For five dollars you can buy multiple bagels. You can buy five slices of dollar pizza, or save up until you have almost three times that amount and can see a movie (okay, so movie prices suck). As of last week, though, for five dollars you can buy a video download of comedian Maria Bamford’s The Special Special Special, a live show she performed in her living room in front of a two-person audience — her parents.
Although Bamford’s setup is very distinct and thought-provoking, she isn’t the first to use the five-dollar instant download format. Last December, Louis C.K. took his concerts from the previous month at the Beacon Theater and released them through an online version rather than through a cable network. The experiment was one of several Louis C.K. has done over the past couple of years in an effort to cut out the middleman and let audience members pay directly for what they want without excess ads or fees.
Soon, other comedians, including Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan, and Rob Delaney, followed suit. In October, Louis C.K. released a recording of Tig Notaro at the Largo in Los Angeles, a beautifully dark set in which she announced to the audience that she had breast cancer, news she received in August after just getting over a serious case of pneumonia, losing her mother in a tragic accident, and getting dumped by her girlfriend.
Pieces like Notaro’s impromptu set — which she opens by greeting audience applause with “Thank you, thank you, I have cancer, thank you.” — and Bamford’s five-dollar download — in which she takes breaks to restart the fuse box when her AC makes the power go out, administer eyedrops to her sick pug, and allow her dad a pee break because of his prostate issues — are well-suited for the download format. Without restrictions from networks, the comedians are given free-range, which comedians like Louie and Rob Delaney can use to sidestep censorship of their raunchier bits, Notaro can use to get deep, and Bamford can use to harvest laughs coming from only two mouths — three if you count the keyboard player who sits in the living room beside her.
In most cases, these five-dollar specials — sometimes video, but sometimes audio like in the case of Notaro’s show — come with multiple downloads. Tig Notaro: Live (pronounced like the verb rather than the adjective used to describe stand-up sets) came with three, and Bamford’s set came with five streaming videos, five high quality ones, and five ones in standard definition, creating a total of 15, which is quite possibly more than you know what to do with one alternative comedy special. Some shows come with PDF downloads of album or DVD art so you burn DVDs or CDs for friends.
If you choose not to burn a DVD of the performance, though, it may seem like the special isn’t worth it. The nature of comedy sets differs from something like downloadable music which you can return to again and again without tiring of it. Aside from that, a lot of the sets later turn up somewhere else for free. About half of Notaro’s set was included among other stories in This American Life‘s “What Doesn’t Kill You” episode, and C.K.’s Beacon Theater performances ended up on TV a few months after being released. It’s relatively easy to access these items for free, or at least listen to or watch similar comedy recordings on thousands of podcast episodes, youtube clips, and specials streaming on Netflix Instant Watch.
But the ease in accessing free comedy can also act as an incentive to pay five dollars for these instant downloads. In most cases the five-dollar download format, in cutting out the middle man has given audience members the opportunity to pay directly for what they want. That’s five dollars going directly to much-desired laughter, with none of it going to promotional material or television executives or strangers who are not making you laugh. The format makes it so that even if you aren’t, say, sitting on the couch with Bamford’s parents, you still can feel pretty close.
[image via The Special Special Special]