4 min read

The Future of Standup Comedy

Here is the biggest problem with comedians: They are paranoid about getting their material stolen. But I think this fear of joke-theft is actually hindering their success.
The Future of Standup Comedy
Photo by Dan Cook / Unsplash

[Update on Dec 29, 2017: Nine years after writing this post, this is now the new reality for comedians. Listen to Joe Rogan and Neil Brennan talking about this dynamic on Joe’s podcast.]

Here is the biggest problem with comedians:

They are paranoid about getting their material stolen.

Just watch this video of Joe Rogan tearing into Carlos Mencia, or listen to this clip of Dane Cook stealing from Louis CK.

No one wants their hard-earned material that they’ve fine-tuned for months to be taken by some lazy moron who can’t write their own jokes.

Because of the potential for theft, amateur comedians will scoff at the idea of having Youtube clips of themselves working out fresh material.

“What if someone on the other side of the country steals my jokes and gets rich and famous as a result?!”

This fear of joke-theft is actually hindering their success.

The only way to overcome the fear is to make their jokes available to everyone, even if they’re not perfect yet.

The first aspiring comedian who truly dominates on Youtube will change the standup game forever.  Here is why:

  • Gain an online following. Fans will subscribe to your channel and watching every video you post.  Slowly but surely, your jokes will spread and your following will grow.  And the high school kids who aren’t allowed into the clubs, but are in love with standup…  they’ll get to hear your jokes, too.  And guess who they’ll want to see once they’re old enough: You.
  • Dated record of the jokes. If someone else takes your joke, you can now prove that you were the first to post it online.  Your fans will respect you even more, and the thief will lose credibility.  Jokes will no longer be something you hold close to your chest until the time is right.  Instead, there will be a race to publish them first.
  • More accurate metrics. You no longer have to wonder why a joke is inconsistent (“Is it falling flat because the crowd wasn’t in the right mood, because someone was heckling me during the punchline, because the preceding comedian brought them down?”)  Now you can just look at the view count, ratings, and comments from thousands of people.  You can test, test, test to your heart’s desire on Youtube.  You can post jokes relentlessly to see what’s working.
  • More people will pay to see you live. The online jokes are great and free. Imagine how fun it’d be to see your entire set in-person!
  • Tap into the long tail. When a great joke is told in a comedy club, it’s heard once by (maybe) 100 people.  When a great joke is told on Youtube, it will be heard by several thousand people in different countries as many times as they want to hear it.  It will be embedded on Myspace pages, saved on Delicious, emailed to co-workers, talked about at parties… you get the idea.
  • Inspire others. Even if you post the same joke five times told on different nights, there are fans out there who are interested in watching all five videos.  These people will be fascinated by all the nuances in your delivery, tone, wording, etc.  What seems nerdy and boring to casual observers is actually amazing to the fans.

If you’re a comedian who’s just getting started, you absolutely have to leverage this medium.  And if you’re terrified that it’s just going to enable others to steal your jokes, you’re an idiot.  First of all, you’re not that original or creative.  Other people have thought of everything you have.

For instance, Maddox came up with some of the same jokes Chappelle told years later.  It wasn’t because Chappelle stole from Maddox – they just had the same train of thought (albeit, a very funny one).  Secondly, if people steal your jokes, GOOD!  That means you’re funnier than they are.

Your lazy competition will force you to come up with even better stuff.  I know any comedian who reads this will roll their eyes at that, but you’re playing by old rules.  And those rules need to be broken.

My favorite line from No Country for Old Men is when Anton Chigurh says,

“If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

Exactly.  Even if you’re a moral comedian and you never steal from anyone, it won’t matter because some of your jokes will probably be stolen at some point.  Now, I’m not saying you should ignore the code of not stealing; I’m saying you need to stop worrying and focus on getting your jokes heard by as many people as possible.  Once you’ve established a loyal fanbase, you’re golden.

When Dane Cook started interacting with his fans on Myspace years ago, it changed things.  He wasn’t the funniest comedian, but his album sales were suddenly in the hundreds of thousands.  He was performing in arenas.


Because he’d built relationships with everyone who cared about him.  No comedian had ever done that before on the level he did.  He made his fans feel appreciated, both online and off.  Dane baked his fans into his brand and turned them into members of his tribe.

Now every comedian is on Myspace, thinking that the site will somehow propel them to Cook’s level of success.  But they’re missing the point entirely.  It’s not the tool that matters, it’s how you use it.  Youtube is a different dynamic, but it has far more potential to disrupt standup comedy.

Comedians need to learn from the fashion industry, where ideas are stolen, tweaked, manipulated, and then thrown out two weeks later.  Posting jokes for the world to see would speed up the evolution of every comedian’s material.

The successful artists will be the ones who also learn how to be great marketers.  All it takes is for one comedian to have a successful Youtube channel, and it will change the standup landscape forever.