For a technology company as obsessed with disruption as its Silicon Valley pedigree implies, Netflix has taken a surprisingly conventional approach to stand-up comedy. Like HBO before it, the streaming service used comedy specials as a relatively cheap, efficient way to enter the original-content game. Mike Birbiglia’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and Chelsea Peretti’s One of the Greats, projects from mid-career comics, were added to the Netflix library in 2013 and 2014, respectively — around the same time as early original series like Orange Is the New Black and BoJack Horseman. These stand-up specials were well-received works from well-liked comics more Upright Citizens Brigade than Comedy Store, in alignment with Netflix’s umbrella strategy of capturing the Arrested Development fans of the world before moving up the food chain to Fuller House.
As Netflix has evolved into an entertainment monolith, however, its approach to stand-up has changed more in scale than in kind, working with more and bigger comedians while preserving its general MO. As my colleague Victor Luckerson reported last year, Netflix went on a buying spree that would encompass nearly every bold-faced name working in the medium: Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Marc Maron, and even the reclusive Dave Chappelle all signed multimillion-dollar deals to distribute their latest hours on the platform. Comedy has become an extension of the company’s overall reputation for outspending the competition.
Some of these projects are still to come; the first of Rock’s two promised specials won’t be available until later this year. But with the exception of Chappelle, who released four specials total, in pairs, over less than a year, Netflix has distinguished itself more for how much it was spending than for what it was spending that money on. By releasing TV seasons in complete batches, Netflix upended the way audiences consume and talk about scripted series. Conversely, Netflix stand-up specials, even oddball ones like Maria Bamford’s Old Baby, have largely conformed to the decades-old model: stand-alone, 60-minute flexes that capstone a year-plus of intensive workshopping. The Characters, an experiment in offering an analogous platform to sketch-centric performers, was a promising formal innovation, but Netflix has yet to order a second volume, and its counterpart, The Standups, is essentially a binge-model version of Comedy Central’s well-known The Half Hour. For the most part, a special released on Netflix looks like a special released anywhere else; a comedy fan is simply more likely to find it under that trademark red banner. That’s what Netflix has been chasing, and successfully — a reputation as a must-subscribe, go-to destination for a genre of entertainment with unusually passionate fans, who can then be converted into subscribers.
On Monday, however, Netflix finally introduced a new twist on the stand-up special. While building on the streamer’s proven omnivorous tendencies, the move also has the potential to test and expand the constraints of the form the same way the company clearly aims to do for television as a whole. The streaming service, as reported on Vulture, has commissioned a full class of 16 comics to tape a series of specials weighing in at just 15 minutes each, half the length of the half-hour taping previously considered the standard for short, introductory tapings. The specials will be taped next month in Atlanta, then released in batches (Netflix hasn’t yet clarified how many) throughout the year.
At first, the 15-minute streaming special sounds like a “revolution” on par with Seth Meyers deciding to sit down for his Late Night monologue: a slight change — a quarter of an hour’s worth, to be exact — that seems large only because the template it’s affecting is otherwise so staid. But in and of itself, the 15-minute special feels like an overdue development for the internet age. Fifteen minutes is about the length of a standard club set, allowing Netflix to further replicate the experience of witnessing live comedy. (This is also the goal of showcases like the erstwhile John Oliver’s New York Stand-up Show or popular podcast 2 Dope Queens, which HBO will bring to the screen next Friday.) At a time when internet comedy is largely dominated by short-form video on sites like YouTube, it makes sense for stand-up purveyors to adapt accordingly — particularly when those purveyors are internet natives themselves.
In the context of Netflix, however, short-form specials also represent an essential extension of its comedy offerings. The service’s overall programming philosophy is notoriously maximalist, declining to economize by serving a particular niche in favor of servicing every conceivable audience: lowbrow to high, all-American to international. The same has gone for comedy, albeit within the confines of the hour-long special; this month alone, Netflix is distributing new material from entertainers as drastically different as Katt Williams, Todd Glass, and Mexican comedian Mau Nieto, performing in Spanish.
Netflix’s limitless budget and preference for 60-minute specials over 30-minute ones has led it to secure collaborations with A-list and established talent. For every Ali Wong, a comedian who’d never recorded any kind of special before taking a massive career leap with her terrific Baby Cobra, there are a dozen Todd Barrys and Patton Oswalts, who broke out long before they got their Netflix deals.
A 15-minute special allows Netflix to diversify the comedians it spotlights along with the length of its comedy offerings. None of the 16 inaugural stand-ups are pure novices, of course; Michelle Buteau, Sam Jay, and Josh Johnson all have half-hour specials under their belts. But the roster complements the 800-pound gorillas that currently dominate Netflix’s comedy rep, and affords Netflix the opportunity to develop major names rather than simply acquire them after they’ve found success. I’m particularly excited by the presence of Max Silvestri, Jak Knight, and Emma Willmann. (In a neat twist, Willmann has an upcoming cameo on HBO’s Crashing as part of a four-comic up-and-comer special curated by Whitney Cummings.) Fifteen minutes is also the perfect amount of time for one to sample an unfamiliar comedian without committing the bulk of an evening, raising the possibility that short specials could serve the same function as, or even replace, late-night talk-show sets — home of the “tight five” — while tripling the allotted space for comics to show viewers what they’ve got.
The announcement thus edges Netflix even closer to a stand-up monopoly, creating new territory for the service to own wholesale rather than conquering what already exists. In the short term, this is good news for comedians who might not otherwise get access to the company’s massive, built-in exposure until later in their careers. (There’s no better, or freer, marketing than having your face pop up on that homepage.) In the longer term, however, the 15-minute special further solidifies Netflix’s bargaining power — power it can then employ in favor of interests that have frequently aligned with those of entertainers, but not always. Just this week, Netflix came under fire for reportedly lowballing black female comics Mo’Nique and Wanda Sykes; Sykes has since taken her special elsewhere, to Epix, but the more Netflix supplants the competition, the harder it becomes for talent to say no to the terms the company is increasingly able to dictate.
Shaking up an ossified format, then, may be more of a side effect than an end in itself for Netflix. By amplifying ascendant comedic voices rather than using proven voices to amplify its own cachet, Netflix can help fulfill its promise as a breaker of programming norms that have long outlived their use. As exciting as the quarter hour’s creative prospects might be, however, onlookers should keep in mind the financial ones. You can be sure Netflix is.