Comedian Steve Hofstetter is giving away up to 1 million free downloads of his comedy album “The Dark Side of the Room.” When it was released in 2008, Hofstetter allowed customers to pay whatever they wanted for it.
“It’s amazing, if you give people the option of being good human beings, they usually take it,” Hofstetter said. “I made way more money with pay-what-you-want than I would have through a distributor and royalties.”
Pricing options ranged from one penny, under a “you may as well steal it” heading, to the “big tipper” price of $100.
Hofstetter was the first comedian to sell a pay-what-you-want album and the second artist, overall. Many others have since followed suit.
Hofstetter joined his school’s improv troupe when he was 13 years old because a cute girl told him to.
“I never got the girl, but I got much more in the end,” he said.
Despite an early interest in comedy, Hofstetter didn’t try stand-up comedy until his senior year of college.
“I just wanted to try it once. Like bungee jumping,” he said. And it would be nine more months before he hit the stage again.
Instead, Hofstetter spread his comedy via weekly e-mail forwards to a group of friends, which led to his breakthrough with collegehumor.com.
“I googled the words college and humor,” he said.
At that point the now hugely popular website had just three employees and no writing section.
“I contacted them to syndicate my e-mails as a column. Nine other websites declined or ignored my e-mail,” Hofstetter said.
But the position of original writer for collegehumor.com was not a paying job. After graduating from Columbia University in New York, Hofstetter worked as a copy editor for a business magazine and at the front desk of an inn while writing his first book.
With the power of his growing collegehumor.com fan base, Hofstetter published “Student Body Shots” on his own. Covering the ins and outs of college life, the book was a continuation of his collegehumor.com column and led to his second book, “Student Body Shots: Another Round.”
On a trip to North Carolina to promote his first book, Hofstetter performed a comedy set in a bookstore. It was life-changing.
“I realized I liked stand-up much better than book-promoting,” he said. He quit his desk job in New York and began working full-time to be a successful comedian.
“You work so much harder when you work for yourself,” he said.
In a comedy world full of low-brow humor, Hofstetter quickly distinguished himself as “the thinking man’s comic.” But earning national popularity took the power of the Internet.
Hofstetter was the first Facebook user to have 200,000 friends, and by using other social networking websites similarly, he got free national exposure.
As an established digital pioneer, Hofstetter believes that services such as Facebook and YouTube are good for society, as he explained in the following interview:
Q: Do you think Facebook encourages impersonal friendships?
A: That’s silly. That’s like saying hand written letters are impersonal. If you’re using it to replace human contact, that’s your fault. Facebook is great for starting relationships and I use it to further them.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Internet allowing any Joe Schmoe with a webcam to become an Internet artist and contribute comedic content?
A: I think it’s great. The schmoes who become overnight successes also become overnight failures if they try to do something else. Only the true talents rise to the top. The Internet has made art truly democratic. Back in the day only executives in suits determined what went on the air and thus what was popular. Now everyone gets to decide.
Q: What are your thoughts on file-sharing services and people stealing your work?
A: I’m not against them. The more stuff spreads online, the more people buy stuff. If you’re only making money on albums it means you’re a bad live performer and then who cares about the albums? I would rather give away albums for free to make fans that pay $15 to see me live twice a year.
After self-recording his first album, “Tastes Like Bliss,” Hofstetter began writing a sports humor column for Sports Illustrated. That job helped him pitch an idea to National Lampoon Radio to do a daily minute of sports jokes on the radio, which he still does.
As an established author and radio host, Hofstetter released his first official comedy album called “Cure For the Cable Guy,” which reached No. 20 on the Billboard charts.
“There are two ways to succeed in this business,” Hofstetter said. “Either somebody sees your act and decides to put you on television or you have enough fans that come to shows that the people in the suits can’t ignore you anymore.”
And Hofstetter has lots of fans. Though he has personally accepted more than 500,000 friend requests on social networking sites, he believes in a “1,000 fan theory” that says a comedian only needs 1,000 truly dedicated fans to succeed.
One of the hardest working men in entertainment, Hofstetter is on a 14-day stretch in which he is performing 18 shows. Those will contribute to the more than 100 college shows he does per year. Despite having more fans, more critics and more problems unique to comedians, Hofstetter vows to stick to his roots.
Q: Many comedians stop stand-up for more lucrative network television shows or Hollywood. Is such super-stardom something you strive for?
A: I’m a fairly private person and there are plenty of famous people whose lives aren’t scrutinized. I want my work to get as much exposure as possible but I don’t necessarily have to be the face behind it. I just optioned a script for a movie that I may not even be in, but as long as my baby makes it to film, great.
Q: If you reach new mediums like film, would you stop with stand-up?
A: No, it’s too much fun. Stand-up is who I am. I love the live show and I’m not going to stop doing small venues either.
Q: Which of your albums are you most pleased with?
A: I really like my newest album “Steve Hofstetter’s Day Off” because it’s 100 percent ad-lib and I’m proud that I can do that. But my favorite album is “Dark Side of the Room” because it’s the best representation of my act right now.
Q: What are your thoughts on planned versus impromptu comedy?
A: All of comedy is the illusion of spontaneity. I get very tired of doing some of my bits and I don’t want to be the comic known for a particular bit. I even told a girl in the crowd once who asked me to do a famous bit of mine that I was not her jukebox. Often on slow Sunday nights I do entirely ad-lib shows and the fans come expecting to be part of it. My rule is that I can’t say anything I’ve written ahead of time.
Q: Are topical jokes a big part of your act?
A: If there’s a really big story in the news I tend to stay away from it because everybody’s talking about it. I’m not doing any Tiger Woods jokes.
Q: What is it like dealing with critics who may misinterpret or not understand your comedy?
A: What frustrates me is the willingness of people who don’t create art to tear it down. I don’t mind being critiqued by people who know what they’re talking about, but a lot of comedy reviews are written by music critics. After I released “Dark Side,” iTunes named “Cure for the Cable Guy” the best comedy album in the last five years and it’s not even my favorite of the ones I’ve done.
Q: Is it frustrating playing to an audience that is largely less intelligent than you?
A: There are good and smart people everywhere, and I always play to the top of the room.
Q: And how do you deal with the many audience members who disagree with your edgier social commentary?
A: I try to present my opinions in a way that even those who disagree with them can relate. If you
disagree with me, that’s all right, I disagree with you. We’re even, relax.
While some argue that stand-up comedy is a vain profession in which comics demand audiences to be attentive to them and their opinions, others say comics are altruistic because they bring tangible joy to people each time they work. Hofstetter is of the latter persuasion, as he reduces his price for gigs and has fun with charity events.
“If people really want a sense of who I am, I want them to have a full album,” Hofstetter said. His pay-what-you-want album “Dark Side of the Room” is now completely free either at his website, stevehofstetter.com or at comedyoffers.com.
Hofstetter has performed twice at Ohio State — first in 2003 at OSU’s Hillel Center and then at the old Ohio Union in 2004. Since then, his relationship with National Lampoon has led to the publication of his third book “Balls! A Sarcastic Guide to Sports.”