Technically Funny: Trailblazing Comedians Whose Technical Innovations Revolutionized The Industry
They say necessity is the mother of invention. That may true, but let’s not forget the three headed monster-father of vanity, greed, and laziness that plants the seed. Don’t get me wrong; this is a good thing. Without these important ingredients, we would be missing out on any number of inventions that make life oh so livable like cars, movies, and Spanx.
Luckily for us, comedians have all of these traits in spades! So, what happens when comedians decide to really put their nose to the grindstone and invent techniques that change the industry altogether?
Let’s find out!
So, distribution isn’t a sexy subject. No one really cares how he or she get their stuff, just as long as they get it. Which is why people aren’t walking around every day talking about how incredible it is that the United States Postal Service is able to deliver millions of letters and packages everyday without collapsing in on itself out of exhaustion (although, people will shout to the mountaintops if a package goes missing). However, the Internet has proven mercurial in the many ways digital entertainment is distributed for consumption.
iTunes set the model for digital music distribution when it launched in 2003. However, many people felt that their prices were too high, often on par with physical copies of the same product, and felt ripped off due to the fact that there was no physical product, thus not as much capital needed to distribute it. Radiohead experimented with their album, In Rainbows, in which they offered the album for digital download on a pay what you want platform straight from their website. However, when it came time to release The King of Limbs, they opted for a more traditional approach (although the album was available as a digital download before released as a physical copy). Few artists have followed suit, however, as record labels are still dominant within the music industry in releasing content, mainly due to the fact that artist are wary to shy away from record labels because they need label influence and marketing to get in front of as many people as possible.
With comedy, this dynamic is different. For the most part, comedians have a lot of control over their careers. Don’t like to tap dance for the man? You can make a pretty decent living playing clubs as a touring comedian, especially if you are able to cultivate a thriving fan base (a la Doug Stanhope). In fact, that kind of autonomy is exactly what attracts so many creative people to stand-up in the first place.
Which is why last December Louis CK was able to figure out a way to release his special, Live at Beacon Theatre for $5 on his website. While it can be argued that Radiohead did it first with their 2007 release of In Rainbows , the fact that they chose a more traditional platform for the 2011 release of King of Limbs suggests that there were kinks that still needed to be worked out. It is precisely due to the independence that comedians enjoy, that Louis CK was able to perfect the model.
Live at Beacon Theatre earned CK a payday of over more than one millions dollars. And has, by all accounts, had very few instances of being torrented or found on file sharing sites at the time it was released. Setting the price at such a low cost is definitely a factor, but perhaps more importantly, the transparency Louis CK offered about the production of the special, such as the fact that he paid for it out of his own pocket took away the feeling for online pirates that they were stealing from a large, faceless corporation. In the email CK sent out announcing the special and online at his site, he personally asks people not to steal the content in a very direct and heartfelt way.
When Radiohead self released, it was written that this could be a new revolution for recording artists, however, few have followed suit. With Louis CK, it seems that setting the download for a cheap price and granting consumers complete transparency into the production costs and even the financial results of the special has provided a blueprint for how to successfully self distribute a comedy special.
This is huge news for comedy fans. Before, if a stand-up comic wanted to release a comedy special, that person had to deal with one of the cable networks, usually HBO, Showtime, or Comedy Central (though up-start Epix seems to be staking their claim to this territory these days). There was also the alternative choice of releasing a stand-up film, a la Eddie Murphy: Raw or Bill Cosby: Himself, but suffice it to say, you have to be on a whole other level of popularity to pull any shit like that. And of course, touring club comics have had DVDs for sale after shows for years, but the quality was generally of the corporate video variety, if that.
With Live at Beacon Theatre, Louis CK has set a new precedence, and fellow comics such as Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari have followed suit. Most recently, Louis CK released comedian Tig Notaro’s legendary set at Largo on his site (in which she discusses he recent breast cancer diagnosis), which made some headlines when it was discovered that over 75,000 people had downloaded the show. With the powerful results this new distribution model has shown, it is certain that the way comedy specials are released will change forever and will fulfill the promise of the internet in a way that has never before been achieved. Namely, in that both the artist and the consumer will benefit equally.
Single camera sitcoms are generally the most critically acclaimed and hippest shows on air for much of the past ten years (Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, The Office, etc.) that it is sometimes hard to believe that it is not some crazy, new technical innovation. In fact, it is quite the opposite. In the early days of television, single camera was the norm. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that multi-camera sitcoms started to become the dominant form (and could be argued, ratings wise, still is) of shooting.
While it is generally believed that I Love Lucy was the first show to begin using a three camera set up (and was actually the genesis of this goddamned article, so fuck me, right?), it turns out that the show Amos and Andy was actually the first show to start employing the three camera structure, beating Lucy to the punch by a mere four months (a shame Amos and Andy doesn’t get more love just because it is incredibly racist).
However, I Love Lucy was the first television show to use a live studio audience. It turns out that when television shows first started shooting on soundstages, the venues did not meet fire code regulations to accommodate audiences. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz rightly decided that they without an audience for Ball to bounce off of, the show would fall flat, so they retrofitted the studio to meet fire safety standards. Of course, the show become huge because of this decision and actually works as a great argument for having live audiences in sitcoms, since classic Lucy bits such as the conveyor belt at the chocolate factory and Vegavitamin would undoubtedly seem much less dynamic and funny without the raucous and infectious laughter of the audience breaking through our screens.
Years later, a fourth camera would be added to the sitcom production to accommodate another frenetic performer. Garry Marhsall added a camera to the usualy three camera set up to better capture wild improviser Robin Williams on the set of Mork and Mindy. Marshall knew that letting Williams do whatever he wanted would make for exciting television, but his tangents would often lead him off his mark, so adding another camera was the solution to Marhsall’s problem, allowing him to capture comedy gold.
It may seem strange to the modern comedy audience, who tend to view Lewis as a slapstick dinosaur, but for a much of the 50’s and 60’s, he was the biggest comedian in the world. His tenure as half of the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis presents glimpse of what passed for hipness back in the conservative 1950’s (old archival footage shows teens rapturously screaming for them at hotel lobbies throughout the country that way their younger siblings would for The Beatles in just a few short years). Jerry Lewis’ gift for physical comedy remains unsurpassed, even against rubber faced Jim Carrey (who counts himself as one Jerry’s biggest fans). Of course, Lewis does himself no favors ingratiating himself with younger audiences when he states, as he did a few years ago at a comedy festival, that women aren’t funny, but there is nothing new about legendary and talented men having horrible views.
And make no mistake; Jerry Lewis is a legendary and extremely talented man. After Martin and Lewis disbanded in the early 60’s Jerry Lewis appeared in a string of films that did so-so at the box office. At the time, it seemed to many that Dean Martin may have been the real talent behind the team, as he scored a string of top ten hits and was gaining a reputation as a gifted actor, appearing in films such as Rio Bravo. Once Lewis decided to take his career into his own hands and began writing and directing his own films, he climbed straight to the top of the mountain creating classic comedies like The Nutty Professor, The Bellboy, and The Ladies Man.
While Jerry Lewis’ reputation as a comedian is vastly underrated in the modern age, his innovation as a director remains intact. While filming his 1960 film, The Bellboy, a film he shot in Miami in between stand-up shows he was performing at night, he needed a way to speed up the process of shooting a movie in which he starred. The reason was simple: he owed the film studio a picture and decided to crank one out while performing his nightclub act in Miami. So, to speed things up, he created the video assist, which allowed him to watch his performance in between takes to see how it looked on film. This gave him the ability to alter his performance on the spot, rather than waiting until later to see how it looked in the dailies. Strangely, no one had thought of this before.
This use of video assist is pretty much de rigeur in film making today, but it is amazing that the reason Lewis came up with this innovative technique is so he could hurry up and shit out this movie he needed to make for contractual reasons, which turned out to be held up as one of the funniest movies of his ouvere as well as of the entire 1960s.
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It should be noted that the innovations these comedians made were not because of the high level science and tech training they received. True innovation comes from having a vision and working with others to accomplish that vision. It is certain that none of the people on this list would claim sole credit for their contributions to the entertainment industry (well, maybe Jerry Lewis), but that is not the point. Steve Jobs wasn’t necessarily the most technologically advanced mind in the room, but he decided on what he wanted from a computing device and worked with others to make it happen.
So, if there is an idea that has been percolating in your head, some stupid random thought that has occurred to you, don’t dismiss it. Research and inquire with friends and acquaintances to find out if the idea is feasible. Do the work needed to bring your idea to life. Perhaps one of the truest maxims comes from Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
Of course, he probably stole that line from Tesla.
Justin Gray is a stand-up comic, podcaster (is that a word now?), and writer living in NYC, which is a fancy way of saying he is poor.