The week of May 31, 2015

Why Netflix is winning the battle for standup

By Josh Katzowitz

When comedian Jen Kirkman chose to produce her latest standup special with Netflix, she didn’t think of it as a big deal.

“I didn’t even think of it as a new, hot place for comedy,” says Kirkman, who’s appeared on Chelsea Lately and Drunk History and recorded a pair of comedy albums. “The way things are nowadays, for most people, they’ll say, ‘I don’t even know what network the show I love is on. It’s on my DVR.’ They watch Mad Men, and they don’t think that it’s affiliated with AMC.”

In other words, who distributed her special mattered less than other considerations—especially artistic control.

Since 2012, Netflix has jumped into standup comedy with both feet. And in letting comedians control their own work, it’s landed big names like Bill Burr, Aziz Ansari, Chelsea Handler, and Marc Maron. It adds shows every month; in the past eight months, it debuted 11 new standup specials.

“Stand-up comedy is a category of original content that we’re very focused on,” Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s vice president of original documentary and comedy programming, told the Associated Press in August 2014. “There’s a really huge scope of types of comedy within stand-up, and we have the ability to provide that entire scope.”

“There’s a really huge scope of types of comedy within stand-up, and we have the ability to provide that entire scope.”

In doing so, the company has provided comedians a wide degree of creative freedom. Unlike competitor Comedy Central, for example, Netflix airs shows uncensored and with no commercial breaks. For Kirkman, it’s the way standup is meant to be seen; in contrast, for a 22-minute cable special, the network typically has final cut. A set can be spliced and diced; a crucial joke set-up deleted or a call-back excised.

“That’s really scary to me,” says Kirkman, whose Netflix special, I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine), debuted on May 22. She recalls fellow comedian Paul F. Tompkins bringing a clock with him on stage to shoot his special. That way he could aim for exactly 22 minutes, giving the network less opportunity for potentially disastrous edits. “That you work your whole life to be a standup and to be totally in control of what you’re saying and then to give it to a network where they have final edit—I would not want to do things that way,” she says.

Artistic control, though, isn’t the only allure of working with Netflix. It’s also where comedians can easily reach their audience. (In 2013, Netflix surpassed HBO, another competitor for standup specials, in total subscribers.) Aziz Ansari’s first special aired in 2010 Comedy Central. Two years later, he recorded another as a $5 Internet download. Fans told him they were watching both on Netflix, so in 2013 he recorded his first special for the company.

Ansari told the New York Times that the streaming service “seems like it’s the closest delivery service of media we have that actually matches up to our preferences and expectations.” Fans, he said, found the service so convenient that they forget they’re paying for it.

“You get your own production company. They don’t give you any notes. You’re in charge.”

When it comes to producing specials, Netflix is surprisingly hands-off. The company gave Kirkman a budget for her special, which she used to hire director/editor Lance Bangs, and then left her alone.

“From beginning to end, you’re responsible for your own production,” she says. “You get your own production company. They don’t give you any notes. You’re in charge.”

Being in charge has its pros and cons, and some comedians still see working with other networks as a mark that you’ve made it. For Josh Sneed, his Comedy Central special remains a career highlight. He thinks about the all the people who fantasized about climbing up on stage, the few who actually do, the small number of those who make a career of it, and the small number of those who get a Comedy Central show. It’s like the chances of any one Little Leaguer making it in the majors.

“For somebody like me whose main passion has been to do standup,” he says, “Comedy Central is a legitimate benchmark.”

And a Comedy Central special comes with other advantages, such as a concerted marketing push. Greg Fitzsimmons has recorded three specials for the network and believes the marketing blitz is worth it. “For most people [with a Netflix special],” he says, “there isn’t a premiere; there’s not a moment where you’re going to go out and do Howard Stern or The Tonight Show and promote your new special. It seems like more of a soft release than Comedy Central. Comedy Central will run ads for it, and that’s really a good way to go.”

“It gives hope that there’s an audience out there for people who want to hear me.”

Ideally, he says, a special gets a marketing bump from Comedy Central, then goes to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or other streaming service where it can be watched anytime, helping comedians build an audience. Because even after running ads, Comedy Central will sometimes drop a special in a midnight time slot; it might disappear after just one showing, or air at odd hours. After all, the network only has so much prime time in a day. As Sneed jokes, “I’m huge in the Middle East because my special seems to always air in primetime over there. Or 4am on a Wednesday here.”

Netflix, meanwhile, has infinite time, infinite space, and plenty of subscribers—more than 57 million as of January. It also has something Comedy Central doesn’t: recommendation algorithms. A special appearing on Comedy Central—or even released on a comedian’s website, as Louis C.K. and Hannibal Buress, among others, have done—requires fans to seek it out. In a conversation with Todd Barry on an April 2014 edition of the Nerdist podcast, Chris Hardwick asked how a non-fan might find new comedy. “Netflix,” he said, “is one of the few places where people could trip over it.” Someone who watches a Bill Burr special might be recommended Jen Kirkman’s special. Even if she’s never heard of Kirkman, she might give a try, love it, and then go buy a ticket to Kirkman’s next show.

Like much new media—whether it’s YouTube, Vine, or Twitter—Netflix is expanding both the audience and the ranks of those who get to have their work distributed. Josh Sneed appreciates the broad range of comics Netflix has supported. “They’re not people who always sell out theaters—not everyone is a Bill Burr or an Aziz Ansari—but they’re people who are good standups,” he says. “They don’t always have to have a ton of heat behind him.

“If nothing else, it gives hope to somebody at my level that I don’t have to have my own TV show or have to live in Los Angeles or New York with a big media push or a big PR machine behind me. It gives hope that there’s an audience out there for people who want to hear me.”

Photo via Joseph Voves/Flickr (PD) | Remix by Jason Reed