Netflix changes landscape of opportunity for stand-up comedians
  • Tuesday, November 13, 2018
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TGIF

Netflix changes landscape of opportunity for stand-up comedians

  • TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE AND ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTOS

    Jak Knight, left, and Ali Wong.

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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,” which debuted this month, 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.

Netflix has grasped the growing popularity of standup, and it’s moving to make the genre integral to its future programming. In the process, it is also transforming stand-up comedy. When comics become more familiar to audiences via Netflix, they are also more likely to sell tickets on tour.

The company, expected to spend a reported $12 billion this year on overall original content, has streamed scores of stand-up specials. 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.

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 venues, 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.

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. 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 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.

Some fear stand-up comedy’s hyper-expansion over the last decade — Netflix specials, arena shows and endless open-mike nights — 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.

“I hear all the time the bubble’s going to pop. But there is no bubble,” said Brian Volk-Weiss, head of Comedy Dynamics, which has produced specials for Aziz Ansari and Kevin Hart. He added that social media and streaming have changed the rules: “You can watch anything you want, whenever you want. In the short run, you’re going to see a lot of other companies begin to compete with Netflix.

“In the long run, as with any genre, it will continue to grow at a 1 to 3 percent a year clip and then it will stabilize, and you’ll look at stand-up comedy the way you look at horror films. Sometimes they’re extremely popular, sometimes they’re not.”

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 theater 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, who has appeared on stage in Honolulu (as have Schumer, Burr and Mo’Nique, in recent years).

Wong’s 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.

KNIGHT, WHO has written for the animated comedy shows “Lucas Bros Moving Co” and “Big Mouth,” did his first stand-up gig after bragging at his Seattle high school that he was funny. He put his name in a bucket at an open-mike night and bombed. It was so bad, he said, 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,” said Knight, who onstage comes off as a wise yet raw prankster, taking on police brutality, the #MeToo movement and President Trump. 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?”

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