Netflix has every big comedian. Can it keep them?

John Mulaney hosted the live talk show ’Everybody’s in L.A.’ for six nights at the Netflix Is a Joke festival. (Netflix)
John Mulaney hosted the live talk show ’Everybody’s in L.A.’ for six nights at the Netflix Is a Joke festival. (Netflix)


A comedy nerd helped turn Netflix into a stand-up powerhouse. Here’s how he’s trying to keep the party going.

How many stand-up comics does it take for a streaming service to show off its clout in comedy?

Four hundred. No joke, that’s about how many of them Netflix summoned to Los Angeles for a live festival sprawling across three dozen venues and 12 days through this weekend under the banner Netflix Is a Joke.

Several of these gigs have also streamed live on the mothership platform, including a without-a-net set by Katt Williams and a three-hour roast of Tom Brady. Over six nights, John Mulaney is hosting a skewed talk show, taking live calls from viewers and bantering with a parade of talent assembled for Netflix Is a Joke—hence the show’s title, “Everybody’s In L.A." 

Guest Jerry Seinfeld dryly marveled at Netflix’s method of curating comedy: “There’s no good reason you can see. It makes sense to them, I guess."

The main “them" behind the strategy is a comedy nerd from Canada named Robbie Praw, who has overseen Netflix’s stand-up onslaught for the last eight years. Orchestrating an in-person event (big enough to contain a 12-show residency by Ali Wong) is his way of reinforcing the streamer’s investment.

“When you walk in and see 18,000 people having a great time right in front of you, that is a different feeling than putting out a special into the world and, you know, reading comments on Twitter or whatever feedback loop," said Praw, vice president of stand-up and comedy formats.

On his watch, Netflix used stand-up to rapidly scale up in original content, then to push into live programming, which Chris Rock debuted on the service last year. Netflix has put out hundreds of stand-up specials, releasing a high of 69 in 2022, compared with seven that year from rival streamer Max, according to research firm Ampere Analysis. 

Comedians grouse about overcrowding while craving the rocket fuel that Netflix’s algorithms can provide for developing careers. With four shows scheduled in the festival: Shane Gillis, whose American galoot routine has broken through in a big way with help from his special “Beautiful Dogs," a fixture on Netflix’s top 10 chart last year.

But competition is intensifying. Talent representatives describe a hot seller’s market, and say Hulu is soon to announce a hefty slate of stand-up specials (including names from the Netflix roster). Amazon’s Prime Video is also in the hunt, and HBO remains an important buyer.

“I would love to think that Netflix needs the big artists more than the big artists need Netflix," said Mike Berkowitz, co-head of comedy at talent agency WME.

Autonomy gave funny people leverage. Direct-to-consumer tools, from podcasts to TikTok, have helped comedians amass followers who become ticket buyers. In 2023, sales for live comedy events hit $910 million, up from $278 million a decade before, according to Pollstar. Today there are more stand-up acts than ever who tour sports arenas, and scores more who fill theaters.

Though money and status have mushroomed in the comedy business, it remains a small world behind the scenes where Praw has long been embedded. The 43-year-old Montreal native grew up absorbing Bob Newhart and Robert Klein tapes on family car trips and identifying as a funny person. “I was the youngest of three kids and very, very short, so jokes were that armor for me," he said.

He got his start at an institution that helped define an earlier era: Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival. Now defunct, it was for decades an annual destination for industry scouts hunting for comics who could pop on tours, TV sitcoms or “Saturday Night Live."

Praw rose from assistant, holding cue cards for Leslie Nielsen, to lead programmer in charge of the festival’s lineup. His secret weapon was his personal rapport with comedians, said former Just for Laughs chief executive Andy Nulman.

“There were performers who were the biggest pain-in-the-ass, nasty, horrible people who loved Robbie because of the fact that he loved what they did so much," Nulman recalled.

In 2013, future Netflix chief executive Ted Sarandos and Lisa Nishimura, who then headed comedy at Netflix, visited Montreal to explore a partnership with Just for Laughs. Nulman pitched the festival as a one-stop content source for the nascent streamer. Instead of making that deal, the executives hired the guy whose instincts and relationships shaped the festival.

Praw joined Netflix in 2016. The company went on a deal spree to lock in stars such as Rock and Dave Chappelle for up to $20 million per special. Praw also helped expand the stable with acts less familiar then, such as Tom Segura, who was riding the great comedy podcast wave.

It has been a long time since comics relied on pre-internet launchpads to fame such as “The Tonight Show." Unlike Johnny Carson, whose personal preferences made (and stymied) careers, Praw has to be pragmatic about which acts to put on a platform with 270 million subscribers worldwide.

“Ultimately it’s not about my taste or my team’s taste," Praw said. “Our members have a pretty good way of telling us what they find funny."

Still, to generate that data, Praw has to bet on what kind of voices users will respond to, such as Leanne Morgan’s southern twang. The 58-year-old grandmother from Knoxville, Tenn., had been on the stand-up circuit for roughly 20 years, but didn’t get real traction until her bits about Weight Watchers points and competitive cheerleading clicked online amid the pandemic.

“There was this vast audience of women over 40 that nobody was talking to except for her," said Morgan’s manager, Judi Marmel, a three-decade comedy veteran. “We pitched Robbie and said, ‘Now is the right time.’"

Using the lower-cost, lower-risk model Netflix now applies to most new stand-up deals, Praw licensed a one-hour special from Morgan. She had to cover the cost of producing the show, but retained ownership and could negotiate a new deal if it performed well. “I’m Every Woman" was a hit. Last month, Morgan signed with the streamer for two additional specials, plus a 16-episode sitcom season with super-producer Chuck Lorre. She, too, performed at Netflix Is a Joke.

The festival debuted in smaller form in 2022, and made headlines when an attacker ambushed Chappelle on stage. By supersizing this year’s second installment—with the blessing of Sarandos, a known comedy buff, and a partnership with mega promoter Live Nation—Praw established a physical hub for the industry on Netflix’s home turf. “Robbie basically recreated Montreal in a better location with significantly more financing," said Ryan Fereydouni, a comedy touring agent at CAA.

Some people have grumbled about the pileup of competing shows at the L.A. extravaganza. On the Ticketmaster site, swaths of unsold seats have been visible at the Hollywood Bowl (capacity 17,500) where Mulaney, Bill Burr, Kevin Hart, Matt Rife, Trevor Noah and others were booked on successive nights. 

Organizers of a group show at the venue, set to feature Michelle Buteau, Nikki Glaser, Sarah Silverman and Taylor Tomlinson, opted to reschedule them in solo gigs elsewhere.

A Netflix spokesperson said the Hollywood Bowl performances “ended up being packed shows with tickets being sold until the last minute," and that this year’s festival had sold 100,000 more tickets than the 2022 version.

With his scene in flux, Praw wouldn’t commit to the fest continuing on its biannual schedule, saying, “I don’t have the road map for that yet."

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