Jon Stewart, Kevin Hart And Comedy's Dynamic Over-The-Top Future - Forbes

As we say goodbye to Jon Stewart's stewardship of The Daily Show, I'm reminded that we've had to say a lot of goodbyes in comedy in the last eighteen months. Some have been historic, a la David Letterman. Others have been bittersweet, such as Stephen Colbert (oh so funny send-off, but wouldn't you love to see his character taking on (or rooting for) Donald Trump every night?). Some we've hardly noticed (Jay Leno, anyone?). And still others have had the tint of tragedy attached, most notably the untimely losses of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. All of this leaves me pondering comedy's future.

As Stewart now exits stage left, we're not just losing a show (although whither The Daily Show sans Stewart?), but an impresario of comedy. Stewart didn't invent "fake journalism"; we've had SNL's Weekend Update for the last 40 years, and in the 1960s a primetime network show called "That Was the Week That Was." But Stewart did create a real comedic institution, emanating first and foremost from a late-night cable TV home. So what I'll miss most is that sense that it didn't fully happen in the news until Stewart and his merry band weighed in on it. Stewart has served as an impresario (curator in digital speak) of comedic news - and comedy in general - for more than a decade. The list of comedy stars spawned by Stewart is legendary: Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and more.

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 04: 'The Daily Show With Jon Stewart' building exteriors at The Daily Show Building on August 4, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Stewart has followed in a lot of glorious "comedy impresario" footsteps, from P.T. Barnum (sadly leaving us those scary circus clown) to The Comedy Store's Mitzi Gaynor, to TV comedic geniuses such as Carl Reiner, Norman Lear and Lorne Michaels to the motion picture stable assembled by producer/director Judd Apatow (a self-proclaimed comedy "nerd"). You can fill in your own favorite. The biggest question for me in the post Stewart-led Daily Show world is what does the next generation of comedy impresarios look like?

There are certainly a lot of big names in the comedy business today, from Viacom's Comedy Central to Time Warner's HBO to independent Funny or Die. But for all of their strengths, each of these big players has their "issues" (don't we all?). As the New York Times Magazine recently wrote, Comedy Central faces the challenge of many mid-tier cable networks: increasing pressure to innovate (read: spend more) in programming for a 24/7 network at a time when cable ratings are falling and subscriber fees harder to come by from cable and satellite companies themselves feeling consumer push back against the "bundle." The market's huge selloff in media stocks yesterday in reaction to Disney's earnings (read: ESPN performance) isn't the end of the world, but it does demonstrate a genuine - and justified - nervousness about the basic cable network future. For HBO and Funny or Die, their challenge is the need to own more programming in the comedy area. Without ownership or control of long-term rights to the programming, their comedy brands will have an increasingly difficult time in the on-demand, increasingly "over-the-top" digital world.

In the search for new impresarios, I recently spent some time with Brian Volk-Weiss, President of Comedy Dynamics, an emerging and intriguing player in the comedy space. Interestingly enough, Comedy Dynamics' business partner in one of their most recent offerings is none other than one of the most successful comics on the scene today, Kevin Hart. In this partnership we can perhaps see the kernels of the next generation of the comedy impresario business.

You probably haven't heard of Comedy Dynamics, but as Volk-Weiss discussed with me, their presence on the comedy scene is impressive. They list themselves as the "#1 independent producer and distributor of comedy content in North America" and I'm hard-pressed to argue the point. They are the digital distribution hub for "A-list" comedic talent such as Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan and many others, and with a digital-first strategy, they syndicate their produced and/or owned content across a number of video streaming platforms. On Hulu, they control 50% of the comedy content, they have 900,000 followers on SoundCloud (closely trailing leader Comedy Central), and they program two hours per day on Sirius/XM.

The company is very data-driven in terms of what they decide to invest in for production and distribution, but it's not the data you're thinking of. Rather than simply focus on Twitter followers or Facebook likes, their eyes are trained on good old cash - the box office from the booming live comedy business (clubs, theaters, arenas). If you can make it there, you might just make it in the video world as well. They aren't comedy snobs - the company owns Gallagher content (remember the guy who used to smash watermelons?) as well as that of stand-up comedy icons like Bill Hicks. As Volk-Weiss told me, "don't judge your audience. The only thing I care about the audience is how big it is." Their goal in the next 18 months is to be 50% ad-based, 30% over-the-top subscription (think Netflix for comedy) and 20% a la carte (the one-off special). And the key to all of that from the Volk-Weiss perspective is content ownership, which they see as critical to success to any content syndication.

Of course, the actual sources of so much comedy content are the comedians themselves, and that's why I find the Kevin Hart relationship so fascinating. The new Comedy Dynamics-Kevin Hart-produced comedy special isn't even a Kevin Hart special! It features comedian Keith Robinson, and Hart serves as a co-impresario here, clearly helping to provide a high profile platform for his comedy "mentor." Given a recent comment by Jerry Seinfeld at the Crackle Upfront (in response to my question) that he would love to have a one-stop digital home for all things Seinfeld, it http://scottygotanofficejob.com left me wondering if we may see a parade of other comedy performers (Louis C.K. and Hart being two obvious choices) who might simply forego all middlemen and just head over-the-top themselves. If they are the brand themselves - why not? But Volk-Weiss pointed out to me that while every successful comic hones their comedic craft (and over a years-long process), it's much rarer for the creative talent to want to take on the chore of running the business itself. Steve Martin once said "Comedy Isn't Pretty." But business is often downright ugly. Maybe we best leave that to a new breed of over-the-top impresarios. I'll be watching - and hopefully laughing in the appropriate places - all along the way.

Howard helps clients manage the dynamically changing media business through his work at MediaLink. He is also at www.homonoffmedia.com; and on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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