For all the pomp about its movie deals and TV originals, I have a sneaking suspicion that Netflix is actually best at standup specials. Streaming just fits standup. It’s both disposable and permanent, which means you can bail out of a disappointment after a couple of gags without guilt (hello Dana Carvey’s Straight White Male, 60) and return to favourites again and again (oh hello, John Mulaney’s The Comeback Kid).
If that wasn’t already perfectly clear, the last few weeks should seal the deal. Last month Netflix simultaneously released two unseen Dave Chappelle specials, The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas, rousing the reclusive comic with a deal thought to be worth close to £50m. And today sees the release of Louis CK: 2017, one of two specials that Netflix bought from CK for what must presumably be a similarly huge wad of cash.
And it isn’t stopping there. Netflix reportedly bought two specials from Chris Rock for $40m, a Tracey Morgan special and a Sarah Silverman special, in addition to those by Katherine Ryan, Jen Kirkman, Jim Norton, Trevor Noah, Mike Birbiglia, Jim Gaffigan, Gad Elmaleh and Bill Burr it has already released this year. The cherry on the cake seems to go to Jerry Seinfeld, who has reportedly received £80m for two new specials plus 24 episodes of his middling web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Clearly, someone at Netflix has good taste and deep pockets, and this has created something of a standup boom.
That’s no bad thing, especially if you’re one of the comedians with a special. Not only are you exposing your work to a tremendously large audience, but you barely have to do any work to get it there. Just a few years ago, it looked like all of comedy was going to go the Louis CK route, selling your specials direct to your fans through your own website and keeping all the profit. Back in 2011 when Louis CK released Live at the Beacon Theater, he toured the late-night talk shows crowing about the million dollars it made him while describing all the work it took him in painstaking detail. Now, why bother? Why would be, when he can just make the thing and sell it to Netflix for much more than that, with far less fuss?
But the trouble is that – and this might admittedly be a way off – standup booms never last. The last big boom happened in the US in the 1990s, when acts would prepare their magic tight-fives that could get them on the talk shows and give them enough momentum to grab their own sitcoms. This led to a glut of comedy venues opening, lucrative deals being slung around and too many half-baked shows being given to too many mediocre comics until the market saturated and the bottom fell out.
To be fair, this time around is different, because this time the end result is a standup special rather than a sitcom; something the act has toured and honed over months or years, rather than a lucrative afterthought mired in network interference. But still, you can’t help but worry that Netflix throwing so much money at a handful of big-name comedians – many of whom are a decade or more past their best – will bloat and choke the standup scene.
For the £80m it gave Seinfeld, just think how many specials it could have bought from young comics or underground comics or cult comics. An investment in a set by Andy Daly or Massive Dad or Jermaine Fowler might actually result in something new and exciting, rather than lining the pockets of an already comfortable establishment.
So enjoy the Louis CK special today. It’s pretty good. But cross your fingers that Netflix decides to uncover the next big thing before long, because the current big things won’t be around forever.