How comedy standup specials became a torrent for streaming services

Elise Czajkowski

Guardian

26th August 2016

On Thursday, HBO announced a new crop of standup specials to air next year, including hours from Jerrod Carmichael, Pete Holmes and TJ Miller. It comes only a few days after Netflix announced the imminent release of eight new specials, bringing the site’s total to over two dozen for 2016. Comics include current Saturday Night Live star Michael Che and former SNL star Dana Carvey.

This fall will also see a new special from Martin Lawrence on Showtime, his first in 14 years, and a Doug Stanhope hour on NBC’s newish streaming service, Seeso. HBO and Showtime have been producing specials for years, and they’ve become a major focus for both Netflix and Seeso, and for good reason. They’re relatively cheap to produce, attract a young male audience who advertisers covet, and can stay popular for years.

And while the prestige of TV lingers, the really important thing is making them available online comics want their material available for new fans to discover. For younger comics, streaming sites increasingly serve as archives of old material (most of Aziz Ansari’s back catalog can be found on Netflix). Not so long ago, doing regular comedy specials was for the privileged few — George Carlin’s annual HBO specials were a sign of his exalted status.

For a rising comic, doing a special is a sign of arriving “getting an hour” signals that you have some degree of talent, fame and bankability. This is mostly due to the way US comics put together material. In the UK, a comedian’s year revolves around producing a show for the Edinburgh Fringe in August, while in Australia, a comic is likely to work toward an hour for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in March.

No such central festival exists in the States comedians build up materially slowly through short sets, spinning them into longer routines as they tour around the country. Without a specific deadline to submit a show, material gets honed tighter and tighter over the years, and a special every two to three years is common for most successful comedians. There are, of course, exceptions — Louis CK has attempted an hour ever year for the past decade.

Generally, comedians with looser, more conversational material churn them out more frequently, while precise, dense writers tend to wait longer — Steven Wright, the king of has released only two specials in his career. And for most comics, recording a special means putting that material to bed. It’s spent it can never be done again on television, and those jokes are phased out of live performances.

That’s why, for some very successful touring comedians, recording a special holds little appeal. Jerry Seinfeld hasn’t recorded a special since 1998’s I’m Telling You for the Last Time, but he’s been performing standup regularly since then. During his recent run of NYC shows, he told stories about his children as toddlers, even though they’re now teenagers, a sign that those jokes were probably a decade old.

But it doesn’t matter he can keep telling them as he tours the country, and the odds are that most of his audience won’t have heard them. Lawrence, on the other hand, has good reason to invest his time in a special. Fresh from a nationwide arena tour, he’ll soon be promoting the third Bad Boys movie, set for a 2018 release, and he’ll be hoping to revive the fanbase he built as a popular standup and sitcom star in the 1990s.

With his special on rotation at Showtime, he can prove his relevance in modern comedy. Some have criticized Netflix for not including more women, but there’s also narrowness to their ages Che is the only comic on the list under 40. It may be that younger comics are drawn more toward television specials, which allow them to build relationships with networks that could lead to more work, or to producing albums with smaller labels like A Special Thing and Rooftop Comedy, which give them the option of selling CDs as merchandise.

There is now more standup available online than anyone could possibly consume, and while some of it’s excellent, devout comedy fans will know that, when the last comedy boom died in the early 90s, many blamed the proliferation of free standup on television for diluting the product and discouraging people from going out to live shows. It’s too early to say whether the expansion of streaming content will have the same effect, but when more than 10 new standup specials are announced in the same week, it certainly seems plausible. .

 

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