Enemies At The Gates

We’re at an era of internet creation where it’s becoming increasingly clear that gatekeepers, too often, just get in the way. We need to build tools and strategies that allow creators to succeed without them.

By Ernie Smith

Hello internet. I know you missed me. I know it was only a week off from my normal schedule, but I was spending a lot of time doing other things for nearly two weeks, and I’m still getting into the swing of things.

A lot happened in my time away, between the ever-dynamic situation in Israel and Gaza, the mess happening in the House, and Ted Cruz embracing his status as Texas’ version of Steve Bartman.

(To which I say about the latter fact: Good! My honeymoon was at the Great Smoky Mountains, and we had to go back a decade later because Cruz forced the government to close for completely self-serving reasons. I will never forget, Ted. You will always be my bad-luck charm.)

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But I feel compelled to frame this in the context of something I watched last week in between the literally two dozen hikes we took over a 12-day period. It was a standup special by Joe Pera, a comedian that I’ve long found to be a truly compelling voice because of the simplicity of his message and its framing in normalcy. Pera, whose persona is famously of the world’s oldest 35-year-old, plays in cheese and way-older-than-dad jokes, but more importantly, it works because it cuts against the stream.

Coming off a popular and critically adored Adult Swim series, Pera could have chosen to put his standup special on a streaming service, but instead, he put it on YouTube, where it’s gotten more than half a million views—and when all is said and done, he will probably get a larger chunk of the pie, detailed analytics of what his program did, and the ability to promote other projects as he would like. If he was pushing his program on Netflix, he would get none of those things, plus no guarantee that anyone would even watch this thing he sank a bunch of money into.

There is a quiet power in Pera skipping the gatekeepers. Admittedly, there is one involved (YouTube), but it tends to be passive, as long as it gets its cut and it doesn’t get any complaints about DMCA violations. It’s not as extreme as, say, latter-day comedic pariah Louis C.K. putting a whole scripted show, complete with A-List collaborators like Paul Simon and Edie Falco, behind a paywall, but it feels like a direction more creators with experience in the major-media salt mines will go into. (Side note: I don’t love Louis C.K., but given the issues that drove the recent WGA and SAG strikes, Horace and Pete feels wildly ahead of its time from a production standpoint, to the point that we need to study what he did—the very definition of separating the artist from the art.)

Speaking with Decider, Pera admitted this model comes with risks and may struggle to reach the level of success it deserves:

It might be harder to do projects that are as big as a full TV show, but maybe people get there. I don’t know, I think they already are, but just there’s more possibilities. It kind of sucks that almost every comedian now needs to be kind of like a businessman, too, which maybe detracts from the art of comedy, but it’s just more possibilities. And yeah, I probably will lose a bunch of money out of this, but it’s exciting.

But on the other hand, that desire to create entertainment, but having to carry the burden of financing it, feels a lot better than the alternative—a gatekeeper squashing on a creative voice out of a sense of discomfort, almost at a whim.

Recently, Apple decided that it couldn’t square its desire to dive into entertainment with the fact that the host of its news analysis program, Jon Stewart, is known for incisive commentary that works best with limited input from gatekeepers. Stewart wanted to cover China and he wanted to talk about artificial intelligence, two topics which matter a lot to Apple’s business. With The Problem With Jon Stewart, Apple wanted Stewart to toe the line. Stewart wanted to tell the stories he wanted to. Stewart, who doesn’t deserve this kind of shoddy treatment given the legendary career he’s already built, walked. It turned out, quite obviously to any observer, that the problem was Apple.

The issue that Stewart has run into is the same one that people up and down the batter roll of the creative ecosystem are stuck with: Platforms simply have too much power over the work people do.

I am just one dude, and I don’t have the audience or authority of Joe Pera or Jon Stewart, but I am going to continue being the loud guy in the room talking about creation without gatekeepers. I have been writing online professionally for nearly 15 years, and I remain deeply skeptical of keepers of the gate—especially the ones who seem like they want to be your friend. The drama with Bandcamp of late is a harbinger for the entire creative ecosystem, writers on down—and it exists because the need for financing and distributing a message is all too easy to exploit.

We need to build an ecosystem of tools so that, the next time the Joe Peras of the world want to release a standup special without the help of a cable network or major streaming platform, they don’t even need YouTube. We might even make it good enough that Jon Stewart doesn’t need to make a deal with the devil to honestly tell you about what’s happening in the world.

How do we get there?

Gatekeeper-Free Links

Speaking of producing shows outside of the Hollywood system, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is gearing up for Season 14 of its long-running film-mocking adventure via crowdfunding.

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Cleveland, that great innovator of municipal online access, is getting in the public broadband game.

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And see you tomorrow!


Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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