TV's Stand-Up Specials Scoring Big Bucks: "With The Exception of Porn, There's Nothing Cheaper to Do"

Networks Are Throwing Money at Stand-Ups -H 2015
ILLUSTRATION BY Thomas Kuhlenbeck

The Netflix effect and content demands of streamers means even new players besides Amy Schumer and Aziz Ansari are getting top dollar.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Netflix upended movie distribution, then scripted television. Now the streaming service is contributing to a growing arms race to land top comics in the increasingly competitive world of stand-up specials.

By year's end, Netflix, which debuted John Mulaney's The Comeback Kid on Nov. 13, will have released 18 original stand-up specials, with comics including Aziz Ansari, Chris Tucker and Chelsea Peretti. And while many credit the 69 million-member service for jump-starting the market, others, including NBC's forthcoming comedy streaming service Seeso, also are opening wallets.

"There's never been a better time," says Brian Volk-Weiss, whose Comedy Dynamics has produced 40-plus specials this year, nearly doubling its output from two years ago. "We've been selling specials since 2007, and for the first five years or so, the buck slip I have taped to my desk said Comedy Central, Showtime and HBO," he says. "Now, it says Netflix, Comedy Central, Epix, Showtime, HBO, Seeso, Amazon, Vimeo and a few others."

Among the draws: evergreen content on a tiny budget. "With the exception of porn, there's nothing cheaper to do," adds Volk-Weiss. Which is not to say the girl or guy on stage is paid poorly; increased demand has proved a boon to comics. According to one industry veteran, roughly 80 percent of comics are making between $50,000 and $500,000 for an hourlong special; 15 percent make between $500,000 and $2 million; 4 percent make between $2 million and $6 million; and 1 percent (think: Kevin Hart) make more than $6 million.

"Stand-up comedy has always worked well on TV," notes Showtime president David Nevins, who wants an original special each month, with such names as Steve-O, Jermaine Fowler and, deal permitting, W. Kamau Bell on deck. "It has [even] more value in an on-demand, libraried world, which is how we, HBO and the streaming services program." He points to his older specials from Hart and Dane Cook, adding, "Those still play." Though basic cable networks have sniffed around, the format is less friendly to ad-supported outlets because the genre doesn't provide ancillary opportunities in international or syndication. (Comedy Central's work-around often is to package a special into a development deal, as it did with Amy Schumer and Hannibal Buress.)

For Seeso chief Evan Shapiro, relying so heavily on stand-ups — in January, his $3.99-a-month service will offer exclusives each day along with specials from comics including Rory Scovel, Jay Pharoah and Cameron Esposito — wasn't a given. But the feedback from 11,000 potential users interviewed was that the core Gen Y audience, raised in the ashes of 9/11 and the financial meltdown, has an appetite for comedy-club fare. "They're looking for soothsayers to help them navigate through the chaos," explains Shapiro. "So they go to these 'churches,' so to speak, and someone gets up on the pulpit and starts speaking the truth to them, and I think it gives them a sense of place in the world."

Of all the new players, Netflix is the most sought-after, according to the dozen or so comics and reps interviewed. Not only is the service willing to shell out top dollar, it also makes its specials readily available. "Put it on Netflix and it gets put into a search engine forever and, no matter what, your material is there to be seen," says APA agency partner Mike Berkowitz, who counts Louis C.K., Schumer, Hart and Ansari among touring clients. "From the artist's perspective, we just want to go where the most eye­balls are, and right now that's Netflix."

Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos says he first recognized the opportunity back when he was offering a sec­ond window for Comedy Central specials. "There were only two options before we started doing it: You either get on HBO or Comedy Central, and in both cases you'll be on the air a few times and then disappear," he says. "I'd go to comedy clubs and the comedians would say, 'Oh my God, all of a sudden my show just came on Netflix and everyone is talking about it.' "

Artists aren't as quick to write off HBO. Though the network makes fewer specials, it offers comics like Schumer, who premiered hers Oct. 17, both a broad audience (6.6 million viewers) and prestige. Says Berkowitz, "To some, there's nothing that says you made it like having that billboard on Sunset."

Harder hit in the new world order is Comedy Central, which is criticized for ads and lower visibility. "For me and many comics, there's a frustration that we can't get repeat eyeballs after [the] initial airing due to the linear broadcast model," explains Berkowitz. The network's programming president, Kent Alterman, seems surprised to hear of frustration, or "misconception" as he calls it, pointing to his net's authenticated app where specials appear in full.

But even as Alterman competes in the overheated stand-up space – with nine originals and 12 acquired in 2015 — he fears oversaturation, recalling the last stand-up boom in the '80s: "There’s the potential for a certain cyclical aspect to this because not all comedians necessarily justify hour specials and sometimes they do them before they’re really ready," he says, adding with a laugh, "It would be a shame for the word 'special' to be rendered contradictory."