Digital A-List 2012

Ad Age Digital A-List: Louis C.K.

From Selling Special for Cheap Online to Speaking Directly With Fans on Reddit, Comedian Has Shown Power of a Smart Web Presence

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Among the funniest viral bits in recent years is Louis C.K.'s rant about our culture of kvetching, which has now been viewed more than 5 million times on YouTube. The object of his scorn is people who, instead of appreciating technology, add it to their list of complaints when it's not running flawlessly.

"Now we live in an amazing, amazing world that 's wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots who don't care," spews the comedian in a chat with Conan O' Brien.

Credit: Jimmy Turrell

Whiny as it might be, that generation came up big late last year for the comedian born as Louis Szekely. Well over 200,000 of them parted with a fiver to stream or download his self-financed, self-edited, self-distributed, DRM-free stand-up special "Live at the Beacon." It was probably the most audacious artist-led media disruption since Radiohead's spend-what-you-will gambit for the album "In Rainbows" in 2007.

Like the Brit mope rockers, Louis C.K. demonstrated that if you've already got a following you don't necessarily need the distributor middlemen who bloat the price for fans. As revealed on C.K's website and echoed around the internet, "Live at the Beacon" did more than $1 million in sales, which after costs and a sizable donation to charity, left C.K. with a take of about $220,000. No one's getting ultrarich here, and C.K. took a huge chance (and left some money on the table) in forgoing the guaranteed fee that would have come with a traditional production deal.

It was even riskier when you consider that followers could have just taken to the torrents to download a free version of the show. Piracy must have been reduced, however, by C.K.'s deft marketing of the special. To get the word out, he turned to Reddit for an "Ask Me Anything" session to answer questions directly from his fans. And he nailed it. Spending over two hours and answering more than 50 questions before he had to run to pick up his daughters, he came off less like a soulless, money-grabbing celebrity than the raw creative force his fans want him to be.

Besides the honesty, there were little things that made supporting C.K. feel good. Those who bought the special through his website had to share their email -- an easy way for C.K. to grow his list except that he made opt-out the default setting, a nice touch. "I checked opt-in," wrote one on Reddit, "just because I appreciated that it was defaulted at opt-out."

The strategy has already yielded one copycat that 's had the unintended effect of showing how deft C.K.'s touch was. This month, comedian Jim Gaffigan announced his own $5-a-pop comedy special, with a dollar from each sale going to a charity for wounded veterans. You've gotta love the thought, but announcing it on "a personal media-management platform" called Whosay? That's not cool.

Did submitting himself to the unmediated scrum of Reddit and, quite simply, acting like a human being, help Louis C.K.'s "Live at the Beacon" get pirated a little less and sold a little more? Probably. There are definitely some pirated versions of the show kicking around, but that was inevitable. What matters is that C.K., now writing the third season of his FX show "Louie," demonstrated just how far a talent can make it with the help of a smart digital presence -- and a few hundred thousand spoiled idiots.