The Secret Sauce Behind Netflix’s All-Out Comedy Dominance

Most people tend to know Netflix best for their explosive docudramas on cults and killers, or for reviving mid TV shows from other networks, or for titillating sex and violence, or even for mind-bending sci-fi. But for the past decade, there is no genre the global streaming giant has thoroughly dominated more than stand-up comedy.

If the key to comedy remains timing, then this week’s kickoff of the second Netflix is a Joke Fest across Los Angeles feels most auspicious.

Set aside anything Jerry Seinfeld has said as fuel to gin up publicity for his own Netflix movie (Unfrosted, premiering Friday) and his Hollywood Bowl shows Wednesday and Thursday where he shares a bill with Jim Gaffigan, Sebastian Maniscalco, and Nate Bargatze. Fans of all political persuasions keep watching old Seinfeld episodes and snapping up tickets to his live shows. Nobody at the 17,500-seat amphitheater in the Hollywood hills is likely to make much of a fuss—especially after paying up to $700 for a ticket.

Meanwhile, the most popular show on Netflix by far right now tells a truly harrowing tale about a comedian, reckless fans, and the seedy underbelly of show business. Baby Reindeer follows poor Donny Dunn (Richard Gadd) as he tries to further his stand-up career while flailing personally and professionally in the wake of traumatic events that continue to pile up against him, seemingly starting with his first attempt to mount a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, the biggest performing arts festival in the world. It’s all based on events from Gadd’s own life which he first adapted into a solo stage show, “Monkey See Monkey Do,” winning Best Show at the Fringe in 2016 (the year before Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette took the top prize in Edinburgh—and then became a celebrated Netflix special of its own).

Chances are, however, that you’re not going to see any shows like that at the Netflix festival.

Well, you could, but emotionally gripping and comedically ambitious shows are few and far between among the 500-plus events happening over the first 12 days and nights of May across Los Angeles County. Because Netflix is a Joke Fest isn’t Edinburgh. Rather, to borrow a phrase from a recent Variety profile, Netflix is a Joke Fest is “the Coachella of stand-up comedy festivals.” For better and for worse.

Like the music festival that just took place 140 miles west of Hollywood in the California desert, the Netflix lineup doesn’t make all that much sense at first glance. But you somehow feel like you’re missing out as a performer and as a fan if you’re not on the lineup or in the audience—even though you still can watch plenty of the action live-streaming from home without being there in person.

Netflix filmed several comedy specials for its inaugural comedy festival in 2022 and then streamed them over that summer. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to remember any of them two years later, despite the fact that they included names like Amy Schumer, Pete Davidson, and David Letterman. It’s possible those offerings just didn’t feel “special” enough to an audience who wasn’t able to be there in person.

Learning from those apparent missteps, as well as from their first, hugely successful live comedy event with Chris Rock last year (at 36.2 million hours from March 4-June 30, 2023, Rock’s Selective Outrage dwarfed every other special Netflix released in the first half of last year), Netflix is only recording a couple of stand-up specials during the fest (from tried-and-true Netflix faves Ali Wong and Deon Cole) while jumping headfirst into live programming with a series of Saturday Night Live-esque episodes fronted by former writer and Five Timers Club host John Mulaney, as well as live streams of the two most unpredictable events during the festival.

If Katt Williams could hold Shannon Sharpe at bay for almost three hours on his Club Shay Shay podcast to kick off 2024, how long might Williams take Netflix viewers into the night knowing he has our collective attention? And historically, comedy roasts go long and get tightly edited before they’re ever broadcast to the public, particularly since the dais usually includes athletes and celebrities who may lack comedic timing—so seemingly anything could happen at the live roast of Tom Brady this coming Sunday night. No matter what, they’re sure to be must-see events for Netflix this weekend.

The 2022 event featured the first-ever stand-up special filmed at Dodger Stadium (Gabriel Iglesias) plus arena shows fronted separately by Mulaney and Bill Burr, but this year’s fest grows the number of arena-level acts, including Shane Gillis (May 8 at the Kia Forum), Gillis with Andrew Schulz (May 9 at Arena), Tom Segura (May 9 at the Forum), Kill Tony (May 10 at the Forum), Bert Kreischer (May 11 at the Forum), plus the massive Brady roast. And on Tuesday, May 7, Kreischer and Segura are using the biggest venue of the festival, the Rose Bowl, to stage a 5K run.

The prospective FOMO for the biggest names in comedy runs so deep, in fact, that even comedians who have recently left the service to put out specials elsewhere have returned to the fold for the festival.

Nate Bargatze made a name for himself on Netflix before decamping to Amazon Prime Video for his latest special, Hello World, but there he is opening the festival Wednesday night. Same goes for Iliza Shlesinger, who built her following through multiple Netflix specials only to bolt this year to Prime Video. Nikki Glaser, who rose from Comedy Central to Netflix but is now firmly entrenched with HBO/Max/WarnerMedia, will be roasting, judging roast battles and headlining a late-night showcase. Kevin Hart and Hartbeat have massive deals with Peacock, but he’ll be proudly serving as roast master for Brady. Whether they and others like them want to stay in Netflix’s good graces or just are willing to go wherever the action is at any given moment is kind of beside the point.

HBO may remain first and foremost the prestigious platform for stand-up comedy, but Netflix clearly has the biggest global reach still in 2024, and has for the past several years racked up more Emmy and Grammy nominations for their stand-ups than all other networks combined.

Even if YouTube feels like the biggest competition for Netflix to attract and retain comedy fans, Netflix has the deeper pocketbook to poach any YouTube star they want (see: Gillis; Schulz, Matt Rife, etc.). And Netflix can offer not only a big payday for a stand-up special, but also the old-fashioned development deals and potential sitcom stardom that stand-ups from the previous comedy boom of the 1980s chased into the 1990s.

To wit, in recent weeks Netflix has announced multi-special deals for Iglesias (who already fronted his own Netflix sitcom, Mr. Iglesias, for two seasons 2019-2020), two more specials for Leanne Morgan (whose 2023 special, I’m Every Woman, was one of Netflix’s most-streamed last year) plus a straight-to-series sitcom starring Morgan co-created by Chuck Lorre. There are new multi-special deals for Rife and Kreischer. Gillis stars in Tires, a sitcom he co-created set in an auto-repair shop coming to Netflix later in May and Segura has a six-episode dark comedy series coming later this year.

Michelle Buteau received a renewal earlier this year for her Survival of the Thickest series plus another special. Nicole Byer has her Emmy-nominated gig hosting Nailed It! in addition to stand-up specials for Netflix. The streamer continues to platform new specials for both Mike Epps and Wanda Sykes in addition to their long-running hit sitcom, The Upshaws. And then there’s Wong, who cleaned up this award season for her Netflix limited-series, Beef.

With such a barrage of content, some comedians find themselves lost in that algorithm. Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham might be an arena act himself, but he told me that he left Netflix to return to Comedy Central because he found it nearly impossible to find new fans there. “Your interface looks way different than mine,” Dunham said of the Netflix home page. “So it’s whatever you’re interested in, those are the things that get promoted to you, so if you haven’t ever looked for me or searched, then you’re never going to see me on Netflix unless you actually look for it yourself. Which is fine. I get it. But I love that Comedy Central actually does promotions and repeats, so it’s always there.”

But for every comedian who jumps from Netflix to Prime Video or Max (see: Tig Notaro, Marlon Wayans, Tracy Morgan), there are others who’ve jumped the other way (see: Michelle Wolf, Beth Stelling), or those who feel quite comfortable going to the highest bidder without concern for how many eyeballs their comedy will reach.

Comedians may go where the money is, but many are even more eager to go where they feel the most loved and appreciated. So when the boss is a big comedy fan, it can make all the difference.

Before the digital boom began in the late 2000s, the United States really only hosted one major comedy festival each year from 1995-2007, nestled amid the ski slopes of Aspen and sponsored by HBO. Chris Albrecht, who ran the premium network all those years, spent his youth performing with Bob Zmuda, became manager of the original Improv club in New York City and part-owner when the late Budd Friedman moved west to Hollywood. In 2024, almost every small city across America devotes at least one weekend each year to a comedy festival.

But there is nothing in America on the scale of Netflix Is a Joke Fest. And it all comes back to Ted Sarandos.

Sarandos, the co-CEO of Netflix, joined the company in 2000 already obsessed with comedy. “I came to this completely as a fan,” Sarandos told Dana Carvey and David Spade this spring on their Fly on the Wall podcast. “I love creative people. I love what you do for the world.” He even executive-produced Netflix’s first comedy special back in 2006, Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion, which predated streaming and was delivered to fans in those quaint red envelopes. Now Netflix releases, on average, one new English-speaking stand-up special every week.

“We try to do a lot of variety,” Sarandos told Carvey and Spade. “That’s why we have so much to watch on Netflix, because tastes are really diverse, and certainly within comedy.”

During this year’s awards season, Sarandos hosted an exclusive dinner party for comedians and went around the table to pay tribute to each of them individually, including Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Ali Wong and Bill Hader. Spade was there, too. He recalled the moment when Sarandos got to Chappelle, only to have the comic use the opportunity to deliver a 15-minute long set, cracking jokes and telling stories about everyone else assembled at the party.

Sounds like the kinds of parties you wish you were invited to, which is just how Netflix wants you to feel if you’re not part of Netflix is a Joke Fest.

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