The Five Dollar Comedy Special – Sawing Off Our Own Feet?

Louis CK's Five Dollar Comedy SpecialI’ve been thinking about starting production on my next standup special (my 3rd).  And it’s a weird little time for comedy specials now due to The Five Dollar Comedy Special.  Louis CK started it.  Jim Gaffigan followed closely behind.  Now plenty of others are doing it too.

But is the five dollar comedy special a good idea?  It’s a great idea for consumers and fans, but I’m not so sure about the business.

Here’s a confession that most comics will hate me for… I’ve never been that big a Louis CK fan.  His style just didn’t click with me.  But I did buy the five dollar special both because I wanted to see his sales process and because I liked him *enough* to pay five bucks and see if I liked it more.

And, in fact, I did.  I’m a bigger fan of Louis than I was before.  I thought his material had matured a lot.

Louis made a ton of money off this special both for himself and for the charities that received 25% of the take.  More than enough to pay the production costs.  And that’s part of the equation.

The reason this price point can work for the big guys is because they have a ton of fans (both hardcore and casual (key!)) who will pop for $5 on the guy’s stuff.  And it can still be sold for broadcast later.

BUT.. That price point now becomes the new norm.  If you’re looking at a $5 Jim Gaffigan special or a $20 special from a guy you’re less familiar with, but might be just as funny, who are you buying?

So the comics further down the totem pole are forced to lower their prices, but they don’t have the fanbase to make it up in volume.  It’s less of a problem with productions costs. I did my last DVD for less than $1000.  But that’s certainly not a DVD that you’ll be seeing on Netflix or broadcast on Comedy Central.  If I want something like that I’m looking at at least 100 times that budget.

The real work is in the material.  Louis CK is super human and write a new hour every year.  A few others like Ralphie May can do the same.  The rest of us mortals take 2-3 years to write a new hour that’s worthy of video.  That’s 2-3 years of writing that immediately less valuable once it’s been released.  So you’d want to make a good bit of change on the recording to hold you through the next couple years of writing.

So I think the big guys, Louis CK, Jim Gaffigan, Aziz Ansari… are doing a great thing for themselves.  It’s perfect for where they’re at in their careers.  But the public isn’t going to know the difference between that and the road comic at the Chuckle Hut on Saturday trying to make gas money to get to the next town.

The whole thing almost strikes me like Radiohead’s “pay what you want” model from a few years ago.  And for some reason, that didn’t really stick as a trend.  It came off more as a publicity stunt.  But with this one, other people jumped on board and started doing it too.  That didn’t happen so much in music.  If enough people latch on, $5 will be the norm for a comedy special download, which trickles down to the lower reaches and harms the profit potential of smaller performers.

Will it bring those new performers more fans?  Maybe.  But just having a low price point isn’t going to get someone to spend five bucks.  It still has to do with all the other fan building skills out there.  Just ask any artist that’s posted a whole album for free somewhere and gets almost no takers.

Then again, maybe it’ll be a great things and bring more attention to those that do it.  I don’t know.  But the possibility is making itself known in my head as I prepare for my next special.  I’ve never been a fan of discounting.  I would rather give more value for a reasonable price that still makes me enough profit to live on.

But it isn’t Louie’s style to do some big package deal with added bonuses and such.  He’s a minimalist and it made sense to take that all the way to the price point.  Whereas I think someone like Tim Minchin may have approached the idea differently and bigger.

I know a few guys that are doing the five dollar comedy specials and I’ll be talking to them over the next few months to see what effect it’s had on their careers.  With their permission, I’ll post some of those insights here, so we can all learn.

What are your thoughts on the five dollar comedy special?  Leave a comment below!

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