Stand-up comedians of a certain era knew they had arrived when Johnny Carson invited them to a desk-side seat on "The Tonight Show." A generation later, the gold standard was getting a solo comedy special on HBO. But in the Internet era, the yardstick for success has been redefined.
A handful of top-tier performers have begun producing stand-up specials on their own, posting them online and selling them directly through their personal websites, eliminating the editorial control of broadcasters and the perceived taint of corporate endorsements.
While this straight-to-the-Internet strategy is far from ubiquitous in stand-up, it is already having a profound impact on the comedy landscape, enabling online content providers and individual artists to take more turf from television networks and empowering comedians to be as candid (and as explicit) as they want in their material.
"It’s a very rare thing, where you answer to no one at all as a comedian," said Aziz Ansari, a stand-up comic and actor who released his first online performance special Tuesday. "Now you can even put it out the way you want."
The turning point arrived in December, when comedian Louis C.K. released a stand-up special, "Live at the Beacon Theater," that was sold only as a $5 download, without electronic copy protection, from his website.
Louis C.K., who stars in the FX series "Louie" and has performed in comedy specials on HBO, Showtime and Epix, said that he was seeking minimal outside interference and maximum ease for his audience.
"I don’t have to go, ‘Here’s this product,’ to whatever company," Louis C.K. said, "and then cringe and shrug and apologize to my fans for whatever words are being removed, whatever ads they’re having to watch, whatever marketing is being lobbed on."
The experiment worked: Produced at a cost of $250,000, "Live at the Beacon Theater" sold more than 220,000 downloads and grossed more than $1.1 million — enough for Louis C.K. to give $250,000 in bonuses to his crew and donate a further $280,000 to charities.
Other comedians following Louis C.K.’s online trail say that they have been contemplating Internet-only projects for several months.
Jim Gaffigan, an actor and stand-up comedian, said he began seeking new platforms for his material after a routine he performed about McDonald’s was partly edited out of a 2010 Comedy Central benefit special.
Gaffigan said he considered many commercial routes, including licensing; selling a new stand-up performance to an online content provider like Netflix, Amazon or YouTube; or making it available free to viewers who watched a block of commercials first.
But Gaffigan said he was able to turn down unfavorable deals and corporate ties after Louis C.K. upended "the perception of selling something on your website as being kind of icky."
He added: "My manager was like, ‘You’re not going to sell it on your website like that.’ And I’m like, ‘Why wouldn’t I?"’
Instead, Gaffigan will release his next special — with his McDonald’s routine intact — on April 11 for a $5 fee, with $1 from each sale going to charity.
For the comedians taking their material directly to the Internet, the decision is as much a reflection of a desire to serve online-savvy audiences as it is a lack of other options.
Pay-cable channels like HBO and Showtime, comedians say, are too focused on scripted programming, while on basic cable, Comedy Central offers specials to nearly everyone, with little quality control and licensing deals that are not lucrative.
"I don’t get any money from the specials that air on Comedy Central," said Ansari, who also stars on the NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation." "I haven’t seen any checks from the DVDs, CDs. If I just put it out in a traditional way, I wouldn’t have made any money, so why don’t I do it this way?"
Kent Alterman, Comedy Central’s head of original programming and production, said that the number of stand-up specials it shows was "in service to our audience and our business," and that only "a very rarefied community of comedians" commanded followings large enough to make Internet-only programs viable. Many performers — even those with a large fan base — would still go to Comedy Central for "the marketing muscle that we have and the enormous exposure they get," he said.
(One case in point is Louis C.K., who released his Grammy Award-winning comedy album, "Hilarious," on Comedy Central Records.)
HBO says it still seeks top-tier performers for specials but is mindful of a glut of comedy on television, while Showtime’s entertainment president, David Nevins, said, "It’s fair to say Showtime needs to renew our focus on it."
The Internet has been happy to capitalize on content that television has neglected. Last month Yahoo offered a free live performance by HBO host Bill Maher (one that ended with Maher’s donating $1 million to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA). Yahoo said this special has generated more than 2 million streams and that it hopes to add more such shows, seeing stand-ups as an inexpensive but powerful way to build brand identification with viewers.
"Musicians can have personas," said Erin McPherson, who is Yahoo’s head of video programming and originals, "but comics are themselves, and their fans relate to them almost as friends. They have that intimate, one-on-one connection."
Mark Greenberg, a former Showtime and HBO executive who is now the president and chief executive of Epix, a cable and online network that focuses on movies and live events, said that programmers’ interest in stand-up was partly demographic: Comedians bring more male viewers and especially desirable younger viewers, which programmers can’t afford to ignore "unless your attitude is that you’re going to be retired in 10 years and you don’t care," he said.
Still, Greenberg was skeptical that other comedians would be able to duplicate the online sales results that Louis C.K. enjoyed.
"There’s no bigger report card than pay-per-view," Greenberg said. "The first person that does 30,000 buys instead of 200,000, that person’s going to sit there and say, ‘Why did I fail?’ And it’s going to affect them as an asset."
Not every comedian sees the Internet as the salvation of the stand-up special. Patton Oswalt, a comic who often appears in film and television roles, said that by being transparent about their production budgets, Louis C.K. and other Web pioneers had taught him a lesson he could apply to future televised specials.
But Oswalt, whose last special was jointly paid for by Showtime and Comedy Central, said that if he did an online-only special it would be "when I’m ready — I’m not going to do that model because it’s the fashion right now."
Louis C.K. said his next special might not follow the Internet model.
"I think there’s huge potential," he said, "but potential means there might be nothing."
And Gaffigan said he was not staking his entire career on his Web experiment, predicting he could still license his new performance to Comedy Central if it flopped online.
"It’s a gamble with the crops," he said. "This is one harvest. You’re going to use some piece of equipment that could make it twice as productive."
That said, Gaffigan would still prefer success to failure.
"Just to be clear," he said, "I have four children, and they’re very young, and I have a woman who gets pregnant looking at babies."