How Louis C.K. Cut Out Networks, Used Them to Earn $1M — and Gave Half Away

Charities, employees benefit from comedian’s plan to cut out middleman

Louis C.K. cut out TV networks by selling his latest comedy special online — then used network airtime to promote it. The strategy helped him earn a cool million dollars in a matter of days, half of which he's giving away to his staff and charities.

It's hard to think of a more stick-it-to-The-Man approach to distributing your work. But The Man — in this case TV networks and the conglomerates that own them — don't seem to mind. Networks have given him prominent platforms to promote the special, "Live at the Beacon Theater," and its success has only added to the prestige of C.K.'s FX comedy, "Louie."

Also read: Louis C.K. Profits $200K From Special — So Far

It hasn't hurt C.K.'s reputation, either: The New York Times said this week he's ascended to show-business sainthood.

And that was before he announced plans to give $280,000 to charities. They include the Fistula Foundation, which helps women injured in childbirth; Green Chimneys, which works with children and animals; the Pablove Foundation, which help children with cancer, Charity: Water, which provides clean drinking water; and Kiva, which gives microloans. He will also pay out $250,000 in bonuses to staff.

If you pitched C.K.'s success with the special as a Christmas movie, people might say it was too corny to be believable.

Story continues after video of C.K. breaking down his charitable donations:

The comedian did his last three specials for HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central. This time, he sold it on his website for $5, including a note asking people please not to pirate it. It went on sale Dec. 9.

"People told me everyone's gonna steal it," he told Jimmy Fallon. "So I just wrote a note that said please don't do that … And they didn't."

C.K. has sold the special to about 220,000 people so far. Besides the more than half a million dollars for his staff and charities, he paid about $250,000 in production costs. He'll pocket the rest.

He said he decided to give much of the money away because "I've never had a million dollars all at once … I felt uncomfortable about having that much money."

His D.I.Y. approach wouldn't work for everyone. C.K. is one of the best comedians alive, and could draw nearly a quarter-million people to download his material. He's also the rare talent who can not only write, star in, and produce and direct his own special, but also develop a simple and convenient way to sell it.

He used TV networks to promote, seizing on a long relationship with NBC to appear on both  "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." (Besides writing for "Late Night" when Conan O'Brien was its host, C.K. has also guest-starred on "Parks and Recreation.") He also appeared on ABC's "Nightline."

C.K. has said the success of his online experiment has encouraged him to try future projects the same way, though he joked in a message to fans, "Of course I reserve the right to go back on all of this and sign a massive deal with a company that pays me fat coin and charges you straight up the ass."

Until then, sit back and savor a tale of showbiz gone right. The question now is whether his approach could work for anyone else.