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The new gold rush to viral comedy

New York Comedy Festival 2012

A few years ago — an eternity on the Internet timeline — online video was the Wild West. The occasional gunslinger would come along and challenge the current sheriff, achieving viral success. The industry frantically rallied behind the Bo Burnhams, Jon LaJoies and Stuff White People Likes, transitioning them into traditional mediums like TV and publishing.

The Internet is still very much the Wild West, but it’s one with a loose structure of sheriffettes, so to speak. There are YouTube channels and video networks, heavily curated sites and those creating exclusive content. The age of flash-in-the-pan “viral” is over, replaced with a holistic, niche-embracing approach to content, grown organically from creatives and those savvy enough to get out of their way, that is the topic of a panel discussion moderated by Variety’s Steven Gaydos tonight.

” ‘Viral’ is an annoying buzzword. If anyone promises they can make viral video, they’re full of shit,” says Chris Hardwick, co-owner with Peter Levin of the multiplatform Nerdist Industries. “It’s hard to figure out what that special thing is that makes people want to share a video, so we don’t worry about that. We just make stuff we want to see.”

Nerdist was born in 2010 out of Hardwick’s desire to celebrate nerd culture, rather than mock it. It’s now a robust website, a podcast network (anchored by the titular interview show), a BBC television show and the digital wing of Legendary Pictures. Hardwick and Levin launched a YouTube channel earlier this year in an effort to continue the Nerdist credo. And unexpectedly, they stumbled upon a viable revenue stream.

“People would look at each of our verticals and say things like, ‘We’re having trouble monetizing podcasts,'” Hardwick says. “I looked at it and said we needed to build a three-dimensional model — different platforms that provide complementary content that doesn’t cannibalize the other.”

Funny Or Die has found similar success in appealing to a segmented aud. “The partners, who have backgrounds in ‘SNL,’ have all said that in its heyday, if there were nine sketches in a show, you probably only liked three — that’s batting .333, which gets you in the hall of fame,” says Dick Glover, CEO of FOD. “The real trick is to be smart enough that my three aren’t the same as your three, which aren’t the same as my wife’s three.”

To capture this scattered “mindshare,” as he calls it (basically, the attention of eyeballs in the infinite Internet space), he indicates tiers of video, each held to the same standard of quality. There are some created by professionals (like cofounders Will Ferrell and Adam McKay), those by rising talent at the Upright Citizens Brigade or iO, some featuring actors venturing into the comedy space, and the occasional “needle in the haystack.” This is attractive to traditional advertisers, as well as those looking for branded content held to the same quality standards.

Grace Helbig, a daily vlogger for My Damn Channel since 2008, sees trust as the only surefire way to emerge from the Wild West with coin. “This is such an intimate medium: I’m letting people into my actual apartment,” she says. “Kids will know when you’re feeding them bullshit. You need to be transparent, and they’ll feel a closeness.” Loyalty means viewers will take Helbig at her word, snag her merchandise, see her on tour.

The trick, according to Abominable Pictures’ Jonathan Stern, is to shake purse string-holders of their archaic television mindset — where the focus is on eyeballs, plain and simple.

Stern, who served as exec producer on Web-born series “Childrens Hospital” and “Burning Love,” emphasizes completionism. Before “Childrens Hospital” was on Adult Swim, it was a 10-episode series on Warner Bros. website, and he found that most viewers watched all 10 in one sitting.

Now, selling a second season of “The Bachelor”-spoofing “Burning Love,” which lives on Yahoo, Stern can point to season one’s numbers as the floor, not the ceiling. “Plus, it costs nothing to keep it on the Web. You’re not bumping an episode of ‘CSI’ to air this,” he says.

The wild west, however, is still wild. “People don’t understand that the monetizing will be a model no one has seen yet, and I could not be happier to say I don’t know what it will be,” says Patton Oswalt, who delivered a speech at this year’s Just for Laughs about the democratization of comedy. “I don’t want people jumping on the bandwagon. I want people to be excited to feel the engine.”

New York Comedy Festival 2012:
Laughter’s relief for the troops | The new gold rush to viral comedy | Home is where the laughs are

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