Once upon a time, before the internet, before cable, before TV, before radio and even before movies, there was Vaudeville. There were theaters in every city and town in North America and entertainers who spent their whole lives on the road, facing audiences as many as five times a day in the less prestigious venues.
It was the greatest school for entertainment ever invented. Why? Because entertainers got feedback directly from audiences and had the opportunity to hone their material and styles taking audience reaction into account. If you were good, you kept going; if you weren't, you were cancelled. It was a brutal school, but those who succeeded gained knowledge that kept them on top for the rest of their lives and through several media revolutions.
The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Will Rogers, Red Skelton, The Three Stooges, and Mae West were just some of the entertainers who honed their craft in vaudeville and then were able to move into movies, radio and television. They knew what audiences wanted and were able to deliver it.
The best thing about Vaudeville was the ease of entry. It wasn't hard to get a chance to perform. The only person you had to convince was the theater manager, and if you couldn't convince one, there were hundreds of others to call on.
As modern media developed, there were fewer venues and production became more expensive. With only three networks for radio and TV and less than a dozen movie studios, time in front of an audience became precious. The media were not about to take a chance on untried talent or ideas. There was too much money at stake. In order to reduce risk, the media created gatekeepers who only accepted what they thought the audience wanted to see. Those gatekeepers naturally wanted to keep their jobs, so they stuck to the tried and true.
Now things are changing. Anyone can put something on YouTube.com. Scott Kirsner reports that YouTube is developing an advertising scheme that will split revenue with the creator of a clip. Through advertising, you now have the opportunity to sell your work directly to the public without having to go through a gatekeeper.
We're back to Vaudeville's ease of entry. And because anybody can easily see how many times a clip has been viewed, creators (and advertisers) can now gauge audience response directly. We've got the same opportunity to learn from the audience that Jack Benny had.
Somebody is going to create a cartoon character and feature it in a series of shorts on YouTube. If the shorts are good, the audience will build and the advertising revenue will increase. Eventually the revenue will allow the creator to focus exclusively on the character, and more revenue will come from making new shorts and selling merchandise. Film or TV companies will come sniffing around because they're interested in anybody who can attract an audience. They'll offer the creator a feature or TV series starring the character.
Somebody in animation is going to become the next Chaplin or Astaire. It's just a matter of time.