By Sahil Patel
New York is a cathedral for comedy — in and of itself such an institution that pretty much every successful comedian today has done time in the city. It’s a place that has no shortage when it comes to the sheer amount and variety of comedy available to comedy geeks and passers-by. And it’s a place that affords comedians multiple ways to make it big.
From the stage at “Letterman” to the stand at Comedy Cellar, to the hallowed halls of “Saturday Night Live,” if you manage to find yourself performing at any of these locations, congratulations, you’ve made it.
Sinatra wasn’t kidding, New York is a city of opportunity. And if Above Average — the online comedy channel and multi-channel network founded by Broadway Video — does it right, it’s got the chance to be on the mind of each and every NY-based writer and performer who has been struck with the case of being really, really, ridiculously funny.
Let’s just get this out of the way. Broadway Video is Lorne Michaels’ production company. You know who Lorne Michaels is. I know who Lorne Michaels is. So we don’t need to spend time on how important the man has been (and still is) in defining and shaping comedy culture for the past four decades.
But true to Above Average’s roots in comedy, a writer’s medium, the idea for the company came as a result of an idea that a writer had. “A couple of years ago, one of the ‘SNL’ writers, Michael Patrick O’Brien, wanted to do a web series,” says Jennifer Danielson, general manager and head of content for Above Average at Broadway Video. That idea became “7 Minutes in Heaven,” an interview series in which O’Brien would speak with some of your favorite comedians and actors/actresses while nestled inside a closet. The show launched as part of Yahoo’s first Newfront slate, and was successful enough that it convinced Broadway Video that the company should be doing something with premium short-form comedy online.
Networking the Network
A quick stat: Together, the Above Average network reaches more than 5.7 million subscribers on YouTube, generating roughly 30 million views a month.
“Our network is different than any other,” says Danielson. “We have 40 channel partners and we have a relationship with every single one of them.”
Unlike other MCNs though, this “relationship” with the creators doesn’t mean Above Average simply represents them and provides channel management and ad sales support. If one of the mottos of YouTube is to always be collaborating, Above Average has embedded that tenet into the very fabric of how it operates. This means not only hosting “channel partner get-togethers,” as Danielson describes it, but by also providing ways for creators to work on each other’s content. “A director from one channel could work with a group from another; one creator could cast another creator within our network,” adds Danielson.
And maybe even more so than that, Above Average’s main channel, which reaches more than 210,000 subscribers and features a wide array of high-quality productions, regularly takes pitches from the network. “By being in our network,” says Danielson, “you automatically get to pitch series, which we would fund and go on the main channel. It’s a natural funnel for consistently getting good, funny stuff, because we only have channel partners that we believe in.”
Though lest you think Above Average is an insular outfit, the network also is well aware of the city it lives in. “We are lucky enough to be in NY, where we have access to a fair amount of really cool, creative, and smart people,” says Danielson. So the network also often works with outsiders — from agencies it has relationships with, to on-air and off-camera talent associated with Broadway Video corporate, to the New York comedy community at large. In fact, many Above Average videos feature performers from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, which is widely considered to be the top improv and sketch comedy venue in the city. To readers, I’d point first to the recently finished “Rejected Pitches” series, which shows famous directors pitching their famous movies, and getting rejected by a bunch of execs who don’t exactly get it.
“Funny is first,” says Danielson, driving the point home. “But I do believe the goal of the whole thing is to be collaborative. There should be new people — who are at the forefront of good comedy — that we are finding.”
YouTube and the World
Above Average was created around the time YouTube made its highly publicized venture into funding original, high-quality programming. Often, Above Average is lumped in as part of YouTube’s partner channels, sometimes even by YouTube itself. Though Danielson doesn’t mind.
“We have a unique partnership with YouTube,” says Danielson. Above Average doesn’t have any exclusivity agreements with YouTube (one of the original stipulations of YouTube’s original channels initiative was that the funded channels had to keep content exclusive to the video site for a certain period of time). “We’re not beholden to them,” adds Danielson, “To be fair, though, it’s still the most guaranteed eyeballs — a great marketing tool that we would never abandon.”
Right now, Above Average primarily distributes via its channel and network on YouTube, though the company is “starting to experiment” with other distribution partners, according to Danielson. These include Hulu and Yahoo, which Above Average licenses its content out to, as well as international distribution partners.
“In the next year or so, I expect there to be growth in this area,” says Danielson. Until this past summer, Above Average did not even have a marketing department. This is because, as Danielson explains, the network was laser-focused on getting its name out there to the comedy community and “finding great people to work with.” Now, the unit has a marketing team in place and recently hired Marc Lieberman to be its VP of business development. Lieberman formerly oversaw business development at The Onion, another big comedy property you might have heard of.
The Future Will Include TV, But What Is TV?
For Above Average, monetization comes in many different buckets — from licensing to ad-sales (which it oversees for its network on YouTube) and brand sponsorships, and potentially even venturing into television.
Above Average obviously has some connections to television. Though an independently run unit, the company’s parent is Broadway Video, one of the biggest producers of comedy programming across film and television, from “SNL” to “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” and on. A lot of people who appear on Above Average videos, and work behind the scenes on the shoots, come from Broadway Video, or NBC, or television in general.
So I ask Danielson if Above Average ever plans to do what some web-creators and networks are doing, moving successful online properties to the biggest screen in the house (or, using the web from the very beginning to incubate future franchises). “We are always open to it,” says Danielson. In fact, Comedy Central recently bought a script to a TV version of “Waco Valley,” an animated series that originally aired on Above Average.
“I would love to do more of that in the future,” says Danielson. “But I don’t think film and TV should be the be-all, end-all. Though I’m not sure we’re there yet, before you know it, it’s not going to matter which screen you’re watching on.” As an example of shifting consumption habits, she says Above Average’s one-off “viral’ videos used to get 10–15% of views from mobile — now mobile accounts for over 50% of total views.
“The whole world is changing.” And Above Average plans to be there, making funny stuff, every step of the way.