About $26,000, give or take.
On Monday Vulture reported that Netflix, the onetime delivery service that now makes a show about someone called “the Original Angel,” will release a series of 15-minute stand-up specials later this year. They’ll tape in Atlanta next month and find their way to your Roku in “bundles” of a few episodes each. Sixteen comedians, four of whom have already recorded Comedy Central half hours, will appear in the as-yet untitled series.
Upon reading this news I thought to myself: wow, great! That’s a whole lot of opportunities for comedians who haven’t sold an hour, or whose styles don’t lend themselves to long-form sets. As Vulture notes, the series will introduce audiences to a greater variety of stand-ups, while increasing the profile of early career artists—in turn giving them greater selling power when it comes to bigger projects, be they hour specials or sitcoms. Everybody wins! Especially viewers like me, who prefer consuming stand-up in smaller doses than the traditional hour or half hour (too much chaff!), but larger than the five minutes of late night appearances (not enough chaff!). Fifteen minutes, a common length for club sets, is an excellent amount of time to establish a viewpoint, press against its boundaries a tad, take a few risks, and wrap everything up before the rhythms become too familiar. Not that I don’t enjoy spending an hour or longer with a true master of the form! But less is more in comedy too, even though the industry demands stand-ups work toward the hour above all else. Netflix’s new series will give comics more freedom to seek that elusive soul of wit without the antiquated constraints of linear television.
Then I thought: Huh, I wonder how much Netflix is shelling out! Well folks, the answer is about $26,000 plus travel and lodging, according to a source with direct knowledge of the series. Another source familiar with the matter confirmed that the paycheck is very generous for 15 minutes of comedy, and that it’s in the range of what Comedy Central pays for half hours—about $20,000 as of 2015, according to Splitsider.
Twenty-six big ones! This is great news for stand-up comics, who spend most days of the year making anywhere between two figures and two drink tickets. It is also terrible news for the competition, especially Comedy Central, which reportedly pays less than that for twice the material, material that functionally vanishes into the digital labyrinth after it airs, rarely to be seen again. Far from vanishing into the ether, Netflix specials insistently linger on your home screen, or at least my home screen, demanding your attention every time you scroll down looking for Peaky Blinders. Certainly the Comedy Central credit holds intangible value, as does the artistic accomplishment of producing a longer-form set. Still, the market value for 15 minutes of stand-up just went way up, which probably means the market value for 30 minutes did too. This is a double-edged sword, however: What is bad for the competition is ultimately bad for the talent. If Comedy Central doesn’t increase its investment in stand-up to compete with Netflix, then comedians will ultimately lose what little bargaining power they have with the streaming service.
It has long seemed like Netflix functionally has infinite money to spend on stand-up. In the last few years it dropped eight-figure sums on star talents like Dave Chappelle and Jerry Seinfeld while releasing weekly hours from less established comics who draw variable (often six-figure) paychecks, per that Splitsider piece. These micro-specials may be a way for the company to sustain stand-up’s presence on its platform while dialing down expenses—right now Netflix only has a few hour specials scheduled for 2018, each weeks apart from the others. It’s also reportedly $20 billion in debt and last year canceled a slate of original series. That said, I’m skeptical the quarter-hours represent a reduced investment in stand-up: partly because it’s too soon to say, but also because Netflix’s plan to get out of debt is to ramp up original offerings, which it hopes will attract new subscribers. If Netflix intends to grow its dominance over the stand-up market, then I can’t imagine it will stop spending multimillion-dollar sums on star comics anytime soon.
That dominance may bode ill for comics in the long term. Netflix famously keeps its viewing data under wraps, granting itself extra leverage over artists who have no idea what they’re worth on the platform. Last week Mo’Nique accused the company of racial and gender bias for offering her $500,000 for her next special, far lower than the $20 million it paid Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, and the $11 million Amy Schumer earned for her last hour. Wanda Sykes noted on Twitter that she was offered less than half that for an hour she eventually took to Epix. This goes to show that competition is very good for comedians and that Netflix’s opacity is very bad. Left unchecked, it will inevitably widen the inequality that stand-up is only beginning to fight back.
So we should be happy that young, talented voices are getting the recognition and pay they deserve. But we should also be wary of what a company like Netflix can do with all the talent, all the leverage and no accountability. Perhaps it would not be so bad for comedians and their representatives to start demanding transparency now, lest they need to beg for it later.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.