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Netflix's YouTube Comedy Channel Is '90s-Era Comedy Central Reborn

"Netflix Is a Joke" is delivering the curated comedy we secretly crave.
  • Netflix's YouTube comedy channel is Comedy Central's Short Attention Span Theater reborn.
    Netflix's YouTube comedy channel is Comedy Central's Short Attention Span Theater reborn.

    Not to be all "hey, remember the '90s," but … hey, remember the '90s? TV was so different, still very much in the thrall of the major networks, with the cable channels trying to gain a foothold in whichever niche they could find. Back then, in addition to channels like "Arts and Entertainment" and Court TV, we had a whole cable station dedicated to comedy. We still do, of course, but Comedy Central is now the place for The Daily Show and Awkwafina (and somehow still Crank Yankers). Back in the early '90s, Comedy Central was 90% stand-up comedy clips and 10% Saturday Night Live reruns.

    You could watch for hours as snippets of stand-up routines would play like music videos on MTV. It was a strange and glorious fromat, and nothing like it exists today on cable or any of the major streaming platforms. But curiously — and almost certainly by accident — Netflix has recreated the vibe of late '90s Comedy Central via one of its promotional arms: its "Netflix Is a Joke" YouTube channel.

    More than any other streaming platform, Netflix seems to function like an interconnected collection of genre fiefdoms. It's such a vast enterprise that it often gives off an impression that each arm of this many-tentacled beast operate on their own: Netflix's feature films are one thing, distinct from the streamer's drama and comedy series; then there's Netflix true crime,. Netflix reality, Netflix cooking shows, et cetera. One particularly robust vertical within Netflix is stand-up comedy. Since 2013, Netflix has debuted nearly 250 stand-up comedy specials featuring the likes of Chris Rock, Bo Burnham, Jerry Seinfeld and Hannah Gadsby, to name just a few. Whereas HBO and, yes, Comedy Central used to be THE place on TV for stand-up comedy, Netflix has been throwing huge sums of money at many of the biggest names in the business to assert their dominance in the genre.. And on their YouTube comedy channel, they're doing something fun with it.

    Netflix has dozens of channels on YouTube — one for animé, one for feature films, and countless different channels for each of its foreign locations. At 2.4 million subscribers, Netflix Is a Joke is one of its most popular channels, and it offers a plethora of Netflix comedy content, featuring everything from film clips to those original promos you see making the rounds where Never Have I Ever's John McEnroe does the voiceover for Bridgerton. But the bulk of the videos on Netflix Is a Joke are compilations culled from their deep vault of stand-up material. The clips are often themed, either around the subject of the jokes or around the comedians themselves. Want to see comedians like Wanda Sykes and Mike Epps talking about how getting old is terrible? You got it. Pete Davidson, Nikki Glaser, and others talking about terrible sexual encounters? Enjoy! Sam Jay, Gina Yashere, and some of the best Black queer comedians working today? Here for it.

    If you're anything like me and use YouTube for low-commitment downtime viewing, these videos are a particularly fantastic option. You could conceivably ride a "suggested viewing" chain of Netflix Is a Joke videos for hours, getting a sampling of Netflix's wide array of comedic talent. And then, in what is obviously Netflix's objective with these YouTube channels, you can investigate any one particular comedian back to their full-lenth Netflix special.

    But it's the vibe of the Netflix comedy channel that I appreciate most. It brings me back to those comedy central days when I, a rather boring early teenager, was able to get a remarkable survey of the comedy greats of that era via shows like Two Drink Minimum, Stand Up Stand Up and Short Attention Span Theater, which is where I first experienced that show's hosts, first Jon Stewart and then Marc Maron. For the comics themselves, Comedy Central's stand-up shows meant you didn't have to attain the stature of having an HBO special in order to get into the living rooms of regular people across America. It's why names like Dana Gould, Jake Johanssen, and Wendy Liebman are lodged in my brain forever. It also recalls the golden age of MTV, when stations seemed to exist solely to provide a cultural experience for the viewer.

    When people express nostalgia for the television landscape of old, they're not lamenting what's great about the current era of TV: there are exponentially more good-to-great TV shows being made these days. Instead, a nostalgia for the 1990s Comedy Central era of stand-up comedy clips is more about the ways in which we are currently responsible for programming our own TV experience today. The decline of the network/cable model and the proliferation of streaming platforms means that we are now our own TV networks. It's up to us to program our lineup of shows, to schedule them, to keep tabs on when new episodes premiere, to keep track of how far we've gotten through the latest binge release, to make sure we have time to watch everything we want to watch. Trying to parse through more than 250 stand-up comedy specials in the Netflix library is a surefire trip to choice paralysis. Netflix Is a Joke offers the kind of concierge service that we all took for granted with '90s cable television.

    Also… they're just really funny YouTube videos. So go enjoy.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Netflix, Comedy Central, YouTube, Short Attention Span Theater