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Comedians Skipping Traditional Distribution to go Straight to Fans

The on-demand revolution in entertainment isn’t just about giving audiences more control over their viewing experience. Talent is also enjoying the instant-gratification boom.

Take comedian Todd Barry. A chance phone call from his old pal Louis C.K. led to an Internet distribution pact for his standup special “Todd Barry: The Crowd Work Tour.”

C.K. blazed a trail for self-distribution of comedy specials in 2011 with “Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theater,” which he sold straight to fans as a $5 direct download via LouisCK.net. This year, he extended the marketing and promotional platform of his site to Barry — marking the first time he’s used his site to sell another comic’s video special. (In 2012 he distributed an audio recording to a Tig Notaro special.)

Comedy Central was quick to move into the direct-distribution space on the heels of C.K.’s success. Last year it launched CC: Stand-up Direct, selling $5 uncensored versions of the cabler’s standup specials under a 50-50 partnership agreement with comedians. (They split the proceeds from the downloads and cover the cost of producing the special — but ownership of the program remains with the net.)

Stand-up Direct markets specials that air in some form on the cabler: Some are made available prior to the TV premiere, while others trail the TV airing by a week or more. The cabler considers the Stand-up Direct service an important way to extend the Comedy Central brand and reach the most ardent comedy fans, who are hunting for fresh, no-holds-barred material.

“We saw it happen with Louis C.K., and now we see this as the wave of the future,” says Steve Raizes, senior veep of Comedy Central’s Enterprises division. “We see that this is where a lot of our fans are going to be and we want to be in that same space.”

Barry was focused on finding a way to film his latest standup show — after regretting his failure to do so with past tours — when C.K. just happened to check in.

“I’d drafted an email to someone to try to see if they would pay for it,” says Barry. “It was kind of a long shot because the tour was kind of coming up pretty soon.”

With C.K.’s support, Barry enlisted the help of helmer Lance Bangs, and C.K. produced the seven-day tour special. “Crowd Work” bowed on C.K.’s website March 22. Barry and his reps would not talk specific numbers but say they were more than pleased with the results.

Taking this approach allowed Barry to move much more quickly than he could have if he were dealing with an established network such as HBO or Comedy Central.

“It’s fewer hurdles,” Barry says. “I would have had to wait for them to schedule a meeting. I imagine it’s a lot more complicated than just my friend going, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”

Barry also gets a bigger slice of the profits, and he owns the special outright. But perhaps the biggest benefit to being taken under wing by C.K. is the promotional value it offers among comedy fans.

“He sent out a really nice email … and just explained the whole show and why he’s behind it,” Barry says. “I think a lot of people, especially for $5, will just go, ‘Oh, Louis thinks this is cool. Let’s see what this is all about.’ I think I got some new fans.”

Support is key, says Comedy Central’s Raizes. “We work directly with the comics to help them promote their material.”

They’ve learned a lot during the past year since the service bowed about marketing and timing the availability in conjunction with standup tours and other media appearances beyond Comedy Central’s air.

Among the most important lessons is that there is no greater promotional asset than the comedian speaking directly to fans in live venues and via social media.

Hannibal Buress, for one, recently tweeted a challenge to fans to send pictures of themselves wrapped in toilet paper in a bid to tubthump his “Live From Chicago” special. Plenty of fans obliged, which turned each one of those tweets into free promo.

The opportunity to market uncensored specials online has given Comedy Central’s talent department an additional incentive in recruiting new comedians. Where there was some initial concern that the online specials might cut into sales of DVDs, iTunes downloads and live shows, the initial returns have so far been promising. And it also helps extend the shelf life of the specials.

“It feels like it’s opening up the market and making the pie bigger for everyone,” Raizes says. “We’re exposing more people to more comedy. It’s a curated platform where people go for the best of our standup. It’s become a calling card for our talent department.”

Some of Barry’s older projects have been distribbed via Stand-up Direct, and he’s leaving the door open to more self-distributed efforts. “I did bill the last ‘Crowd Work’ tour as the final ‘Crowd Work’ tour, but I’m allowed to change my mind,” he says. “It could be like when Elton John retired in 1971 and put out another 50 albums after that.”

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