After Netflix produced its first stand-up special in 2012, the streaming service dramatically increased its spending on original content in order to acquire talent and price out its industrial rivals. While Netflix’s scripted series have received extensive attention because of their record-breaking production costs and salaries, stand-up comedy specials have become one of Netflix’s largest (and costliest) creative outputs. In 2018, Netflix produced roughly four times as much stand-up comedy as Showtime, HBO, and Comedy Central combined. These cable channels, which dominated stand-up production from the 1980s to the early 2010s, have seen their loyal talent depart as Netflix pays premium prices to attract stand-up stars such as Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, and Jerry Seinfeld to lucrative multi-special contracts.
Whereas those aforementioned cable channels generally branded their content based on specific aesthetics and/or representational politics, Netflix’s stand-up comedy is driven by sheer quantity as opposed to a discernible brand. Unlike its cable predecessors, the streaming service has an economic imperative to appeal to as many audiences, in as many languages and regions, as possible. Subscriber retention and growth are both essential to Netflix’s long-term success, which means that every stand-up special does not have to appeal to the exact same stand-up audience.
Netflix’s conscious strategy, couched in “Netflix Is a Joke” promotional materials, groups feminist, broad, and/or vulgar comedy together, including: Maria Bamford's aesthetically experimental Old Baby, Kevin James' family-friendly Never Don't Give Up, and Jeff Foxworthy & Larry the Cable Guy’s white working-class-oriented We’ve Been Thinking, amongst many others. A variety of French, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Arabic, and Portuguese specials exist alongside the more prominent English language offerings.
This “brandlessness” that extends across Netflix’s comedy offerings and all of its original programming is a strategy more akin to early U.S. broadcast networks in their desire for a mass audience. This “mass audience,” though, is now explicitly global rather than just national. Particularly in an era where branding and content production are often vital for evolving cable channels and upstart streaming services to survive, Netflix’s strategy appears counterintuitive and unsustainable when placed within larger industrial strategies and shifts.