Bootlegging live stand-up comedy: Who are these videos for, anyhow?

As mobile phones have become more mobile, and equipped with smaller and more powerful video cameras, fans attending live shows have decided that they want to take these cameraphones out of their pockets and hold them up to record the action. But why?

Before I attempt to answer my own question, a pause to reflect on the latest reason for asking it.

A few nights ago, comedian/actor/famous person Patton Oswalt dropped in for an unannounced set at Odd Thursdays, a free weekly comedy show in Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Oswalt worked out some brand-new and very personal material. A woman in the audience decided to start filming him during the set. Oswalt asked her to stop. She claimed to be helping him by videotaping his set for posterity. Oswalt never asked for or granted her permission to film. Those are the facts that aren’t in dispute. Barbara Gray, a comedian on the announced lineup that night, wrote on her Tumblr how she felt about the evening. Oswalt countered with his own interpretation of the events. And Dave Anthony read between the lines of Gray’s post for comic effect.

OK. So. Back to the question: Why, if you’re a fan at a free comedy show, do you feel compelled to film a comedian without his or her permission?

When you take that camera out, you’re documenting the experience onstage rather than actually experiencing the comedy, music or acting taking place in front of you — the very same performance designed to make you feel something as a human being. Laughter. Shock. Awe. Raw, unfiltered emotional responses. If you’re such a fan of a performer, and in you’re privileged to be in close quarters with that performer, why would you choose willingly to detach yourself from that experience?

Oh, I see. You’re a fan, and you don’t know when you’ll be this close to the performer again, so you want a keepsake. Wait until after the show and ask politely for a still photograph.

But you need something to prove to friends who weren’t at the show that you were part of something special, do you? You need to brag about seeing a famous comedian at a free comedy show?

Or, much like a heckler who believes he/she is actually as integral to the performance as what the comedian has written and planned specifically for the occasion, you naively believe that you’re helping the comedian by recording it on film? What? You think the comedian didn’t think about this beforehand? Or you think that somehow, because you filmed a famous comedian’s new material, that you’re now going to become pen pals or best friends forever with the comedian? Give us a break. Most stand-ups manage to remember to record their new material so they can listen to it later and figure out where the beats are.


There are very significant reasons why a comedian would not want to be filmed while working out fresh new material.

For starters, enders and everything in betweeners, the comedian didn’t ask you to.

For another thing, the material isn’t ready to be recorded and shared with the world. That hour special that you see on Comedy Central, HBO, Showtime, on DVD, or in a theater setting doesn’t magically appear all at once. New jokes come in spurts — five, 10, 20 minutes at a time. It takes some comedians years to develop and hone a new hour of material that’s worth your time and payment, that’s worth charging money for your attention. Performers need somewhere to figure out this material. Which is where, how and why you see big-name comedians in small-time indie rooms in New York City and Los Angeles. Live in these cities as a comedy fan and you have the opportunity to see famous comedians try out new jokes for free or for only a small cover charge. In exchange, you don’t film it, whether it’s just for your own selfish purposes, or even more selfishly, to upload online and spoil the experience for anyone anywhere else who would have experienced it live themselves later on down the road, on the road.

Some of the more famous stand-ups today have taken a more pro-active approach, as soon as they grab the microphone, telling audiences to 1) lower their expectations, 2) take any photos immediately (if at all), and 3) not to film their sets because it’s not fair to the comedian or to future audiences. I see Aziz Ansari — currently working on his new hour — do this almost every time. And even despite this, I know of and have seen fans of his so eager to have Aziz on their phones, capturing recordings of Aziz on their phones.

Is it a matter of, kids these days?!? Is it a feeling of entitlement that people have after growing up with a sense that all news, information and entertainment is “free” thanks to the Internet?

Maybe we’d all do well to go back in time to 1978, where the ABC sitcom What’s Happening!! tackled the bootlegging problem head-on in the two-part episode, “Doobie or Not Doobie.” In which, yes, Rerun receives front-row tickets to a Doobie Brothers concert at his own high school, so long as he agrees to secretly tape the concert for a couple of ne’er-do-well adult creeps.

Of course, I’m playing right into my own argument by telling you that you can watch these episodes of What’s Happening!! on YouTube. For free.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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3 thoughts on “Bootlegging live stand-up comedy: Who are these videos for, anyhow?

  1. I’ve only taped a couple of shows with high end recording equipment, but both were with artist consent and I agreed not to share for at least 2 years (Neil Hamburger, so people could hear them live and not interrupt him with the punchlines) or at all (David Cross since he was recording shows for his new album and his rig had shit out on him that very day.)

    I try to tape any shows I go to, concert or standup, but always try to get permission ahead of time.

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