In August, Netflix released the trailer for Bill Burr’s stand-up comedy special Paper Tiger that did something a lot of comedians rightly rail against: It took his material completely out of context. As the minute-long trailer flashed quickly through Burr tossing out all the hot-button buzzwords — “The #MeToo movement!” “White male privilege!” “I’m a male feminist!” — it seemed less invested in accurately portraying Burr’s material than in packaging it as red meat for ongoing comedy debates about outrage, “cancel culture,” and censorship. At the end of the trailer, there’s a quick cut to Burr telling the audience, “By the way, this is gonna be my last show ever!” Like plenty of Netflix trailers before it, the Paper Tiger trailer promised that “nothing is off-limits” and audiences were sure to be offended.
The material in Burr’s special was much more thoughtful and nuanced than the trailer teased, but thanks to the perpetual arguments over political correctness in comedy (Netflix has multiple stand-up categories dedicated to it), Netflix tapped into that with edited snippets, sacrificing an accurate portrayal of Burr’s comedy in the process.
This approach isn’t limited to the political-correctness conversation — it’s an approach to marketing specials that has been happening for years, with context removed and bits chopped into tiny pieces sandwiched between text saying some variation of She tells it like it is! or just summing up the topics covered in the special. The amount of editing applied to most of these trailers is borderline seizure-inducing, and often what’s left are more silly gestures and reaction shots than actual jokes, like the stretch from 0:25–0:30 in the trailer for Arsenio Hall’s new special, or 0:45–0:52 in the trailer for Iliza Shlesinger’s Elder Millennial:
This approach to stand-up trailer editing has become so common that it’s reached the point of parody. In 2017, a team of comedians began releasing a series of fake Netflix stand-up trailers, with one for an anti-PC special called Dangerous including text teases like “brace yourself,” “cutting them down,” and “hard truths.” As pointed out on Twitter by director Daniel Gray Longino, Joe Mande released a promo for his 2017 Netflix special that also poked fun at the common trailer format, with the text overlays summing up things right after they came out of Mande’s mouth:
Stand-up fans generally like particular comedians not because of the topics they cover, but for their overall sensibility and the way they approach their craft. They love John Mulaney for his signature theatrical delivery; they love Gary Gulman for his purposeful way with words; they love Maria Bamford for her unwavering vulnerability and the way she faces her biggest demons head-on. But these kinds of qualities can’t be properly showcased through heavily edited clips sewn together, because a pile of out-of-context buzzwords can’t illustrate what makes a comedian truly unique to a potential fan who doesn’t know who they are. There’s a reason why a random YouTube upload of Patton Oswalt’s “Steak” bit currently has 370K views, but the official trailer for his 2017 Netflix special only has 105K.
There’s a solution to this, and it’s one that Netflix has already come up with on its own. Instead of cutting stand-up trailers into tiny bits and pieces, networks should keep things very, very simple: Trailers for stand-up specials should just be one good joke. They can use this trailer for Anthony Jeselnik’s special Fire in the Maternity Ward as the ultimate template:
If the joke lasts for a minute, the trailer will be a minute long. If it’s a three-minute bit, the trailer will last for three minutes. If there’s a really great joke that’s five minutes long, let the trailer last for five minutes! No edits, no flashy cuts, no cheesy text overlays, no spelling things out. It does justice to the comedian’s material, it’s more engaging to watch, and as an added bonus, it makes Netflix’s auto-play trailers a little less annoying. Instead of all the editing, go back to basics and showcase the thing that all stand-up specials are built from: a great joke.