Online comedy gatekeepers on crafting winning premium web video

Top TV and internet execs gathered to talk about cat videos that go viral, crowd-funding to kickstart projects and how long the funny should be to suit digital audiences.

Those young boys seated on the subway alone, laughing hysterically as they peer into a mobile phone, that’s the market for online comedy producers.

The popularity of South Korean YouTube star Psy or Will Ferrell bloopers are what brought top online comedy gatekeepers to Stream this week to share strategies on feeding the seemingly insatiable demand for the funny on digital platforms.

“A cat falling off a roof, you will never be able to compete with that,” Burnie Burns, owner of Austin, Tex.-based Rooster Teeth Productions, warned the Stream conference delegates.

That said, the wild west of web comedy is being tamed, as creators and curators of premium online video see those subway fanboys are starting to spend for content.

For Burns’ Rooster Teeth Productions, revenue has come from DVD sales of its popular internet Machinima series Red vs. Blue series, and clothing and other merchandise.

Funny or Die is also doing big business with DVD sales of its sketch comedy series from Ferrell and Andy McKay.

And marketers are flocking to the comedy website to do branded entertainment, like the three-minute online video featuring New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady getting flustered as a retail clerk comments on his Boston accent. The online skit, sponsored by Under Armour, has had a million hits as it doubles as an athletic apparel ad.

From bite-size mobile shorts to web series like Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (pictured) and Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy, producers at Stream debated how many minutes an internet TV program should be.

“If you are just talking about a one-off internet video, the shorter the better to tell a story,” Mike Farah, president of production at Funny or Die, recommended.

When it comes to stand-up comic routines, including comedy specials like those by Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari that began online before being repackaged and migrating to Comedy Central, online audiences can give more lee-way for longer run-times.

“Think of what you’re trying to achieve and tell that in the most economical way,” Farah added.

C.K. last year successfully sold his independently-produced comedy special Live at the Beacon Theatre for $5 through his website, which made him a reported $1.34 million.

That direct-to-audience revenue model spurred other actor-comedians, like Jim Gaffigan and Ansari, to take the same approach to monetize their new material.

Ansari also released a one-hour standup special Dangerously Delicious through a DRM-free download from his website, also for $5 a shot.

With crowdfunding and direct-sales now an option for indie producers, the panel turned to whether Kickstarter and Indiegogo can be pressed into service for online chuckling financing. That success is drawing the attention of established players, such as cable offering Comedy Central.

“I have been paying attention. What we’re seeing is a lot of opportunity to start getting something made,” said Allison Kingsley, vice president of digital development at Comedy Central, of the new project-starting tools.

Far from being a turn-off, self-funded projects are now seen as promising propositions, she said. “People bring what they have to us and we help bring it to the next level,” she added.