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In Comedy, Timing Is Everything, Especially at Netflix’s Festival

Comics were sympathetic to Chappelle, but the backlash toward his jokes about the trans community started make its way into sets. After saying that people have been asking her about the assault, Robin Tran, a trans comic who was headlining a show, quipped: “I just want to say, for the record, I only told him to scare Chappelle.” At a different show, another trans comic, Nori Reed, did a very funny, experimental set that postponed telling a conventional punchline for a few minutes, then calling it inspired by Chappelle: “No jokes, all vibes.”

One of the strengths and perhaps vulnerabilities of Netflix, the festival and service, is its range. The streamer’s comedy taste has always been difficult to pin down. Its brand is big. I interviewed the heads of Netflix comedy in 2018, around the height of their power, though competition from rival services like Apple TV+ and Disney+ loomed. Asked if they could continue to draw the most famous names with big money, Lisa Nishimura, the vice president of independent and documentary film content, said: “If we continue to grow the audience, we’re OK.”

Now that the audience has shrunk, what does that mean? Will the number of Netflix comedy specials dwindle? Will competitors fill the space? HBO has been putting out quality shows and found a discourse-dominating hit with Jerrod Carmichael’s “Rothaniel.” (That special was directed by Bo Burnham, whose “Inside” is one of the most impressive success stories for Netflix of the past few years.)

In a Sunset Boulevard coffee shop, just a few blocks from the hotel where club owners and comics stayed and you could see unnerving sights like late-night Comedy Cellar staple Dave Attell bathed in Hollywood daylight, I met with Robbie Praw, the vice president of stand-up and comedy formats at Netflix. He looked weary managing this behemoth. Asked if financial troubles will change Netflix’s commitment to comedy, he said no but conceded that when it came to the number of specials, there would be “a little more curation.”

It was a cautious, careful answer, one that reflected the moment more than any joke, billboard or festival did that week.

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