With the advent of TV came Johnny Carson's stamp of approval for stand-up on "The Tonight Show," launching the careers of Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman and many others. Lorne Michaels' "Saturday Night Live" established sketch as a comedy cornerstone in the '70s and '80s. Premium cable channels broadened the playing field in the '80s and '90s; until recently, scoring a TV special on Comedy Central, HBO or Showtime was the gold standard.
That's changed with the global, boundary-free Internet, says Gabriel Iglesias. He uses highlights from his Comedy Central specials to lure fans to his YouTube channel. That's where he can reach an even wider audience to promote his live shows and fill 10,000-person stadiums.
"Cable really doesn't pay a lot," says Iglesias, producing the second season of Comedy Central's "Stand-Up Revolution." "What it costs to produce the show, and what the network is paying to license it, the difference is basically a Honda Accord. I'm not making money on the licensing."
Walter Latham, who produced the stand-up showcase film "The Original Kings of Comedy" — introducing audiences to, among others, Steve Harvey and the late Bernie Mac — launched his YouTube channel in July. The new comedy channel features clips from his sexually charged "Comedy After Dark" series, video shorts from D.L. Hughley and Michael Blackson, and old-school performances from the likes of Cedric the Entertainer. These days, the promise of online advertising, together with revenue from online services such as Netflix, are potentially more lucrative than a cable TV deal.
"The economics have changed," says Latham, noting that a one-hour HBO comedy special that a decade ago fetched $500,000 today would bring just $100,000. "You're fighting and scraping and scrambling trying to get on television.... You are better off [going online where] you have more control over your destiny."
Viewers are responding. In July, YouTube comedy generated at least 2 billion views on the site and dedicated comedy channels, which attracted 200 million subscribers, according to YouTube head of entertainment Alex Carloss.
"It's really a reflection of what the YouTube ecosystem represents," Carloss says. "People have always come to the platform for a laugh, and whatever flavor of comedy they're into, they can always find it."
With its slick, professionally created content and the promise of additional ad revenue, many comics now see YouTube not just as a steppingstone to something bigger but as a goal unto itself.
"If you're in it for the long haul," says Ben Huh, chief executive and founder of Cheezburger Network, a collection of online humor sites, "and you understand the transformational nature of the Internet, it is the destination."
Bobby Lee of NBC's new sitcom "Animal Practice" has a prime-time network comedy but still finds time to film funny YouTube shorts at Maker. Why? "Because this is the future," he says. "If you're not part of the next thing, you're gonna be left out."
The type of comedy surfacing on YouTube also is evolving. Beyond skateboarding bulldogs, a more structured form of humor can be found online — from video bloggers like Jenna Marbles, who delivers routines directly into a webcam, to sketch comedy routines. And the online mike has never been more open to stand-up. That's one of the things Rutherford hopes to highlight with his upcoming special.
"Really, my goal with this special is about awareness," Rutherford says. "Of my own stand-up, and for Good Neighbor, but also of YouTube being a known destination for stand-up now. I hope it shows the new horizon."