How comedians leverage YouTube and podcasts to grow their audiences

There's a reason why it seems like every standup comedian hosts a podcast.

If you wanted to become a professional standup comedian in the 1990s, the path was pretty straightforward. You started by going to amateur open mic nights, where you would hone your act. Eventually, you’d develop five to 10 minutes of solid material and maybe get a slot opening for a bigger comedian. From there you’d work yourself up to bigger and bigger gigs, and if you were really talented and lucky, you’d land a slot on a late-night talk show, or, even better, get signed to an hour-long special for HBO.

These days, the path for the aspiring comedian is completely different. Sure, there are still the open mic nights and the club gigs. But there’s also a bevvy of online platforms that you can leverage to sharpen your craft and build a following. You might collaborate with other comedians and write sketches for a YouTube channel. You can practice your one-liners on Twitter. And you’ll definitely want to launch a podcast.

As a full-time standup comedian, Joel Byars has employed several of these strategies. I interviewed Byars about how comedians market themselves in this golden age of standup comedy and asked him why he decided to self-produce his own comedy special.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Why every comedian has a podcast

It’d probably be difficult to pinpoint which comedian launched the first podcast, but stars like Marc Maron and Chris Hardwick popularized the genre and showed how a podcast could reinvigorate a person’s career. Now, there are seemingly thousands of comedian-hosted podcasts. “Comedians are starting to see the success of these other comedians,” said Joel. “And now they're thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I can get into this game.’ And it really is an extremely powerful marketing tool. A lot of comedians are selling out clubs and theaters now primarily driven just through the fan base they've built on their podcast.”

Joel has seen this impact with his own podcast. “Last year I went on a two week tour and it was booked by listeners. I told my listeners I was wanting to go on tour and asked them if they knew of any bookers or if they ran shows and things like that. And then a few months later I actually had a two week tour booked all by the podcast. So there are so many different opportunities I have found from listeners. And then there are also people wanting to collaborate. I've gotten more opportunities from the podcast than I could've ever imagined.” 

To grow their audiences more quickly, comedians will often go on each other’s podcasts, which allows them to cross pollinate their audiences. “I just released a comedy special called Trophy Husband. My number one metric in terms of marketing was how many different comedian podcasts I could get on, because it's such an intimate connection you have with your audience via podcast to where they really feel like they know you and they're invested in you. So the more you can do that with people with similar audiences to you, the more your audiences will grow.”

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How the internet gave more power to comedians

In the pre-internet era, lesser known comedians were completely at the mercy of others. “The power used to be held in the bookers’ hands and the club owners’ hands. They were known as the gatekeepers. But now with how we are having direct access to our audience, the power is actually in the comedian's hands.  You have complete leverage, especially internet comedians who are bringing in these millions of followers to TV shows or venues. And they have all the leverage in setting the terms, the payment, the expectations, probably even have creative control as well. And it is all due to the influence you have online. I think the internet has really made the entertainment landscape the Wild West again.”

Using Twitter to workshop comedy

A lot of big comedians have found audiences on Twitter. With its strict character limits and near-instantaneous feedback, it can be a great place to workshop one-liners. “I have friends who have actually booked work just from people seeing their tweets. I don't really walk around thinking in these quick, snappy one-liners, but the comedians that do have been able to take full advantage of Twitter, which has really become a big power of influence.”

Using YouTube to amplify a podcast

It shouldn’t be surprising that comedy does well with YouTube, and plenty of comedians have seen success uploading clips from their standup specials. Joel has done that, but he also leverages YouTube to promote his podcast. “I'm a one man band over here still, so I have to really allocate my time and resources effectively. And right now the podcast is just getting the most momentum. So what I’ve done is post the hour long interview YouTube, but then also I’ll post the micro content.”

This is how it works: Joel will conduct the podcast interview in person and film it. Then he’ll look for the snippets of conversation that are most likely to go viral and post them as standalone YouTube clips. “I interviewed a comedian named Felipe Esparza, who's been on Comedy Central, among other things. I posted his full interview, and that's been doing well. I think that one has about 40,000 views. But what really, really took off was I posted a clip of him talking about Gabriel Iglesias stealing one of his jokes and that one now has over 400,000 views.”

So what did that clip going viral do for his audience size? “I noticed a spike in people looking at all my other content within my YouTube channel. But with the actual audio podcast, there was no spike because it's a separate audience. I wish I’d been more intentional about directing people toward the audio podcast. Moving forward, now that I'm starting to understand how YouTube works a little bit better, I will start having more of a call to action encouraging them to go subscribe on the audio platforms. This was an interview I just kind of threw up, not even understanding really the system behind YouTube.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.