Stand-up comics on selling specials to the streamers: ‘You do not need them’

photo illustration of four comedians with colorful geometric shapes around them
Comedians Morgan Jay, from left, Luenell, Ali Siddiq and Matt Rife.
(Illustration by Ross May and Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times; photos by NBC via Getty Images; Johnny Louis / Getty Images; Neil Jou; Noah Schutz)
Share via

Netflix’s first live stand-up special, Chris Rock’s “Selective Outrage,” was an all-around success for the streamer, landing among its Top 10 U.S. shows for the week and becoming Nielsen’s most streamed comedy special in a measurement week, with 798 million viewing minutes. And it earned Rock $20 million from Netflix.

Paired with last summer’s Netflix Is a Joke comedy festival, which ran for 11 days and spanned 25 venues across Los Angeles, it would appear that Netflix is seeking to establish itself as an eminent hub for comedy — even though the next installment of the festival is skipping a year and will return in 2024. Many of the festival’s shows were quickly made available for streaming on the platform, and 12 additional specials have been released since “Selective Outrage” premiered in early March.

But for comics who don’t have Rock’s name recognition, selling a comedy special to a streaming platform is no easy feat.

Four comics at varying points in their careers — Morgan Jay, Luenell, Ali Siddiq and Matt Rife — share their experiences selling specials to the streamers today.

Streaming section divider

What’s the hardest part about landing a special deal today versus pre-streaming?

Jay: Finding someone who’s willing to take a risk on new talent. Even with a following of over a million people across my social media platforms, credits and TV appearances, the [streamers are] just not acquiring specials like they used to. I know comics who have a larger amount of “comedy capital” — or gravitas, if I can put it that way — who are also getting turned down.

Rife: It has always been competitive and political. However, the politics and what networks “think” people want is ever-changing and often out of your control.

Luenell: I don’t know the difficulty factor as it relates to today versus pre-streaming, but I will say this: I think it’s difficult to land anything in this town without proper representation and solid relationships. I’ve toured with Emmy winner Katt Williams and built a wonderful relationship with the award-winning Dave Chappelle. Both men have Netflix specials and have been cheerleaders for me throughout my career. I landed my special with Netflix under the umbrella of Dave Chappelle, who is executive producing my special, as well as a roster of other comics. I know my situation is different from a lot of people, but I think it’s my relationships that got me in the door at Netflix.

Siddiq: Today it is still the same: You must get people to believe in you regardless of who they are. If it’s a network or streamer, you have to get them to believe you are worth putting on their platform. If it’s fans, you have to give them something they believe is worth watching. It’s not the end-all be-all if you don’t get with a network because you can still release independently if fans believe in you.


How has social media (specifically TikTok and Instagram Reels) changed how you approach a special rollout?

Rife: Social media is the most prominent promotional tool for rolling out a new special. Reels and TikToks are where the majority of people watch stand-up comedy these days, and it is easily shareable. So essentially your fans and friends are able to freely help promote your work with you.

Siddiq: Unlike in the past, where you would have a TV commercial to promote yourself, now you have the chance to put out material on multiple platforms to give pretext to what you are going to sell. The best part is that it then allows fans to share and repost to help it grow and to share in the excitement.

Luenell: With more than a million followers on Instagram, I feel like I reach more people with a single post than with fliers or other traditional marketing. Don’t get me wrong: Traditional marketing is very important, but when you have a fan base, you can give them a heads-up about an upcoming performance or special in a matter of seconds. Then when fans see the fliers, commercials and billboards, it reminds them of the event they’ve already seen promoted on Instagram. But again, it’s about building a fan base. For example, I’m taping my Netflix special at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland on June 7 and June 8, and we sold out the tickets in less than 24 hours because I announced it on Instagram. That made my day!

Jay’s “Live From the Village” special premiered on his YouTube channel last month.


Jay: Everything about this special has been built around short-form content. My assistant editor formatted and cut it up into almost 100 pieces of content for social media. The actual show is intimate, with a small crowd of 65 people. We even left in “mistakes” — continuity errors, audio gaffs — using camera angles that may not feel as polished as other comedy specials. All that is intentional. Younger audiences who spend so much of their time on social media don’t mind something rough around the edges, something that feels more authentic. And when they do spot a mistake, they comment on it and then someone else comments on it, and before you know it there’s a full-blown argument happening in the comment section, which actually creates engagement and boosts the post even more.

Regarding the actual rollout, we gave ourselves a month to announce and started posting content immediately after — teasers, behind-the-scenes footage, clips from the show, podcast appearances, livestreams — every day, multiple times a day. We want to reach the people who will be buying tickets a year from now or five years from now, and all those people are on social media.

Streaming section divider

What’s the No. 1 piece of advice you’d give to up-and-coming comics trying to shop a special to a streamer?

Jay: In an ocean of relationship prank videos, podcast clips, charity content ... you have to find a way to set yourself apart. And who’s to say that something won’t go viral 20 years from now? Look at what happened to that song from “Stranger Things,” [Kate Bush’s] “Running Up That Hill.” You can’t predict the outcome of how your art will [land], but you can do your best in reaching those people right now.

Luenell: Take your time and hone your craft. Make sure you build a strong fan base and a solid following on social media. You’ll need bona fide numbers to attract a streamer for a special. Remember it’s more important to be a good comic with great material before you start knocking on doors for a special. A streamer’s special is just that, special, so make sure you are worthy of one.


Rife: Don’t stress about it. You do not need them. The power of stand-up comedy is now entirely in the hands of the people. If you can get picked up by a streamer and be part of their “exclusive club,” great! But you absolutely do not need them for people to watch your special. You can self-release your own special without a streamer, get more views and make more money. They are not the gatekeepers anymore.

Siddiq: Don’t let the lack of a deal determine your self-worth. So many people are independent now, and there is value in that. Your deal with a network doesn’t and shouldn’t define your work.

Amid a writers’ strike largely about the power of platforms, we take a snapshot of the streaming pecking order, from Netflix to (formerly HBO) Max.

June 12, 2023

To what extent have the streamers stopped investing in stand-up as much in the recent past? Do you think more comics will self-release their own specials on other platforms?

Rife: I don’t know that streamers have stopped investing in stand-up as much as they have in the past, but I do feel they have completely lost touch of what people actually like in exchange for what they think is the most inclusive and politically beneficial to their platform.

Jay: At one point, Netflix was releasing a comedy special once a week for a full year. Clearly those numbers have diminished. Max [is] even more selective about who they have on their platform. Prime Video is only recently getting into the comedy special game, so it’s hard to say. I do know some of the most watched and popular comedy specials in the last several years have been released on YouTube, and I think self-releasing will become more common. The big streamers can just see who is performing well on YouTube and then license those specials or sign the comedian for a special in the future.

Siddiq: For sure, more comics will self-release. If they are looking at the success of Ari Shaffir, Big Jay Oakerson, Andrew Schulz or myself, we are beating out network specials in terms of viewers and helping other comics release their content independently. The barriers to entry for comedy have changed drastically. If you are funny, people will find you.