SXSWORLD February 2014


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New Digital Comedy Networks Cultivating Artists and Viewers by John Wenzel W hen Daniel Kellison and his creative partners at Jash were given a "deliverables" deadline by their financial benefactors, the pressure was on to crank out content for their new digital comedy network – part of YouTube's $300 million "Original Channel Initiative" in 2012. "YouTube hadn't seen a lot of success in having mainstream names commit to a channel," said Kellison, a veteran producer on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live and Late Night with David Letterman. "So we said, 'We'll reach out to the talent, but we don't want to make it seem like homework.' " Fortunately, the new network had virtues outside of its YouTube seed money: Kellison and business partner Doug DeLuca were well-connected in the comedy scene and could offer complete creative control and ownership of anything their artists created. As the name of Jash's 2013 SXSW launch panel noted, it was "A Comedy Platform with Full Creative Autonomy" – which is why it was able to snag heavy hitters such as Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera, Reggie Watts and the comedy duo Tim and Eric. All had extensive digital video experience, fully-formed comedic voices and fan bases to match. But their bounty surprised Kellison. "We ended up delivering 140 hours of content," he said with a laugh. "Our original deliverables were 22 hours." Not every digital comedy network flourished from that YouTube initiative, nor do they all enjoy Jash's freedom. But an increasing number are providing real alternatives to the traditional broadcast and film production process. Thanks to improving technology and a new wave of media-savvy writers and stand-up comics, a half-dozen major digital comedy networks are racing to produce fresh content that can thrive equally on mobile devices and TV screens, including Jash, Above Average, NBC Digital, CC:Studios and Yahoo! Screen. They act not only as farm teams for new talent but also as calculated pleas for new eyeballs and ad dollars in a crowded marketplace. In addition, they have been a boon to small and independent comedic voices. "Our genesis was in a web series from Mike O'Brien," said Patrick Courtney, marketing director for Above Average. "He pitched this idea called 7 Minutes in Heaven where he got in a closet with celebrities and had these really awkward conversations." Guests included various Saturday Night Live players and seemingly random figures like Elijah Wood, Insane Clown Posse and Ellen DeGeneres. "It took off so much that we decided this could really be something much bigger," Courtney said, which led to the birth of Above Average, which was quickly welcomed into SNL creator Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video production family, where it serves as Broadway's digital arm. Launched in 2012, Above Average now counts six million monthly subscribers and 30 million views per month. It features shows like My Drunk Aunts and Cool Kids' Table and offerings from rising stand-ups Emily Heller and Eliot Glazer. And Mike O'Brien joined the cast of Saturday Night Live at the start of this season. "The cable-ization of video on the Internet is something that is coming, and anything that people are doing to accelerate that process is good for us," Courtney said. Like much of its competition, Above Average typically releases shows 34 SXSWORLD / FEBRUARY 2014 Keith Lucas, Kenny Lucas and Iman Shumpert of CC:Studios' The Super Late Morning Show in six-episode increments and watches how they perform, using the number of subscribers, streams, amount of social media buzz and other metrics as indicators of success. Some digital comedy networks, such as Comedy Central's one-yearold CC:Studios, are more institutionalized but equally mindful of new talent. One of its successes is comedian Ari Shaffir's storytelling series This Is Not Happening, which grabbed more than a million views in its first season. "I clearly look at what we do as an incubation and nurturing of new voices, because there's a lot of opportunity here for them," said Allison Kingsley, vice president of CC:Studios. "But we're part of the overall development team for Comedy Central, so we look for a lot of the same things. We're just finishing post-production on a show called Idiot Sitter from Workaholics' Jillian Bell and her writing partner Charlotte Newhouse, who performed at the Groundlings." Kingsley, formerly the executive director of that same L.A. sketch and improv institution, has a recruiting process for new talent that involves a mix of in-person research at clubs and extensive online sketch and stand-up viewing. "We tap into the existing pipeline for Comedy Central," she said of her network, which will be among several featured at SXSW 2014. "But you also have to look at all the different ways now there are to tell a joke. It's all so social and shareable." In addition to licensed content, Yahoo! Screen boasts 80 original shows that account for more than 400 episodes per month. Among those are comedy offerings like The Bachelorette parody Burning Love, which last year entered its fourth season and made the jump to broadcast TV with episodes on the E! network. Whether they feature new talent or existing names for whom a web series is one of many projects, digital comedy networks are a haven for weirdness, creativity and innovation, according to Jash's Kellison. And despite the fact that Jash is negotiating deals with Paramount and Tru TV, Kellison isn't looking to build up the company for the sake of selling it. "We're doing what we want to be doing, and that's the end of where we hope this leads," he said. "We want to remain independent as long as we can." n SXSW Comedy will feature a variety of programming and performances throughout SXSW Interactive, Film and Music (March 8 - 15). Comedy events are open to all badgeholders. See for more details.

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