Is Netflix's comedy onslaught bad for live stand-up?
Jerry Seinfeld knows how to land a big pay day.
When his hit TV show, Seinfeld, wrapped in May of 1998, Jerry Seinfeld was making more than $1 million per episode. That was top dollar at the time.
This is ultimately going to be an oversaturation because that's what TV does.- John Wing, stand-up comic
Those are big figures but they don't compare to the deal Seinfeld got from Netflix in January. Now, we're beginning to see what that money bought them. On Tuesday, the popular streaming service rolled out Jerry Before Seinfeld, a 90-minute comedy special that takes viewers through his personal journey into comedy.
Netflix reportedly paid more than $100 million for two comedy specials, streaming rights to Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee and a developmental role with scripted and unscripted shows.
Netflix throws big money at big laughs
When it comes to buying comedy specials, Netflix has developed a habit of throwing huge sums of money at big-name comedians. Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock are getting approximately $25 million per special, while Amy Schumer was initially paid $13.5 million for her Leather Special and later renegotiated for more.
It's all part Netflix's ambitious plan is to release 52 specials in 52 weeks. On the surface, it looks like Netflix and its subscribers can't get enough of a good thing, but as stand-up comic John Wing tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, this glut of specials is actually hurting live stand-up.
"It's hurting club work because nobody comes out to the clubs anymore, or at least the audience is much thinner at the clubs because they can watch for free on Netflix," he says.
Is Netflix overdoing the comedy specials?
"One of the ways you produce young comics who can do a Netflix special is clubs," he says. "They're killing that which provides for them. They're poisoning their own river by doing this."
"This is ultimately going to be an oversaturation because that's what TV does."
Exposure to comedy
"We have a generation coming up that won't be exposed to mainstream cable television so this is a way to introduce them to stand-up comedy," she says.
Baker says she was introduced to stand-up through a comedy special she saw as a kid. She doesn't see any difference between her experience and the availability of comedy specials on Netflix.
She also says exposure to comedy is likely to motivate people to check out a live show for themselves.
"I just did Vancouver and every night we consistently had about 100 people."
Some jokes have a short shelf life
When HBO aired Chris Rock's Bigger & Blacker in 1999, it was a one-off event. Fans had to watch or wait months for the DVD (or VHS) to hit store shelves. A Netflix comedy special is available on demand — in other words, anytime and anywhere.
Wing and Baker agree that this model isn't great for topical humour.
"I don't like jokes that have an expiration date," say Baker.
"Topical jokes have no shelf life," says Wing. "Lewis Black would have a problem."
But Wing also points out that topical comics have new material all the time, especially with the current president of the United States. So it's a it's a double-edged sword.
Comedy will live to laugh another day
Wing says he's against Netflix and it's plan to release at least one comedy special per week for a full calendar year.
"This is ultimately going to be an oversaturation because that's what TV does," he says. "TV does something and if it's successful they keep doing it until it isn't successful."
"But the clubs will come back, I assume. Live comedy in very small venues is hot and it's still pretty good in Canada, especially in the winter," says Wing.
Ask a stand-up comic what it's like to be on stage alone with an audience ready to laugh or leer in equal measure. Most say it's a lonely but exhilarating experience.
Baker has watched a handful of Netflix specials and likes a lot of them, but she says you can't get that live experience with a TV program.
"I would say even when it's not good it's still better live," she says.
"Yeah, that's exactly right," Wing agrees.
To hear the full conversation with John Wing and Lisa Baker, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.