As standup comedy enjoys one of its best boom periods since the late-1980s, comedians are trying to decide how to distribute their specials. Since Louis C.K. shook up the status quo with 2011's “Live at the Beacon Theater,” a direct-download special sold through his Web site, more comics have looked for ways to reach their audience that go beyond HBO and Comedy Central.
On Thursday, John Hodgman released “RAGNAROK” as a Netflix Original production, marking the streaming video service's first foray into stand-up comedy. Filmed on Dec. 21, 2012, the last date of the Mayan calendar, the apocalypse-themed “RAGNAROK” is more one-man show (with assists from friends such as Scott Adsit of “30 Rock”) than traditional standup, and it fits within the Venn diagram sweet spot between “This American Life,” McSweeney's and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” So it does not exactly work with a “Tosh.0” lead-in, and does not square with the superstar orientation of HBO's current comedy roster.
But on a streaming video service, it makes total sense. Hodgman, who earned fame through his appearances on “The Daily Show” and in Apple's “I'm a Mac, I'm a PC” campaign, has a specialized appeal and he devotes equal time to both highbrow and lowbrow material, which might make him a hard sell in arenas where subtlety is a rare commodity. So, putting his show where his audience can find it on their own time makes a great deal of sense.
Tons of standup material resides on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus, but it's mostly standup that premiered elsewhere such as Comedy Central, straight-to-DVD releases, or the recent Web-direct comedy specials from Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari and Jim Gaffigan. If Hodgman's strategy with Netflix goes well, it could become the happy medium between the high-stakes gamble of Web-direct downloads and going the Comedy Central route.
But it also squares with Netflix' stated aspiration to become an original programming provider on the level of HBO, a premium cable channel that, through its HBO Go platform, is becoming more and more like Netflix. Through “House of Cards,” “Hemlock Grove,” the upcoming Jenji Kohan (“Weeds”) series “Orange is the New Black” and now the Hodgman special, Netflix is quickly creating a programming slate, and Amazon Prime's upcoming full-season offerings of “Betas” and “Alpha House” bode well, too.
Both services are moving fast on these fronts. With Netflix' entry into standup specials, the diversification of original offerings could mean steady and fresh material — in the near future, we could be seeing something new every week on these site-channels. And if Hodgman's “RAGNAROK” finds its niche, expect more comedians to take to the streams.