Here comes Laugh Exchange — a sort of “American Idol” for comedians, packaged in an HQ Trivia-like app.
Laugh Exchange, a startup co-founded by former Comedy Central GM David Bernath, is coming out of beta with its app that lets comedians compete for a chance to win cash from their original material and also lets viewers play for prize money as well.
Laugh Exchange’s app for iOS officially launches Wednesday, Oct. 3, with a three-times-per-week series featuring 15- to 60-second bits submitted by comics on a given theme. New episodes go live at 8 p.m. ET on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays — a bid to make the app appointment-viewing.
Viewers can rank the submissions (until 1 a.m. ET) and the three top-voted comics from each episode will split a cash prize, initially set at $500. Also, users who picked the top three will get a share of the $300 pot. Laugh Exchange execs say they plan to increase the size of the prize pools over time.
The genesis of Laugh Exchange came out of Bernath’s conversations with Andrew Brooks, co-founder of SmartThings, an open smart-home platform acquired by Samsung for $200 million in 2014. The two, who met at an industry conference in Silicon Valley last year, figured there should be a way to create a technology platform that could surface and reward the funniest heretofore undiscovered comedians out there.
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“If you talk to a lot of young YouTubers today, it’s not the place to get discovered as a comedian,” said Bernath, CEO of Laugh Exchange, who left Comedy Central after 12 years in March 2017. “We said, ‘Where is the next wave of comedy creators going to come from?'”
Comedy is some of the viral content on the internet, but it’s really hard to build an audience, Brooks added: “It’s a very cluttered landscape. It’s very difficult for new talent to get discovered and monetize what they do.”
Seed investors in Laugh Exchange (officially incorporated as TLX Media Group) are Bernath, Brooks, and two former SmartThings execs, ex-CEO Alex Hawkinson and designer James Stolp. The company’s principals won’t say how much they’ve put into the venture to get it off the ground, but Brooks said they’ve been having early conversations with outside investors.
The thrice-weekly episodes are hosted by Abbi Crutchfield, an actor-comedian who has worked in TV and digital media and experimented with crowd-funding for comedy tours. Carolyn Castiglia, Laugh Exchange’s editorial chief, is a 16-year veteran of the NYC stand-up scene who also teaches at the Peoples Improv Theater.
The Laugh Exchange team (l. to r.): Abbi Crutchfield, Andrew Brooks, Dave Bernath, Alex Hawkinson, James Stolp, Carolyn Castiglia
So far, the Laugh Exchange crew has lined up more than 700 emerging comics to contribute short video clips for its inaugural series, and the company plans to launch additional shows by year’s end. Creators can sign up on its website, at laughexchange.app. TLX Media’s official headquarters is in New York City, although Brooks and other members of the team remain out in Silicon Valley.
For each episode, Castiglia and her team will pick 6-8 of the best submissions, centered around individual themes (relationships, money, and family are ones for the first three episodes). The contests are open to legal U.S. residents (including from Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico) who are 18 years or older, and creators are allowed to submit just one clip per contest.
Castiglia said she’s focused on bringing in a diverse span of comedians. “We want to showcase people who get overshadowed by the traditional media system,” she said, namely women and people of color. The content on Laugh Exchange can be any format, as long as it’s funny: stand-up, sketches, animation or… whatever.
For now, Laugh Exchange — like countless startups before it — isn’t focused on making money as much as building a user base. While it’s not looking at traditional advertising formats, Brooks cited a variety of potential monetization paths. Those include a “tip jar” model (like Patreon) for fans to support their favorite comedians, or a way to purchase in-app “gifts” (like special emoji) for comics a la Twitch. Laugh Exchange also is considering brand sponsorships for different features of the app, Brooks said.
Regardless of whether someone’s comedy segment is featured in the final cut of Laugh Exchange’s shows, all submissions will be available in the app to watch and share. Laugh Exchange is not asserting ownership rights to any of the clips people submit: The company is building a platform, not a media property, Bernath said.
To be eligible to win the contests, comedians must submit original material that they created and own. Laugh Exchange will use a variety of mechanisms to ensure those aren’t stolen from another creator. Castiglia added that because Laugh Exchange’s first show format is based on episode-specific themes, “it would be pretty hard to rip someone else’s stuff off and win.”
The Laugh Exchange app doesn’t allow commenting. Users vote on a scale rating how funny each routine is — there’s no thumbs-down vote. “We’re about, ‘no haters allowed,'” said Bernath.
As for how Laugh Exchange will be able to sift through submissions if it gets thousands, Bernath said “that would be a high-class problem” but added that the company is looking at decentralized curation and technology approaches to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Laugh Exchange builds on other forays into crowd-sourced comedy. Bernath pointed out that part of Funny Or Die’s original model was user-submitted comedy videos — which website users could vote up (“funny”) or down (“die”). And when Bernath was at Comedy Central, the network created an app prototype that was a kind of a precursor to Laugh Exchange. Dubbed “Funny,” the app aggregated top videos from Vine and Instagram videos. Comedy Central never launched it, he said, but “it was great learning experience.”