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How Netflix conquered the world of comedy

It's outdoing rivals by constantly bringing on new global stand-up talent and committing to pay equity, diversity

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Mr Praw and Ms Nishimura are two of the most powerful gatekeepers in stand-up comedy.

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US actor Dave Chappelle, whose talent the company has tapped.

Los Angeles

TO its competitors, the Netflix takeover of comedy must have seemed nasty, brutish and quick.

In only a few years, this streaming giant has pushed aside HBO as the home of prestige stand-up and made Comedy Central seem like Comedy Marginal. By signing up A-listers (Dave Chappelle, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock), turning rising talent into stars (Ali Wong and Hannah Gadsby) and radically expanding the volume of new content, Netflix has transformed the stand-up special into the bustling centre of popular culture. How did it do it?

The cynical explanation, commonly heard in comedy circles, is that the service just outspent everyone else. But in rare, extensive interviews that explored that criticism as well as a controversy over pay equity, Lisa Nishimura, Netflix's vice-president for original documentary and comedy programming, and Robbie Praw, its director of original stand-up comedy, the most powerful gatekeepers in stand-up, tell a different story, one in which iconoclasm, new metrics and abiding faith in the algorithm disrupt the stale conventions of an industry.

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Over dinner at an Italian restaurant last month, Ms Nishimura, 47, projected casual charisma in jeans and glasses, shifting between comedy-nerd chatter and Silicon Valley-speak. Mr Praw, 37, warm but more cautious, sat next to her, listening in awe as she explained perhaps her greatest coup, persuading Chappelle to return to a national platform. She lingered on the image of seeing him after the Bafta Awards one year in London when a security guard who didn't recognise him stopped him from entering a party. She introduced herself: "We're heading to another party. Wanna go?" He did, and years later, he joined her again, not only agreeing to release his first stand-up special in 13 years on Netflix, but also following that with three more in 2017. Bringing this reclusive star to Netflix solidified its dominant reputation. His pay for the package of shows was widely reported as US$60 million. Netflix does not confirm salaries but when asked how she determined what to offer him, Ms Nishimura responded: "The way we do everything else," she said. "We go into the data." The same impulse was evident over a decade earlier when Ms Nishimura started working for Netflix, buying content of all kinds from companies other than major studios. After seeing how specials first shown on cable performed on Netflix, she developed a hunch that the common wisdom about the stand-up special - that it had a limited audience - was entirely wrong.

It was a fairly niche genre then; months went by without a major release. But when specials were made readily available, Ms Nishimura noticed there was an enthusiastic untapped market. "We started to hear from artists and managers that they were feeling something almost instantly," she said.

When Netflix started developing original content, Ms Nishimura's experience helped make the case to bet big on comedy. Now, 50 per cent of its 130 million subscribers have watched a special in the last year, and a third of those viewers have watched three such shows.

Netflix releases about one special every week, and the frequency increased dramatically in the fall of 2016, not long after Ms Nishimura brought on Mr Praw, a comedy obsessive who was vice-president at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal and who, at Netflix, leads four employees constantly scouting new work. Their strategy is rooted in the belief that Netflix doesn't need to choose between quality and quantity, that the eternal showbiz question of whether to go for mass or prestige is a false choice.

They can do both, their argument goes, because they not only have more data on what the audience wants - and, with their algorithm's help, are better able to personalise the experience - but also their system of analysing taste is more refined than that of others in the industry.

Netflix is famously tight-lipped about data. It won't release audience information to the news media or comics, who would love to know who watches their specials to plan tours.

But the two executives will discuss some details. Mr Praw said one of the many misconceptions he brought to Netflix was that there would be no overlap between fans of, say, Gabriel Iglesias' broad comedy and Maria Bamford's more cerebral stand-up. "What we discovered is that for some people, that's the case," he said, "but for others, that assumption is wrong". Ms Nishimura added that there was also a surprising overlap between viewers interested in Gadsby and "Wild Wild Country", the documentary series about a cult leader. They are both popular, she said, among those drawn to explorations of the "human condition, what motivates people under pressure". Netflix may try to transcend the old categories, but now that it's the biggest and most influential stand-up platform, it's become a subject of intense scrutiny about issues of representation and pay equity.

This year, African-American stand-up comic Mo'Nique called for a boycott of Netflix, accusing it of discriminating against black female comedians by paying less for their specials than their peers'. (She was offered half a million dollars.) On Twitter, Wanda Sykes, another seasoned African-American stand-up star, thanked her for speaking up and said she was also offended by the offer Netflix gave her, indicating it was less than US$250,000. Mr Praw said Mo'Nique added to an important conversation about pay equity, but that Netflix executives based their pay decision on the usual data: social metrics, touring. "There just wasn't a deal to be made. We were disappointed, but the door is always open." Netflix had not produced any new hour-long stand-up shows by black women in 2017 or 2018, though several have appeared in the service's half-hour and 15-minute collections. When asked if Netflix has a responsibility to do better, Mr Praw said, "I think we have a responsibility, but it's also what our members want." The next day, he emailed to clarify his comments and in a follow-up conversation conceded that programming so few black women has been a failure. Since then, Netflix has announced that Tiffany Haddish and Sykes will release specials through the service next year.

In comedy circles, the most common criticism of Netflix is that in releasing so many specials, it's oversaturating the market, making it more difficult for comics who aren't superstars to break out. But Mr Praw rejected that argument. "We would never look at musicians and say, let's put out 10 albums this year," he responded.

Then there's the inevitable question of Louis CK. Netflix cancelled a deal with him after he admitted to sexual misconduct. But would the service have him back? After the question was posed - weeks before he returned to do a club set - Ms Nishimura and Mr Praw paused to reflect. This extended into a minute before a publicist interrupted, saying they wouldn't be able to answer.

When asked if he's worried about running out of A-list stars, Mr Praw pointed to forthcoming specials by Ellen DeGeneres and Adam Sandler and remaining deals with Rock and Seinfeld.

The focus now, though, is on expanding the audience through new forms, like the 30- and 15-minute specials. (The second batch of what Netflix calls "The Comedy Lineup" was just released.) Ms Nishimura said she thought Netflix stand-up would soon get more competition. Comedy Central has shown signs of being more aggressive, recently signing Anthony Jeselnik to a deal and announcing a stand-up month in January with four new one-hour specials and a digital new-faces series.

Players such as Disney and Apple are entering the streaming market. But it's unclear if these outlets will spend tens of millions of dollars on stand-up. Asked if Netflix can continue to offer huge sums, Ms Nishimura replied, "If we continue to grow the audience, we're ok." This may be partly why Netflix is putting a premium on the global market, recently hiring an Amsterdam-based executive to recruit international comics. Next year, the service will release 47 half-hour specials in seven languages on the same day.

"When you look around the world, there's stand-up markets all over the place where there weren't 20 years ago," Mr Praw said. "Now there are clubs in Korea for instance."

In this new venture, they may upend another bit of common wisdom - that comedy has trouble crossing borders. It wasn't long ago when it seemed ridiculous that a DVD rental company would dominate American stand-up. The idea that it would take over the world hardly seems far-fetched. NYTIMES