When Comedy Bits Meet Bytes
Assessing Netflix's Long Tail Strategy alongside the Resurgence and Re-Interpretation of the 'Stand-Up Comedian'
Between the summer of 2018 and 2019, six of the top ten highest-grossing comedians in the world filmed at least one stand-up special for Netflix (Shapiro). However, to assume that these comedians would not have raked in such large sums without Netflix or that Netflix would not have received as much attention and profit without these comedians’ specials would not be entirely true in either case. While many aspects of Netflix’s production and distribution strategies and their consequences have been discussed in academic and commercial circles, the changes they have espoused unto stand-up comedy — as both an art and an industry — have not been widely analyzed, especially through a media studies lens.
Netflix’s strategy of content aggregation and long tail distribution has not only upended the industrial patterns of producing stand-up comedy but has magnified the increasing importance and impact of brand identity to comedians in stand-up and beyond. By fostering relationships with some of the industry’s biggest names, enabling the creation of ‘niche’ content, and exploring international markets as both producers and consumers of stand-up comedy, Netflix has allowed for and necessitated varying degrees of entrepreneurial and artistic innovation on the part of individual comedians and the rest of the comedy industry as they adapt to an ever-expanding audience.
Drawing upon Chris Anderson’s notion of “long tail” content distribution and Patrick Vonderau’s analysis of “quasi-durable” content that streaming services pursue under the long tail, I look to analyze the motive for and impact of Netflix’s actions within the stand-up comedy industry (Vondereau, Anderson 2004, Anderson 2006). I will use selected journalistic and critical commentaries regarding Netflix’s production and distribution strategies and journalistic coverage of individual specials, series, and comedians, cross-referenced with original analysis of specials, series, and comedians to provide context to my arguments.
The Long Tail
Netflix’s use of long tail distribution, paired with its in-house production, allows it to reap economic profits and promote its own brand as a media company. Coined in 2004 by then WIRED Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail” describes how digital content distribution has broadened the range of content that can be accessed and lessened the costs for both distributor and consumer. While physical modes of distribution relied on points of contact (e.g. movie theaters, retail and rental stores) that were limited by material storage capacity, massive online repertoires can both host and provide content without the packaging, marketing, and retail costs of physical copies. As a result, digital platforms are incentivized to take on the role of the digital ‘point of contact’ for a wide range of ‘niche’ content that was previously not distributed or distributed at a high markup to consumers.
Whereas Netflix is not alone in the field of SVOD (streaming video on-demand) with American competitors such as Hulu and (Amazon) Prime Video, regional competitors such as Crave TV (Canada) and Canal+Series (France), and recent producer-distributor competitors like Disney+ and HBO Max, it undoubtedly has had the head start, at least in the American context, in attracting users and establishing brand recognition. This advantage allows Netflix to create both big name and niche content as a means to not only bolster Netflix’s brand (read: Oscars and Emmys), but retain existing subscribers while attracting new ones.
Patrick Vonderau of the Stockholm University Department of Media Studies contends that companies buy into content aggregation and long tail distribution under the premise that their products are “quasi-durable” (728) – that is, content remains available and profitable now that companies can promote it to consumers in ways not previously achievable with standard marketing techniques. By amassing metrics on aggregate consumer tastes and viewing habits and the tastes and habits of each viewer, Netflix is able to introduce content to consumers more efficiently and thus justify the continual widening of its library through massive production and acquisition expenditures.
Netflix Disrupts the Stand-Up Industry
In the context of stand-up comedy, the long tail has enabled Netflix to spend hundreds of millions of dollars amassing a wide and well-regarded library of stand-up specials. Led by longtime Vice President of Original Documentary and Comedy Programming Lisa Nishimura and comedy festival veteran Robbie Praw, Netflix began a wave of disruption within the stand-up comedy industry, dishing out lucrative contracts to well-known stars and attracting rising talents who may have been passed by old-guard producers like HBO or Comedy Central. Through these additions, Netflix has garnered not only eyeballs and profits, but it has also won a reputation within the comedy industry, open to both praise and scrutiny.
In order to attract viewers to the platform, Netflix’s stand-up comedy portfolio includes an array of high-profile comedians, some of whom have used Netflix as an opportunity to pivot their comedy careers. The company notably landed multi-special contracts with Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Amy Schumer at $20 million per show paid upfront – all three previously did specials for HBO, but Netflix found an opportunity as HBO slashed its comedy budget due to “declining viewership” (Shaw). These specials appeared to have paid dividends, with half of its 130-million strong subscriber base watching at least one Netflix stand-up special in 2017, and a third of that demographic watching at least three (ibid.). However, Netflix’s motivation was not only to attract stars to the platform for one-off specials, but to build relationships with the stars so as to create an association between them and the platform. Jerry Seinfeld’s reported $100 million deal includes not only two stand-up specials, but rights to his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which he described at an event at the Paley Center as the answer to the question: “what would be a good TV show for a phone?” (McGlynn).
The broad scope of Netflix’s catalogue successfully exhibited the careers of stand-up talents beyond the one-hour set with Netflix Original shows, films, and other content. However, this success is especially notable with projects that fill a demographic niche, providing comedians with other venues to explore themes and stories typically underrepresented in network media. In some instances, comedians receive a following by being conflated to their on-screen counterparts (Bore). However, comedians from minority backgrounds (e.g. ethnicity, faith, gender and/or sexual orientation, socioeconomic status) must actively create roles and spaces where their unique stories and circumstances can exist. This mode of “For Us, By Us” representation is prominent in the works of Ali Wong (Always Be My Maybe, dir. Nahnatchka Khan, 2019), Aziz Ansari (Master of None), Eddie Murphy (Dolemite is My Name, dir. Craig Brewer, 2019) and Hannah Gadsby (Nanette, dir. Jon Olb & Madeleine Perry, 2018), among others.
While these works are catered towards the experiences of a certain demographic, even audiences outside the demographic can effectively engage with the themes at hand so long as they are able to empathize with the perspectives that are portrayed. Dartmouth University student Joyce Lee brings up the notion of “collective memory” in a review of Netflix’s flagship late-night show Patriot Act and its host Hasan Minhaj, noting that while she herself does not share his Indian American or Muslim background, she relates to his efforts in including minority perspectives that are often forgotten in Western media. Lee adds that Minhaj’s ability to evoke personal or cultural references represents a connection with both the studio audience and the audience at home. Even while performers on late night programs have tended to be less personal and interactive with the audience than in intimate stand-up sets (Brodie), the increasing importance of the host’s persona to the show’s identity and the ability to gauge the show’s following through viewership metrics and active “second screen” viewer participation (Blake) have pushed producers to be more receptive to audience-host interaction.
Patriot Act host Hasan Minhaj interacts with audience. Photo: Netflix / Used under Fair Dealing (CA), Fair Use (US).
With a viewer demographic growing increasingly younger, digital, and more diverse, counter-hegemonic representation among late-night hosts (see fellow Daily Show alumnus Samantha Bee with Full Frontal on TBS, YouTube star Lilly “IISuperwomanII” Singh with A Little Late on NBC) is more than simply appeasing a social trend — these changes represent adaptation with changing consumer tastes, demographics, and modes of viewership. For the writers, comedians, directors, and crew who pioneer these projects, the production of content for and about underrepresented communities reflects the societal impact and professional clout afforded by changing industry practices.
But on the industry level, Netflix’s appeal to demographic niches in various mediums, while admittedly good PR, should rather be attributed to their commitment to the long tail strategy before any other motive.
Given that Netflix’s coffers are not limitless, the company announced in late 2019 that it was paring down the production of new one-hour specials, opting for shorter shows from lesser-known comedians (Shaw). However, this shift has introduced the intriguing side effect of spotlighting international comedy and comics.
The 2019 series Comedians of the World offers a glimpse into how international comics perform across regional, diasporic, and global contexts, as well as the influence that a stand-up history dictated by the West has on international comics and audiences. The series features 47 comedians from 13 ‘regions’ across the globe, performing thirty-minute sets at comedy festivals and clubs from Montreal to Mumbai (Husband).
Netflix’s partnership with established players in the comedy industry to make this series possible signals an interesting opportunity for cooperation, especially as attention shifts towards promoting stand-up as both entertainment and an art in new economic and cultural markets. For example, the “Middle East” portion of the series features four comedians from different nationalities within the region: Jordanian Rawsan Hallak, Palestinian Adi Khalefa, and Saudis Ibraheem Alkhairallah and Moayad Alnefaie (Alameri). All sets were performed in Arabic, with comics touching on culturally-tinged interactions and subjects like female body image, dealing with relatives, and the pressure to get married. Some, like Alkhairallah, touched on commonly held stereotypes between people of different nationalities within the Middle East. There were moments when comedians had to step back and walk the in-studio audience (who were attending the sets at Just For Laughs Montreal) through a reference, such as when Alnefaie explains to the crowd that the “Dabb” he carried to school as a prank was a type of lizard native to Saudi Arabia, and not the slang word for drug paraphernalia common in the West. Thus, differing backgrounds of the in-studio audiences and audiences at home led comics to consider the goals and intended consumers of their texts. In a translated interview with UAE-based Gulf News, Khalefa said:
“For me, the most important thing was that any person who could speak Arabic could understand me. I didnʼt want to use super specific references. I wanted all Arabic speakers to understand at least 80 per cent of my jokes.” (Hamad)
Khalefa’s acknowledgement of the broad audience he plays to is a reflection of his brand identity as an emerging comic and his roots as a comic from a non-traditional comedy market and environment. The idea that a series like Comedians of the World would open the floodgates for new content shadows the fact that these comics have to play to a broad audience within their cultural ‘region’ and across all demographics. As much as streaming can transcend the traditional “circuit-fringe axis” (e.g. “circuit-festival axis”) of physical venues through which comics tailor their act to a given sociocultural context (Smith 68), it necessitates that comics occupy multiple contexts at once: the local audience, the diasporic audience, and the global audience at-large. That isn’t to say that occupying all contexts isn’t valuable; the shows are the first Arabic-language stand-up sets to appear on Netflix, and the comedians are the first who were born-and-raised in the Middle East to appear on the platform.
Given the nascent nature of stand-up comedy in the region, these comics can find their niche (and with it, a ‘brand identity’) in providing a bridge for other comedians to participate in the art and profession. Khalefa noted in his interview that his love for stand-up began with a translated CD of a Dave Chappelle show, and Al-Khairallah performed as a hobby but began to consider comedy as a career after hearing performances from Maz Jobrani and Dean Obeidallah. While viewership metrics for the sets from Comedians of the World may not be as stellar as a Chappelle or Segura special, the sets and the comics that enter the spotlight are an intriguing and necessary result of Netflix’s long tail as they look to bring stand-up comedy, especially curated stand-up specials, to overseas audiences.
Nevertheless, the international reception of comedy still depends on a multitude of societal factors. Ramon Lobato notes that the Netflix platform is not just one entity, but a collection of national Netflix catalogs that are subject to different industrial and political forces (245). The company’s well-documented removal of an episode of Patriot Act that discussed the killing of Jamal Khashoggi from Saudi Arabia’s Netflix catalog sparked conversation regarding the role of foreign censorship in entertainment as well as the role of Netflix as an online platform to abide by government orders (Al Omran). The platform’s underrepresentation and relative underpayment of minority comedians, including Black female comedians, also brings to light Netflix’s complicit role in changing or continuing practices within the industry. Netflix stand-up lead Robbie Praw noted in an interview with the New York Times that the pay discrepancies of Black female comics were attributed to mere touring numbers and “social metrics” that they would use for any other comic (Zinoman), but that begs the question of how fair their method of algorithmic solutions are in a system that has been and will continue to be skewed by the judgement of political agendas and the societal status quo.
The Quasi-Durable Stand-up Comedian
As mentioned previously, the ‘Long Tail’ incentivizes streaming companies such as Netflix to participate in the agglomeration of media under the premise that products (in this case, stand-up comedy specials) become quasi-durable — accessible and profitable as companies can promote it to consumers in ways not previously achievable with standard marketing techniques (Vonderau 728). However, due to comedy’s reliance on currency (be it spatial, temporal, or contextual), combined with the growing avenues for entertainers to market themselves to wider audiences and across multiple platforms, I would argue that comedians themselves are becoming quasi-durable through the influence of their brand identity.
The argument of whether or not Netflix ultimately ‘controls’ the fate of a comedian is potentially irrelevant. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Live Nation Comedy president Geof Wills noted that for most comedians, live performances still earn comedians as much as or more than their roles in film and television, and certainly more than they had in the past, both proportionally and nominally (Rose). Especially for lesser-known comedians, live performances at more intimate venues provide not only occasional income and exposure, but a venue for comics to hone their craft and establish their brand or style of comedy (Smith). Nonetheless, Netflix’s success in increasing the profile of stand-up shows worldwide (“The Economist”) and elevating comedians to stardom beyond stand-up, especially those which it sees potential in filling a ‘niche’ market, makes comedians’ interaction with the platform an interesting case study in determining how the profession of the ‘Stand-up Comedian’ has changed in the 2010’s.
Recent stand-up comedians in the spotlight have solidified their brand identity by either pursuing relationships with Netflix (as with Dave Chappelle), foregoing partnerships with Netflix (Jim Gaffigan), building alternative outlets to Netflix (Kevin Hart), or expanding their brand identity beyond stand-up comedy (Trevor Noah).
Dave Chappelle, who notably departed his namesake Chappelle’s Show at its 2004 peak due to waning interest with the sketch comedy genre, creative burnout, and new management under Viacom, among other circumstances (Powell), found mutual respect in his dealings with Netflix. Following a $60 million three-special contract in which, for better or for worse, he was granted creative liberty to perform whatever he pleased, Chappelle would sign on for two additional specials; his spotlight would grow after receiving the 2019 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor (Blair), which was likewise promoted by Netflix. This relationship allowed Chappelle to pressure Netflix into removing Chappelle’s Show from its catalogue, an ordeal he recounted in an IGTV (Instagram TV) recording entitled “Unforgiven.” The comedy set skewers lawyers and industry executives’ handling of emerging comics, with Chappelle noting that his contract with Viacom (now ViacomCBS) provided no royalties or further pay after leaving the show. Chappelle, while maintaining judgement, lauded Netflix for removing the show from the platform almost immediately; Viacom-owned HBO Max would only do so after a month of outcry from Chappelle and his fanbase (Otterson). Chappelle’s Show returned to Netflix in February 2021 after Comedy Central and Chappelle inked a re-negotiated contract (Ricker), which Chappelle credited to his fans: “I said ‘I’m going to my real boss and I came to you’ because I know where my power lies” (“Redemption Song”).
Nevertheless, some comics look to retain control of their content by other means. Despite having made five specials with Netflix, renown ‘clean’ comic Jim Gaffigan followed the suggestion of his independent producer/distributor Comedy Dynamics and released his special Noble Ape (dir. Jeannie Gaffigan, 2018) to movie theaters and direct-to-digital via services such as iTunes (Lynch). Following a worldwide tour, his next special, Quality Time (dir. Jeannie Gaffigan, 2019), would become the first stand-up special to appear exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. The exclusive license is set to last for two years, though Gaffigan has already posted the special to a number of audio-only streaming platforms, something impossible under the perpetual licenses held by most Netflix specials (Shapiro). Given his simultaneously niche but accessible style of comedy, Gaffigan actively uses his brand identity as leverage to earn paychecks and re-distribution rights that other comedians might not pursue.
While he released content for Netflix as recently as December 2019, Kevin Hart has extended his stand-up brand beyond himself by launching the Laugh Out Loud (LOL) network, a venue for comedy web series and specials promoting on-and-off-screen diversity. Notably, LOL released Comedy in Color, a series that features 300 comedians from 30 countries, giving Netflix’s Comedians of the World a run for its money. However, LOL remains in a tight spot in terms of distribution; Comedy in Color is broadcast on Pluto TV (Viacom’s advertising-based video-on-demand platform), which attracts only around 20 million users across North America and Europe (Perez), and other LOL titles are subject to a first-look deal from NBCUniversal’s SVOD, Peacock (Williams). Nonetheless, Hart’s status as a big-name comic has offered him the role as an industry broker for other comics through the LOL network and brand.
Holding international clout and a unique perspective on North American issues, Trevor Noah has occupied a more nuanced role as a comedian expanding his brand identity beyond stand-up. Born and raised in South Africa, Noah’s upbringing and continued experiences have made countless appearances within his stand-up specials (which he has released on Comedy Central and Netflix), his award-winning autobiography Born a Crime, and his continued work on The Daily Show. While juggling his hosting duties and stand-up tours, Noah has also found time to begin scouting television, feature film, and short-form video projects, inking a first-look deal with Comedy Central parent company Viacom while continuing to produce stand-up content for Netflix (Sandberg). This arrangement appears to benefit both Noah and his industry partners, with the latter receiving content from a well-known comic and the former room for creativity with content and medium.
It is easier than ever to enter the running, yet harder than ever to outrun the pack.
While some comics have found success maximizing their brand’s potential and have become effective quasi-durables, this requires the comic to have an established (and well-regarded) brand to begin with. Whereas stand-ups in the past may have found an audience performing at intimate venues or receiving airtime as disk jockeys, veteran comedian and USC professor Wayne Federman argues that online venues (hosting platforms such as YouTube, Soundcloud and Spotify, as well as content sharing/aggregation platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit) provide not just exposure, but metrics by which promoters or other industry members can gauge a comedian’s potential value (Miller). Especially with mediums such as podcasting or vlogs providing venues of delivering stand-up style content with no real barrier to entry, it is easier than ever to enter the running to be a stand-up comedian yet harder than ever to outrun the pack. Building a brand identity rooted in the comedian’s/their persona’s background, social status, and relation to others creates markers of relatability that an algorithm can shape and mold, while personal anecdotes and a dash of character provide a level of originality that suggest that comic breaks the mold.
Stand-up comics, in a quest to be quasi-durable, have to be both familiar enough that they appeal to wide (paying) audiences, but different enough that they evoke intrigue from audiences and industry. Ultimately, it is this dichotomy between relatability and personability that strikes me as odd, given Netflix’s role in amassing a stand-up catalog with long tail distribution and actively participating in the stand-up comedy industry. Whereas the long tail may allow some to build off of their brand identity and promote art and stories of minorities through a platform seen as being more receptive than existing television networks, the decision of whether or not these projects are realized are made on a basis of metrics that are likely skewed themselves due to social and cultural determinants (e.g. who has access to leisure time and disposable income to use Netflix, and who they may have been inclined to watch due to preferences that predate/exist outside of Netflix).
Netflix’s decision to pair the development of documentary and comedy under Nishimura recognizes that while both genres seek to tell stories — and the creative liberties granted to creators in each have expanded in recent decades — the stories that are told and the way that they are told depends on existing social, cultural, and industrial structures. The content created and accumulated now will serve as social artefacts of our transforming media ecosystem.
While Netflix and other platforms attempt to feed consumers products that would appeal to their niche tastes, getting on the platform, no less gaining traction on the platform, requires a level of clout and brand recognition that has to be earned through not only the established club “circuit-fringe” axis nor just the emerging tribunal of social media, but a combination of the two. Considering Netflix’s increasing influence in both established and emerging venues of comic development, it will be interesting seeing how the role and means of the stand-up comedian changes in the coming years.
As stated by Vonderau, “put simply, the Long Tail is great, unless you are the Long Tail” (725). Dave Chappelle parsed his tenuous experience as a quasi-durable comedian as a journey from being the long tail to being the exception, enabling him to now voice his expectations of the comedy industry. In his words:
“I’m not up here trying to tell you guys that I believe that Comedy Central gave me a raw deal just because I’m Black, I believe they gave me a raw deal because this fucking industry is a monster.” (“Unforgiven”)
The comedy industry has harbored few, if any, laughs in its dealings with individual comics over the decades. On its face, Netflix may appear as a beacon of change, or it may have simply extended its stand-up catalog and relationships with comics and other established industry entities just enough to serve its interests as a company. The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle. Ultimately, it remains up to comedians and audiences behind the screens to use the technological and societal moment in media to effect meaningful change in the perception of social and cultural identities on and off the screen.
: “For Us, By Us” (also known as “FUBU”) is a term that originated within movements surrounding African American representation in media and business in the 1980’s and 1990’s and has since been co-opted into broader discussions of the economic, social, and cultural agency of minority communities. See Horry, among others.
: “Ibraheem Alkhairallah” and “Alnefaie” are written as presented on Netflix’s credits; differing spellings (“Embraheem Al-Khairallah”, “Al-Nefaie”) are found in other works.
: Netflix has featured comics Mo Amer, of Palestinian descent, and Maz Jobrani, of Iranian descent, both of whom immigrated to the United States as children.
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Works Cited - Footnotes
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Dudley, Joshua. “Wayne Federman Teaches The History of Standup Comedy.” Forbes, 25 Feb. 2019. Web. Accessed 19 Apr. 2020.
Hattingh, Chris. “Motives for attending live stand-up comedy: an audiences’ perspective.” African Journal of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure, vol. 7, no. 2, 2018.
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Horry, Luana, ““For Us, By Us”: The Boondocks, Black Agency, and Black Spatial Reclamation in Comics.” CUNY Academic Works, Feb. 2018. Web. Accessed on 19 Apr. 2020 from https://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_etds/2508
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Lockyer, Sharon. “Performance, Expectation, Interaction, and Intimacy: On the Opportunities and Limitations of Arena Stand‐up Comedy for Comedians and Audiences.” Journal of Pop Culture, vol. 48, no. 3, June 2015, pp. 586-603. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/jpcu.12285
Make Happy. Directed by Bo Burnham and Christopher Storer, performance by Bo Burnham. Netflix, 2016.
Matthew Asuncion is a fourth-year undergraduate student in the Bachelor of Media Studies program at the University of British Columbia. His interests lie in covering the intersections of journalism, sociology, media consumption, and technology. He also consumes media himself from time to time.