Why Netflix Has Gone Gaga for Star-Studded Stand-Up Comedy

Netflix Comedians Seinfeld Dave Chapelle Amy
Photos: Rex/Shutterstock; Illustration: Variety

Stand-up comedy specials are no joke at Netflix.

The streaming service has been binge-buying these programs in recent months featuring the biggest names in the genre. Tuesday’s deal with Jerry Seinfeld, which also includes rights to his “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” series, comes on the heels of similar deals struck with Amy Schumer, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle.

Given the voracious appetite for original content Netflix has clearly signaled to the marketplace coming out of 2016, these pacts may not seem like a newsflash. But given estimates in circulation that peg the cost of each special in the neighborhood for $20 million each, the multiple specials all but Schumer have signed on for indicate Netflix is prepared to spend at least a few hundred million dollars on this genre.

In the scheme of the $6 billion Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos has pledged to spend on over 1,000 hours of original content this year, that may still be chump change. But to see a significant fraction of those funds get funneled into stand-up comedy specials is probably something few expected.

On Netflix’s fourth-quarter conference call Wednesday, Sarandos identified stand-up as a key focus of his. “That’s a category we took from kind of cheap, second-window programming to something that really becomes an event and a subscriber-acquisition driver for Netflix,” he explained.

But stand-up comedy has not exactly been a core competency for any other network, linear or streaming, for quite some time. Comedy Central has obviously made stand-up a part of its own programming lineup, but doesn’t really get A-list names. HBO has always kept an oar in these waters, as its deal with Schumer last year would indicate, but has hardly been a big priority among the series, movies and sports offerings that get far more promotion. It’s rare to see the ratings even reported for this type of program.

Of all the markets to corner, why this one?

It’s tempting to conclude that Netflix, ever conscious of its rivalry with HBO, is spending lavishly on stand-up comedy for no other reason than to throw it in the Time Warner property’s face.

Or it’s possible that Netflix is zagging where everyone else in the TV business seems to have zigged, invading white space largely ignored or de-prioritized by the competition. That zag may also be prompted by user data that’s telling Netflix something you wouldn’t necessarily intuit from the fallow field that stand-up comedy is on TV today: these specials may attract bigger audiences in the long-tail world of an on-demand streaming service than they do for linear networks, which tend to repeat these kind of specials as well.

The underestimation of stand-up specials would also be counterintuitive in its value to Netflix because of the global nature of the platform. The highly verbal nature of stand-up humor, which American comedians tends to ground in observations of behavior confined to this continent, isn’t necessarily going to fly in other countries. A Seinfeld or a Chappelle isn’t necessarily going to have as high a Q score in Pretoria as they do in Peoria.

Maybe Netflix just enjoys the headlines that come with landing comedy’s hottest talent, even if it’s a loss leader. There’s something to be said for thoroughly dominating a kind of content by securing the services of three bona fide comedy legends in Seinfeld, Rock and Chappelle, while Schumer–arguably the buzziest comedian of 2016–seems well on her way toward achieving legend status.

It’s also entirely possible that Netflix data doesn’t support such an aggressive pursuit of stand-up comedy; we’ll never know for sure as long as that measurement isn’t made public. But the company certainly has plenty of history in this genre given the rising tide of stand-up specials that have been in Netflix queues going back years with not-quite A-list talent like Kathleen Madigan, John Mulaney and Cedric the Entertainer.

Still, not disclosing ratings doesn’t matter much when the spending does all the talking.