Netflix Is ‘Making Money on the Backs of Comics,’ Stand-Up Insider Says

July 15, 2018, 1:00 PM UTC
Ali Wong, Gabriel Iglesias, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and Amy Schumer.
From Left: Frederick M. Brown—Getty Images; Roy Rochlin—FilmMagic; Chelsea Lauren—WWD/REX/Shutterstock; Cindy Ord—WireImage; Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic; Chesnot/Getty Images

Riffing about taking a sabbatical from sex, being thrifty and re-wearing the same red carpet gowns, Tiffany Haddish was on fire last weekend at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles.

“All my sh– is recycled. F–k that. I save all my dollars,” quipped the Girls Trip star. “I been broke too motherfu–ing long to be wasting money on fabrics that I can reuse.”

But after recently inking a deal with Netflix, the comedian, who started doing stand-up at age 14 in the Laugh Factory’s summer kids comedy camp, might be able to splurge on some new threads for her next award show appearance. After all, ask just about any comedian, and they’ll tell you Netflix has become the go-to place to watch stand-up comedy on television.

“My deal is to do a cartoon, so it’s very different from what the average stand-up comic’s deal might be,” said Haddish before taking the stage. But the end result—a good paycheck from a Hollywood powerhouse—is all the same. “Netflix is a new lane for comics and a way to get exposure,” she said.

But Jamie Masada, the Laugh Factory’s owner, has a different perspective on Netflix’s growing library of stand-up comedy specials. Seeing the digital giant as a bit of a comedy vulture—essentially swooping in to sign comics after they’ve built huge followings on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook—Masada said Netflix is more about making big bucks than boosting careers, because it ignores comedians who lack social media followings.

“Netflix just didn’t decide ‘oh I’m going to give a break to comics because we like comics,’” said Masada who claims Netflix frequently sends talent scouts to his club, though they’re looking for more than just laughs. “It’s their social media part of it,” he said. “It brings in millions and millions of dollars to Netflix.”

According to Masada, who said he’s met with Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, the directive to pursue comedians who are active on social media comes from the top. “He told me he wants to get comedians with good followings,” Masada said. “He would put them on Netflix and their followers would come.”

Netflix did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Circumstantially, at least, there’s some merit to Masada’s claim. For example, Haddish reaches 4.3 million followers between Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Ali Wong, who will be Haddish’s co-star on Netflix’s animated show, connects with around 1.2 million fans via social.

At a recent promotional event in Hollywood called Netflix Is a Joke, Wong, who had her Netflix stand-up special premiere in May, noted that inking a deal with the streaming giant changed the trajectory of her career.

“The ticket sales went up in my hometown San Francisco, and literally at the same place where I couldn’t sell out all the tickets, they sold out within 30 seconds on Live Nation,” she said.

Masada has watched countless comics perfect their stand-up routines at the Laugh Factory since founding the iconic Sunset Strip club in 1979 with a $10,000 loan from a friend. In addition to Haddish and Wong, comics like Kevin Hart, Deon Cole, Chris D’Elia, and even Dave Chappelle caught breaks here.

Masada said he’s put in the time to help comedians hone their skills. He’s also seen some get rich—many from Netflix. According to published reports, Netflix signed Jerry Seinfeld and Chappelle to massive deals worth $100 million and $60 million respectively. Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Gabriel Iglesias and many others have also inked lucrative agreements with the company.

Despite Masada’s concerns, Iglesias believes Netflix is the absolute best way to reach a global audience.

“Netflix is the biggest media outlet out there, period. They took over the comedy game,” Iglesias said during an interview in Culver City, Calif., on the set of Byron Allen’s Funny You Should Ask.

Iglesias has had roles in the ABC sitcom Cristela and the film Magic Mike XXL, and will be taping his upcoming Netflix special in September. He said he jumped at the chance to partner with the streaming company.

“All my specials used to air on Comedy Central, and once I had the opportunity to go Netflix, that was the way to go,” he said. “They get it in every which way. They promote everything. They give you creative freedom.”

But this much power resting in one company’s hands isn’t good for everyone.

“I could show you another 20 comedians who are here. You’d die from how funny they are,” said Masada. “But they don’t have the followers on social media. Does Netflix give them a special? No.”

Still, for stand-up comics not lucky enough to land a Netflix deal, Masada says thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to find an audience.

In fact, it’s no longer necessary for comedians to have a booking agent or manager to get paying gigs, he adds.

“I had a comedian, he fired his manager and agent because he had a good following on social media,” Masada said. “He put on his website ‘If anybody wants to book me, please call me,’ and he got bookings. One place he went, he brought in 12,000 people to his show.” Those kinds of numbers, they’re no joke.