Comedian Louis C.K. has gotten a lot of positive press, deservedly so, for his new, hour-long comedy special Live at the Beacon Theater, sold exclusively as a download on his personal website. Many have hailed the experiment as a parable of innovation or a harbinger of things to come for media companies. But I think this is truly a story about the power of good content and the hard work that goes into creating it.
For those who don’t know the story, Louis C.K.–writer, director, editor, executive producer and star of the critically successful show “Louie” on FX–recently filmed a new comedy special this past November. But rather than relying on a television network like HBO or Comedy Central to produce and distribute it, C.K. decided to sell it exclusively on his own personal website for just $5. After four days, he’d sold over 110,000 copies and made over $200,000 in profit, which has only grown since then. (You can read a fuller version of the story in C.K.’s own words in a statement here on his website.)
Media conglomerates beware, right? Maybe. But I think that’s beside the point.
Sure, there are plenty of self-publishing options on the Internet that currently exist and they’re powerful and mostly free. But the content that’s going to be published has to be good enough to warrant anyone’s paying attention. For every Louis C.K., there are hundreds of bad comedians out there.
In an interview with Bill Simmons, writer for ESPN and founder of Grantland.com, C.K. touches on this when asked by Simmons what effect he believes technology, specifically Twitter and YouTube, have had on comedy.
The trappings are always different. But everything’s the same. There’s still only a certain percentage of people that are good at anything. When it was just TV and clubs, then you had some clubs and some TV shows that had bad comics, mostly bad. And then a few good ones. Most people are bad at everything. Most people aren’t amazing. It’d be a weird world if they were.
Louis C.K. is one of those people that is amazing. And I believe he’d agree he got that way through fearlessness, failure and hard work. Louis C.K. is the creator of four television shows, only two of which outlived the pilot episode and one of which, his current gig, survived its first season. His only movie, Pootie Tang, is widely regarded critically as an enormous flop. Until recently, C.K. was most famous for having his jokes stolen by a more famous comedian.
Many speculate that C.K. is now finally commercially successful because of his newfound control over creation, production and distribution. But Live at the Beacon Theater is not the first time he’s had such control, at least creatively. He’s done it with Louie, which he writes and edits on his own Macbook Pro, and to a large degree on his now defunct HBO show Lucky Louie. His new special isn’t even his first independently produced comedy special. That’s his third special, Hilarious, which was originally intended to be shown as a concert special screened in movie theaters.
So why now? I’d argue it’s the collective hours he’s poured into becoming a better comedian along with the challenges, failures and learning experiences he’s had along the way. Sure, it’s empowering to know that a person can create, sell and distribute something they’ve created all by themselves and be wildly successful doing it. But didn’t we already know that about the Internet? What’s more empowering is knowing that all it takes is work–good, honest, consistent work–to make something people will want to appreciate.
In that same Bill Simmons podcast, there’s a great story that Louis C.K. tells about fellow comedian and friend, Chris Rock, which I’ve transcribed and abridged below. (If you like it, please listen to the whole thing here. It starts at about the 4½ minute mark.)
I knew Chris when he was a young comic and I was. And then he went to SNL. And Chris didn’t–he struggled at SNL–didn’t do anything that was his greatest move. Just didn’t happen. He failed at SNL. Really did fail. And then he left.
So where’d he go? He was on the road just doing thankless, difficult road gigs and making himself a better standup than he was before SNL. He wasn’t getting a new gig or taking a meeting. He was just getting good. Really, really good.
And then, I remember really well that somebody said, “Hey, Chris is headlining at Carolines in New York.” So me and some comedians go in and we watch him and he was so much better than all of us. Better than everybody.
We were all hanging around New York, telling weird jokes for twenty minutes at a time and complaining about our managers and going to diners. We were just in a holding pattern. Nobody was trying to get great at being a comedian. They were just being the comedian we were. And here comes Chris and he’s phenomenal.
Just work. It’s a lesson many of us in the business of making things can take to heart. So go buy Louis C.K.’s special. You can tell a lot of work went into making it.