Walter Latham was one of the biggest comedy producers in the 1990s. He was the brains behind the Kings of Comedy tour that featured such headliners as the late Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer and Steve Harvey. Audie Cornish talks to Latham about starting a new YouTube channel called, "Walter Latham Comedy" and both the new opportunities and challenges it presents.
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ROBERT SIEGEL. HOST: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
Before you could upload funny videos to the Web like Will Ferrell...
(SOUNDBITE OF SHORT COMEDY FILM, "THE LANDLORD")
WILL FERRELL: (as Renter) Look, why do you need your money so fast?
PEARL MCKAY: (as Pearl the Landlord) I need to get my drink on.
CORNISH: ...or record podcast like Marc Maron...
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST)
MARC MARON: I am Marc Maron. This is "WTF." Welcome to the show.
CORNISH: ...or sell stand-up specials for $5 a download like Louis C.K.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "LOUIS C.K. LIVE AT THE BEACON THEATRE")
LOUIS C. K.: I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of them. That's just the way I am.
CORNISH: Yeah. Before all of that, there was at least one surefire way to make it big in comedy...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON")
CORNISH: ...an appearance on "The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON")
DREW CAREY: You can't do any better than that?
JOHNNY CARSON: Show your great shot. No way.
CAREY: Thanks. Appreciate it. You know, Johnny Hen(ph) is a friend of mine from Cleveland. He got called over, too, so he owe me five bucks, man.
CORNISH: That's comedian Drew Carey getting the much-coveted handshake from Johnny Carson back in 1991.
Nowadays, comedians are able to get their name out there without the help of Carson and his couch. This week, we're exploring a few of the ways the industry has changed with the rise of the Internet, starting with YouTube and comedy producer Walter Latham, who has seen traditional platforms for urban comedies slowly disappear.
WALTER LATHAM: HBO used to do "Def Comedy Jam." BET, they're not doing comic view anymore. Comedy Central was generally a white comic station. It doesn't exist. And that's where the Internet comes into play.
CORNISH: Latham is the brains behind "The Kings of Comedy" tour, which led to the popular Spike Lee documentary "The Original Kings of Comedy" in 2000. Now, he's trying to recreate that success on YouTube. The Web channel dubbed "Walter Latham Comedy" launched this past summer and features both new original content and old stand-up clips from the likes of the late Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer and Steve Harvey.
STEVE HARVEY: It's like that big movie that came out, the "Titanic." You ain't never in your life heard of 3,000 black people dying at the same damn time.
CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER: You never hear that on the news, do you, no 10, 11 black people getting killed all together, because we run. I'm with you, and you start running. Well, damn it, I'm gonna start running. It's just how it go.
BERNIE MAC: It's not about black and white. You know, but they do (bleep) different. When they go on break on a job, 15 minutes. They go to their desk, eat their cheese sandwich. Fifteen minutes they're back on (bleep) job. My people, I don't know (bleep) (unintelligible) growing up. When we go on break, that's just (bleep) we do.
BERNIE MAC: We break.
CORNISH: And that's the late Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer and Steve Harvey. Walter Latham, I heard you chuckling a little bit. Are you remembering those days?
LATHAM: Oh, I laugh every time I listen to it. I - those are some interesting days. The funny thing about "Kings of Comedy" - a lot of people don't know this - they think, you know, we went out on tour, we were successful immediately and, you know, then we made this movie. But it was really a labor of love, and it was a very difficult thing to do, especially when we transition to Hollywood and tried to get the tour made into a movie.
CORNISH: Now, you're at the forefront of this because you essentially have a channel, one of these YouTube channels, where you're going to get to do your own kind of comedy showcase. So tell us what is different in terms of how you present a comedian in this format versus the old way you would package.
LATHAM: Freedom. Freedom. And that's what needed right now. A channel is needed or a platform is needed to give these people an opportunity to showcase their talent. In the Internet, it's almost like the chicken or the egg. The Internet is right there, it's not TV yet, but it's right there. So we have an opportunity now to really start developing the platforms, tweaking the platforms. So when Internet does become television, which it will, we will already have the formula for success.
CORNISH: Help us understand for you, logistically, what are some of the challenges in presenting comedy in this format. I don't know if it's length of the routines or what they're allowed to say. What are the kind of top three things you've thought, oh, gosh, it's got to be different?
LATHAM: A-D-D. That's what I call it. This audience doesn't want an introduction. For instance, I used to love intros. Steve Harvey was the best intro guy I knew. Like, I used to get chills hearing him intro a comic. Well, they don't want that. They want a video to start with the guy telling a joke, and they want it to end three minutes later, maybe, six minutes later, maybe. It all depends. It just depends on what mood they are in that day. So, you know, it's all a matter of trying to figure that out. It's all a matter as far as the language.
You know, when you're a YouTube-funded channel and they give you millions of dollars, like they do for some people, you have one thing that you got to abide by, and that is TV-14 because if it's not TV-14, people have a chance to actually write a complaint and get your content taken down. And they don't want to...
CORNISH: Oh, so by TV-14, you mean the rating system.
LATHAM: Exactly, yeah.
CORNISH: ...which, given the clip we played earlier and the amounts of times we had to use the little bleeping sound, I could imagine...
LATHAM: That's interesting, though.
CORNISH: ...it would be difficult.
LATHAM: It's difficult for the new programs. It's not difficult for my library. My library is, it is what it is. So those jokes you just played, they're on my channel and they are in their entirety. There are no bleeps because YouTube didn't fund those programs. The things that they fund, they're scared. It's like, you can take chances here or there, but we're just hoping no one says, please take this down. And so far, we've been taking chances.
CORNISH: Well, what kind of chances? Any one you want to point out?
LATHAM: If you look at Michael Blackson on Friday, it's called "Black Friday" on my channel "Walter Latham Comedy," he goes all the way out in the middle of the ocean without a paddle.
CORNISH: We actually can't even play a clip of that show, the "Black Friday" show...
LATHAM: It's bad, isn't it.
CORNISH: ...because it would involve - so we would probably get in trouble if we aired that at all.
LATHAM: Yeah, it's tough. It is very tough. But the other thing we do on Wednesday, we have a young lady that you can play. And her name is Miss P. And women love her.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
MISS P: I love "Chopped," but the only thing is if I was a judge, honey, I couldn't be eating all that mess that they have. Why in the world did you fry the squirrel and put a mango puree on it?
LATHAM: She's not a stand-up. She is just the most witty. She's Oprah but funnier. She just...
LATHAM: She will make you - she - trust me. In one year, maybe two, you'll hear about her, and you'll say, you know, what, Walter Latham told me about her.
CORNISH: What scares you or makes you nervous about approaching this new audience or approaching the audience through this new format?
LATHAM: I have a lot of fears. You know, I just don't understand really what makes them tick. The cool part about YouTube is you know immediately how somebody feels. So I'm saying, OK, these 10 people said this, but these 30 people said that, and these 20 people said this. I don't even know how to answer this. How do I fix this, you know? And so, again, you got to go back to your creative instinct and say, you know what, they may not see it yet, but I see it.
CORNISH: Walter Latham, comedy producer behind "The Kings of Comedy" and now a new YouTube channel. Walter Latham, thank you for speaking with us.
LATHAM: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
CORNISH: Tomorrow, we'll hear from Julie Klausner, who hosts the comedy podcast "How Was Your Week." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.