Sunday, April 20, 2008

Funny Man, Straight Man--No Middle Man?

For decades, comedians with dreams of fame and money labored for years in improv troupes across the country, hoping to get picked up by Saturday Night Live. Today however, more comedians are turning directly to the web to make a name for themselves.

Case in point: "Tom Cruise is a C**kblock" (as the title implies, this is not safe for work, but overall, it is PG-13).

So are actors Evan Ferrante, Ross Kohn and Ed Stein, and director Richie Keen headed for online immortality and profit? If they did want to turn their online videos into a business, they’ve got some work ahead of them. In the article "Online Fame Easy, Ads Harder to Get" at TV Week, Dina Kaplan of video sharing site says that to attract quality advertisers, a site has to get between 50,000 to 100,000 views per month and creators shouldn't even think about quitting their day job until they hit 500,000 a month.

There are only a few sites that have done this. Ask a Ninja, featuring Douglas Sarine as an assassin answer-man, started as a single video in November 2005. It could have remained a quirky show followed by a few friends, but the podcast was featured on iTunes, and gained 12,000 subscribers in one week, tuning in to see Ninja’s manic and random answers to viewer-submitted questions--for instance, the answer to "What is a Podcast?" is "apple pie for whales."

About a year later, Sarine and Nichols decided to make money off their hungry viewership, not from paid subscriptions but from ads. They started posting their videos on Revver, which splits ad revenues with creators 50-50, and earned over $40,000 in eight months. This in turn attracted Federated Media, which signed them to a seven-figure ad deal in January 2007.

Now they have their own Ask a Ninja site.In an interview last June with NPR, they stated they have more viewers than Adult Swim, the nighttime persona of the Cartoon Network, for the same young male demographic. By December, they had amassed 70 million views, and now average 2.7 million views a month and $100,000 a month from ads and merchandise sales.

Since established stars have more lucrative projects, very few name-brand talents have an entire site dedicated to themselves, nor would they prolific enough to create a steady stream of videos in their free time. In this case, banding together on an internet channel that they can use to promote their latest project or make a few bucks makes sense. My Damn Channel features Andy Milonakis, David Wain of the afore mentioned show The State, and Harry Shearer of The Simpsons in their own weekly shows. Funny or Die features comedic shorts by both name and unnamed talent and got a huge boost when SNL alumnus Will Ferrell and director Judd Apatow signed up, followed by videos from their celebrity friends.

So in general, only celebrities are paid upfront to create content or generate ad revenue. Unless they want to work behind the scenes as writers first (As Tina Fey and Conan O'Brian did for many years), upstarts will need to establish their audience first before they can get noticed by either Hollywood or advertising networks. They'll also need to keep the content flowing--one hit isn't enough.

That's exactly the approach these comedians are taking--here are some names to watch (though not at work, as many of their sketches are off color)

Jon LaJoie, with his Everyday Normal Guy rap keeps coming back with more topical skits.

Evan Mann and Gareth Reynolds: They seem to have been trying for a while to break into comedy writing and acting, even doing internet shorts for Axe Bodyspray, and each getting acting gigs on nationally aired commercials. They're on a show called The Writer's Room on Hulu. But their best work came after they paired with director Todd Strauss-Schulson and Ulterior Productions on three videos, including Evan Meets a Leprechaun.

So how will Ross Kohn and Ed Stein do? Too soon to say. After all, how many Tom Cruise parodies can you make? The answer, for now, is at least two. Here is their sequel, "Tom Cruise is a C**kblock 2."

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