Netflix is expanding its stand-up comedy reach

Jeffrey Fleishman
Los Angeles Times

The night before he was to tape his first Netflix comedy special, Jak Knight, whose gigs not long ago included “coffee shops and the back of a dude’s house,” was pacing his hotel room and polishing jokes when the enormity struck him: “I have 15 minutes to show the entire world my personality.”

Knight traveled to Atlanta in February with other rising comics — diverse in race, gender and humor — to tape stand-up specials in Netflix’s latest expansion into comedy. He hopes his short set in “The Comedy Lineup” will ignite his career much like late night TV shows, HBO specials and Madison Square Garden concerts propelled stars like Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld and Amy Schumer.

“This Netflix thing is like the new ‘Johnny Carson show.’ Everybody gets to see you,” said Knight, whose 15-minute set riffed on birth control and generational divides. “This is where everybody is looked at, where all the eyes are going to be. This is where I get to do shows in Singapore and London. This is a big, big deal.”

Netflix is transforming stand-up comedy and making it integral to its future. The company, expected to spend a reported $12 billion this year on overall original content, has streamed scores of stand-up specials, including comedians who speak Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German. The strategy is to tap emerging comics and headliners, such as Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle, and push its brand to distant capitals. It is launching a comedy radio channel with SiriusXM and is planning a TV series next year featuring 47 comedians from 13 regions, including Africa and the Middle East.

“When Netflix started, HBO and Comedy Central were viewed as the destination for comics,” said Brian Volk-Weiss, head of Comedy Dynamics, which has produced specials for Aziz Ansari and Kevin Hart. “HBO had been doing it for 25 years by the time Netflix started making originals. It took Netflix barely two years to become the dominant force. That’s what’s amazing about it. There was no dip in quality, combined with a staggering, unprecedented jump in volume.

“A huge piece of the puzzle is that Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos loves stand-up comedy, and he’s got a really nice checkbook.”

Netflix executives declined to comment for this story; the company did not respond to specific questions about its stand-up program.

Streaming to more than 190 countries and reaching about 125 million subscribers, Netflix gives relatively little-known comedians like Knight the chance to exponentially increase their audiences at a time when stand-ups are competing in a universe that includes clubs, Twitter, YouTube, sitcoms, podcasts and film. The company’s voracious need for fresh material is spurring it to reach deep below marquee names for alternative and boundary-pushing comics who are often overshadowed.

“In these 15-minute Netflix sets, there’s a gay white woman, two gay white guys, and then there’s three black woman — me, another women who you wouldn’t know is black and a black lesbian — and an Asian guy and a woman from Britain,” said Janelle James, who’s appearing later this year in “The Comedy Lineup.” “People who are stuck in the old ways would say that this is kind of casting by numbers. ‘Oh, they’ve got one of everything.’ But to Netflix’s credit, we all crush. We’re not tokens.”

There’s more enticement, she said: “Netflix is where the money is, so that’s A No. 1.”

Netflix’s reach

This widening reach into comedy comes as Netflix’s influence is being felt across film and TV. The Cannes Film Festival this year banned Netflix movies from competition because they hadn’t been released in theaters, a decision that highlighted the debate over how films should be released and viewed. And, at the Emmy awards in September, Netflix will have more nominations than any company, a distinction that for nearly two decades was owned by HBO.

Figures vary widely on what Netflix pays stars and up-and-comers like Knight and James. The streaming service reportedly paid $100 million for two Seinfeld specials and his series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Discrepancies over pay and allegations of gender and race bias went viral in January when black comedian and actress Mo’Nique complained that Netflix offered her $500,000 for a show — way below the $20 million she claimed black males Chris Rock and Chappelle received, and $13 million reportedly offered Schumer.

Netflix uses algorithms to decipher the audience’s tastes. Its comedy format fits the cultural preoccupations and technological fascinations that span the 20- to 40-something generation. Last year, it launched “The Standups,” a series that included Dan Soder, Beth Stelling and other comics in 30-minute sets. The new series of 15-minute sets is the latest attempt to discover new talent and play to the shrinking attention spans and quicksilver viewing habits of younger generations driven by social media, YouTube and outlets that play easily on smartphones.

Some fear stand-up comedy’s hyper-expansion over the last decade may lead to oversaturation, diminished creativity and, ultimately, a reckoning. There is also the question of how emerging stars can rise to the level of a Rock at a time when the media landscape is democratized and splintered with choices and platforms.

“It’s great that comedy has reached a level of such mainstream exposure where it isn’t really taboo anymore to be part of, either as a viewer or a performer,” New York comic Eddie Gamez wrote in an essay on the website Comedians on the Loose. “However, it comes with a price, because it was that taboo element that made comedy so intriguing.”

‘The Comedy Lineup’


Available now