“NETFLIX IS A JOKE” reads a billboard by our offices in lower Manhattan.It is one of a few in New York and Los Angeles planted by Netflix themselves, part of an admittedly clever campaign to highlight the streaming site’s year of high-profile stand-up specials, both the ones already aired, like Dave Chappelle and Amy Schumer, and those to come: Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Ellen De Generes.People familiar with the deal said HBO had to pay unprecedented amounts for Michelle Wolf’s first special, debuting later this year, just to compete.
If Netflix were a joke, it would be the one told by veteran comedian Andy Kindler at his annual State of the Industry Address at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival: “Netflix is releasing a new comedy special every week.I am well aware that these people are the top of the top’s top, but for comparison sake, I remember hearing of mid-level comedians getting paid like ,000 for a Comedy Central hour.In my conversations with people in the industry, money is always brought up first: Nobody can believe the money they’re offering .It’s hard to imagine some of the up-and-comers didn’t secretly hope for the same thing.The irony is that what happened with Wong actually reveals the problem with Netflix’s 2017 special strategy for comedians. They were released with no discernable schedule, but generally you never went more than two weeks without a new special.And the outlets were there, but slowly, the Netflix special easily became most desirable option. Obviously, it means a one-off live-comedy event released on Netflix, but is there anything that defines it among its competitors? Sure, some of the best specials of the year — Maria Bamford, Sarah Silverman, Jen Kirkman — were released on Netflix, but the best, Jerrod Carmichael’s, came out on HBO.Actually, only four of my top ten from last year came out on Netflix.Conventional wisdom was, unless you’re Chris Rock (and to a lesser extent Jim Gaffigan), specials were mostly just a notch on a belt that would lead to other things, like more club bookings. Rock already had and supporting roles in a couple failed sitcoms.Netflix, in a relatively short time, has had some undeniable breakouts though, like Bill Burr and John Mulaney. After her Netflix special, she went from having a hard time selling out a string of club dates to likely being able to sell out arenas.All fine comics, but none are at a point where you can say Netflix specials are only for the biggest names in comedy.And after Jon Stewart’s announcement that he’ll release his specials on HBO, you can’t say the biggest names in comedy are only taking Netflix specials.