From Streaming To The Stratosphere: Comedy’s 2023 Paradigm Shift

Hollywood Exteriors And Landmarks 2023
LIVE AND STREAMING: The Laugh Factory comedy club in West Hollywood, California, promotes Chris Rock’s controversial Netflix special “Selective Outrage,” a first in live comedy streaming, while simultaneously advertising one of its own, in-person live shows. Photo by Aaron / Bauer-Griffin / GC Images

If Pollstar last year declared comedy to be in the midst of a new “Golden Age,” we might need to come up with some new nomenclature – because the old definitions and paradigms of what comedy success means continue to evolve in a big way.

We marveled in 2022 at the box office numbers of Gabriel Iglesias playing two nights at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Sebastian Maniscalco’s multi-night arena runs and chart-topping $44.9 million on the year.

But with the expansion of stand-up comedy specials on Netflix and elsewhere, the innovations in presentation and packaging, and the emergence of new comedy, the blasting firehose of 2022 has only been cranked up in 2023.

It might be more accurate to say the firehouse has blown off the main, given the numbers reported to Pollstar Boxoffice from Oct. 16, 2022 to Oct. 15, 2023.

Consider this: The Top 30 comedy tours performed 1,617 shows in the 2023 period, up 15% from the 1,408 tallied in 2022. Those shows moved 6,227,055 tickets, up 32% from the 4,728,273 in 2022. And grosses skyrocketed 44% among the Top 30 – to $513,660,505 from $357,065,266 in 2022.

Rival platforms seeking to take a bite out of Netflix’s stand-up dominance have triggered “streaming wars” between the veteran presenter and relative upstarts like Hulu, Amazon’s Prime Video and even YouTube. What could change the game entirely are TikTok and Instagram – eliminating gatekeepers and letting an unfettered market do its thing.

Clearly, stand-up comedy has evolved far beyond putting a mic and a stool in front of a brick wall and telling jokes. Bert Kreischer has made a franchise of his annual “Fully Loaded” outdoor summer festival package of his favorite comedians, with 2023’s routing including stadiums such as New York’s Forest Hills Stadium and Traverse City, Michigan’s Turtle Creek Stadium. Add his solo tour and it was enough to give him 87 shows, a gross of $33,366,442 and the No. 2 spot on Pollstar’s comedy chart for the year ended Oct. 15.

Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle were in such demand that they moved 130,413 tickets over just eight shows reported to Pollstar, in an arena co-bill that grossed nearly $20.8 million dollars, good for No. 8 on the Top 30 list.

So-called “clean comics” proved you don’t have to work blue to rake in the green. Nate Bargatze sold 351,680 tickets in the last year, grossing $22,482,582. That tally includes a hometown record-breaker at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, where Bargatze sold out 19,365 tickets. Jim Gaffigan brought his road-worthy “dad jokes” to 71 venues for ticket sales of 171,985, grosses totaling $13,768,044 and a No. 17 on the Top 30.

But where the new comedy paradigm might be making itself most felt is in the world of streaming and social media platforms.

“We’re very excited by the passion and enthusiasm Amazon and Hulu have demonstrated,” says CAA comedy agent Justin Edbrooke. “We’re also finding that social media networks like TikTok and Instagram have emerged as commanding forces in building a fanbase and establishing these artists.”

And he’s far from alone. “I think there’s a transition from linear cable into streaming services,” says Matt Blake, CAA’s head of comedy touring. “And there’s more bandwidth for streamers to put comedians up. Comedians also have the ability, through social media, to direct their audience to the location of their special. It’s really just continuing the expansion of the reach of stand-up comedy. As stand-up comedy becomes more popular, more and more people are discovering it and, with more options, it’s a never-ending growth cycle.”

It might seem counterintuitive to look to streaming platforms and TV specials for trends in the live ecosystem – after all, it’s been said that a joke dies once the punch line is delivered. There’s a reason comedy shows often require concertgoers to lock up their phones in a Yondr pouch. But it’s not, as one might think, because it hurts live attendance when fans can watch stand-up comedy on demand at home.

“I believe people find the comedian through watching [streaming stand-up],” WME comedy agent Andrew Russell says. “Whether streamers or YouTube, I’m a big proponent. People will watch their streaming services or their tablet or iPhone, they’re laughing, and then they go, ‘Let’s go see this person live when they come to town.’ There’s still something to say about being in the room live with a comedian. It’s electric, and the experience can’t be replicated or duplicated. Either you’re there or you’re not.”

In a first, Netflix and Chris Rock on March 4 brought a live performance to the streaming platform with “Chris Rock: Selective Outrage.” Solving the FOMO problem with millions of fans anticipating Rock’s first appearance since hosting the 2022 Academy Awards and its attendant controversy, the livestreamed, stand-up performance broke viewing records in its first nine days with 1.22 billion minutes viewed, equaling about 20.3 million views of the one-hour special, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Bargatze fired a major shot over Netflix’s bow over at Amazon Prime Video with his Jan. 31 streaming debut, “Nate Bargatze: Hello World” that, according to Nielsen streaming counts, racked up 2.9 million viewers in its first 28 days after its Jan. 31 debut – shortly before he put his Bridgestone Arena blowout on sale. It’s now Amazon’s most-streamed original comedy offering.

And then there’s TikTok and its role in breaking the 10-year overnight sensation that is Matt Rife.

Rife, 28, who appeared on MTV’s “Wild N’Out” as well as a few sitcoms as an actor, also worked comedy clubs for a full decade, “selling around 70 tickets per show, sometimes clearing as little as $150 a night,” according to a New York Times profile.

He self-produced and posted two stand-up shows on YouTube before a 2-minute TikTok clip of himself engaging with a female audience member went viral.

Since posting “The Lazy Hero” on July 30, 2022, the TikTok clip has garnered 38.8 million views; he tells the New York Times the video had “20 million views in two or three days,” adding that every video he’s posted since has gone viral.

In just more than a year since that breakthrough, Rife has 17.9 million TikTok followers. He’s now booked by Creative Artists Agency and recently announced a Live Nation-produced world tour that reportedly sold more than 600,000 tickets in 48 hours.

Comedy in 2023 isn’t just golden – it’s white-hot and showing no signs of slowing down.