Louis C.K. is used to people stealing his jokes — but not his business model.
In December 2011, C.K. started a small DIY revolution in comedy when he decided to self-release his "Live at the Beacon Theater" special online. Charging fans $5 per download, he said he was trying to save fans money and bypass corporations.
Eighteen months later, Viacom-owned Comedy Central is unabashedly embracing his $5 download idea, saying C.K. proved it works for comics and fans alike. And yes, the comedy network sees the irony in a corporation adopting an approach designed to subvert corporations.
"We can't be indie rock. We're Viacom," said Steve Raizes, Comedy Central's vice president of enterprises. "However, we can be more human."
Comedy Central's adoption of "the Louis C.K. model," as it's come to be known, reflects both his influence and the new realities of the streaming era. He has also created a market for lower-priced comedy specials without hurting his fellow comics.
When fans buy $5 specials on Comedy Central's new platform, CC: Standup Direct, comedians receive twice as much cash per downloaded purchased as they do from each DVD sale, even though DVDs are higher priced. Standup Direct, which launched Thursday, may also help fans discover new comics.
"As a comedy nerd, it feels great to do that deal," Raizes said. "We approached every single comic that is on this platform to say, 'Hey, this is what we're doing, this is what you're going to get,' and the universal response was, 'Wow, that's great. I want to be involved.'"
The 22 comedians taking part include Daniel Tosh, Anthony Jeselnik, Chris Hardwick, Nick Kroll, Jeff Ross, John Mulaney and Todd Barry.
"I can't think of any drawbacks," Barry (left) told TheWrap. "I can tweet, Facebook, or email a link, and a person could download it immediately for $5 — a lot more appealing than ordering a DVD for twice the price. And yes, the payout is more for the comics."
Most comics would leap at the chance to work with Comedy Central. But if they don't want to, nothing the network is doing prevents them from selling their specials themselves, C.K.-style.
Under the old system, comedians would perform for a network like Time Warner's HBO or Viacom's Comedy Central. Their specials would then sell on DVD.
For example, the year before C.K. offered "Beacon," he aired his previous special, "Hilarious," on the Viacom, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Lions Gate Entertainment-owned Epix. A DVD of "Hilarious" now sells on DVD for $11.61 on Amazon, where you can also download it for $9.99.
Or you can skip "Hilarious," and download "Beacon" for $5.
Why is the cost so much lower? Because of C.K.'s scrappy approach.
Streaming has hollowed out the DVD market, and C.K. was the first big comedy star to bypass the middleman. He did everything himself on "Beacon," including writing, performing, directing and editing.
Even more radically, he was upfront with fans about his costs and profits. In a Dec. 13, 2011 open letter, he said he paid about $250,000 in production and online expenses. Within days, he made a million dollars, half of which he gave to his employees and several charities.
The New York Times declared him a "show business saint."
"Louis may have done it to avoid corporations, but it was also a very smart business model," Barry said. "He ended up with a million dollars in his PayPal account within a week. That probably wouldn't have happened if he went the conventional route."
C.K. said his early profit was about $200,000 — "less than I would have been paid by a large company to simply perform the show and let them sell it to you" — but the money has continued to roll in since then.
C.K.'s publicist said he was unavailable for comment for this story.
Not every comedian has the upfront money — or the talent, or the following — to distribute his or her work without a corporate backer. But some, like top draws Aziz Ansari and Jim Gaffigan, were inspired by CK to self-release their own $5 specials directly. And when Tig Notaro delivered a daring performance last year about her battle with cancer, C.K. was so impressed that he began hosting it on his site, too.
C.K. has never claimed to be anti-corporation. He has worked for NBC shows, and "Louie" airs on FX. In perhaps his most honest moment, C.K. told fans after the "Beacon" release that he might still get back in bed with media companies.
"Of course I reserve the right to go back on all of this," he wrote, "and sign a massive deal with a company that pays me fat coin and charges you straight up the ass."
Sign major deals he did: He made one to have FX air the "Beacon" show. And his latest special, "Oh My God," aired on HBO in April. By then, he was a much bigger star than he was back in December 2011 — partly because of "Beacon," and partly because of the success of "Louie."
Comedy Central isn't as upfront about the economics of its download plan as C.K. was. It won't say, for example, exactly how much money comedians receive for downloads.
But it says it is being transparent with performers, and offering them new exposure. It hopes to introduce a feature in which it would recommend more comedians to fans based on their downloads.
"In the future, they may have recommendations based on your likes," said Raizes. "We should have some sort of learning algorithm. If you like Mitch Hedburg, you're gonna like Steven Wright."
One huge plus for fans, though not necessarily comedians: People who buy downloads can share them on as many devices as they like.
C.K. explicitly asked fans not to steal his work, and says few did. Comedy Central also hopes fans won't rip off their favorite comedians, though it has placed no restrictions on sharing downloads. That means someone who enjoys Barry's special, for example, can pass it along to dozens of friends.
"It doesn't really bother me because you can share a DVD," said Barry. "Or copy it to your hard drive and share it."
And even being ripped off by fans can have an upside: Kevin Hart has said he owes his success in part to bootlegged copies of "Soul Plane." He is now one of the top-selling comics in the country, and his new concert film, "Let Me Explain," has grossed more than $26 million since its premiere earlier this month.