High-Profile Standup Deals Help Netflix Corner Market Once Dominated by HBO

Trevor Noah Afraid of the Dark
Courtesy of Cara Howe

Comedy Central is heavily invested in the Trevor Noah business. In 2015, the cable channel plucked the comic from near obscurity to succeed Jon Stewart as host of “The Daily Show.” Two months after Noah premiered on the late-night talker, his standup special “Lost in Translation” premiered on Comedy Central. Since then, the network has aggressively marketed Noah and stuck by him as “The Daily Show” host, waiting out early, lackluster ratings that have only recently showed signs of growth.

Comedy Central would appear to be a natural home for Noah’s next standup special. But when his newest effort, “Afraid of the Dark,” debuted last week, it did so on Netflix.

Noah’s special is just one item purchased in a Netflix shopping spree that has made the streaming service the dominant buyer in the standup marketplace. Two years ago, top-tier comedians could land $5 million-$10 million for a cable TV special. Now, comics such as Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Amy Schumer are landing $10 million-$20 million per special from Netflix. The streaming service is also doling out $3 million-$10 million for second-tier comedians.

For Netflix, the money spent on standup represents a drop in the programming-budget bucket compared to premium original drama series. Netflix spent $120 million on the first season of “The Get Down” — and that’s factoring in New York state tax incentives.

“Unlike drama, which costs them billions, what they’re able to do with standup for $100 million is dominate,” says Brian Volk-Weiss, who has produced specials for Aziz Ansari, Maria Bamford, and Bill Burr. “They basically said, let’s take everything off the table so that if the public wants to tune in to high-end comedy, it goes to Netflix.”

In recent months, the streaming giant has signed deals for specials from Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, and Sarah Silverman, as well as Seinfeld, Rock, and Schumer. Last week, it announced plans to host Tracy Morgan’s “Staying Alive,” his first standup special since the 2014 car crash in which he was severely injured and fellow comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair was killed.

Most of those deals are for two specials from each comic — ensuring that for several years to come, none of them will be appearing on HBO, which spent decades owning the standup space. And Netflix is locking up comics at a time when standup is riding a swell in popularity.

“There are markets all over the country that for 20 years have had two comedy clubs, and one of those comedy clubs was on the verge of going bankrupt,” Volk-Weiss says. “Those same markets today might have three or four clubs.”

For comedians, Netflix’s largesse has created a seller’s market. Volk-Weiss says one comic who recently landed a two-special deal from Netflix was shocked to net twice what his agent had told him was a best-case-scenario asking price.

While former HBO topper Chris Albrecht began his career as a comedian, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, known to be an enthusiastic standup fan, is no less devoted to the genre.

“That felt like it was an area of the biz that was underserved, that comedians have been underappreciated financially because there weren’t enough venues to get paid unless they went on world tours,” Sarandos
said last week on Barry Katz’s “Industry Standard” podcast. “I thought it was a great opportunity both to work better with artists and to better connect them with audiences.”

In comedy and drama, Netflix must go toe-to-toe with an army of well-funded offerings from HBO, FX, and dozens of other competitors. It’s still a novice in reality programming and late-night-style talk, whereas the broadcast networks have successful, long-running franchises. But in comedy, there may be white space for Netflix to fill with money.

“By the end of this year,” Volk-Weiss says, “unless somebody mounts a tremendous counterattack, which is getting increasingly harder, Netflix will have utter domination of one of five or six genres that exist.”