’d built relationships with everyone who cared about him.  No comedian had ever done that before on the level he did.  He made his fans feel appreciated, both online and off.  Dane baked his fans into his brand and turned them into members of his tribe.

Now every comedian is on Myspace, thinking that the site will somehow propel them to Cook’s level of success.  But they’re missing the point entirely.  It’s not the tool that matters, it’s how you use it.  Youtube is a different dynamic, but it has far more potential to disrupt standup comedy.

Comedians need to learn from the fashion industry, where ideas are stolen, tweaked, manipulated, and then thrown out two weeks later.  Posting jokes for the world to see would speed up the evolution of every comedian’s material.

The successful artists will be the ones who also learn how to be great marketers.  All it takes is for one comedian to have a successful Youtube channel, and it will change the standup landscape forever.

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Charlie Hoehn is the author of Play It Away, Play for a Living and Recession Proof Graduate. His work has been featured on NPR's TED Radio Hour, Forbes, Fast Company, and Harvard Business Review. Previously, he was the Director of Special Projects for Tim Ferriss. Currently, he is the Head of Video at Book In A Box. He lives with his wife and daughter in Austin, Texas.

This Post Has 23 Comments

  1. Aalap Patel

    Charlie – I have to agree with Ben’s comment. I’m also a comedian (Ben and I are both based out of NYC) and think that you are overlooking some of the hurdles that posting material online presents for stand-up in particular.

    As you mentioned in earlier posts, when you edit videos you are taking tons of footage and whittling it down to create your best product. We’re doing the same thing with our material, and the small stages are where we do our whittling. A new comedian, putting up her unrefined material on youtube, would be akin to you posting a very roughly edited video. Those who are interested in the process may find it rewarding but bookers and agents (who are constantly approached or contacted by new comedians and are time crunched) may not have the be to watch all your videos and appreciate your growth.

    Stand-up is very much a “best face forward” business, and when competing with others who are putting their best face forward online, it seems like losing proposition. We live or die on that first impression, on stage or online, and the risk of looking bad or putting something out that might turn away even a fraction of our audience or future performing activities feels like it’s too great to take.

    I think the theme of free work leading to meaningful work is brilliant, but comedians do so much free work before even the hope of getting paid that we have to have limits on how much we can give away. Unlike musicians, we can’t sell ring-tones or singles, and records sales for even the best comedians are far short of musicians regularly get. We have to guard our most valuable assets, our live act. If we give away too much of it, it will most likely diminish our power and presence because people will have heard the material already and that crucial element of surprise will be lost.

    I wholly agree that the comedy club system is broken and does not deliver the best comedians but I don’t think it can be replaced with the youtube system, at least not yet.

    As I read these arguments, I realize that perhaps there is a new comedian out there who will figure out how to best use these new tools.

    PS- It’s quite easy to record yourself at almost any venue or show. No one ever objects.

  2. charhoehn@gmail.com

    @Russell- Obviously you can get your material stolen anywhere. My point is that if your material is on youtube, ANYONE can steal it. They don’t have to hear the joke live while they’re in the club – they can be in a completely different country, listening to it a month after you posted it. It’s now free for essentially anyone in the world to steal.

    I’m not sure what to make of the rest of your points. I don’t think either of them detract from or refute what I said. They just kind of state the obvious.

  3. charhoehn@gmail.com

    @Russell- Obviously you can get your material stolen anywhere. My point is that if your material is on youtube, ANYONE can steal it. They don’t have to hear the joke live while they’re in the club – they can be in a completely different country, listening to it a month after you posted it. It’s now free for essentially anyone in the world to steal.

    I’m not sure what to make of the rest of your points. I don’t think either of them detract from or refute what I said. They just kind of state the obvious.

  4. Russell

    the internet can and will be used for promotions… just a fact.

    1) you dont need youtube to get your material stolen… it happens in clubs, people change a few words and spit your joke out next week.

    2) youtube can work but you have to spend hours and hours on self promotion. How bad do you want it?

    3) The bigger names in comedy spend years getting an hours worth of material… once they become big alot of them hire writers… TV and Internet eat up your material.

  5. Pingback: Changing the standup game: In action « Hoehn’s Musings

  6. Pingback: Changing the standup game: In action « Hoehn’s Musings

  7. charhoehn@gmail.com

    In what respect? Financial? Definitely. As a launching pad for comedians? I think so, but can’t say for sure because I don’t know anyone who got their start on that site.

  8. charhoehn@gmail.com

    In what respect? Financial? Definitely. As a launching pad for comedians? I think so, but can’t say for sure because I don’t know anyone who got their start on that site.

  9. charhoehn@gmail.com

    @Ben – I actually didn’t even consider how comedians are afraid of promoters turning them down. That’s a fair point. Even so, I think that fear is based on a very short-term mentality. Getting turned down by a booker will happen every now and then. If you have a terrible set, post it on youtube and say why it was terrible. In fact, write about what you did wrong, what you need to improve, etc. And never EVER blame it on the audience in any way, even if it truly is their fault that your set didn’t reach its potential. You might get a set turned down but it’s not like you’ll never find work again — every comedian bombs once in awhile.

    Regarding your question about whether I think the path to success has changed: only slightly, but not in the way you think. The sequence is the same but the wording has changed. You have to have good content before everything else. Good content sustains itself and is the foundation that everything rests upon. You no longer ‘get noticed,’ in my mind, but rather you ‘build a tribe.’ You get a devoted following that devours everything you put out, and you build relationships with all of your fans. Then you get paid.

  10. charhoehn@gmail.com

    @Ben – I actually didn’t even consider how comedians are afraid of promoters turning them down. That’s a fair point. Even so, I think that fear is based on a very short-term mentality. Getting turned down by a booker will happen every now and then. If you have a terrible set, post it on youtube and say why it was terrible. In fact, write about what you did wrong, what you need to improve, etc. And never EVER blame it on the audience in any way, even if it truly is their fault that your set didn’t reach its potential. You might get a set turned down but it’s not like you’ll never find work again — every comedian bombs once in awhile.

    Regarding your question about whether I think the path to success has changed: only slightly, but not in the way you think. The sequence is the same but the wording has changed. You have to have good content before everything else. Good content sustains itself and is the foundation that everything rests upon. You no longer ‘get noticed,’ in my mind, but rather you ‘build a tribe.’ You get a devoted following that devours everything you put out, and you build relationships with all of your fans. Then you get paid.

  11. Ben Rosenfeld

    Great post Hoehn but I disagree about the reason young comics don’t want to post tons of their videos online: It’s not so much worry of theft (that’s a reason but not the big one) as they’re afraid promoters, bookers and/or potential fans may see it and think they suck (not every set gets the huge laughs). They’d rather get booked by word of mouth than by having someone find a less than stellar performance.

    Re: Difficulty of getting tapes of yourself
    I’ve been able to video tape or voice record every one of my performances since I started in July. (60 performances and counting.) Voice recording is simple as you can get a digital voice recorder for under $50. Also, most clubs will let you video record yourself if you ask them first. Many digital still cameras have a video recording mode that you can use for amateur films or you can invest $300-$500 in a decent quality digital video camera these days.

    Question for you: I previously read that the path of “success” in comedy was: 1) Get Good 2) Get Noticed 3) Get Paid. Do you think web 2.0 has changed this path?

  12. Pingback: My Reaction To: Changing the Stand Up Game | Ben Rosenfeld - Comedian

  13. Pingback: My Reaction To: Changing the Stand Up Game | Ben Rosenfeld - Comedian

  14. charhoehn@gmail.com

    Hey Anne,

    Here’s the difference between youtube and viddler:

    * Youtube is awesome if you want more exposure. That’s where everyone is — it’s the mass market, so you need to hang out there if you want to get discovered.
    * Viddler is great for bloggers because it gives you a lot of control of your material, and it also puts a lot of that control into the hands of your viewers, as well. If they want to make a comment on a certain mark in your video, they can do it.

    To be honest though — there’s really no substantial difference. Use youtube if you want more viewers and accidental discoveries of your material. Use viddler if you want to have a nicer interface. That’s pretty much the bottom line.

  15. Anne Good

    Good stuff Charlie. I can see the same model applied to so many industries and professions to build brands.

    Question: Is there much difference between YouTube and Viddler? I’ve used both but not long enough to evaluate metrics to tell me anything. Your thoughts?

  16. charhoehn@gmail.com

    @Ryan — I totally forgot about Bo Fo Sho. Thank you, that is a perfect example of someone who hit it out of the park with youtube. I’ll have to check out Phillip D.

    @Andy — Thank you so much for your comment, it was great.

    I completely agree with what you said about the input to output ratio. It’s hard not to respect and admire how long a routine takes to “purr-feckt” : ) And while the tradition is to fine-tune material onstage for months, I can’t help but think rookie comics have a lot to gain by making their material available even in its raw form. In fact, having it be raw can actually make it even more palatable for youtube.

    The internet has the potential to allow comedians to establish an audience about a billion times quicker than they ever could in real-life IF they use it correctly. Case in point: Bo Fo Sho (as Ryan reminded me above), a 17-year old kid who has nearly 150,000 subscribers on youtube. One of his videos has been watched more than 6 million times. His material is clever, funny, and perfect for youtube. Think about that — a 17-year old kid is now getting booked by clubs and is well-known, simply because he leveraged the medium. More comedians should be doing this.

    And I would LOVE to speak at Just for Laughs. That’d be like a dream come true for me. I’ve been enamored with standup comedy since I was 14.

  17. charhoehn@gmail.com

    @Ryan — I totally forgot about Bo Fo Sho. Thank you, that is a perfect example of someone who hit it out of the park with youtube. I’ll have to check out Phillip D.

    @Andy — Thank you so much for your comment, it was great.

    I completely agree with what you said about the input to output ratio. It’s hard not to respect and admire how long a routine takes to “purr-feckt” : ) And while the tradition is to fine-tune material onstage for months, I can’t help but think rookie comics have a lot to gain by making their material available even in its raw form. In fact, having it be raw can actually make it even more palatable for youtube.

    The internet has the potential to allow comedians to establish an audience about a billion times quicker than they ever could in real-life IF they use it correctly. Case in point: Bo Fo Sho (as Ryan reminded me above), a 17-year old kid who has nearly 150,000 subscribers on youtube. One of his videos has been watched more than 6 million times. His material is clever, funny, and perfect for youtube. Think about that — a 17-year old kid is now getting booked by clubs and is well-known, simply because he leveraged the medium. More comedians should be doing this.

    And I would LOVE to speak at Just for Laughs. That’d be like a dream come true for me. I’ve been enamored with standup comedy since I was 14.

  18. Andy Nulman

    Charlie, this is very astute. As a guy who got his start early in the stand-up game by running Just For Laughs (and who got out because it was so much of the same), I agree that YouTube, or perhaps even Twitter, may be the laboratory to create the next comic monster. One problem to consider though is the ratio of a comedian’s input to output.

    The reason comics are so paranoiac in the protection of their material is that it takes so damn long to create it. A seven-minute routine may take seven months to write and perfect (perfect being the operative word, and pronounced PURR-feckt).

    Aidan and I were just listening to Larry Miller’s classic “Five Levels of Drinking” routine, and knowing Larry and the piece, I know how long and hard he worked not just on the jokes, but on the timing, the space between them, the intonation of words, the speed of delivery, etc. Doing this and having it usurped by Web 2.0 is a frightening thought to most who have chosen this way to make their living.

    However, if a comedian saw YouTube and its brethren as his or her natural platform–instead of the stage or the sit-com–perhaps this fear will be overcome.

    Maybe the material will suffer, being released–like Microsoft’s operating systems–before really ready. But in the end, something’s gotta give. Clinging to old stand-up is like clinging to vaudeville. It’s going away. And the new winners will be those who find a way to adapt their content to the new machine, because the new machine ain’t gonna adapt to their content.

    By the way, you should really work this theory and perhaps I can get you a gig presenting to the industry at next year’s Just For Laughs in Montreal.

  19. ryanstephens

    Most of these comedians do not have to look very far to see people (you could call them comedians perhaps – though they’re not stand up) that are having tremendous success because of YouTube. Both Bo (of Bo Fo Sho fame) and Phillip D.

  20. charhoehn@gmail.com

    I’m not sure how difficult it is for comedians to get footage of them performing, but I imagine that it’s pretty easy. I mean, it’s not like they’re filming anyone else – it’s their material.

    And yes, I have noticed that. Comedians are, generally speaking, fairly reclusive. The fact that more of them aren’t leveraging the internet baffles me.

  21. Andrew Lynch

    Sorry about the double post, but I just realised something – have you realised how few comedians actually have blogs or even their own email address on their websites? It’s incredible.

  22. Andrew Lynch

    Awesome post, Charlie. I completely agree with everything you said.

    But how easy it is for new and fresh comedians to get videos of themselves? Ideally you would get video of whole sets, every time you performed, and you could pick and choose the best ones to upload, but are comedy clubs a bit reluctant to give out videos of people performing there? I know you can get the odd clip here and there, but would that be enough?

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