Netflix has done many things to the entertainment industry over the last decade, from creating a new viewing model for audiences to drive award season spending even higher in pursuit of a Best Picture Oscar. But one thing they’ve done that we don’t talk about as much is how they have created a new pipeline for comedians to find audiences. When I was doing stand-up two centuries ago, there was pretty much one way to break out as a comic: get a regular gig at a big comedy club (in Los Angeles that was The Laugh Factory and The Comedy Store, or Largo if you were into alternative comedy), and then start touring and eat sh-t on the road for at least a decade in hopes that HBO or Comedy Central would give you a showcase. Then along came YouTube, and suddenly comics had a new outlet to connect with audiences. Sure, comedians sprung from YouTube, like Bo Burnham, would take a lot of flak from “traditional” club comics, but if they had the goods, like Bo Burnham, their talent would prove out and they could make the leap to touring and specials, and so on. Right on the heels of YoTtube, podcasting offered yet another way for comics to build an audience—Bill Burr uses his long-running pod to shape a lot of his material.
But then, in the 2010s, came Netflix. Starving for original content they owned, and therefore never have to pay increasingly more expensive licensing fees for, Netflix started handing out comedy specials like candy on Halloween. No one that has gotten a Netflix special just walked in off the street – they’re all established, touring comics – but you can see the impact a Netflix special has on a career when a guy like Tom Segura goes from a club act to a theater guy after just one special on Netflix, or Ali Wong becomes an “overnight” sensation. The Netflix audience there is HUGE, and if your special is a hit, it’s an immediate career boost. Netflix has become such an integral and effective part of the comedy landscape, they’ve started growing their own future specials through compilation shows like The Stand-Ups and The Degenerates. Nate Bergatze, one of the most solid road performers working today, did a half-hour on The Stand-Ups, which led to an hour-long special, The Tennessee Kid, and now he has a television deal. These things are not unconnected—Netflix boosted his profile and demonstrated to the rest of the industry that his laconic slice-of-life comedy has wide appeal. (You should watch his two Netflix specials just for the Cape Fear Serpentarium joke.)
Given their dominating presence in the stand-up space, it’s no wonder Netflix is hosting their own week-long comedy festival. The “Netflix Is A Joke Fest” will run in Los Angeles from April 27 through May 3, and feature a Lollapalooza-level collection of comedy talent. Netflix headliners like Dave Chappelle, Amy Schumer, Ali Wong, Bill Burr, Kevin Hart, and Sebastian Maniscalco will be performing. Dave Letterman is going to host a show featuring stand-up and interview. Grace and Frankie stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are among a marquee slate of hosts emceeing various events throughout the week. The cast of Schitt’s Creek will be doing a farewell event. And there is an LGBTQ spotlight series featuring Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Graham Norton, and Hannah Gadsby, whose special Nanette, reached the world through Netflix.
The line-up is killer, especially when you go down the ticket and look at the small-print names of comedians who are still, primarily, known as touring comics, like Fortune Feimster, Joel Kim Booster, Deon Cole, and Gina Yashere. And the festival will also feature some of the acts that have created Netflix’s most interesting comedy specials and shows, like Jenny Slate, Moshe Kasher & Natasha Leggero, and Trixie Mattel. It’s a really solid line-up and it’s clear Netflix wants to go right for the jugular and become one of the top-tier comedy festivals like Just For Laughs, Melbourne Comedy Fest, and Edinburgh Festival Fringe (good luck ever topping the latter, though, Fringe is the platinum-standard of fests).
But there are some interesting omissions. For instance, where is Anthony Jeselnik? His two Netflix specials, Thoughts & Prayers and Fire in the Maternity Ward are stellar, and he’s one of Netflix’s most interesting alt-comics. Daniel Sloss, whose double-header specials Live Shows are among the funniest sets I’ve seen recently, is also missing. And arguably no comedian has benefitted more from the Netflix machine than John Mulaney, whose specials rank among Netflix’s very best, but he is nowhere to be found. Also, a little disappointed not to see comics like Rory Scovel and Bridget Christie, whose specials didn’t break out but are nonetheless excellent. In theory, an in-house fest like this could be used to drive traffic to those underappreciated specials. Still, for a first-time comedy fest, Netflix’s stable of talent makes for a murderer’s row of performers. If this is going to become an annual, or even semi-annual event, Netflix’s power in the comedy space will only grow greater.
Check out the full line-up here.