Netflix expands stand-up comedy specials to give emerging stars and global talent a chance to shine
After 25 years of HBO dominance, Netflix has become the major arena for aspiring comedians in just two years. It is planning a TV series next year featuring 47 comedians from 13 regions, including Africa and the Middle East
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 travelled to Atlanta, in the American state of Georgia, in February with other emerging comics – diverse in race, gender and humour – to tape stand-up comedy specials in Netflix’s latest expansion into the genre.
He hopes his short set in The Comedy Lineup, which debuted this month, will ignite his career much like late-night TV shows, HBO specials and concerts at Madison Square Garden in New York 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,” says 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, which is expected to spend US$12 billion this year overall on original content, has streamed scores of stand-up comedy specials, including shows by 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 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,” says 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 is 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 chequebook.” Netflix executives declined to comment for this story; the company did not respond to specific questions about its stand-up programme.
Netflix streams to more than 190 countries and reaches about 125 million subscribers, giving relatively little-known comedians like Knight the chance to exponentially increase their audiences at a time when stand-up comedians 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 women – me, another woman who you wouldn’t know is black and a black lesbian – and an Asian guy and a woman from Britain,” says 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.”
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 films from competition because they hadn’t been released in cinemas, a decision that highlighted the debate over how films should be released and viewed. 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.
Netflix uses algorithms to decipher the tastes of its audiences. 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 performing 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.
A Netflix special that catches the zeitgeist can transform a career. A relatively unknown comic can go from selling fewer than 100 tickets at a club to selling thousands at a theatre after appearing on Netflix. Ali Wong’s 2016 stand-up special, Baby Cobra, filmed when she was seven months’ pregnant, was a star turn for the actress and Fresh off the Boat writer. Her new special, Hard Knock Wife, reaffirmed the growing appeal of female comics, including Sarah Silverman, Jen Kirkman and Maria Bamford, in a profession long dominated by men.
A mother who has since returned to New York, James landed a spot on the Netflix series after she opened for Chris Rock during the taping of his special, which premiered in February.
“All the Netflix people were there, and they saw me live,” she said. “Right place, right time and ready when it happens. That is all comedy is.”
The Comedy Line up is likely to expand the audiences for James and the other comics. But she says “it will be our responsibility to promote it.”
“Who knows? What we all want is for someone that has a huge [social media] following to tell their people to watch it,” she adds. “That is when things happen. But I don’t put any stock or hopes and dreams in it. You don’t want to set yourself up for disappointment.”
Knight, who has written for the animated comedy shows Lucas Bros Moving Co and Big Mouth, did his first stand-up comedy gig after bragging at his high school in the American city of Seattle that he was funny. He put his name in a bucket at an open-mike night and bombed. It was so bad, he says, that it could get only better.
With few other prospects, he moved to Los Angeles and started telling jokes wherever he could find a spot.
“I got a job in comedy pretty quickly,” says Knight, who onstage comes off as a wise yet raw prankster, taking on police brutality, the #MeToo movement and President Trump.
“It’s like you’re very, very, very broke, then you’re not very broke, then you’re broke again, and the whole time you’re going from coffee shops to the back of a dude’s house to performing in a garbage can on fire. It’s a blur. You keep doing it until your brain knows that is the only way to do it. That is how you get better.”
One night, after working a shift at Target, he went to an open-mike night and Burr showed up.
“There’s, like, seven people there,” says Knight. “Burr had his beanie on and a stupid trucker jacket and he had a couple of notes. He was just running jokes, and they were kinda bad and I was, like, ‘Oh, damn.’ And I realised until the end of this, you gotta work.
“He’s the funniest dude doing it, and he still comes in and works. If the gods can come down from heaven and play in the dirt with you, who am I to say anything different?”
Knight’s comedy – like Burr’s – has a bite, dealing with race, age and gender. “I call white women swans,” he jokes, “because they’re white and majestic and people get upset when I chase them through parks.”
He’s not a man to self-censor; he can challenge an audience’s sensitivities. “It’s a dream for a comedian to go on Netflix, because they don’t tell you what to say or how to say it,” he said. “I don’t even think I had to send in a transcript. You’re telling me I can be my full, artistic self for money. Is this a trap?”