How Streaming Platforms Are Ushering in the Future of Comedy—and Television


When Netflix CEO Reed Hastings famously told GQ in 2013 that his goal for Netflix's original programming was to "become HBO faster than HBO can become us," it was easy to assume that he was referring to expensive, star-studded tentpole dramas. After all, Hastings and Netflix had just dropped over $100 million for Kevin Spacey, David Fincher, and House of Cards in an attempt to follow the HBO blueprint that Showtime, FX, AMC, and others have mimicked over the last 15 years. 

Yet, while House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black have garnered dozens of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and Netflix's deal with Marvel has produced two compelling superhero adaptations (Daredevil and Jessica Jones—which will be released Friday and is very good) , Netflix's comedies have generally been more interesting, experimental, and frankly, better. BoJack Horseman is a sharp, emotionally wrenching look at Hollywood stardom and depression. The NBC import Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt keeps the joke-per-second quota established by 30 Rock alive in a new setting. Grace and Frankie tackles aging, friendship, and family with verve. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and last week's W/ Bob and David illustrate that reviving or extending a comedy franchise can indeed work, despite the creative nadir that was Arrested Development Season 4. And Master of None, one of 2015's best shows, manages to be both a fantastic romantic comedy and insightful sociocultural commentary. No offense to Frank Underwood, Daredevil, and the were-people from Hemlock Grove, but they can't match this comedy output. 

It's not just Netflix, either. Amazon is on its sixth faux-democracy bake-off pilot season and the best results have been, by far, comedies like Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle—not wannabe Quality Dramas like Hand of God and Bosch. (Predictably, the best of the current crop is Tig Notaro's dark comedy One Mississippi.) Over at Hulu, animated superhero offering The Awesomes, slacker medium procedural Deadbeat, Michaela Watkins vehicle Casual, and USA Network castoff Difficult People have made an impact, while its drama development has lagged far behind. If the cable empire was built on the sprawling, morally complex drama, the surging streaming kingdom is all about the evolution of the comedy. 


One key reason for this proliferation of good comedies on streaming platforms is the presumed sense of freedom given to writers, producers, and on-air talent (oftentimes, individuals wear some or all of these hats). Freedom is a loaded term with a lot of different meanings in Hollywood, not all of which are good—I'd like for FX to give Kurt Sutter a little less freedom, for instance—but in many of these cases, the creative teams have been able to make the show that they want to make with little interference from their respective platform and/or studio. 

This freedom manifests in countless ways. It means that Transparent's Jill Soloway or Master of None's Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang have been able make programming that still looks and feels like TV—none of that "TV is more cinematic" or "like independent cinema" stuff here—while still pushing the boundaries of episodic or serialized storytelling. It also means that Wet Hot American Summer's crew can get very, very weird, even for them, or that Difficult People's Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner can make a show so insular that it's off-putting to anyone who doesn't spend most of their life on Twitter. 

More importantly though, it leads to an examination of issues not typically seen on television, legitimate representation for groups of people generally marginalized by the broadcast and cable networks, or even less restrictions regarding censorship in running time. That progressiveness of the subject matter cannot be underestimated. While recent broadcast comedy fare such as black-ishModern FamilyJane the Virgin, and Fresh Off The Boat have done good work representing contemporary family units and in addressing real sociocultural concerns, they're still working within the confines of the broadcast system that generally requires a certain rhythm, number of jokes, and weekly lesson. 


In contrast, shows like TransparentMaster of NoneGrace and Frankie, and BoJack (and OITNB, confusing generic designations aside) have been able to celebrate their interest in new perspectives or important issues without having to hold back. For instance, it's hard to imagine any of the broadcast networks permitting Ansari and Yang to examine the challenging relationships between immigrants and their children, or greenlighting a show with four card-carrying AARP members as the leads. 

Of course, this freedom is nowhere near novel in the industry. HBO famously gives Larry David carte blanche to dip in and out on Curb Your Enthusiasm and FX has seemingly never tried to soften or water down the vision of Louis C.K. for Louie. And like those significant cable players, streaming platforms have promoted themselves—to viewers and industry professionals alike—as bastions of creative freedom because they know that it's a cunning way to recruit talent that might be looking to get into TV work. It's easier to sell Jason Reitman and Paul Weitz on directing episodes of Casual and Mozart in the Jungle when they're on Hulu and Amazon and not ABC and CBS, for example. 

Yet, the most essential part of the streaming platforms' embracing of comedy is the ever-present move toward niché content and very small, targeted audiences. Financially, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon can afford to take on Soloway's personalized vision or let Bob Odenkirk and David Cross revive a sketch comedy show that was more cult favorite than substantial hit because they're relatively cheap productions that likely speak to small but dedicated audiences. Amazon Studios' honcho Roy Price has been pretty vocal about his desire to build these passionate mini-clusters of viewers for his programs and his peers elsewhere in the streaming landscape surely feel similarly. 


To these platforms' credit, they've cunningly fostered these mini-clusters of support by tapping into the burgeoning world of web-comedy content, handing shows to talent with a pre-existing fanbase online thanks to a popular social media presence (Catastrophe's Rob Delaney comes to mind), appearances on podcasts or sketches, or live stand-up specials. Again, this is an evolution of an old strategy employed by the networks and cable. First came the 1990s multi-camera sitcom deal (à la Seinfeld), then the Louie deal on cable, and now the freeing streaming platform project. But from a pure financial perspective, it's smart business to try to target your cost-efficient programming to an audience that is primed to support said content, and these comedies enable streaming platforms to do that at a low risk. 

While the streaming platforms have embraced this niché-oriented programming to build buzz and gain subscribers, the broadcast networks have floundered with any kind of comedy that isn't family-oriented or produced by Chuck Lorre. Comedy, far more than drama, is such a subjective pleasure that it's difficult to build good, funny shows with something to say that also happen to be popular. The model is simply too restrictive, and too oriented toward mass-appealing programming, to meet all those requirements. Even on cable, we've seen particularly niché but interesting shows like Enlightened and Looking fail to survive, while others like You're the Worst and Man Seeking Women haven't gained that much traction.

Online, where there are absolutely no ratings reports or advertising blocks to sell, mass popularity isn't defined in the same way, or even that important altogether. If you're looking for real signs of the success of short-form comedy content online, note that major media conglomerates like NBC Universal have announced plans to start their own web-only comedy hubs, that HBO signed a deal with Jon Stewart to do short-form web content and not television, or that YouTube has rolled out plans to try to more clearly monetize the popularity of some of its home-grown stars. Heck, you also could point to the fact that NBC Universal sold Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Netflix as an acknowledgement that this kind of comedy is better-served by the expectations of the online marketplace. 

Though we generally think of television as long-form storytelling, it's the short-form content that drives attention, sharing, and, eventually, subscriptions online. This, and not big, bloated, expensive drama series like Bloodline or Marco Polo or even Narcos, is likely the pathway for future success. There are still great comedies found offline (add Veep and Silicon Valley to some of the ones I mentioned earlier), but following this path is how is how Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu will become more than just another HBO clone or three.


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May 14, 2017
Great article, keep it up :)
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Dec 07, 2015
One word: Syndication
These "edgy" comedy cannot be sold in syndication.
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Nov 18, 2015
Great article Cory! Master of None is hands down (for me) the best new show of the year. If it was on any other network (except for maybe FX(X)) I don't think Aziz would have gotten the freedom to put together such an insightful show.
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Nov 18, 2015
Honestly, I think some of the issue here is in definition. Defining shows as "comedy" or "drama" seems ridiculously narrow-minded in this day and age. We see how it even causes issues at the Emmys each year, as they struggle with where to classify things like OITNB. As some others mentioned, a lot of the online shows mentioned above aren't actually all that funny, at least in the traditional, laugh-out-loud sense. What really seems to be happening is that online platforms let their shows be whatever they want to be, but we still feel compelled to classify them as comedy or drama. I'm not sure I agree that online comedies are better than cable, if only because I think they aren't really traditional comedies at all, but are more "dramedy" style.
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Nov 18, 2015
Yup. First I didn't want to pay for Netflix - and I did - then I didn't want to pay for Hulu Plus - and I did - then I didn't want to pay for MHZ Choice - and I did. So now I'm paying for THREE streaming companies on top of the already overpriced thieves at FIOS.

I'm giving these new upstarts awhile to see how they work out. Then, I hope to tell FIOS to go fuck itself.

Ain't competition grand? Until, at least, the upstarts price me out of their services or some politician is paid off to kill them. I imagine FIOS has a PRETTY powerful lobbyist bribing Congress.
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Nov 18, 2015
Its stupid how television is losing viewers to the internet. To add insult to injury, people use the internet to talk about TV show they claim to be huge fans of, and yet they bash the episodes.
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Nov 18, 2015
As much as I enjoyed Kimmy Schmidt, using a broadcast-sitcom-like as an example for why streaming shows are the future is, uh, bold.
Also, all due respect to Masters of none and Grace & Frankie, I'm really not convinced these shows are a bigger draw than Daredevil, or, for that matter, that they're better.
I think we're seeing more comedies simply because now that it's established itself as a prestigious exclusive content provider, Netflix wants to broaden its offering, and you can make a full season of comedy with the budget for one episode of Marco Polo or half an hour of House of cards.
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Nov 18, 2015
I think streaming services will take more the place of DVD players the same way DVD took the place of VHS players (except for me .) Looking at just the daily cable ratings, I still think broadcast programming has the biggest draw, judging from the fact that Big Bang and Family Guy reruns are constantly on top, while more niche-y programming is lower down typically.
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Dec 03, 2015
Do you seriously still use a VCR? Cuz that is awesome if you do.
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Nov 18, 2015
I wouldn't say Catastrophe was handed to him because of his online following, since it's a British show that Amazon just airs here, like Hulu does for Miranda and Moone Boy.
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Nov 18, 2015
Am I missing something? Do they not have the internet in Britain?

Of course Delaney got Catastrophe because of his online following. To say otherwise is just ridiculous.
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Nov 18, 2015
I hadn't even heard of him until Catastrophe so he clearly isn't some household name to just randomly be given a show based on having some kind of a following.
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Nov 20, 2015
Delaney has over a million twitter followers.

If that's not the reason that an otherwise relatively unknown comic was allowed to create, write and star in his own comedy series then please, explain what the actual reason was.

Whether *you* heard of him before Catastrophe is completely irrelevant.
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Nov 18, 2015
The more TV the better is what I always say!
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Nov 18, 2015
The future of copyright infringement is here. We just capture the content from Netflix and other streaming services with a fast computer and dump it back online for free. How's that? I have a subscription for Netflix only because it's cheap (i got the means to pay for it) and i'm too lazy to download the stuff. But if i really want to it's not a problem at all. I regularly pay a visit to the binaries of usenet and the content of Netflix and other streaming services is all available there. You only need some information technology know how. I'm digressing....

Last week CBS all access' Star Trek was the future of TV. I don't think so. Now the future of comedy is here?

I don't know why everybody thinks that Master of None is one of the best new comedy of 2015. I'm not saying it's' not entertaining or else i wouldn't be watching it but it's not really laugh out funny. But it works pretty good as social commentary. But sense of humor is very individual.

You completely omitted Crazy Ex-girlfriend and i'm not going to forgive you Cory. You should be watching. Kaitlin's review of the pilot here: crazy-ex The ratings are not very good and i can't understand why because the show is really good. You're the worst is still the best comedy for me. Bojack Horseman was also pretty great.

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Nov 18, 2015
Crazy-Ex is on CW, not exclusive streaming as that is what this article is about.
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Nov 18, 2015
crazy ex is the future of comedy
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Nov 18, 2015
I guess the future of comedy will be short.
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Nov 18, 2015
The future of television appears to be heading toward streaming original conte....
ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD


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Nov 18, 2015
ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD!
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Nov 18, 2015
Yeah, you are discounting the non comedic series too much in Netflix's success story.Sure they have had more success with comedy, but no one took them seriously as original content creators till their success with drama. So, no I don't believe comedies alone can likely be the pathway for future success.
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Nov 18, 2015
That doesn't make any sense at all. Nobody took them seriously until they had success with drama? Well, they had original dramas before they had original comedies. There's no way to say that they wouldn't have had as much success if they released a comedy first.
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Nov 18, 2015
My point is, they have a lot of successful comedies now. But still if you think about great Netflix originals, it's their dramas like House of Cards, OINTB, Daredevil that come to mind. Conversely, even though Hulu and Amazon have had success with comedies, no one really thinks of them as great original content providers. Maybe that's just me; but I am someone who has enjoyed all of their comedies very much.
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Nov 20, 2015
Correction: it's their dramas that come to mind *for you*.
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Nov 20, 2015
This article was an editorial where the author expressed his/her opinion and I expressed mine in the comment section. No where did I claim I was stating facts.
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Nov 18, 2015
Bah... if you can't tune it in with a set of rabbit ears, it doesn't count as television. :-)
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Nov 18, 2015
Honestly I didn't like or bother to watch met if the comedies; then again I am not a comedy person so I am the wrong person to set your gage by. I think the only two I genuinely enjoyed were Grace and Frankie & Transparent.
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Nov 18, 2015
Also, to be fair to the dramas of online steaming services - comedies are having a difficult time (in terms of quality and even availability) on free-to-air and cable networks, so of course people will be more inclined to turn to online streaming.

On the other hand, there is an abundance of dramas, and cable especially still has quite the monopoly in that area.

Honestly I don't think a lot of people look at comedies like Bojack and Kimmy Schmidt and say, 'I have to get Netflix to watch that.' No, it's the advertising for the dramas like House of Cards and OITNB etc. that lure them there (which is saying something with the amount to choose from) and perhaps from there they end up trying the comedies. I think it's a bit unfair to say that the dramas they're producing aren't as good or important as the comedies.
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Nov 17, 2015
I think the online streaming services are just trying to target their key demographic - people who pay to watch television online. Those people aren't going to want to spend money to watch a broad comedy like The Big Bang Theory that they can watch on free-to-air.

So it makes sense, really, that the comedies they're producing are very different from that. I wouldn't even label a lot of these series comedies - Bojack, Transparent, Difficult People and Master of None are all funny but are also very thought-provoking, serious, and can be depressing a lot of the time. Netflix et al. are just catering to an audience that has grown bored of the limitations series like Black-ish and Fresh Off The Boat have where they are trying to say something but also have to remain funny all of the time.

It really just is reading the trends of the audience.
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Nov 17, 2015
Is it bad I only read half the article because I felt like it was repeating itself before I even got half way through and that I skipped to the end just to put in this comment. -- I probably missed something at the end but I am having a lazy day and don't feel like checking to see.
:)
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Nov 17, 2015
No. I jumped to the comments to read them first. :-) Now I'll go back and try to read the article.
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Nov 18, 2015
Honestly it seems like an exercise to link to as many television shows listed on tv.com as possible. :-( Or to put a positive spin on it, it's like the "We Didn't Start the Fire" of television shows. :-)
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Nov 18, 2015
It's only because I'm responsible and include the tags on first reference! That's what we're supposed to do.
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Nov 17, 2015
I only subscribe to Netflix, and out of all the series they produce the only ones I watched and enjoyed were Kimmy Schmidt, Grace & Frankie, and Hemlock Grove. Tried w/Bob & David, did not like it. Same goes for several others. So don't know if they're ushering in anything that special.
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Nov 17, 2015
BoJack works great on Netflix, and we get a good amount of them, but that kind of thing is the same sort of thing you'd find from animation on Adult Swim or FX, it hits when it hits, it's good but it's small, it leaves a strong impact because it's unique.

Wet Hot American Summer proved you can't really do this again without real hiccups, and that's on the back of the aforementioned Arrested Development season 4, a series of disjointed missteps. That sort of "we can write it around the stars' mixed up schedules" doesn't work, it's forced and awkward.

W/ Bob & David is pretty great, but there's only 2 hours of it.

Kimmy Schmidt is the closest thing to a normal show that works on a normal level, and there's a reason NBC passed, it's more 30 Rock which wasn't a ratings smash. Kimmy Schmidt has a somewhat narrow audience appeal on Netflix because it feels like a show that already existed, since it was one.

Ultimately, none of these are watercooler shows, none of these are things you can share with your friends easily because they're all watched alone on one's own timeline. They work for Netflix because that's Netflix's business model, but for the future of TV there is still a long way to go. Yahoo utterly screwed the pooch with their digital model, it fell right on its face. Hulu is beholden to the very networks we're pretending it's getting away from, so it's ad-central. There's still a long way to go before this earns the title of "the future of television".
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Nov 18, 2015
Smell-o-vision is the future of television.
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Nov 17, 2015
I guess what I'm saying and seeing here is an insular view at tv viewing.
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Nov 17, 2015
Eh I don't know. I think NBC is posed to radically change comedy on tv. Any year now.
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Nov 18, 2015
Well, they've already changed it in the sense that that there's no longer any good comedy on NBC. Also, they've changed drama in the same way.
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Nov 18, 2015
That is why they are poised. This has all been a fake out. They want low ratings and no one watching their shows, they want to lull us into thinking that they are horrible. Then, somehow they are going to get good and they are then going to laugh at us, or something. I don't know, all I watch is Grimm.
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Nov 17, 2015
Next NBC comedy will be a groundbreaking new show called Chicago Comedy.
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Nov 18, 2015
Bazinga :)
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Nov 17, 2015
Oh, they're always radically changing comedy on tv... or do you mean "for the better"?
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