Classifying Stand-Up Specials with Netflix's Algorithmic Genres

Curator's Note

In the most recent episode of his long-running podcast WTF, stand-up comic Marc Maron (April 22, 2019) warned that we should “be wary” of trying to “separate stand-up genres.” His argument being that, “if you’re doing the job of stand-up, you’re just a fuckin’ stand-up comic.” What, then, should comedy scholars, comics, and fans make of the application of Netflix’s ever-changing generic classifications to stand-up comedy specials? While many critics and comics have celebrated Netflix's ongoing contribution to the current so-called comedy boom, others have raised concerns about a stand-up special glut, pay disparities that hurt women of color, and the potential for celebrity comics to crowd out up-and-comers. A related concern is what critics see as the flattening and commodification of stand-up - long heralded as a unique art-form capable of pushing boundaries of form, taste, and topic - into easily digestible comedic content.

In the interest of starting to explore these questions, I edited a short montage of stand-up comedy specials organized under the same genre. With this video, I hoped to draw attention to the ways in which Netflix’s branding strategy, drawing on big data and personalized recommendations, erases fundamental differences between comics to the point that these genres cease to have any real meaning. In addition, I created a preliminary list of genre tags and categories for use by those interested in futher exploring this topic. 

Genres are able to give creators a sandbox in which to play with recognizable conventions and expectations, but a quick glance at Netflix’s chosen genre tags seem so arbitrarily assigned as to give no information with which to play. Stand-up specials are inherently hard to classify. Are they TV? Film? How do you categorize humor? Unlike movies or television shows, we don't have widely agreed upon ways to divide stand-up in genres. Are there, then, potential material consequences to these tags? As some have argued, Netflix’s algorithm is at its heart a branding strategy used to guide viewer behavior while giving the illusion of personalization and choice; however, after some preliminary research, Netflix genres seem to have less effect on audience choice than prior name recognition, buzz, YouTube clips, and recommendations from friends.

Stand-Up Specials in Order of Appearance
Demetri Martin - Live (At the Time) (2015)
Garfunkel and Oats - Trying to be Special (2016)
Jeff Dunham - Very Special Christmas Special (2008)
Maria Bamford - Old Baby (2017)
Ken Jeong - You Complete Me, Ho (2019)
Nate Bargatze - The Tennessee Kid (2019)
Theo Von - No Offense (2016)
Bill Burr - Walk Your Way Out (2017)
Joe Rogan - Triggered (2016)
Lucas Brothers - On Drugs (2017)
Ali Wong - Baby Cobra (2016)


Stephanie, with reference to your preliminary conclusion that “Netflix genres seem to have less effect on audience choice than prior name recognition, buzz, YouTube clips, and recommendations from friends,” do you think that, instead of through Netflix genres, stand-up conventions might be identified through networks of citation? I wonder if, contrary to Maron’s argument, there might be meaningful conventions common to stand-up specials recommended through the same buzz avenues. On the other hand, I think that stand-up as a genre is about its own conventions (much like poetry is usually to some extent about poetry), so, in my own thinking, I do foreground those conventions shared across different kinds of stand-up.

A delayed response - so I apologize!

I think there's definitely a difference in classifying stand-up depending on who is doing so and why. Stand-up comics tend to see stand-up as a convention that is about defying convetion, so they have a stake in the claim that stand-up cannot and should not be classified. Audiences want stand-up classificiations for the purpose of finding content they will enjoy. Netflix has a stake in classification as a branding and audience retention. Scholars classify to theorize. In my claim that Netflix's classification likely has less to do with audience choice than people asking their friends or seeking out comics they have heard of was to nuance the discussion as to how deterministic Netflix's genre-ing of content is. 

But I do agree that stand-up as a form (I don't know if I would necessarily call it a genre) has conventions that are more standard than comics like to admit. But my interest in stand-up tends to be about discourses around it more so than the form itself -- which is where my interest in classification comes. 

Hi Stephanie,

Loved reading your piece! You write, "How do you categorize humor?" 

My question is more along the ethical realm: should we categorize humor? What is the purpose of utilizing the categories that exist within the Netflix platform? 

I'd be curious to know how these comedians start to become grouped together based on their subject material. For instance, Joe Rogan has had Theo Von, Bill Burr, and Tom Segura on his podcast a number of times. So, would those three be lumped together? Would it be the "Normal White Dude Comedy" genre? 

I like the direction of your piece. Very, very important talking points!


Thanks for the comment! I feel like I had so much more to say, but too little space to develop my ideas as much as I would have liked (but definitely want to turn this into something longer!). I've been interested for a long time in discourses about comedy almost as much as I am interested in the comedy itself. Netflix's tagging of specials seemed like a significant new way to look at how comedy is discussed, imagined, and constructed. I think comedians would (as Marc Maron does) rather avoid categorizing comedy or placing comics into easily sortable genres, but I am interested in the material ramifications of those categories and what it tell us about the production of comedy and comedic discourses. 

I tend to think the odd groupings that arise through Netflix applying its genre-ing process to comedy specials (Netflix's genres don't even tend to use the words that are typically used to try to classify stand-up) does make the problematics of putting cultural products into categories more visible, though.

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