STAND-UP comedy had its first golden age 40 years ago. Between 1978 and 1988 more than 300 comedy clubs opened across America; along with big hair, shoulder pads and cocaine, laughs became a cultural commodity. Caroline Hirsch—owner of Caroline’s, one of the New York comedy clubs that precipitated the change—declared comedy “the rock of the eighties”.
Keen to take this resource out of dark rooms and onto screens, television executives began to fight to sign comics, whose previous opportunities on the box had been restricted to late-night talks shows or variety programs. Cable channels such as MTV and A&E began to produce regular comedy specials; comedians including Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen and Roseanne Barr were launched into blockbuster careers by sitcoms built around them. By 1994, every major network except CBS was adding a sitcom starring a stand-up to its schedule every year.
But stand-up’s boom was followed by a bust. Nearly a quarter of American comedy clubs shut down between 1989 and 1994. Cable channels that had ridden high on the popularity of their comedy began to struggle. The problem was widely agreed to be oversaturation: television channels desperate to replicate the success of “Roseanne” or “Seinfeld” rushed to find the next big thing, resulting in a glut of half-baked shows. “There are too many comedians,” quipped Rita Rudner in 1992. “Nowadays, when children tell their parents they want to be lawyers, their parents say, first learn how to be a comedian so you’ll have something to fall back on.”
There were echoes of this sentiment in the State of the Industry address given at last year’s Just For Laughs in Montreal, the world’s largest comedy festival. “Netflix is releasing a new comedy special every week,” Andy Kindler, a veteran stand-up, said. “It’s exciting because now you can binge watch America getting tired of stand-up comedy again.” Though clearly played for laughs, Mr Kindler’s joke homed in on the changes wrought by the streaming service on the modern comedy scene. Since 2013, it has been hosting hour-long slots of stand-up comedy that it calls “specials”. Their scheduling has since accelerated, up to Mr Kindler’s stated one a week in 2017. Netflix now features more than 170 specials.
Netflix’s interest can be astonishingly profitable: the entertainment behemoth is willing to stump up the big bucks for the biggest names. Last year, Mr Seinfeld signed a deal for two new stand-up specials and the rights to his interview series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” for a reported $100m—equivalent to HBO’s entire expenditure for the latest season of “Game of Thrones”. Other stand-ups enjoying a specials relationship include Amy Schumer, Ricky Gervais and Dave Chapelle, thought to have signed contracts worth $13m, $40m and $60m respectively.
Netflix is cagey about its viewing figures, but it is fair to assume that the company is finding it worthwhile to outspend the competition. For HBO, formerly the frontrunner in televised live comedy, the format accounted for less than 1% of usage on its two streaming services, according to a statement made by Casey Bloys, the network’s president of programming, last summer. Mr Bloys directly implicated Netflix in HBO’s lack of recent success with stand-up, saying that it had fuelled exorbitant prices that were forcing others out of the market. But is Mr Kindler’s quip—that people are getting bored of stand-up comedy—destined to come true?
Recent announcements suggest that Netflix plans to have the last laugh. At the end of last month the network released the first half of “The Comedy Lineup”, a series of 15-minute segments from comics who are not yet household names. The second half will air in the autumn and be followed in 2019 by a more ambitious version, featuring 47 comedians from 13 regions in seven languages. Netflix’s “unprecedented stand-up spectacular” will be recorded at this summer’s Just for Laughs and all episodes will be released at once. If it is successful, the streaming service hopes to be able to annex upcoming comedians, further limiting the competition. In building a monopoly, Netflix will be rewarded while the market is booming. But if another comedy bust does come, the joke is on them.