In downtown Provo, the three-story building on the southwest corner of 300 West and Center Street has housed a few failed ventures. There was The Madison, a nightclub that recently closed, as well as a revolving door of restaurants that could never generate enough business. Well, now there’s a new venture in that space, and its aim is a bit different from what preceded it.
VidAngel, the Provo-based streaming service currently in an ongoing lawsuit with some of the world’s largest film studios, has made this previously unlucky building the new home for VidAngel Studios. The company has shifted its attention to creating original content, rather than streaming content that was produced elsewhere. Leading the way on this new push is “Dry Bar Comedy,” an ongoing stand-up comedy series that VidAngel films in-house. Streaming services like Netflix have revolutionized how stand-up comedy intersects with mainstream culture, providing a more inclusive hub that HBO or Comedy Central could never quite provide.
“There was clearly a demand in the marketplace for comedy, but there was no one creating the home for family-friendly comedy,” said Neal Harmon, VidAngel’s CEO, in a recent phone interview. “We’ve got this perfect venue and location, and philosophy about how we’re creating the content and the audience that it’s being targeted to.”
The “Dry Bar Comedy” name is a play on words: They don’t serve alcohol at the all-ages comedy shows being filmed, and sometimes the comedy itself is fairly dry. Giving the comedians a captive audience is a crucial part of these tapings, so locals can buy tickets and see the specials as they’re being filmed. (Neal Harmon asserted that “Dry Bar Comedy” is a streaming series first and a local comedy club second.)
VidAngel Studios has already filmed 52 different stand-up specials this year. For context: Netflix plans on producing 52 stand-up specials for the entire year of 2017.
“It’s a big undertaking,” said Jeffrey Harmon, one of “Dry Bar Comedy’s” executive producers. “But for us, we just see a hole in the market. Stand-up comedy is synonymous with alcohol and clubs and raunchy jokes. We took a look at the market and said, ‘OK, so all the top comedians — you’ve got Brian Regan, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld — these are the top comedians in the world, so why isn’t the rest of the market following the clean comic route?’ ”
“Dry Bar Comedy” has attracted comedians from across the country. Jeffrey Harmon estimates 70-percent of Dry Bar Comedy’s current specials are from out-of-state comedians, and that percentage will likely rise as the series gains momentum.
Utah comedian Alex Velluto said VidAngel can become a major resource for comedians, both in-state and out. He recently filmed his own stand-up special with “Dry Bar Comedy,” and has since joined VidAngel Studios as a marketer and comedy consultant.
“I’ve always wanted to make a comedy special, and these guys, they have a really good setup here,” Velluto said. “Before I was asked to tape a special here, I was in the process of trying to get a good tape together to send to festivals. And then I was just relegated to putting my camera up in the back of the room. I have a pretty nice camera, but then I came in and did this, and it’s infinitely better than what I was trying to attempt to do.”
Someone described “Dry Bar Comedy” to Velutto as its own version of “Moneyball,” the 2011 baseball film starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane. The film shows how Beane recruited overlooked players whose skills fit new statistical approaches to America’s pastime, turning conventional baseball wisdom on its head. Beane took a chance on players who wouldn’t have gotten one otherwise.
“I was like the former catcher with the bad arm that they make play first base,” Velutto joked. “I’m the Chris Pratt of comedy — you can quote that in the news article.” (Pratt played that character in the film.)
For VidAngel, the elephant in the room remains its highly publicized pending lawsuit. Multiple major movie studios, including 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Disney, initiated a lawsuit against VidAngel last June, claiming VidAngel violated copyright laws with the films it’s been streaming. In early January, a district court judge ruled VidAngel was in contempt of court for not abiding a previous order to remove certain movies from its service. The local streaming company was fined more than $10,000. The ongoing trial will resume June 8, with oral arguments being presented before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Neal Harmon said VidAngel’s long-term goal has always been to produce and distribute its own created content. The company had initially planned to launch “Dry Bar Comedy” this coming summer, but the lawsuit forced the company to speed up its timetable. Throwing themselves into an endeavor like stand-up comedy has been cathartic, he said.
“So VidAngel is just experiencing as an organization the same things everybody else is experiencing in their own lives, where things just don’t go the way you want them to,” he said. “So when you can go and you can laugh about yourself, and about others and about our mistakes, there’s something about the lungs filling and your inhibitions going away that is a balm, a healing power in your life, and helps you to overcome challenges that you’ve got.
“I mean, sure, we’re being sued by the largest media company in the world — that doesn’t happen to everybody every day — but everybody every day goes through their own struggles, their own problems, their own setbacks” he continued. “And everyone needs to laugh in order to cope with life.”