Forget TV, comedians build audiences through social media now

Very few people knew who stand-up comic Matt Rife was before July 30, 2022.

To get some traction, Rife was posting clips on TikTok of him cracking wise with audience members at comedy clubs. It’s what is known in the industry as “crowd work.” A clip Rife posted July 30 featured him joking with a woman who said she’d broken up with a man who worked in an emergency room because he didn’t do anything outside of work. Rife’s off-the-cuff response: “He was saving lives!” Then he asked her: “What do you do?”

The clip, dubbed “Lazy Hero,” went viral and garnered 20 million viewers within days, causing related clips of Rife to get millions of views in an algorithm-friendly deluge. He soon had millions of followers. Within months, his growing popularity landed him a special with Netflix called “Natural Selection” that debuted in November.

“One clip just blew up everything,” Rife told podcaster Adam Ray earlier this year. “A video I thought was stupid and didn’t want to post anyways. I’m like, this isn’t even funny.”

Rife, 28, who was not available for interview, sold 725,000 tickets for his sold-out tour before the Netflix special had even come out. (He will be at Mohegan Sun Arena for five shows Feb. 21-25. )

“This kid has more drive and determination of anybody I’ve met in my life” said Gary Abdo, owner of Atlanta Comedy Theatres in Norcross and downtown Atlanta, who managed Rife in his early years as a teenager. “He was never not going to blow up.”

Rife’s seemingly overnight success is just one example of social media’s ever-growing influence on stand-up comedy.

Other comics who have also leveraged TikTok and other social media outlets include Atlantans John Crist and Heather McMahan, and New York’s Nimesh Patel.

Meanwhile, more established comics who spurn social media are finding it tougher to sell tickets. Billy Gardell, a veteran stand-up who has starred in two hit CBS shows (“Mike & Molly” and “Bob Hearts Abishola”) but isn’t active on TikTok or Instagram, recently appeared at the Punchline Comedy Club in Buckhead, Ga., but had trouble filling seats.

“I told some of the comics who were scoffing at social media a few years ago that it’s a meteorite that is about to wipe you out,” said Abdo. “If you’re not carrying a million people on social media, if you can’t get people on their phones, they’re not buying a ticket to your show.”

The world is far different from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, when breaking it big in stand-up comedy meant getting on TV, preferably Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” or “Late Night With David Letterman.” A sitcom was the mother lode. Just ask Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Roseanne Barr or Tim Allen.

For smaller comics, the best way to sell tickets was getting on radio station morning shows in the city they were performing and yukking it up with the hosts at 7:30 a.m. in the morning.

Abdo, who used to own Atlanta’s Uptown Comedy Corner, remembered taking an unknown comic named Steve Harvey to V-103 and other radio stations in the early 1990s. “There was no online ticketing,” he said. “But after he did radio, there was a huge line to buy tickets. He set the precedent on how to use radio.” (Harvey now has his own syndicated radio show.)

The internet changed the equation, though, early on. First it was a means to get email addresses from ticket buyers and send them email blasts the next time the comic was in town. When the first popular social networking site MySpace arrived in 2003, Dane Cook quickly took advantage with observational humor that appealed to the younger male demo who were early adopters. He collected more than a million MySpace fans, nabbed an HBO special in 2005 and sold out arenas nationwide for several years.

“He put a lot of time and energy into it,” said Marshall Chiles, owner of the Laughing Skull Lounge in Midtown. “He was the first comedian visionary with social media.”

YouTube, which debuted in 2005, was another great avenue for some stand-up comics. Then came Twitter in 2006, which provided comics a home to test out jokes at 140 characters or less. It also became a free and easy place to promote shows. Early converts included Hannibal Buress, Kumail Nanjiani, Patton Oswalt, Jim Gaffigan and Amy Schumer.

The shift wasn’t immediate. John Crist, a 39-year-old Christian observational comic who grew up in Lilburn, Ga., and now resides in Nashville, recalled being told by an old-school Hollywood agent a decade ago that the only way for him to break it big was to move to Los Angeles and get a sitcom deal so he could sell 2,500 tickets in Omaha, Nebraska.

“I was thinking, ‘A sitcom? What year is this?’” he said. Crist followed that advice to no avail.

“I remember being told to stay off the road in January and February for TV pilot season in hopes to get an audition,” Crist said. “This was crazy so I started blazing my own path.”

In recent years, Crist began posting hourlong specials for free on YouTube, generating millions of views and fueling ticket sales. “If there’s any barrier between you and the content, they won’t go there,” he said.

He also posted sketches on social media between snippets of stand-up for his now 2.1 million TikTok followers.

“Honest football coach. Every parent at Disney World. Sponsor a millennial,” Crist said, describing the names of some of his more popular sketches. “All these goofy sketches that people shared widely. Once you get them to watch one video, they’re hooked into your sphere.”

He is now able to sell thousands of tickets per city.

TikTok has become an especially useful place to showcase stand-up comedy in short bursts, replete with captions and punchy titles.

Chris DiPetta, who co-owns the Punchline Comedy Club, said the club books “more TikTok acts than ever before.” The only downside, he said, is hardcore fans only show up for particular acts. They don’t show up to comedy clubs just to see whoever is there like they used to do, he said.

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