For decades, it was the standard path to sitcom stardom: start as a stand-up, get scouted by a network or studio, land a development deal and star in a hit comedy based on your routine. That pipeline peaked in the ’90s, when comedians like Tim Allen, Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano and others were examples of how that pattern worked. As long as it doesn’t. A slew of comedies (often single-camera) like “The Office” and “Modern Family” began to eclipse those comic-driven laffers.
But as streamers have entered the scene over the past decade, stand-up specialists have become a quick way to build a library of established, high-end talent. Now, once again at the forefront, a new kind of comedy ecosystem is emerging — with Netflix, in particular, eager to lead the charge.
“I think talent wants their stories to be seen and heard, and there are a lot of ways to do that,” said Tracy Pacosta, head of comedy at Netflix. “These big arena tours still exist, and that’s one way to do that. And then using the platform to tell stories in a different way.
Netflix is encouraging its stars to do it all: Comedian Michelle Buteau, for example, is spinning multiple projects on the stream at the same time, like her stand-up special “Welcome to Buttopia,” the unscripted series “The Circle” and her upcoming scripted series. The fattest survival. Ali Wong has several stand-up specials on the stream, starring in the movie “Always Be Mine,” a voice on “Big Mouth,” and the lead in “Sheng Wang: Sweet and Juicy.” Bill Burr has fronted several portrait specials and created the “F is for Family” series. Fortune Femster was one of the stars of Netflix’s Comedy Festival, fronting Netflix’s Sirius XM radio show, making several specials and starring in an upcoming series with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“We’re looking to develop Roast, other sketch shows and variety shows,” said Robbie Praw, Netflix’s VP of portrait and comedy formats. “So there are other places to take some of this great talent and create an ecosystem.”
Another standout who has successfully alternated between live stage and television screen is Wanda Sykes’ scripted comedy “The Upshows,” which has been renewed for a third season. Difference Learned. Regina Hicks co-created and executive produced “The Upshows” with Sykes, which also stars Mike Epps and Kim Fields. The show, which premiered June 2, will return with new episodes in early 2023. Focuses on a working class African American family in Indiana.
“The Upshows” is a multi-camera comedy, which in some ways is reminiscent of the stand-up shows of the 1990s. “Most of our audience has grown up watching a lot of cameras, and they’re happy to see stories that look throwaway but fresh,” says Sykes. Hicks added: “I think people like multi-cam when it works well. It relies on immediate audience reaction in laughter, and for that to happen you need ‘honest comedy’. Adding laughter to something else is false.
Sykes is also appearing in a variety of ways for the new presentation, thanks to streamers including Netflix. “In the past, only a few of the best comics would get hourly specials, but as that number has grown exponentially, more comics are getting the chance, and some of them you may not even know about,” she said. “The landscape has changed and everyone wants content.”
Epps, Page Hurwitz and Niles Kirchner are EPs on “The Upshaws.” Along with Epps and Field as Bernie and Regina Upshaw, and Sykes as Lucretia Turner, the show also stars Page Kennedy (Duck), Diamond Lyons (Kelvin Upshaw), Callie Dania-Renee Spragins (Aaliyah Upshaw), Jermelle Simon (Bernard Upshaw), Gabrielle Dennis ( Tasha Lewis) and Journey Christine (Maya Upshaw).
“She’s a great example of someone who’s going to be incredibly up-and-coming, and then we have ‘The Upshaws’ with her,” Pacosta told Six. She can do both, and hopefully get her creative juices flowing.