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Comedians Making Their Own Way in Era of Do-It-Yourself Comedy

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Tall, skinny and sporting a beard with shaggy hair, 31 year-old comedian Lee Camp resembles many of the ubiquitous young comics in the New York City comedy scene, today. But, Camp's jokes are less about Generation-Y's latest interest like Spotify, and more an unleashing of his anger at the growing divide between the haves and have-nots.

Of the corporate takeover over of America and the nation's reaction to it, Lee jokes, "It's like we treat it like a Black Eyed Peas song. Well, it's going to be around for a while. Might as well pretend like we like it!"

This brand of humor, for a long time, kept Camp and others who would be considered part of the "alternative comedy scene" from breaking through the cluttered mass of those trying to make a career in comedy. "Alt Comedy" was so named because the stand-ups who are a part of the scene did more long-form jokes, often commentary, than the setup-punchline form of the majority of successful mainstream comedians.

Now, arguably there is no alt comedy, as technology is allowing comedians with a different voice to do an end-around the traditional path of comedic success that many of their counterparts take. That has changed the face of comedy, as their voice is now becoming equally as popular and standard as their counterparts.

Going through the old-school method of "making it" in comedy is a tiresome, seemingly endless slog. It includes continuous open-mikes in seedy bars, bookings that depend on how many audience members you can bring in, with the goal of getting in with late-night bookers, producers and casting directors who politely reject you time-after-time. It's a million-to-one shot, and has taken its toll on many who tried to make comedy into a career.

For Joan Rivers, the memories of the struggle remain stark, and now are a part of her material. In an audio recording on her website, she recounts, "It was a sorry seven-year stretch.... I worked in a night club where you passed a hat and the hat didn't come back. I worked in the Catskills resort where a man stood behind me translating each line into Yiddish, so the jokes didn't bomb once, they bombed twice."

Rivers' break came, however, after appearing on The Tonight Show, and winning the approval of Johnny Carson. A hard enough goal to achieve for any comic, but even tougher for people like Camp.

"I did realize that the comics I truly love weren't on TV in the traditional sense," he says. "So I kind of just learned that wasn't going to work for me. Sure, if some of the late night shows came knocking down my door, I'd probably do them, but it's a Sisyphean task for me to spend my time trying to take my material and crowbar it into the late night-appropriate format."

Like a growing number of comedians, especially alt comedians, Camp used new and social media to produce his own materials to take to a larger audience himself, bypassing many of the comedy gatekeepers (who often prefer the older setup-punchline style of comedy).

Not possible for comedians of the past like Rivers, mass self-promotion now is very accessible in a world where Pandora hosts more than 1000 comedians, more than three-quarters of books are self-published, and over 200 million people are on Twitter. Even already established comedians like Louis CK and Jim Gaffigan have also embraced the internet to fully control their material and bring it directly to fans - and potential fans. Both recently put their stand-up concerts on the internet for download, with wild success.

Camp started by self-recording CDs and DVDs of his concerts and reproducing them for cheap. He then took to the internet to produce short YouTube comedic rants about the state of our society and politics, called Moment of Clarity, Tweeting them out and posting on Facebook, aggressively. The YouTubes regularly attracted thousands of views (one received more than 50,000 views), and that led to a longer-form podcast, which is now at Episode #130.

With the success of the YouTubes and podcasts, Camp was motivated to write a book, which he self-published. At one point, Camp's book reached the Top 25 of political comedy books on Amazon.com's Kindle, largely due to the following he built himself.

"I knew Moment of Clarity had a fan base, I knew people would buy the book," says Camp.

Rob Delaney, a 35-year old comedian based in Los Angeles, now has over 365,000 Twitter followers. But, whereas many others gain a following on Twitter after they're known, Delaney found much of his success because of a large following he built for himself on Twitter.

One tweet of his, "The only difference between what gay men do in a marriage & what Chris Christie does to a cannoli is consensuality," was retweeted over 1000 times. Many other tweets have thousands of retweets as well, each bringing in large groups of new followers.

Now, he says, he's blown away in many meetings, when producers tell him they follow him on Twitter. And, he is publishing a book - an opportunity that literally came via Twitter when an executive at Random House's Speigel and Grau tweeted him to ask if he wanted to write a book for them.

Delaney agrees with Camp about how the right use of new and social media can propel a comedian, without waiting for a lucky break.

"I hate to say it, but it would be really ugly for me if not for Twitter," he says. "I would be pounding the pavement like any other comedian, but I would very likely be in debt and my wife would hate me."

Similarly, Liam McEneaney, a 32 year-old stand-up from Queens became frustrated with the lack of reception his comedy received from gatekeepers, and took matters into his own hands.

"It's not so much that I have no interest in making it through the establishment; it's more that I came to accept that it had no interest in me," says McEneaney, who has been hosting his own weekly stand-up show in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which the aforementioned Gaffigan often visits. "So, a couple of years ago, I decided that if I wasn't going to get booked for a big TV special or network TV spot, I'd just put something together with my friends, and basically make my own special."

The result was "Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film," named after his weekly stand-up show, and directed by his friend and fellow comedian, Victor Vornado. A documentary that is part comedy concert, part a look into the world of the alt comedy world they come from, McEneaney and Vornado filmed and produced it with a relatively low budget, financed by an interested investor. It has now been invited to be screened at a dozen major film festivals.

Like Delaney, a huge break for McEneaney came via use of the internet.

"I put the trailer for the movie on YouTube, it spread, and within a couple of days the comedy booker for South By Southwest happened to see it, and contacted the director to see a screener. As a result of that, we had our world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival," says McEneaney, who is currently in talks with buyers who have expressed interest in the film.

Pam Loshak, a New York City-based comedy publicist says that even with all of the technology available, funny is still funny, and success still depends on whether or not a comic can make enough people laugh.

"A standup comedian should focus on really developing his or her own voice, and then figure out what platform will best showcase that voice," Loshak says. "But, the good news is that there are so many different ways to get your work out there now. Use the media that makes sense for your audience."

For Camp, Delaney, and McEneaney, and many others, do-it-yourself comedy is taking them where they want to go, and their use of new and social media has gained them a strong following - who are, indeed, laughing. With that has come interest from the very same people who ignored them in the past.

"In general I've had a lot more attention from people who weren't calling before, whereas before it had to always be me begging them for a meeting," says Camp.

McEneaney agrees, and adds that the drive to aggressively self-produce and methodically grow a presence and following online is crucial in terms of keeping ahead of the pack.

"There's such a glut of comedy and comedians right now, all of them clamoring for a limited number of opportunities, that you kind of need to work harder to keep your voice heard above the noise," he says. "It's definitely no longer a game for people who are lazy-but-lucky."

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