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Tracing the Roots of Standup Comedy's TV Resurgence

How Peak TV suddenly made the standup comedy special ubiquitous.
  • Old school headliners Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan and Dave Chappelle are just a piece of a standup boom that's introduced viewers to groundbreaking new comedy from Hannah Gadsby, 2 Dope Queens and Jenny Slate. (Photos: Netflix, Amazon)
    Old school headliners Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan and Dave Chappelle are just a piece of a standup boom that's introduced viewers to groundbreaking new comedy from Hannah Gadsby, 2 Dope Queens and Jenny Slate. (Photos: Netflix, Amazon)

    Premiering tonight, The CW Happy Hour is a new weekly series of standup comedy specials featuring the likes of Jim Gaffigan, Louie Anderson, Marina Franklin, Alice Wetterlund, and Tom Papa. The hour-long specials mark a rare foray for standup comedy in primetime broadcast televsion. and although one hesistates to make too much of a programming move from the same network that's brought us seven seasons of Masters of Illusion, it does mark yet another milestone for the resurgence of the standup special in the Peak TV era.

    The last major boom for televised standup comedy was in the early 1990s, when Comedy Central began to take a foothold on American cable lineups. Back then, along with reruns of Saturday Night Live, the channel offered hours upon hours of standup. Much of their programming was actually repurposed from HBO's old Comedy Half-Hour specials, and as a result, shined a spotlight on comedians like Paula Poundstone, Marc Maron, Norm McDonald, Janeane Garofalo, and Margaret Cho, among many, many others. The previous decade had been a boom era for standup comedians finding homes on network sitcoms, with Jerry Seinfeld to Tim Allen to Roseanne Barr to Drew Carey finding big success with shows tailored around their standup personae. With the Comedy Central standup boom, audiences got to experience standup comedians in their own element, and while the stars of that era still found success in other mediums — Cho had a sitcom on ABC; Garofalo went on to star in movies; Maron may as well have invented the longform podcast interview — their standup work would remain both paramount and widely recognized. The apex of this era were Chris Rock, Ellen Degeneres, and Dave Chappelle, whose standup specials (most often aired on HBO) were major entertainment events.

    As the years went on, Comedy Central's diversified programming (everything from South Park to The Daily Show to BattleBots) began to fill out its schedule, leaving standup mostly on the sidelines. And so it went for a good fifteen years, with HBO continuing to air the big-name comedy specials, and Comedy Central filling in the gaps here and there.

    That began to change in 2012, when Netflix first dipped its toes into original programming when it commisioned a standup comedy special from Bill Burr. (For context, it wasn't until 2015 that the streamer debuted House of Cards, their first big original narrative series.). In the years since, they've been intrumental in elevating the work of John Mulaney, Mike Birbiglia, Iliza Schlesinger, Bill Burr, and Ali Wong. More recently they've become the destination for bigger names like Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen Degeneres to revive their standup presence. This more recent trend began with Dave Chappelle, who signed a three-special deal for a reported $60 million back in 2017. His specials were met with equal parts fanfare and controversy, but they cemented Netflix's status as THE stand up destination of the moment. Obviously, Netflix's deep pockets go a long way when it comes to attracting A-List talent, but they've also shown keen programming instincts in their acquisitions and talent relationships, typified by the celebrated Hannah Gadsby special Nanette in 2018 or, more recently, Jenny Slate's phenomenal 2020 special Stage Fright.

    Last year Amazon jumped on the standup bandwagon, releasing its own first standup special — Jim Gaffigan's Qualliy Time — and the streamer has continued to release a steady stream of specials since. Likewise, as the repository for all things HBO and beyond, HBO Max has dozens of standup specials in its library, and one would expect that the genre will continue to be piece of each forthcoming streamer's content mix moving forward.

    One thing one immediately notices about the CW's standup lineup this summer is it doesn't possess a fraction of the firepower that Netflix, HBO or even Amazon are sporting. (Yes, Jim Gaffigan is very popular, but his Noble Ape special that The CW is airing first premiered on demand in 2018, and was previously available to Amazon Prime subscribers). Still, the newfound standup boom doesn't necessarily require marquee names to succeed. HBO proved that to be plenty true with its 2018 2 Dope Queens specials, which featured comedians Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson in a series of live shows where they welcomed emerging standup talent like Michelle Buteau, Naomi Ekperigin, and current Saturday Night Live star Bowen Yang.

    Bringing standup to broadcast TV — a place it really hasn't been in recent history — is yet another sign of how Netflix has pushed television forward, with the rest of the industry following suit. With a mix of veteran and emerging comedic talent, the CW clearly hopes to plant their flag in a surging genre as well.

    The CW Happy Hour premieres tonight at 9:00 PM with Jim Gaffigan: Noble Ape.

    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, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Standup Comedy, The CW, HBO, Netflix, 2 Dope Queens, Dave Chappelle, Jerry Seinfeld, John Mulaney, Marc Maron