A few days ago, someone sent me an email about an idea they’d had. They wanted to start a niche social network for aspiring comedians and people who love to watch standup. As much as I love the idea, I still don’t think this would work… yet.
The problem lies in the pervasive attitude of young comedians: all of them are hyper-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 stole my jokes and got rich and famous as a result?!” A part of me sympathizes with this outlook, but the other part of me wants to slap these people. This fear of joke-theft is actually hindering their success. And 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. This is why:
- He’ll 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.
- He’ll gain an online following. People will start subscribing to his channel and watching every video he posts. Slowly but surely, his jokes will spread and his 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 his jokes, too. And guess who they’ll want to see once they’re old enough.
- He’ll have a dated record of his jokes. If someone else takes his joke, he can now prove that he was the first to post it online. His fans will respect him 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.
- He’ll have more accurate metrics. He no longer has 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 he can just look at the view count, ratings, and comments from thousands of people on his videos. He can test, test, test to his heart’s desire on Youtube. He’ll post his jokes relentlessly to see which ones work, and which ones need to be dropped from his live routine.
- More people will pay to see him live. The online jokes are great and free. Imagine how fun it’d be to see his entire set in-person!
- He’ll inspire others. Even if he posts the same joke five times told on different nights, there are people out there who are interested in watching all five videos. These people will be fascinated by all the nuances in his delivery, tone, wording, etc. What seems nerdy and boring to him is actually amazing to the outsiders.
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.
Sidenote: If you’ve never seen Comedian, go out and rent it. It’s brilliant.