June 19, 2017
‘Oh, Hello’ and the Netflix Comedy Bubble
The streaming giant aims to monopolize all forms of stage comedy, for good or ill.
The specificity (that some deem marvelous) of John Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s Oh, Hello came to Netflix last week, carving yet another niche into the most popular streaming service’s oddball comedy roster. Oh, Hello, different from most of the stand-up specials offered by Netflix, is a two-man show starring the actors as Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland. Improv Manhattanites prone to mispronunciations, nonsequiturs, and other alt-comedy mainstays, the duo are the latest meal for Netflix’s unending hunger for comic content. This filmed Broadway performance certainly aims towards the same absurdism as that enjoyed by many stoned late-night Comedy Bang Bangers, but the sheer amount of NYC and Broadway references seems almost specifically designed to be off-putting to anyone outside the tri-state area.
It really didn’t work for me (or the lone critic whose review populates its Rotten Tomatoes page) and so many of the people it seemed to work for had already seen it live, or some version of the jokes in other media. So why did Netflix go for it? The show was big on Broadway, but is the company confident in its audience translation or is it something else?
The name recognition of Kroll and Mulaney is certainly a factor. Mulaney’s stand-up specials New in Town and The Comeback Kid have been reigning supreme over Netflix’s comedy offerings since early in the streaming service’s lifespan, side by side with all seven seasons of Kroll’s sitcom hit The League. That can’t be it though, especially since the duo is almost unrecognizable from their other work in this strange stage show. The surprising success of a one-joke passion project may confuse, but why Netflix bought in is pretty straightforward.
Netflix bought Oh, Hello because, well, they’re buying everything. Everything comedy, that is. HBO and Comedy Central had the taped comedy market locked down for decades before Netflix barged in with fistfuls of cash, rattling the scene in a mere half-decade. And we’re not just talking about the Rocks, the Chappelles, the Seinfelds. We’re talking the Birbiglias, the Buresses, the Wongs. These comics, as Mike Birbiglia admits in his newest special, are niche draws. Yet the service pushes the same semi-egalitarianism on its comedy specials as with its other original programming. Buy it all, slap a Netflix label on it, and give it higher priority in its listings than its non-original content. International comedy has been a more recent aim for Netflix as well, funding specials from Mexico, Italy, Brazil, and others in the past year.
Diversity isn’t what Netflix is aiming for, though it’s a nice (if rare) byproduct of its system. It simply wants everything and everyone – and it’s willing to treat the big names well to woo them. Chris Rock cut a deal for two specials at $20 million each. Dave Chappelle sold three at the same rate. In fact, Victor Luckerson at The Ringer estimates that Netflix will easily spend over $100 million on comedy specials alone this year. That’s insane. And yet the purchases continue.
This comedy strategy continues even after the rare cancellation of original content when The Get Down and Sense8’s inflated budgets couldn’t pull the needed audience numbers. This provides a small glimpse into what Netflix values as a company, which is typically quite secretive since they’re under no obligation to release their ratings or viewership numbers. Hulu and Amazon are the same way, but it’s always revealing when some data leaks through. Do these services prioritize clicks on shows? Or is it a commitment by watching at least, say, ten minutes of the program? Regardless, there’s a series of fiscal reasons that high-profile specials contribute to Netflix’s health (known quantities give almost guaranteed press, subscriptions, and viewer time), but the riskier ones seem like gambles Netflix is making because it can. Stand-up comedy is one of the cheapest genres to monopolize and Netflix will gladly try.
The five- and one-star rated Oh, Hello is another polarizing special (though not traditional stand-up, it’s sorted as such in the genre system) in Netflix’s quantity-over-quality acquisition strategy. It’s not just apparent in the service’s Adam Sandler movie curation, it’s the stand-up too. In their quest to become the go-to source for stand-up, Netflix also amassed one of the largest and most accessible libraries of terrible comedy.
In some instances, they’ve bought these specials, but more and more they’re the sole financial force. David Cross, Cedric the Entertainer, Dana Carvey, and Iliza Shlesinger’s newest half-assed hours came last year to a silent reception. The mythological dog-eat-dog meritocracy in stand-up is quickly disappearing as hundreds of specials are generated and given an audience simply to drum up more filler. Does it also give a chance to voices we wouldn’t have heard otherwise? Certainly, and I’m happy for it. Does it prolong the careers of certain comedians, over-accelerate the process of creating stand-up specials, and devalue the notion of a “special?” Decidedly.
When Netflix is purchasing these hours by the hundreds, it incentivises a quicker production schedule. And more. The hunger demands more. More niches, more regional Broadway hits, and more resuscitated names. That much of its audience will briefly click on these specials only to turn away doesn’t seem to bother the company. Their very presence in their library seems like enough to justify their purchase, though how long that contentment will continue as Netflix throws money at very specific alt-comedy remains to be seen. If the newfound budgetary boldness with which it’s approaching its future is any indication, this comedy bubble looks primed to burst.