Last week, Louis C.K., America’s beloved, funny everyman, sent out an email to his subscribers promoting the work of fellow friend and comic cohort, Todd Barry, in his new comedy special, Todd Barry the Crowd Work Tour. A few months back, Barry was in the process of marketing his material to Netflix in the hopes of nailing down a stand-up special when a conversation with Louis turned things around. Louis C.K. proposed that instead of Barry negotiating with a cable channel, he would produce and finance the special for release on his website.
Louis C.K. afforded the financials for Crowd Work, declining to give a figure, and said he was promoting Barry’s project not “because he’s my friend. I’m doing it, because this show doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
Barry’s special is a catalogue of recorded shows along the west coast where he presents himself to the crowd unrehearsed and raw. Barry prepares no routine. He relies entirely on the humor that can happen in a stark, potentially uncomfortable conversation with an audience member, a complete stranger. The practice of “crowd work” is not uncommon in a stand-up routine, but it is usually imparted to break up the monotony of rehearsed material, peppering in a little humility for the comic, going off script to startle the senses. But no one had ever created a whole show, much less a whole tour devoted to crowd work ever before. The open forum of crowd work can be unforgiving and tense and requires a unique touch of finesse. “It’s half relaxing and half terrifying,” Barry remarked. But Barry had ideas of exploiting that tension, with himself caught in the middle, and put it on video. Louis C.K. loved the idea.
By getting behind the production of Crowd Work and making it available on his website, Louis C.K. realized he was opening up new avenues for himself, but he stated that he is not pursuing this as a launching pad to get more acquainted with comedians who need a leg up. Louis C.K. says that he is drawn to work that is original, really funny, accessible to his website’s format, and expedient. The opportunity, so to say, is there when all the components work, as they did with Barry and Crowd Work.
Louis C.K. started his website to make his personal comedic works and antics available to fans in a non-traditional format–direct from the creator. In 2011, instead of dealing with brand-name cable TV, Louis C.K. released his comedy special, Live at the Beacon Theater, on his website. Within the first ten days, it grossed more than $1 million at $5 a copy. It is merely predictable that his website’s instant success would raise questions regarding whether or not Louis C.K. would become a vehicle for other performers who were having trouble circulating their material. It seemed conceivable that he could easily earn a living devoting himself full-time to producing.
“But it’s not at all what I want to do with my life,” Louis C.K. says. “The good news is, I can do it as much as I feel like. So far, this is how much I feel like doing it.” And unfortunately, he contended, “There’s just not that much good comedy. Good comedy’s very rare.”
In addition to producing Barry’s Crowd Work, the only other time Louis C.K. used his site to promote another comic’s work, was in 2012 when he released an audio recording from comedian Tig Notaro. This particular segment captured Notaro unveiling not only her discovery of breast cancer but a handful of other tragic encounters that had recently befallen her. The material was stark, honest, hilarious, and devastating. Notaro continually played on the audience’s reaction of being subject to such awful news, and she bridged the cap between tragedy and comedy in a way that had not been done before. “I was able to give her a platform to get it out fast and easy,” Louis C.K. said. “When I did that, it occurred to me it would be fun to expand this out with other people — people I liked.”
Louis C.K. does not maintain ownership over the projects he makes available on his website. Notaro’s recording was later available on iTunes, Amazon, and sold as a CD and on vinyl. Barry also retains the ownership of his film (“As long as I get my money back,” quoth Louis C.K.), and he can license it to whomever he likes for later broadcasts.
Beyond promoting the good work of his friend in Todd Barry the Crowd Work Tour, Louis C.K. is also hosting SNL this coming Saturday, March 29. Maybe he’ll pepper in a little crowd work.
Opinion by Stacy Feder
The New York Times