Is The Comedy Boom About To Bust?
It seems not. With standup comedy making a comeback in a big way of late, the streaming service Pandora, although it is best known for music, is working to develop a presence in the genre to help facilitate the spread of comedy to its consumers.
Guest post by Glenn Peoples, Music Insights and Analytics at Pandora, on Medium
Stand-up comedy is back with a vengeance. Pandora, best known for music, is building a presence in comedy to capture the zeitgeist.
In case you haven’t noticed, stand-up is going through both a renaissance, a reawakening, and a Cambrian Explosion, an immense amount of activity and evolution in a short period. The fossil record will show today’s comedians were highly adapted to the current environment—new distribution, new formats, new promotional tools. “Comedy is more popular than ever because comics possess the necessary skills to fill the rapidly growing demand for new content,” explains Drew Miller, Pandora’s head of comedy programming. “They can write, perform, host, act and in some cases, even direct and produce.”
The market has evolved quickly. Changes in distribution, from broadcast to digital downloads to streaming, has upended the entertainment power hierarchy. Once dominated by television giants HBO and Comedy Central, stand-up comedy specials are helping drive Netflix’s original content strategy and appearing at competing services. Technological changes have also brought new formats and torrents of new creative content. All of a sudden, stand-up comedians’ podcasts are as popular as well-produced radio programs.
But with so much stand-up comedy available, will the boom some come to an end? No, not likely. The factors that created the boom don’t appear to be slowing. At Pandora, comedy has the service’s highest daily average listening session—when people start listening to comedy they stick around! And there’s plenty of room to grow, through additions of new forms of listening experiences, exclusive content, and partnerships with comedy clubs.
The ’70s were the first golden age of stand-up comedy. In the book I’m Dying Up Here, a chronicle of the Los Angeles comedy scene, former Los Angeles Times reporter William Knoedelseder, countless aspiring comedians followed Johnny Carson to Los Angeles in hopes of an invite to his late-night talk show. Author Richard Zoglin, in his book “Comedy at the Edge,” called the ’70s the decade that changed America. It was the decade when Jay Leno and David Letterman rose to prominence, Richard Lewis made a name for himself, Elayne Boosler broke new ground for female comics, and Robin Williams built a career before moving on to television and motion pictures.
Fast forward 40 years and stand-up comedy seems to be everywhere. Netflix, HBO, Comedy Central, and Seeso, a comedy-only video streaming service launched by Comcast and NBCUniversal, are making stand-up specials by the dozens. Showtime’s adaptation of the book I’m Dying Up Here is executive produced by Jim Carey. Comedians have some of the most popular podcasts in the country. Well-known comedians Bill Burr and Marc Maron are consistently in the iTunes top 100 podcasts. So too are Chris Hardwick, Matt Bellassai, and Ari Shariff, while not be household names they’re rubbing shoulders with financial guru Dave Ramsey, self-help legend Tony Robbins, and NPR’s long-running “Fresh Air.”
The live comedy business is thriving, too. When Billboard put comedian Chelsea Handler — and her manager, music veteran Irving Azoff — on the cover of its May 2015 comedy issue, the live comedy market was estimated to be $300 million annually and growing. Back in the mid-‘70s, when Zoglin was a freelance writer covering stand-up comedy’s “heyday,” New York had just three comedy clubs. There were 12 when the book came out in 2009. Now there are at least 20 comedy clubs, not including performances at dozens of bars and non-traditional venues every night. “Any bar, any basement, all over the city,” says Pandora’s Miller.
The story hasn’t gone unnoticed. “We’re smack dab in the middle of a stand-up comedy boom,” proclaimed The Washington Post in an extensive July 13th article. Comedy must be flourishing if a national newspaper is writing about it.
Pandora is putting itself in a position to capitalize on the people’s desire for laughs. “Comedy on Pandora is a secret weapon that can differentiate us from our competitors,” says Miller. “There are so many opportunities for new forms of content. Comedy brings in a young and highly engaged audience.” Indeed, comedy’s is tied (with rock and gospel) is daily time spent listening, a signal of its stickiness and appeal. Pandora’s New Comedy station, a favorite entry point for discovering new comics, saw its unique listeners more than triple in July from the month a year earlier.
Listeners are being given more reasons to stick around. Pandora has only begun to use exclusive content, partnerships, and comedian participation that give users more reasons to listen. A good example is the mixtape for The Stand Comedy Club, the best performing venue mixtape to date at Pandora in either comedy or music in total hours listened and the average time a person spent listening. The just-launched mixtape with iconic comedy venue, The Comedy Store, should do as well or better. Both mixtapes are the result of a partnership Ticketfly created to bring the comedy club experience to audio streaming.
More artists will be involved over time, too. Jim Gaffigan recently has the first takeover of the Today’s Comedy station and interest, judged by the click through rate of messages about the takeover, is running high. And Pandora will continue to program to capture the cultural zeitgeist. The Election 2016 Comedy station, for example, had over 500,000 listeners in its first week, the most successful launch for any Pandora comedy station to date.
Comedians have only begun to use Pandora’s promotional tools that are uniquely powerful for this unusual type of artist. Musicians might foster a connection with their fans, but comedians lay bare their psyche through jokes and observations. The stand-up comedian goes on stage and reveals facets of their personalities. In an intimate comedy club, with tables tightly packed, the customers can become part of the show (“Is that your wife, sir?” “Where are you from?” “Are there any smokers in the audience?”). This connection creates powerful marketing opportunities.
Case in point: Comedian Dan Cummins says Pandora has helped transform his career. “I’ve had a few comedy specials, some late night shows, but the first bump I got live was because of Pandora,” he explains. Cummins attributes the bump in new listeners to his podcast, Timesuck with Dan Cummins, to Pandora. He promotes his podcast using a feature of the Pandora’s Artist Marketing Platform, messages recorded by artists, uploaded to AMP and streamed to the artist’s listeners. In his case, Cummins promoted Timesuck and invite listeners to click the screen to subscribe.
Sending messages to his fans, and getting a better-than-average click-through rate, got Cummins immediate results. Recorded at home in Couer d’Alene, Idaho — Cummins is a Los Angeles expatriate — Timesuck debuted on September 19th, 2016 with a slow start, getting 11,000 downloads in October and 22,000 in December. But In mid-January, as Cummins began promoting the podcast with audio messages, downloads jumped 300 percent to 88,000 in January and more than doubled in February to 190,000. At the end of June, after increasing each month by 60 percent since first using AMP, Timesuck ended the month with 923,000 downloads. Cummins says July’s downloads were “right around a million.”
Stand-up comedians’ huge success in podcasting shows a pent-up demand for comedy that legacy platforms haven’t served well. Comedians such as Bill Burr and Marc Maron are regulars in the iTunes top 100 podcasts. Chris Hardwick, Matt Bellassai, and Ari Shariff may not be household names, but their download volume put them in the company of financial guru Dave Ramsey, self-help legend Tony Robbins, and NPR’s long-running “Fresh Air.” At the top 100 of Stitcher, an app available for iOS and Android devices, are podcasts by comedians Bert Kreischer and Joey Coco Diaz.
The proactive and resourceful comedian will find opportunity. Today a streaming service can help a joke teller in Idaho reach fans, promote his podcast, increase his Pandora spins and put more fans in comedy clubs’ seats. “The growth has come from Pandora and word of mouth and people who first heard about it on Pandora,” says Cummins.
Comedians will find in Pandora listeners old enough to get into many comedy clubs. Streaming services skew young but Pandora’s comedy listeners are particularly young: 60 percent are age 18 to 34. The list of Pandora’s top comedians reflects their tastes: young audiences are choosing Kevin Hart, Daniel Tosh, and Aziz Ansari more often than George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce (current artists perform better in the music category, too).
So, no, we haven’t reached peak comedy at Pandora. The term peak oil is appropriate here. For decades we’ve heard doomsday predictions that oil exploration companies will soon tap into the last attainable oil reserves, the moment when oil supply will have peaked before is slowly falls to zero (along with civilization). But peak oil hasn’t occurred yet, due to improved drilling techniques and greater use of petroleum substitutes like natural gas and renewable energy sources. The Today’s Comedy station and comedy club mixtapes are the equivalent to gooey oil shale from northern Canada, products that are finding new ways to tap into previously unseen reservoirs of comedy fans. No joke.