Funnyman Gabriel Iglesias is used to filling all the seats inside The Comedy & Magic Club, but a special show he put on a week ago Tuesday reached tens of thousands of fans around the globe.
With the help of various social media, more than 46,000 people across the country and around the world watched Iglesias on streaming video at a given time, by the count of ustream.com. More than 4,000 people called Iglesias on telephones through saynow.com, with still more calling on the video-phone service Skype and on conventional phone lines. Nearly 26,000 people typed messages to the comedian, and a number of Skype callers, including a soldier in Iraq, got to chat face-to-face with him, appearing on one of two stage video screens.
The marriage of live comedy and social media drew its widespread audience with limited advertising on myspace.com and a viral whirl around the potent Twitter universe. Before the show 30,000 people had sent their RSVPs online.
It was not the first time a comedian flexed the muscle of social media. The mystifying rise to popularity of Dane Cook is frequently attributed to marketing on myspace, which remains a powerful tool of entertainment promotion despite the rise of the similar facebook.com.
But the Comedy & Magic show was the first interaction of live chat and live stand-up at such a magnitude, according to Lance Patrick, the social media guru who oversaw the event (and who has Iglesias poised to overtake Jeff Dunham as the most popular comedian in on myspace).
“This was the first event of this type,” Patrick said.
Pop music shows can boast larger remote audiences than comedy shows, Patrick said. A concert by KISS drew some 200,000 viewers at once, but the viewers didn’t get to chat with the band and make requests, as they did with Iglesias.
“KISS rocks it and you get to watch,” Patrick said. “But this is interactive.”
Iglesias and Patrick plan to work out some technical glitches and return to Comedy & Magic for similar shows Feb. 23 and March 23, the last Tuesdays of those months.
“I’d like to double the viewers by the next show,” Patrick said.
‘This is live’
Iglesias said the show enhanced the high-risk, high-reward aspect of live comedy.
“It was really exciting,” he said.
He said the multifaceted format kept him on his feet, where he likes to be.
“I don’t work very well with structure, with a scheduled way to do my show. I have stories, and bits and pieces in my head, and I go from there,” he said. “No two shows are alike.”
Unlike most television, the Comedy & Magic webcast could not have been edited if the show had collapsed upon itself.
“It was like, wow, this is live,” he said. “If something crazy happens we can’t just pull it.”
Iglesias predicted that such web-enhanced shows will play a prominent role in stand-up.
“I see this happening. It gets frustrating with [TV] networks. They want you to play roles, this and that. You can’t be yourself,” he said.
“We had full control. At some point they’ll enforce some regulations [on new media], then it will suck again, and we’ll have to do something else,” he said.
Asked if web-augmented shows could eventually make comedy clubs obsolete by encouraging people to watch from home, Iglesias said no. People can sit home and watch movies, he pointed out, but they still go to theaters.
“I think we’ll always need the clubs. Nothing beats going out and getting some air, getting a bite to eat and watching a live performance,” he said.
Preparations for the show promised an emphasis on the immediacy of both live stand-up and interactive media. Patrick, his director and nearly a dozen others set up a five-camera shoot covering the stage, the live audience, the green room where Iglesias’ guest comedians hung out and “acted like dorks,” and the control room set up to manage the technology.
Throughout the show, the director cut from the stage to the control room to the green room with video that streamed on the web and was shown to the live audience via the 47-inch screens on the stage.
Iglesias devoted a couple hours to the interactive elements of the show, then brought out the other comedians and closed with another long set of his own.
At the beginning, Iglesias took pains to explain to his live audience what was going on, and then he let the interactivity flow. The first Skype call came from a fan in the Netherlands, who had stayed up all night to call in at 5:30 a.m. his time. He asked Iglesias to do his bit about the donut-eating cop.
After another phone call, Iglesias turned to a typed chat that was projected onto one of his on-stage screens, but announced that he couldn’t read the type.
Several more phone calls came in, and at one point an on-stage screen showed Patrick signaling Iglesias that a caller was on the line. Three times the comedian couldn’t hear the caller, and directed the attention of the cameras to the green room, where the other comedians were messing around.
At one point Becky from New Jersey called in. Iglesias said, “Are you sure she’s there?” Patrick said yes, but the caller’s voice was nowhere to be heard. So Iglesias mimicked a female voice and carried on a conversation with himself.
A touching moment came when a U.S. soldier named Seth called on Skype from Iraq, holding up a sign that read “I [heart] Jenna,” his wife.
The image was clear, but the soldier pointed to his ears to indicate that he could not hear Iglesias. The video feed switched to the green room, and minutes later the soldier returned with sound, but his voice came through with a triple echo. Un-phased, Iglesias asked if he was hearing the triple echo effect because he is so fat.
(Iglesias said later that the glitch was at the soldier’s end, where the internet connection was insufficient for a good Skype call.)
In a moment of technological irony, Iglesias had a communication from a fan in Houston relayed to him on a scrap of paper.
Iglesias joked that the special interactive portion of the show had been scheduled to run an hour, but instead ran two hours, so the audience got double its money’s worth.
“Everything went fairly smooth as far as the technical part and piping in the Skype calls,” Patrick said afterward. “There were a few glitches with telephone company calls. And the machine [to route calls], which we rented, bailed out on us. Next time we’ll have all the kinks worked out.”
“The amazing thing is Gabriel is so quick witted, he went right back into some humor. People didn’t even notice the hiccups,” Patrick said.
Iglesias is well suited to the big interactive format in part because of his genial courtship of a fan base he built with the help of myspace and hours-long autograph sessions after his live shows.
Patrick came to Iglesias after managing the Comedy Store in Los Angeles for three years, then overseeing comedy content for myspace for about a year and-a-half, traveling with comedians including Zach (“Hangover”) Galifianakas, Joel (“Community”) McHale, and Cheech & Chong.
Iglesias was internet gold, and Patrick began overseeing the comedian’s action on myspace.
“It became obvious he needed someone fulltime, his youtube, myspace, Twitter – to use all the latest technology to connect Gabriel with his fans,” Patrick said.
“Gabriel has well over a million friends on myspace,” Patrick said, adding that within a month Iglesias is expected to overtake ventriloquist Jeff Dunham as the number one comedian on myspace based on video views, number of friends and subscribers to his online offerings.
Patrick said Dane Cook has more friends, but does not put up as much video, and Dunham leads Iglesias only in subscribers, while Iglesias continues to close the gap.
“When Gabe updates his status, as he does several times a day, he gets 1,500 comments within minutes,” Patrick said.