“Comics Are Now Selling Laughs by the Download.” That was the headline in The New York Times five years ago this month, marking a new trend in the world of stand-up comedy.
Whereas the sign of success for stand-up comedians had once been an appearance on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show followed by an HBO comedy special, now Louis C.K. had reinvented the game, pioneering a new distribution method by selling his specials on his own website directly to fans for as low as five dollars each.
The first time C.K. conducted this “experiment,” he transparently informed his fans that after just 12 hours he had broken even, selling 50,000 downloads for a total of $250,000. After four days, that total had more than doubled, leaving him with a profit of $200,000.
“I really hope people keep buying it a lot, so I can have shitloads of money, but at this point I think we can safely say that the experiment really worked,” he wrote on his website. “I’m really glad I put this out here this way and I’ll certainly do it again. If the trend continues with sales on this video, my goal is that I can reach the point where when I sell anything, be it videos, CDs or tickets to my tours, I’ll do it here and I’ll continue to follow the model of keeping my price as far down as possible, not overmarketing to you, keeping as few people between you and me as possible in the transaction.”
Other comedians were soon following suit, including Aziz Ansari, who welcomed the ability to “answer to no one at all” and Jim Gaffigan, who heralded C.K. for upending “the perception of selling something” online as being “kind of icky.”
How times have changed.
Last month, Netflix announced that it had struck a deal to produce two new stand-up specials with C.K. this year, starting with one titled, simply, 2017, which will start streaming on the platform next Tuesday.
Neither Netflix nor C.K. disclosed the financial details of the deal. But we do know that Chris Rock recently secured $40 million for two new specials with the company, Dave Chappelle got $60 million for three specials — two of which were already in the can — and Jerry Seinfeld reportedly took in $100 million total for a deal that includes two new specials as well as 24 new episodes of his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Suffice it to say that Louis C.K. realized he could make a lot more money selling his specials to Netflix than he could selling them on his own, even it meant putting a corporate behemoth between him and his fans.
So the Netflix model is undeniably better for the comedians, but is it also better for viewers? Instead of paying $5 for one C.K. special, his fans can now pay just $8.99 per month for a nearly endless supply of stand-up comedy specials from comedy’s biggest stars, in addition to everything else on the Netflix platform.
Yet the one thing that may have been lost in all of this is the immediacy in which C.K. was able to capitalize on the specials he sold directly to fans and even more effectively in his surprise 2016 web drama Horace and Pete. Without any interference from a network, C.K. put out episodes of that show as he made them, allowing his barfly characters to debate the appeal of Donald Trump in near real-time.
“He’s a jerk, drops out of the debates, and I don’t know, I think he’d ruin this country,” Steve Buscemi’s Pete says in the show’s first episode, which went up on C.K.’s website just days after Trump announced he would be skipping the Fox News debate over his dispute with Megyn Kelly. By the 10th and final episode of show, which went up in April, the characters were predicting that “nothing short of the presidency” would fill the “president hole” in Trump’s heart. “And he’s gonna get it like he got that ten billion, ’cause when he got the ten billion, it didn’t fill his hole.”
Meanwhile, despite naming his special 2017 and shooting it in Washington, D.C. the week before Trump’s inauguration, C.K. does not mention the new president once in his new special. Perhaps he worried that any Trump-related jokes would feel dated when the special was released nearly three months later, but the omission is glaring. Really? The same man who wrote a letter to his fans calling Trump “Hitler” last March has nothing to say about him on stage now that he’s president of the United States?
The only brief allusion to our current political state comes near the end of the special, when C.K. launches into an extended bit about his bizarre obsession with the film Magic Mike that he has been doing on stage for close to a year. Speaking to those who might be watching the special some time in the future, he says that Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 film was made in a “very different country” from the rubble-strewn reality that he imagines is upon us. The crowd laughs knowingly.
The rest of the special’s timeless material is exactly what Netflix wants. It’s evergreen content that can live on the platform forever, to be watched over and over again by comedy fans with no concern for what was happening in the country at this particular moment in time.
But the special’s relative irrelevance is a problem that also plagues Netflix’s other high-profile stand-up offerings this year. Amy Schumer and Trevor Noah released new Netflix specials this year, both of which were taped on the same Saturday night, just three days before the 2016 election. Both comics have talked about how they deliberately avoided jokes about the presidential race because they knew they would feel old by the time they aired.
Then there are Dave Chappelle’s two “new” specials — The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas — filmed in 2016 and 2015, respectively. The latter suffers even more than the former in terms of feeling outdated, with jokes about the Ebola virus, Paula Deen and Donald Sterling. Even in the more recent special, material that has been denounced as “homophobic and transphobic” feels particularly out of step of the current political moment.
Asked by Jimmy Kimmel if he worried at all that the material wouldn’t feel “timely” anymore, Chappelle said, “No,” explaining, “I don’t get mad at a photograph because it’s not today” and “They are a fair representation of the night they were shot.”
In a sense, Chappelle is right. His specials, as well as C.K.’s new hour, are no less funny because they were taped months or even years before they are available to stream. But at a time when comedians like Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, John Oliver and others are delivering topical, vibrant satire on a daily or weekly basis, there is something that feels decidedly old-fashioned about sitting down to watch stand-up material that doesn’t even try to address our present situation.
On the same night that his Netflix specials were released, Chappelle performed a “secret” stand-up show in Hollywood, during which he reportedly shared new material about Trump, the women’s march, the film Get Out, Kanye West (who was in attendance) and the inevitable backlash to his jokes about Caitlyn Jenner in The Age of Spin.
Perhaps those jokes were not deemed ready for the Netflix spotlight, but how great would it be if fans could have streamed that set starting at midnight instead of the two outdated specials we received?
In addition to launching his own online distribution model, Louis C.K. is known for pioneering the practice of taping a special each year and then burning that material for good and starting over. For now, Netflix can afford to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars for stand-up specials in which comedians perform jokes they have been telling across the country for a full year, but eventually comedy fans might start to demand something fresher.
If Netflix wants to represent the future of stand-up comedy, they are going to have to figure out how to stop reaching into the past.