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Comics earning laughs - and fans - online by taking vastly different approaches

Omar L. Gallaga, Digital Savant

Staff Writer
Austin 360
John Ramsey posts online video as a way to connect with fans.

Like every other industry that's been upended by technology, the comedy world has had to figure out how to harness the new to deliver its goods and somehow still make a living.

This week's Moontower Comedy and Oddity Fest, which runs Wednesday through Saturday, provides a quick snapshot of where comedy and technology meet. Among its performers are some Twitter heavy-hitters such as "Saturday Night Live" writer and performer Seth Meyers, king of comedy podcasting Marc Maron and many comics who've helped create a strong online video scene with sketches on sites such as Funny or Die, CollegeHumor.com and the largest repository of online comedy, YouTube.

Then there's Aziz Ansari, the "Parks and Recreation" star whose huge fan base allowed him to join fellow comedians Louis CK and Jim Gaffigan in offering online-only video specials. Ansari produced his and offered it to fans directly for $5.

Ansari, whose Wednesday Moontower show is already sold out, said he had the idea to offer his special, "Dangerously Delicious," online last June. After the success that Louis CK had with his own online special, Ansari pushed ahead, spending about $250,000 on the project, some of it offset by ticket sales.

He said that the project has been more work than handing over material to an outlet such as Comedy Central, but, "I feel like I'm way more invested in it because it's all on me and I have to put it out there myself. People seem to be glad I did it this way."

Ansari offered the special online at a low price (the $5 price point that seems to be the new standard for online comedy), made it easy to download and view on a computer or mobile device and asked fans not to distribute the video illegally.

Ansari has been a comic long enough to build a large, loyal following. Using Twitter and his various websites, he can mobilize fans to check out a special like "Dangerously Delicious" or to buy tickets for his tour. "There's a direct connection with people," Ansari said. "I announced my tour on Twitter and so many dates sold out without any traditional advertising. I think there's a shift in that."

Touring comedians often use down time on the road to keep in touch with fans through social networks and post photos from their travels. Dane Cook was an early adopter back in the MySpace days, and today many stand-ups post material and connect with fans on social media, from Sarah Silverman to "Nerdist" podcaster Chris Hardwick to master one-liner generators Steve Martin and Albert Brooks. (One recent Brooks tweet: "Got Buffett and buffet rule confused. 1% not allowed to go back for seconds.")

The way some local stand-up comics performing at Moontower approach technology varies widely based on their interests and approaches to performing.

Ramin Nazer, who works as a Web designer at an Austin tech startup, says there's never been a better time to perform comedy because there are more tools to get noticed.

Even as audiences have fragmented, Nazer said, comedians can still build a solid base online that can translate into packed performances, as musicians and filmmakers have learned.

"You drive by the Frank Erwin Center, and you just see a name and it's sold out. You think, ‘I've never even heard of this band before, but 30,000 people are willing to pay $50-$100 to go see them.' "

Nazer got on Facebook early — back in 2004 when it was only available to students — and has used it to promote shows.

John Ramsey, on the other hand, who's been doing stand-up for about six years and performing sketch and improv much longer, focuses more on online video than social media.

"Even seven years ago, getting sketches online seemed a lot more difficult. Now, I feel like sketch comedy is the same as stand-up; you can film it and get an audience almost instantly. And the audience is bigger," he said. "Rapid access to an audience spurs me to put content online, but I try not to let that affect the way I generate material."

He tries, he said, to focus on the comedy on its own terms and not on making things "for the Internet."

Another local Moontower performer who's gotten a lot out of being online is John Tole.

"Twitter has hands-down helped my stand-up," he says.

He says that although his stage comedy isn't built on topical material, Twitter gives him a forum, "to take potshots at celebrities, politicians and trending items." The frequent Twitterer says he can talk about the natural disaster that ravaged Dallas ("Khloe Kardashian") while giving audiences a sense of his worldview before they see him perform.

"I like to engage the readers and use their overall reaction almost as a real-time live editing session. The 140-character limit is a great tool for slimming down ideas and getting to the root of a joke as quickly as possible."

But there are downsides to connected comedy. Even professional joke-tellers run the risk of offending audiences (ask Gilbert Gottfried, whose tasteless tweets about natural disasters in Japan last year cost him his commercial gig as the Aflac duck), having their unformed material posted online by fans before it's ready for wide consumption or simply competing with a million other digital distractions.

"Unfortunately with social media, people are living now with their heads buried into their phones and when they look up to watch something live, they do it with a newly formed detachment that allows them to check out on reality," Tole said.

The most dangerous thing about being funny online, however, might be that people expect a never-ending stream of humor from a comedian.

"Sometimes I just want to post pictures of my son," Ramsey says, "but I feel like I have to be funny when I do it."

Contact Omar L. Gallaga at ogallaga@statesman.com or 445-3672; Twitter: @omarg

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