Planned long before the streamer hit a rough patch, the expansive event had the feel of the end of an era. Still, there were plenty of stellar shows.
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LOS ANGELES — Over the past two weeks, in a shock-and-awe display of cultural power that suddenly seems from a bygone era, Netflix put on a behemoth festival that summoned all corners of the comedy world. Take Saturday evening, for instance. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey cracked jokes at the YouTube Theater while Billy Eichner hosted an evening of LGBTQ+ stand-ups at the Greek Theater that included, among others, Wanda Sykes and Tig Notaro. Tim Heidecker chatted with comics at the Elysian Theater, a savvy new alternative space, while Mitra Jouhari from Adult Swim’s “Three Busy Debras” prepared to go onstage. Two miles away, Gabriel Iglesias was getting ready to be the first stand-up to ever perform at Dodger Stadium.
The inaugural Netflix Is a Joke Fest which was cooked up before the pandemic and then postponed, rivaled if not eclipsed Just for Laughs, the mammoth industry event in Montreal. Producing 298 shows in dozens of spaces throughout Los Angeles, this ambitious effort took place in an awkwardly humbling moment for the streaming giant, after a quarter when it reported losing subscribers for the first time in a decade and its valuation dropped more than a third. There were layoffs, talk of price increases and the once unthinkable, adding digital ads.
The physical kind blanketed the city, including a seven-story sign overlooking Hollywood Boulevard that commanded: “Please Laugh Responsibly.” This is the sort of corporate humor that uses jokey irony to disguise a commercial purpose, but there was something especially incongruous about the swagger of these promotions. To trumpet, in another sign, “the biggest comedy event in history” (with an asterisk and the joke “probably”) while employees anxiously whispered about the company’s future gave the festival a certain “last days of the Roman Empire” vibe.
My week at the festival, seeing two shows a night, was a reminder that comics thrive in such environments. “Anyone hear an earthquake or a tremor?” David Letterman quipped at his live talk show, held at the festival with only stand-ups as guests. (They performed short sets and also sat down to chat.) With his old pinpoint timing, he waited a beat before quipping: “Must have been the Netflix stock crashing.”
Anthony Jeselnik told the crowd at his show he loved that Netflix started the festivities by “laying off half their marketing team, losing a billion dollars and then trying to kill Dave Chappelle” — a reference to an audience member’s attack on Chappelle earlier in the festival. Known for taut jokes, Jeselnik leaned more into storytelling while sticking to his commitment to navigating hot button subjects in sharp-edged punch lines, starting with material on the trans community that aims to be both transgressive and progressive. The rap against Jeselnik is that his use of misdirection can be formulaic, like a math problem, but this show was advanced calculus, an implicit rebuke to comedians relying on lazy jokes about marginalized groups. He said he had writer’s block over the pandemic so he set himself goals to escape it. “I wanted to not aim too high,” he said at a leisurely pace: “Set something easy: try to handle this better than John Mulaney.”
Those expecting Mulaney, who performed at the Forum, to dig deep into the relationship drama that has made him a tabloid staple would be disappointed. He is touring with an hour of material that is the most anticipated of the year, and it lives up to the hype. (No news on when it will become a special.) When I first saw him do the same material at City Winery one year ago, his discussion of addiction and rehab was raw and messy and bleak. It has tightened into a polished showbiz machine, with his broadest act-outs, impressions and even an extended song and dance. (The suggestion of a suicidal tendency is gone.) His show is less a baring of the soul than a joke-dense and pointed scuffing up of his image. Its key line: “Likability is a jail.”
If so, Meg Stalter might be its current warden, since her videos during the pandemic turned her into an unlikely star with a devoted community of fans who delighted in her collection of flamboyantly overwrought characters. How this success will translate to her live comedy is an open question. In a hectic, digressive performance to a sold-out audience, she left her characters behind and stuck to one self-dramatizing, often flailing star whose biggest laughs were less the product of bits than interactions with the crowd.
While there were several star-driven shows, the festival was anchored by many showcases of short sets, often hosted by big names like Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. They introduced a stellar lineup of mostly women comics, including Cristela Alonzo and Michelle Buteau (who both told quarantine jokes). In between acts, Fonda and Tomlin bantered, comparing notes on who had been arrested more. When Margaret Cho came onstage, a few days after the leak of the Supreme Court abortion opinion, she told the hosts, “I look forward to getting arrested with you after the repeal of Roe v. Wade.”
The biggest show by far was Iglesias’s at Dodger Stadium, a stand-up set that seemed to double as a celebration of its own feat, even though seeing comedy in a ballpark is not ideal. When Martin Moreno asked the crowd to not look at screens before introducing him, most of the audience, myself included, was watching him on a giant screen.
But many of the funniest, most satisfying performances took place in small rooms, none more so than the one by Liza Treyger, whose act has become a Richard-Lewis-level opera of neurotic self-deprecation. What she called her “monologue of bad habits” is a rapid-fire series of beyond-jaded jokes at her own expense that often take the form of exasperated questions: “Do you ever watch a video on Instagram and tell your friends you watched a documentary?” she said. “Do you run late on purpose just to feel something?”
For comedy nerds, it was also a pleasure to see Marsha Warfield, a former star of the sitcom “Night Court” and a figure from the 1970s Comedy Store scene whose legendary reputation rarely translates into high-profile shows. In a confidently moseying delivery, she talked about falling out of the public eye and coming out of the closet on Facebook, then defensively insisted that’s just where old people are. “Facebook is the 21st-century version of sitting in an open window and yelling at people,” she said.
Of course such intimate live shows are not what created the most news. That would be Pete Davidson returning to stand-up (“In the last couple years, I’ve been onstage less than the babies inside of Ali Wong,” he said, a solid inside baseball quip) and cracking jokes about Kanye West. There was also the attack on Chappelle which added an element of tension to the entire festival. Beefy security guys were quick to clamp down on hecklers. I saw two people wrestled to the ground and dragged out of a theater before a Snoop Dogg-hosted show; another person was forcibly ejected after heckling Letterman. Many comics seemed jittery and ready to battle. When Mike Epps, dressed in a black leather suit, walked onstage shadow boxing, everyone got the joke. This was funny, but that this celebration of jokes sat alongside the new alertness to security added yet another irony to this 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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