In mid-July, TMZ broke a rumor that Netflix was talking with Eddie Murphy about returning to stand-up comedy and releasing specials with the service. The price for these rumored specials? A cool $70 million, roughly 15.5 times the box office of The Adventures of Pluto Nash. While the number can’t be confirmed, it lines up with how Netflix spends. It gave Jerry Seinfeld $100 million for Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and two specials. Ricky Gervais got $40 million for his last special, Chris Rock got $40 million for two specials, and Dave Chappelle got $60 million for two specials. These are staggering numbers, but they leave me with one question.
What if Netflix only gave Eddie Murphy $60 million instead of $70 million?
What if they gave Jerry Seinfeld $90 million instead of $100 million? Murphy has an estimated net worth of $120 million. Seinfeld has an estimated net worth of more than $900 million. Their massive paydays with Netflix represent little more than bragging rights to these men who already have more money than they could ever spend in multiple lifetimes. Removing $10 million from either of these numbers is a drop in the bucket of unfathomable riches. But if handled correctly, a simple $10 million investment could revolutionize the comedy world.
You see, while it seems like comedians are getting paid more than ever, the numbers in the industry are actually incredibly brutal. In 2018 Vulture ran a fantastic story about the realities of pay for working-class comedians in Los Angeles. The average pay for a show was zero dollars, with the really good shows paying around $20-50. When I ran a show in Los Angeles that paid $20 and food, some performers couldn’t believe we offered both. They figured they’d have to choose.
On the road, life isn’t much better. MC and feature pay hasn’t increased in decades, with openers regularly making $75 to $100 per show. It’s a point of contention that headliners like Tom Segura have publicly vented their frustration over.
Segura pays his openers extra out of pocket because the system refuses to increase pay across the board. For an indie comedian touring on their own, the average show pays anywhere from $20 and a “sorry, normally we have better attendance than this” to a few hundred dollars. Mid-level club headliners can expect to make $1,500 to $3,000 for a weekend. However, in a saturated market, getting enough weekends to pay your bills can be brutal. College gigs can range from $500 to thousands depending on if you’re known. But again, that requires you to be known.
So what does this have to do with how Netflix spends its money? In many ways, nothing. Netflix has no responsibility to the comedy world, no matter how many stand=up specials it releases. Ultimately Netflix is a business. But, as a business, Netflix is helping to rapidly change the industry in ways that actively hurt other revenue streams for comics. Take Seinfeld for example. Jerry Seinfeld would not be worth $900 million today if Seinfeld had been developed for Netflix. He wouldn’t make money from syndication, DVD sales, or really any form of backend payment for creators.
But for staff writers, it’s even worse. Netflix seasons are shorter than traditional TV seasons, so writers get paid for fewer episodes. The service also doesn’t offer residuals, unlike broadcast TV. On broadcast TV if an episode you wrote gets rerun you get some money from that. When 1,000,000 people stream that episode on Netflix, you’ve already been paid all you’re going to be paid unless you had a special contract.
Obviously not every working comedian writes on a sitcom or TV show, though you’d be surprised how many pay their bills that way. But the issue of Netflix closing revenue streams for comedians in the middle while pouring millions into the wallets of already successful comedians still exists. So again I ask, what if Netflix paid big-name comics just a little bit less.
Netflix is expected to spend $15 billion on content in 2019. To put that number in perspective, during Disney’s investor day this past April, the company said it was planning on spending $1 billion on its upcoming Disney+ streaming service during 2019. Netflix is spending more than some entire nations every year on content. In just the past few years it spent $323 million on just six comedians if we include the rumored Murphy deal: $70 million for Eddie Murphy, $13 million for Amy Schumer, $40 million for Ricky Gervais, $40 million for Chris Rock, $60 million for Chappelle, and $100 million for Jerry Seinfeld. To twist the knife even further, Seinfeld’s first special for the service was recycled material from the ‘70s.
So here’s a radical idea. What if Netflix actually invested in comedy and developing comedians? Lets dream really big and give ourselves just $10,000,000 to play with, or 0.0666666666667% of Netflix’s budget for 2019. Let’s also presume that it pays the same as its competition.
Comedy Central pays $25,000 to each comedian who gets a Half Hour each year. If Netflix created its own half-hour comedy show each week that paid $25,000, it could change the lives of 52 comedians. Their total cost? $1,300,000, before production costs.
We spoke to a comic who has had two late-night spots in the last few years, who would like to remain unnamed. For their first spot, they got $1,100 while the second spot earned them $1,200. If Netflix created a show with six comedians each week doing 5 minutes of comedy that paid $1,100 per spot they would give 312 comedians their first TV spot and only spend $343,200 before production costs.
Now we have 364 comedians with new TV credits and still have $8,356,800 left to play with. Netflix could create a scholarship program that helps pay for health insurance or to cover financial stopgaps for comedians. With that leftover money, they could give 835 comedians $10,000 to just not die in exchange for giving Netflix a first-look deal on their first special or script.
They could open a comedy club in a New York or Los Angeles to develop new talent, which could also serve as a studio to film the specials we’re talking about. Hell, they could open a chain of Netflix comedy clubs in a few comedy friendly markets around the country, and help do something about feature and MC pay industry-wide. They could create more opportunities for great comics to develop excellent new acts for them. Heck they could even use these spaces to let some of the multimillionaires they keep enriching actually develop a well rounded hour to release on their service.
Look, I know I’m being greedy here. 0.0666666666667% of $15 billion is a lot of money. But this isn’t just begging Netflix to help working comics “not die.” This would also be helpful for Netflix, taking them for a content production factory to a force in comedy. In short, it would make them a super-sized version of HBO from the 1970s through the 2000s.
For decades, HBO was the biggest name in cutting edge comedy, from stand-up to scripted shows to variety shows. They gave platforms to massive stars and developing names alike, and empowered a generation of priceless talent. HBO spent millions producing content for (takes a deep breath) Robert Klein, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy (Delirious was an HBO production), Billy Crystal, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Harland Williams, Kathleen Madigan, Patton Oswalt, Norm MacDonald, Gilbert Gottfried, Dave Chappelle, Dave Attell, Wendy Liebman, Ray Romano, Laura Kightlinger, Adele Givens, Kathy Griffen, David Cross, Steve Harvey, Dana Gould, Judy Gold, Bobcat Goldthwait, Marc Maron, Janeane Garofalo, Carlos Mencia, D.L. Hughley, Eddie Griffin, Margaret Cho. Ellen DeGeneres, George Wallace, Bill Hicks, Martin Lawrence, Damon Waynes, Patrice O’Neal, Bill Burr, Bonnie McFarlane, and Flight of the Conchords, just to name a few.
Remember Kids in the Hall? HBO is where they first found a home in America. Imagine if Netflix took risks like HBO did with Bernie Mac’s late-night variety hour Midnight Mac or created the next Def Comedy Jam. Why isn’t Netflix an Adult Swim-like production house for the next brilliant weirdo on the verge of something big?
Netflix has already shown an interest in producing comedy on an incredible scale for people who are already successful. They should be commended for making a point of doing it for comedians around the globe as well and taking risks on shows like Big Mouth and I Think You Should Leave. But in each of these cases, Netflix is throwing money at people who already have careers. Why not take a tiny financial risk and help build the next generation up?
If you run with these ideas about the half-hour and the showcase show, the worst case scenario is you spend less than $2,000,000 changing the lives of hundreds of comedians and end up with 52 hours of TV. Remember, both show ideas we suggested total just one hour of content each week. Can Netflix really not find $2 million dollars to create 52 hours of content? Content, mind you, that’s designed to bring viewers back each week. And because it’s so cheap to produce, you can take risks on the kinds of comedians you support. It would be just $333,333 from what you paid each of the big six comedians on your service in the past few years. And the best part is Netflix would suddenly be seen as a company that gave a shit about developing talent.
The point of this isn’t that Eddie Murphy isn’t worth $70 million or Jerry Seinfeld isn’t worth $100 million, though dear God y’all aren’t you rich enough already? The point is the industry is contracting right now, with money flowing faster to the top while leaving everyone else to starve until they’re famous. For content companies starting to scout talent early, and actually paying that talent to get better, it’s a drop in the bucket of their overall budget.
When it pays off it would give Netflix the first specials from the next generation of Chappelles, Murphys, Seinfelds, and Schumers. And when it doesn’t, they’ll have helped keep the art form they’re already heavily invested in strong. That’s worth 0.0666666666667% of your budget for a year. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll go back to hoping the headliner throws us an extra $100 next time we’re featuring.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.