Why does Netflix have so many comedy specials?

Bill Burr

If you’re a Netflix subscriber and are that kind of person who follows comedy and comedians, you might have noticed that Netflix has a lot of comedy specials on its platform. If you’re not or haven’t noticed, well, now you know.

A comedy special, or an ‘hour’, is more or less a comedian telling jokes on stage. The format seldom varies, in fact, one goes into watching one of these with the expectation of a mic on a mic stand, a wooden stool and a water bottle and laughs, and is mostly annoyed(even offended) when said expectations are not met. Most of the intricate camerawork is on the intro, generally the camera following the comedian’s back as he(there are also plenty of she’s) makes his way onto the stage to more often than not, a standing ovation. To be honest though I usually skip this bit, partly because this part of the show is not funny at all and after all the intro is not the point, the point is the rest of the show. And the rest of the show is cheap to make. Payments include the comedian for their jokes and the production team for their producing and kind of stop there. And by cheap I mean, cheaper than making something like, say, The Crown or The Young Pope, both of which have been wildly(widely?) successful for their respective networks (Netflix & HBO) but cost a bomb to make.

And of all the million things that could not work for a TV show, a comedy special has only one: the comedian is not funny, or not that funny. I argue that this makes a comedy special a lethal weapon in your favourite streaming service’s arsenal. It’s reliable AND it’s cheap. They’re also as likely to go viral as much as a great series, which makes them all the more potent.

In fact, I also think that fans of comedy and comedians are the most loyal bunch of fans out there, although this is purely anecdotal. People follow a comedian because they feel a kinship with him/her, a bond made of laughter and common ideals(often misplaced). There’s often a feeling of either-you’re-in-or-you’re-out, and admittedly it feels almost like joining a cult. Like, for example, I know I will punch a baby to see Louis CK live and anecdotally speaking, it suffices to say it is a rare and profitable relationship. And so reliable + cheap + high probability of being watched by a loyal legion of fans—a content trifecta ▵ if there ever was one.*

While Netflix spends millions on producing show-stoppers to pull people away from other networks (The Crown, House of Cards), comedy specials are the work-horses that will keep it’s engine burning. They’re the reliable and reasonable friend, the pick-me-up.

All in all, I find this to be a welcome and effective strategy. No one knows how big this can get, and it’s a great time to be a comedian. As a comedy fan I have no complaints and I will continue to allow Netflix to charge me that slightly immodest monthly fee.

*Also, admittedly, one also has to ask the question — why doesn’t Netflix or any such network exclusively produce comedy specials? I think the answer is, 1) There is not enough good comedy in world and 2) It’ll be a drag.