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Louis C.K. Video Inspires New Business Model For Comedians

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LOUIS CK
Funny business: Louis C.K. has sparked a trend of comedians selling videos directly to fans online. | Getty Images

Louis C.K. has been known to push boundaries with his raunchy stand-up, and now he's pushing boundaries in a completely different arena -- as an entrepreneur. Last December, C.K. released "Live at the Beacon Theater" on his website for $5, and the success of that has inspired other comedians, including Aziz Ansari, who released his own special online this week, to follow suit.

The C.K. special was self-produced and funded, allowing him complete control over its distribution. One of his first entrepreneurial decisions was to make the content accessible -- which means it's also easy to share or pirate -- "against well-informed advice," C.K. said on his website. "I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without any 'corporate' restrictions. Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation. I'm just some guy. I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money. I would like to be able to post more material to the fans in this way, which makes it cheaper for the buyer and more pleasant for me. So, please help me keep this being a good idea. I can't stop you from torrenting; all I can do is politely ask you to pay your five little dollars, enjoy the video, and let other people find it in the same way."

So far, the business experiment has paid off, with C.K. making $1 million in sales within 12 days, which he split between production costs ($250,000), bonuses to staffers ($250,000) and donations to charities ($280,000), keeping just $220,000 for himself. And now other comedians are following C.K.'s digital footsteps by applying the small-business model to their comedy acts, skipping the middleman and shaking up the studios and corporations that have traditionally profited from these comedy specials.

On Tuesday, comedian Aziz Ansari of NBC's "Parks and Recreation" released his new special, "Dangerously Delicious," on his website for $5. Both C.K. and Ansari have made not only ease of use but also fan interaction a priority, by doing a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) (C.K.'s AMA got nearly 10,000 comments) and even solving customer service problems via Twitter. "It seems like this is the thing to do at this moment when so much is changing and nobody's really figured out how to do anything," Ansari said. "In this era, the way people consume media, the way people release media has not caught up."

Also joining the trend is comedian Jim Gaffigan, who will release "Jim Gaffigan: Mr Universe" next month digitally for $5, with $1 of each purchase going to charity. "If no one buys the special or if lots of people steal it, then I suppose I will lose a lot of money and have egg on my face," Gaffigan said on his website. "But then again I have four kids so I am always losing money and usually have egg or some kind of food on my face so it might just feel normal."

These comedians are taking a high-risk, high-reward chance on making a profit. And like all entrepreneurs, they're depending on their fans/customers to prove the model is sustainable. But maybe the connection between comedians and serious business isn't so unlikely after all. "It makes sense that comedians would embrace something like this," Ansari said. “Comedians are used to being autonomous anyway."