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Netflix looks for an IRL hit with 250-show comedy festival in Los Angeles

The streaming service muscled aside HBO and Comedy Central to become a premier destination for stand-up comedy — and now it wants to show off its talent roster.
John Mulaney
John Mulaney during the American Museum of Natural History's 2019 Gala in New York on Nov. 21, 2019.Sylvain Gaboury / Patrick McMullan via Getty Images file

LOS ANGELES — Netflix usually wants subscribers glued to their television screens. But this week, the streaming giant will give comedy nerds at least one reason to get off the couch.

Netflix Is A Joke: The Festival is the entertainment company’s most ambitious foray into live, in-person events since it was founded 25 years ago: an 11-day, 250-show comedy extravaganza across more than 30 venues in Los Angeles.

The festival, scheduled to take place from Thursday to May 8, underscores Netflix’s big-spending commitment to stand-up comedy as an artistic medium and a business venture.

In the last decade, the platform has given a home to dozens of exclusive stand-up specials from some of the biggest — and some of the most incendiary — names in modern comedy, luring comics away from HBO and Comedy Central.

The lineup at this month’s festival is no less star-studded.

Aziz Ansari, Patton Oswalt and Wanda Sykes at the Orpheum Theatre. Kevin Hart at Arena. Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias at Dodger Stadium. Sebastian Maniscalco at the Art Deco landmark the Wiltern. John Mulaney at the Hollywood Bowl. Amy Schumer at the trendy Ace Hotel.

Robbie Praw, a comedy fanatic who is Netflix's vice president of stand-up and comedy formats, said the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to delay festival plans that were originally mapped out in early 2020.

"To have to delay because of the pandemic was really disappointing, but it gave us more time to grow the festival substantially, because we felt like the idea of celebrating stand-up and comedy took on a whole new meaning," Praw said.

Praw, who previously spent a dozen years at the esteemed Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, said the array of events now doubles as a "celebration of being in the same room as your friends again."

"So many of us in the stand-up community haven't had the opportunity to get together for a big event like this, so it feels like we're about to start a major comedy camp," Praw said.

The appearance of “Grace and Frankie” stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin at the Hollywood Palladium is a sign that much of the festival is engineered to promote Netflix’s sprawling library of shows and films. In a town that runs on publicity and hype, a veritable takeover of the city could be seen as the ultimate power move.

The festival schedule includes events dubbed “Netflix Shows IRL,” including live table reads of Netflix projects like “The Karate Kid” sequel series “Cobra Kai” and the Mindy Kaling-created coming-of-age dramedy “Never Have I Ever” — as well as a screening of the first episode of “The Pentaverate,” Mike Myers’ comeback vehicle.

But the most headline-grabbing comic on the festival bill might prove to be Dave Chappelle, the provocative stand-up whose latest Netflix special, “The Closer,” drew accusations of transphobia and plunged the world’s mightiest streaming service into a public relations crisis that dragged on for weeks. He will perform at the Hollywood Bowl for three nights in a row, starting Thursday.

Dave Chappelle
Dave Chappelle in "The Closer."Mathieu Bitton / Netflix

Chappelle has not apologized for jokes in “The Closer” that were roundly criticized as offensive to the LGBTQ community. Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said he was committed to Chappelle’s “creative freedom” and rejected calls to remove the special, although he acknowledged missteps when it came to “communication” with employees.

The festival comes at a fraught time for Netflix for other reasons, too. The company suffered its first subscriber loss in more than a decade last week, sending shares plummeting by 25 percent in extended trading Tuesday and heightening anxieties about the viability of the streaming marketplace.

But in Hollywood, as ever, the show must go on.

'Everyone wants to be a part of this'

The festival will include special theme nights, such as Stand Out: An LGBTQ+ Celebration, an evening of comedy at the Greek Theatre hosted by Billy Eichner and featuring queer comics like Eddie Izzard, Fortune Feimster, Margaret Cho, Patti Harrison, Sandra Bernhard, Tig Notaro and Sykes.

Page Hurwitz, a veteran comedy producer behind the Stand Out night, said she was thrilled to put on what she described as a historic first: “a comprehensive, celebratory show like this, featuring as many queer comedians as possible on the same stage at a premier venue. It’s just never happened before.”

She said she expected that some of the comics at the variety show will address the national climate around LGBTQ freedoms and possibly weigh in on recent flashpoints, such as Florida’s Parental Rights in Education legislation, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents.

“I think seeing all these queer comics united together on stage is going to be very impactful,” Hurwitz said.

Wanda Sykes
Wanda Sykes in "Not Normal."Atsushi Nishijima / Netflix

Taylor Tomlinson, 28, a rising star whose latest Netflix special, “Look At You,” debuted on the service March 8, credits the platform with helping to launch her career. Tomlinson is a preternaturally confident comedic performer, but she acknowledged that her set during the festival comes with different stakes.

“If you’re doing big shows in the town you live in, with industry people there and whatnot, of course you’re a little nervous,” said Tomlinson, who is scheduled to appear at the 1960s-inspired Peppermint Club in West Hollywood on May 5 and at the Ace Hotel on May 6.

Tomlinson said she was excited to support new voices who have slots at the festival, especially Brian Simpson.

“I hesitate to even call him up-and-coming, because he’s just so good. He’s somebody I started with in San Diego who’s always been absolutely amazing and a total genius. I think he’s about to be huge.”

Ronny Chieng, a comedian and actor (“Crazy Rich Asians,” Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”) whose most recent Netflix special, “Speakeasy,” premiered April 5, said all the comics on the lineup — legends (David Letterman, for one) and newcomers alike — are worth seeking out.

“I’ll say this: Everyone at this festival is a legit performer,” said Chieng, who is doing back-to-back shows at the Troubadour on May 6 with fellow “Daily Show” alum Hasan Minhaj. “I’ll stand by anyone anywhere in the billing.”

“I mean, not to get too corporate, but this goes to show that everyone wants to be a part of this,” Chieng said in a phone interview while looking at the lineup on his computer. “I’m trying to look for someone who I hate. No, everyone here is a killer.”