Comic Nick Rutherford at Westside Comedy Theater. (Eric Thompson )
In a sparse room, not much bigger than a walk-in closet, Nick Rutherford sits at an editing bay, head in hand, peering up at half a dozen versions of himself on a giant flat screen. He taps his Converse-clad foot nervously as a video editor assembles the images. It's the raw footage for his first comedy special. And it's headed straight to YouTube.
"In the past, if Comedy Central or Showtime or HBO didn't say, 'You deserve a special,' then you didn't deserve a special," says Rutherford. "And we'd all accept that."
But who wants to wait for a cable network to greenlight their career?
"I realized I can do it on my own," he says. "That's what YouTubers are all about."
The reach of digital media — YouTube, Twitter and podcast networks like Earwolf and Nerdist — has allowed comedians to bypass traditional gatekeepers and reach their fans directly.
YouTube, longtime home to funny user-generated videos of giggling babies and piano-playing cats, has invested $100 million to create slick, professional-quality entertainment across 100 new channels, creating opportunities for both established and aspiring comedians. Household names Amy Poehler, Rainn Wilson and Nerdist's Chris Hardwick all launched dedicated YouTube channels within the last six months.
Louis C.K. grabbed headlines when he produced his own comedy special and sold it to fans online for $5 a pop — famously reaping a cool $1 million in just 10 days. Comedians Aziz Ansari and Jim Gaffigan soon followed suit, helping to redefine how established comedians connect with audiences as well as how newbies can break through to the mainstream.
"Louis' success proved that if you already have a large, significant following, you don't need to deal with anyone else," Ansari says. "You can do something like this yourself."
These DIY approaches might be daunting to an emerging comedian with far fewer followers than C.K. et al, leaving Rutherford wrestling with his options as he prepares to leap into the digital comedy abyss.
"I could put up the whole thing for free on YouTube or put up a clip and link to my website to buy the longer version. We could go through iTunes," says Rutherford, who just turned 30 and is a member of the L.A.-based sketch group Good Neighbor. "There are so many options — it's overwhelming!" (For a taste of Rutherford's comedy, click here, but beware some adult subject matter and language.)
The special Rutherford is producing with Maker Studios, a Culver City-based entertainment company that specializes in YouTube videos, will be his calling card. Like many young comics, his dream is to land a coveted Comedy Central special, parlay that into a national stand-up tour, then a feature film role and, of course, he jokes, become "super-rich and famous."
Rob Delaney, who may not be super-rich but is famous on Twitter with 604,000 followers, is another in a growing group of stand-up comedians seizing the digital reins. Inspired by C.K., Ansari and Gaffigan, Delaney recently released his hour-long special, "Live at the Bowery Ballroom," on his website as a $5 download. Despite his substantial following, it's still a risky endeavor. Delaney doesn't have a sitcom to elevate his profile, like C.K. and Ansari, and even his better-known predecessors wrestled over whether the direct-to-fan approach could work without the muscle and infrastructure of a more traditional studio.
"They have much larger Twitter followings. But I spent much less money on my special," Delaney says. "For me, this is an educational experiment; we'll see what it yields."
Despite the risks, Delaney says he feels empowered by his robust and loyal Twitter following. Twitter is one of the main ways he sells tickets to his live shows, which is important because he makes a living primarily by touring. He also uses the succinct nature of Twitter to refine his observational wit; the quick-moving medium, he points out, is perfectly suited to the temperament of comedians.
"Comedians have to be very scrappy and adaptable because comedy is so hard," Delaney says. "[Our] strength comes from that flexibility. And now comedians are applying that strength to how they do business. People are using new means to get out there. And I think that's really healthy."
Comedians have always been a particularly malleable bunch, not only adept at firing off one-liners or responding to hecklers on stage but also adapting to ever-shifting platforms and modifying their performances to suit the new stages.
At the turn of the last century, comedians developed their shtick in vaudeville. Radio gave voice to comedians like the Oklahoma cowboy Will Rogers. Albums in the 1960s were a major way comedians like Bob Newhart, Dick Gregory and Lenny Bruce connected with fans.