Jeff Dunham was a 45-year-old unknown in the world of comedy when the biggest acts on the scene were young guys like Dane Cook, with material geared to college students.
Dunham, on the other hand, performed with a dummy – an act associated with the old vaudeville more than with the new millennium.
Nevertheless, the folks at Levity Entertainment Group in Inglewood knew he’d be a hit, even though Comedy Central was skeptical about booking him for a special.
“He wasn’t in his 20s and he had a puppet,” said Stu Schreiberg, a Levity partner who approached the laugh channel in 2006. “A middle-aged ventriloquist was not somebody they wanted to put on the air.”
When it was aired, Dunham’s “Arguing With Myself” delivered such high ratings the channel figured it was a fluke. But Levity knew otherwise.
The company believes it has found a method to consistently predict the future popularity of stand-up comics. By studying the trends of ticket sales at clubs, analyzing potential audience appeal and tracking a comedian’s online following, executives at the company can tell whether an act is going to hit a single, a double or – as in Dunham’s case – a home run.
When Image Entertainment in Chatsworth released a DVD of Dunham’s “Arguing,” it quickly passed the 1 million mark in unit sales. Two more Comedy Central specials followed with the final one setting a record as the highest-rated special in the channel’s history with 6.6 million viewers. To date, Dunham has sold about 7 million DVDs.
In October, the channel debuted Dunham’s namesake show. The first episode attracted 5.3 million viewers, a record for a Comedy Central premiere.
“It has been an incredible ride for everyone,” said David Bernath, senior vice president of programming at Comedy Central in New York. “What Levity does well is marketing with their e-mail blasts to customer lists from the clubs. You don’t always get that from a partner when you buy a show.”
Levity is a comedy conglomerate. The company, which has about 50 employees, runs a TV production division, the Improv chain of comedy clubs, a booking service, a talent agency, a PR shop and an online marketing operation. Schreiberg said the company uses the national chain of 30 Improv clubs to identify up-and-coming comedians and advance their careers.
“We look at the Improv as a farm club system,” he said. “Those 30 clubs are 30 focus groups every night, and by tracking current success we can predict future success.”
The Improv tracks its performers’ ticket sales over time. When Schreiberg sees a comedian’s sales rising, he tries to determine if the comic’s appeal is regional or national. In the latter case, Levity will get scouting reports from club mangers. Does the comic have an original voice and a steady flow of fresh jokes? Is the material X-rated or G-rated, or somewhere in between? Who is the audience?
Finally, Schreiberg checks to see if the comedian has an online following. Based on his assessment, he decides whether to produce a one-hour TV special of the comedian performing stand-up. If yes, he’ll approach Comedy Central and other TV outlets for a slot.
Schreiberg believes the Levity system can consistently predict bankable talent. Dunham is the company’s home run, but it’s also had some base hits.
For example, Jim Breuer, once a regular on “Saturday Night Live,” had enjoyed success in clubs during the early ’90s, when he played a slacker character. But then he started a family and had to care for his sick father, so he retired from club work and got a job as a radio host. When he approached Levity, he needed help to re-invent himself as a house husband telling funny stories, which the company helped accomplish through his performances at Improv shows. Breuer now has a series in development with NBC Universal Inc. in Universal City.
Levity was founded in 2006, when Schreiberg merged his TV production company Triage with boutique talent management firm Levity Entertainment and the Improv chain. Robert Hartmann, who owned the Improv chain and is Levity’s chief executive, said the company has posted 25 percent annual revenue growth since its formation.
Hartmann said the company’s goals include expanding the Improv to 50 cities, building a content library of more than 200 hours of comedy programming and turning its management company into the industry leader.
Lou Volpano, managing partner at Ascertain-ment, an entertainment research and consulting firm in Newport Beach, said other companies, including Second City Inc. in Chicago, have pursued an integrated strategy similar to Levity’s with success. But eventually such a company’s growth runs up against the fact that there are relatively few buyers for comedy projects.
“Ultimately, the challenge is distribution,” said Volpano. “Who are you going to sell to? It works as long as they stay independent so they can sell to anyone.”
However, Volpano said Levity is well positioned because the production budgets for TV shows are shrinking, and comedy has lower costs and higher profit margins than dramas, action shows or concerts.
“It’s a hard industry and everyone is trying to find models that work,” Schreiberg said. “The club foundation gives us a solid business model, but I’m not sure if there’s a similar foundation in other parts of the industry.”
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