A quick look at Netflix’s stand-up menu features many familiar faces. You’ll find new specials from comedians like Iliza Schlesinger and Jim Gaffigan… and then you’ll find another and another. Schlesinger has put out four specials in back-to-back pairs (2015, 2016, 2018, 2019) while Gaffigan has now released a new special three years in a row (2017, 2018, 2019). While you can seemingly scroll for an eternity, it feels like you’re just running in place as the same names keep popping up. It’s not just Netflix. In the last decade, comics like Aziz Ansari and Kevin Hart have put out back-to-back specials (sometimes multiple in the same year) across various channels, but despite being glued to stand-up news, I honestly couldn’t name more than one off the top of my head. So why the abundance?
Comedians typically do not produce very many hour-long specials, and usually spaced them a few years apart. It’s a pace that has been pretty consistent until the past decade when comics started spitting them out at a rapid rate like a runaway chocolate machine. Sure, I can see how regularly putting out content is how you stay in the forefront of people’s minds, but when the quality starts to steadily wane and results in some ultimately “meh” comedy at best, you get tuned out like a TV series past its prime (hello, The Walking Dead).
From Von Dutch hats to smoothie bowls, many fads don’t age well, and for the stand-up world, the back-to-back specials are our slap bracelets. Forcing yourself to work at a pace you’ve never worked at before isn’t the same as producing quality work sooner than expected. A comedian might be better equipped than ever to write good jokes, but they still take time to flesh out, and the recent onslaught of just ok material from talented comics shows that some are seriously underestimating the amount of time it takes to perfect a set.
For the sake of this argument, we’re going to assume the purpose of a special is to entertain a large audience with high quality jokes. If the name of the game is simply picking up checks, then sure, this is a great plan. But, if it’s about holding yourself to a standard of comedy you’ve come to be known by and thus rewarding viewers with hearty laughs commensurate to your reputation, then we need to rethink some things.
One great release a year feels like wishful thinking and not a pace any other solo entertainer seems to be following with much success. You’ve heard the adage, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” but at no milestone does that stop being true. Rihanna is taking her damn time with her new album and rightly so. As agonizing as it is for us, I’d rather get a great album every few years than a formulaic and forgettable collection of tracks every summer.
Of course, I can’t really blame anyone for taking a great opportunity when presented with one. But if you are getting offers left and right for new specials, you are most likely beloved enough that it would not hurt you at all to take your time. Arguably that’s even more necessary, as we’ve also seen that as fame increases your credibility with your audience starts to decrease. It would also benefit not just the comedians but the networks for them to diversify their content. Instead of buying 20 specials from three people, they should spread the love around and open up their talent pool to provide a more robust comedy offering, and help build the blockbuster comics of the future. Alas, once a trend is set, people steadfastly follow suit.
Comedians are taught a lot of bad instincts; say yes to everything, get up every night, hustle, hustle, hustle. We glamorize the act of hustling over everything, but like any activity, repetition for repetition’s sake doesn’t garner results. You can hit the gym every day but if you’re using improper form, you’re not going to become the world’s strongest man. Between the gig economy and billionaire CEOs telling everyone that working nonstop, eating nothing but coffee for lunch and breakfast, and sleeping no more than three hours a day is how you become successful, all that mantra actually leads to is unnecessary pressure and stress.
Pushing yourself too far for the sake of reaching a self-imposed finish line is most likely just going to lead to burnout instead of a Grammy. (Well, it might, but let’s not pretend like the Grammys know more than seven comedians). You are not the Chicago Bulls and this is not the ‘90s where you are going to come out on top at the end of the year, it’s 2020 and you are the Oklahoma City Thunder and you’re going to hurt yourself. Yea, you might make the playoffs but if you’re not going to make good use of that time then everyone’s just going to get tired of you.
It’s time to slow down, comedy. Make every special mean as much as it can. That would be better for everybody.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.