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Louis CK’s New Straight-to-Fan Special Has No Buzz -- And It’s Doing Better Than His First One

You didn't hear that Louis CK is selling a new special? Doesn't matter: His fans did.

Screenshot via Louis C.K.'s Live at the Comedy Store
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Three years ago, Louis CK filmed his own stand-up comedy special and then sold it on his own website. It was a huge deal: At $5 a pop, he generated $1 million in 12 days, tons of press coverage and many gassy essays about What It All Means.

This week Louis CK did it again, and it barely caused a ripple. On Monday night, he told David Letterman’s audience he was selling “Live at the Comedy Store.” On Tuesday he put it up on his site and told his fans about it via email.

That’s about it. No buzz, no news blitz, no Big Thinkpieces.

No problem.

Four days into the launch, the new special was selling better than the old one did in the same time period, Louis CK told me via email Friday night: “It’s selling better so far than anything else on the site had this far in.”

That surprised me. I had assumed that a lot of Louis CK’s sales the first time around came from people who liked his story — doing it on his own, selling directly to his fans and selling copies that didn’t have any kind of piracy protection. Later on, he got the same buzz for a concert tour he staged without assistance from Live Nation Entertainment, the behemoth that controls most of the concert business.

But it turns out that Louis CK’s real appeal is that he’s really, really funny. The business model doesn’t matter: After Louis CK sold “Live at the Beacon Theater” directly to his fans, he released his next special via HBO. And if you wanted to go to his sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden this month, you had to go through Live Nation’s Ticketmaster to buy tickets.

So now it looks like Louis CK has the kind of power almost no one else in the entertainment business has: He can work on his own — or with the help of an entertainment conglomerate. His fans will show up either way.

In this case, he said, “I wanted to give the subscribers a benefit for being on the list by just letting them have it first and let it grow from there.”

Other than CK’s Letterman appearance, I think the only pre-release publicity for “Live at the Comedy Store” came via a backdoor press release from FX, the network that airs his “Louie” series. “When FX wanted to announce the TV rights deal, I wanted to let them do that,” CK said. “Otherwise we may have not announced it at all.”

It’s worth noting that the do-it-yourself method that generated so much attention for Louis CK in late 2011 hasn’t generated much traction for other performers. Louis CK has sold a couple of other comedians’ shows on his own site; a few others like Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari have done it on their own, too. And sites like VHX allow comedians or anyone else to sell their own stuff without much effort.

But my educated hunch is that in most cases, comedians, musicians, filmmakers and everyone else will still take an upfront check from a distributor/studio/network/label rather than risk staging something on their own. (In the case of comedians and some filmmakers, Netflix has been happy to hand out cash in order to build up its own library of “originals.”)

It’s cool that Louis CK has a real choice.

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