Just for Laughs Post Mortem: Podcast Kings Are Ready to Rule Comedy

With Joel Warner (Post on Wired)

MONTREAL — At this year’s Just for Laughs festival, podcast poster boy Marc Maron painted a picture of a world in which the old rules of the stand-up circuit are being turned on their head thanks to the web.

Maron, a longtime comic who never reached the top of the stand-up heap, hit rock bottom three years ago and was considering suicide half-heartedly in his Los Angeles garage. Instead, in that garage he launched WTF With Marc Maron, a podcast where comedy insiders dish unabashedly about their craft. Now, with his podcast clocking in at more than 20 million downloads, Maron has his own live show, a book deal and a less-purple version of his podcast on National Public Radio. And he’s keynoting Just for Laughs, the annual industry gathering that’s become the world’s largest comedy event.

“I am the future of show business,” said Maron in his frank and at times tearful speech. “Not your show business, my show business. They want me to do this speech because I am the future of our industry.”

By the time the festival wrapped its 29th annual celebration of hilarity last week with a four-day conference and a string of big-name shows, Montreal was bursting at the seams with comedy muscle. During the festival’s annual awards lunch at The Hyatt Regency Montreal, host Jeff Ross said Just for Laughs is “like the Oscars of comedy — if the Oscars were held at a mall at noon in Canada.”

Throughout the month-long gathering, a common theme was the way comedians like Maron are using the web to redefine the funny business. At night, crowds packed live tapings of comedy podcasts like The Nerdist, The Smartest Man in the World, The Pod F. Tompkast and Smodcast.

At the industry conference during the day, speakers weighed in on the future of viral web video at a seminar titled “Online, Uncensored and Fuckin’ Funny.” Among the insights? Rob Barnett, head of My Damn Channel, the multimedia studio behind web series like You Suck at Photoshop and Children’s Hospital on Comedy Central, argued that the noon hour, when everyone is on lunch break and looking for the latest two-minute nugget of web hilarity, is the new prime time.

The ability to create new forms of humor without being restrained by the old rules of the game is liberating, said Greg Proops, former star or Whose Line Is It Anyway?, who now hosts the popular podcast, The Smartest Man in the World. “It’s the funniest thing I have done in years,” he said. “My podcast is essentially the conversation I want to have with people when I sit down and drink with them.”

But judging from the 2011 Just for Laughs Festival, the comedy industry has a ways to go until it catches up with the technological innovators leading the charge. Take Brad Morris, a Second City alum. While Morris might star in a variety of Funny or Die clips and other popular viral videos, that didn’t make him any less nervous as he worked one cramped comedy club after another in hopes that he, as one of the festival’s anointed “New Faces of Comedy,” would attract the attention of just the right bigwig.

Once the shows were over for the evening, up-and-comers and old-timers alike flocked to the Hyatt Regency’s giant oblong bar, the throbbing social nucleus of the Just for Laughs scene. Sipping overpriced drinks and making laps around the bar, talent and management eyed each other’s lanyards, trying to determine who’d be worth their time to chat up.

“Everybody is still looking for the brilliantly funny 21-year-old,” said Alonzo Bodden, a grand-prize winner on Last Comic Standing, as he observed the late-night machinations.

It’s the comedy industry’s holy grail: A camera-ready young comic who’s ready-made for sitcoms, blockbusters and what have you, but who also delivers stand-up gold. Finding such a person is easier said than done. After all, it took Louis C.K. decades of work on the stand-up circuit, gathering life experiences and recalibrating his act, before he scored with his hit FX series Louis and ended up being named Just for Laugh’s 2011 Comedy Person of the Year.

Can the brave new world of online funny really change the outdated way of doing things? The podcast kings who spoke at the comedy conference freely admitted they don’t know how best to make money in a medium where downloads are largely free, terrestrial radio ratings don’t exist and the average listener is unlikely to show up at a stand-up club, even when their favorite podcast host is in town. And while Funny or Die clips garner millions of views, producers still struggle with how to monetize the content.

As The Onion editor Joe Rendazzo put it, “The time will come when advertising and entertainment become seamless and we will all be under the heel of our corporate overlords.”

Even keynoter Maron, the man of the hour, isn’t sure about the specifics of the world of tech-infused, DIY comedy he’s helping to fashion.

“I can’t speak to what [the future of comedy is] going to look like,” he said with a shrug. “I can barely keep my garage together.”