Louis C.K. and the human side of business

January 3, 2012

Louis C.K. is a painfully funny and insightful comedian. He is also a single individual making direct connections across a distributed fan base in a way that is perfectly aligned with who he is and what he is all about.

Comedian Louis C.K. took the bold step last month of eschewing a guaranteed payday from a major TV/video distributor so that he could own and control the entire process himself by creating “the thing” (as he calls it) and selling it directly to his fans online. Not only did this lead to a phenomenally successful venture, it also illustrated a very human approach to what may emerge as the new normal of media distribution.

Louis C.K. is a painfully funny and insightful comedian. There is a frankness about himself and about people or society in general that makes Louis C.K. feel real and relatable. From his black t-shirt and jeans to his biting, self-deprecating humor, Louis C.K. is the world’s funniest everyman and one of the most successful comedians in the game today. He fills sizeable venues coast to coast and has had a number of concert shows on HBO and other major cable outlets. Louis C.K. has also just completed the second season of a show on FX, Louie, that is among the smartest and most unusual programs on television. (Full disclosure: I am a huge fan.)

In December, Louis C.K. released a concert video that he produced on his own dime (at the Beacon Theater in New York City, no less), available exclusively from his website. The video was available for download at a mere $5. As he says on the site: “No DRM, no regional restrictions, no crap. You can download this file, play it as much as you like, burn it to a DVD, whatever.”

He kept the price cheap and kept the process simple. Fans benefited from the low-cost (as opposed to paying for HBO or buying a DVD at retail, etc.) and ease of use.

Most importantly, Louis C.K. kept the entire experience human. This was no manufactured social media play; this is a single individual harnessing the power of our communications infrastructure to make direct connections across a distributed fan base in a way that is perfectly aligned with who he is and what he is all about.

With no digital rights management (DRM), Louis C.K. left himself open for all forms of piracy and digital theft. He countered this with a personal plea, essentially telling his fans, “I’m making this cheap and easy for you – and in the end this benefits all of us.” Within about a week, he grossed $1 million.

He then took the almost unprecedented step for a private enterprise by publishing a rundown of what he was doing with these instant riches.

“One million dollars. That's a lot of money. Really too much money. I've never had a million dollars all of a sudden. And since we're all sharing this experience and since it's really your money, I wanted to let you know what I'm doing with it.”

He paid the expenses, gave his crew a healthy bonus, gave a chunk to charity and kept less than a quarter of it to “do terrible, horrible things with and none of that is any of your business.” And, as the sales keep pouring in – which I am sure they will – he promises to offer more details about how he uses it.

When was the last time you saw a major media company so personally invested in the experience of its fans and in the outcomes of the dollars they spent?

To say Louis C.K. has stayed true to his brand feels simplistic and trite. Louis C.K. fully acknowledges and appreciates that he is a guy to whom people pay money to tell them jokes. His entire approach is genuine, real, human. The fact that he could extend this experience to address a media distribution and ownership issue that has longed plagued the likes of a Fox or a Sony or a TimeWarner is a pretty amazing feat. The fact that Louis C.K. can do it so naturally and easily and hysterically warms my heart to no end.

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