Netflix: Making Stand Up Comedy Great Again
If you read any publication in the last 2-3 years that covers stand up comedy you will inevitably come across terms like “golden age,” thirsty for content,” and “game changer” and often those terms will be proceeded for followed by a reference to Netflix. Netflix, of course, is the video streaming giant that has somehow escaped much of the criticism directed towards other entertainment and Internet behemoths like Facebook and Amazon. So allow me to offer one: Netflix is on the path to ruining stand up comedy. But first let’s look at Netflix and the other factors that have allowed this to happen.
Netflix: Oxycontin for your Eyeballs
In the movie Wall-E, one of the indelible images from that modern day classic is of all the obese people floating on lounges ordering all the entertainment and food they desire without ever moving. The people become lazy, fat and atrophied. I thought the same thing within the last year or two when “binge-watching” a show on Netflix and I noticed the next episode box, the screen pop up that tells you when the next episode will play, had changed from a 30 second window to a 5 second window. It was as if Netflix had realized the greatest danger to their business model could be giving its consumers any time to consider doing anything else. If I were to make any predictions about Netflix in the next 5 years it would be that they will purchase or create a food delivery service that works within your Netflix that allows you to order food in the middle of programming so that something like dinner, that might cause you to leave Netflix for an hour, will be a quaint relic of the past.
Much is made of sites like Facebook that are in the business of maintaining eyeballs. The longer people engage in and look at their Facebook timeline, the more opportunities for advertisers to be viewed. Netflix has a similar business model – keep people watching. In a sense Netflix represents the two most damaging trends in the modern business world: stock price being the sole driver of business decisions and doing whatever it takes to maintain the attention of consumers, regardless of what the costs are.
Before delving into stand up specifically it is worth noting that Netflix is producing a lot of mediocre content. They certainly have some excellent shows (Narcos is my favorite on the service), but multiple times a week it seems like there are half a dozen new shows and movies going up on the service that I will never see, never hear about and never remember. So there is a glut of content. It’s almost a venture capitalist approach to content creation: give 20 people their own show every month and hope that 1-2 stick. Then there is the addictive quality (partially demonstrated by the “next video plays in 5 seconds” pop up) that many Internet companies have exploited, most notably Facebook, to keep people coming back for more. Admittedly I am not a psychologist or a social scientist, but even looking back on my own experience with years of Netflix, there can be no doubt, starting with the “My queue” to today’s “My List” there is a sort of “to do list” quality to Netflix, that I can’t believe is an accident. For Facebook, it is the feeling of getting “likes,” while Netflix provides you with a truly meaningless sense of accomplishment. Given what we have learned about other tech giants, I don’t think it is farfetched to assume a multi billion dollar company like Netflix has studied psychology and manipulation to advance their goal: eyeballs and increased stock value. Basically entertainment Oxycontin.
Stand Up Opens the Door
Stand up comedy has opened the door wide for a company like Netflix, with little artistic integrity and incredibly deep pockets, to begin forming a monopoly of stand up comedy content. First off, it is a third rate art form (I say this as a 15 year stand up comic not disparage the talent in stand up, but its place in our culture). It will never rival movies, TV or music in America, but it is a valuable and important part of our social fabric for sure. But whereas Movies (which have been particularly resistant to recognizing the work of Netflix) and Television have huge infrastructures and many options with which to compete and defeat Netflix, stand up comedy only had a few champions and they have mostly lost their way or abdicated their responsibility.
Comedy Central, built on stand up, is quickly become for stand up comedy, what MTV became for music. There are a few specials each year (thus maintaining their “special”ness) and to CC’s credit, many of them have been very strong (Big Jay Oakerson, Mark Normand and especially Roy Wood Jr), but their Half Hour series, which used to be their signature comedy series, now feels more like an audition process for whatever scripted shows they want to produce. And there are no more Premium Blends or Live at Gothams which represented showcases for new comedians. So the biggest stand up comedy creator and validator seems to have left the building.
HBO has been fairly disappointing, though I did think Michelle Wolf’s last special for them was particularly strong. But this is a network that has the most history and had the most stand up prestige. George Carlin did his specials for HBO. Chris Rock’s first 4 specials (including the GOAT in my opinion Bring the Pain) were on HBO. They had Rodney Dangerfield’s showcases. They had the half hour specials (which came back in the early 2000s with a strong lineup of elite talent), but they too seem to have decided it is not worth their time or money to maintain that elite stamp of stand up.
Showtime, for me, though the bar is lower for them, has been the best at producing stand up specials. Sebastian Maniscalco, Gary Owen and most recently Erik Griffin, have put out the kind of “Oh you don’t know this guy, but you should” level specials. Now don’t get me wrong – any network that puts Nick Cannon’s special on television can never get a perfect score, but their overall level of specials has been fairly strong of late. But they have neither the tradition, nor the infrastructure to compete with what Netflix is trying to do – and that is create a monopoly.
Patners in Crime
I remember several years ago, at least 6, I was contacted by a management company that had briefly represented me in 2007-08. They were creating a side venture from their management business that would focus on albums, producing and stockpiling a library of content. Now the company had had no contact with me for at least 2 years and I had two albums out at the time, neither of which had sold well, so I found it curious that a company that did not want to manage me still wanted to make a deal for the rights to my albums. I thought it over and said no. Fortunately for me, maintaining the rights to all of my albums has been a financial windfall since the explosion of satellite radio in comedy. The company, which was an offshoot of New Wave Entertainment was called New Wave Dynamics when I was contacted. They have since developed, if I am not mistaken, into Comedy Dynamics, whose logo you will see after many, many specials (I think 3 Arts is the only company I see with close to equal frequency). And my hesitancy early on was justified – I believed they wanted my content, not for its individual value, but because in the aggregate they would be able to bill themselves as industry leaders and also reap the coming whirlwind of streaming royalties. I may not have the career I want, but I still have some decent royalty checks.
Netflix would not be able to do what they are doing without willing partners and these few companies that have built up enormous rosters of clients see that their is an ocean of money to be made when a whale like Netflix is in the room. So that incentivizes overproducing. Businesses never leave money on the table if they can help it, so with Netflix (and other places offering quixotic competition) needing to constantly feed its content machine stand up specials will be made at a rate that will diminish the meaning of the word special. Of course there are many talented comedians getting produced by these companies as well, but there are way more specials than great comedians and I do not remember that being the case when I was a kid or a teenager. A “special” connoted something, oh what’s the word… special? But now you have Netflix and production companies working hand in hand to diminish and devalue the art of stand up comedy. And who is going to say something? Netflix? The production companies? The comics getting paid exorbitant amounts? And that is why Netflix has a perfect business model and an atrocious artistic one. Stand up is not big enough for people to care about “the art” or the awful economic conditions for the rank and file within the business (a middle act at an A club is getting the same pay as a middle act at an A club 30 years ago) and stand up comedians are getting too rich at the top to stop it from within.
Netflix recently announced that they would be launching 47 comedy specials on the same day in 2019. Presumably this would be on top of their 1-2 specials they launch every week (not sarcasm – this is their model). They have also launched their own half hour series and just released a batch of 15 minute specials. In other words, if overproducing comedy and diminishing the word special were not enough; if replicating the mind fu*k tactics of Facebook were not enough, let’s just embrace YouTube and Twitter’s diminishment of people’s attention span and start producing lots of short “specials” as well. And it is not just the volume – it’s unwritten rules that are violated too. It used to be when you performed a joke on television, that joke was now retired, at least for future television appearances. I have seen comedians do the same joke on multiple platforms. Stand up comedy is easier when you don’t need new jokes for every appearance. Then you and your manager can reap the benefits of getting double or tripled paid for the same work. The expansion of stand up comedy to include one person shows has also been a hallmark of Netflix’s explosion. Stand up comedy is harder than spoken word because in stand up you are expected to make people laugh with a fair amount of frequency. In spoken word and one person shows humor is a pleasant surprise, not a feature.
From a business stand point, the real genius of Netflix has been in overpaying dozens of stars. The people with the most clout, the most fans and the most power are the first ones you need to buy up because then you will have both artistic cover (hey how can we be bad for stand up we have Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Amy Schumer and Bill Burr?!) and have secured the cooperation of the loudest voices in the art form. But if you diminish what a comedy special is, both in quality and quantity, there will be a trickle down effect – less incentive to go see comedy, less refinement in what the general audience perceives as good comedy, etc. This, of course is in the aggregate and impossible to prove now, but I have seen smaller and dumber audiences as my career has gone on (and since I am not the headliner it cannot be blamed on my anonymity).
Artistically, Netflix seems to be content being the McDonalds of comedy, which would be ok if they weren’t also putting the steak houses and seafood restaurants out of business. And there is really no critical check on stand up comedy. Some websites put out reviews, but is there a Rotten Tomatoes for stand up or a Roger Ebert for stand up? No – and the reasons are fairly simple. Stand up comics are more sensitive to criticism and the people that do cover comedy tend to be people who want access to comedy. And in a smaller world than Film or TV, trashing specials is a surefire way to see yourself on the outs. Most lists of best specials feel more like PR lists that were fed to websites than any real critical evaluation of the art. And Netflix, which used to have a 5 star rating system for viewers just switched to a thumbs up/thumbs down system. This was partly in response to a troll campaign to hammer Amy Schumer’s last special (though compared to her earlier work I did think it was weaker), but also what incentive does Netflix have to showcase lots of specials with bad ratings? None. So it makes sense to eliminate one of the few internal ways people might decide to skip your specials.
The Netflix business model will not fare as well in other mediums. Many of their movies suck and the movie business seems ready and able to resist a Netflix takeover. Television as well has a lot of talent and infrastructure to fight. When Netflix signed Ryan Murphy to a $300 million dollar deal and Shonda Rhimes to a $100 million dollar deal I laughed because both of those legendary creators have probably put out their best work already. No matter how big a genius, I doubt either of them has 4 or 5 great shows left in the tank, considering their strong bodies of work that have exhibited downward trends. But Netflix’s approach is to collect talent, no matter the cost, in the hopes of having a monopoly. The one area where that will work is stand up comedy. No one can really compete with the money they throw around and stand ups represent a completely disunified labor force. So Netflix definitely has the power to control all of stand up comedy in the next 5 years, but as they are slowly proving they also have the power to ruin it. And I don’t think there is a will or awareness to stop it.