a long talk

The Man Behind Netflix Comedy’s Curtain

Robbie Praw explains his approach to buying stand-up specials for the streamer.

Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix
Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix

Earlier this month, Netflix put on its first-ever comedy festival in L.A., and it was a big one. Spread throughout the city, from the smallest, hippest comedy venues to Dodger Stadium, the Netflix Is a Joke Fest featured some of the most exciting up-and-coming talent alongside the streaming platform’s biggest success stories, from Nate Bargatze to John Mulaney to Taylor Tomlinson to, yes, Dave Chappelle. It’s still unclear if the festival will become a yearly tradition — especially with Netflix feeling some financial hardship for the first time — but the event served as a celebration of the streamer’s work over the past five or so years, during which it has ascended to stand-up-comedy domination.

The person largely responsible for all of this is Robbie Praw, whom Netflix hired in early 2016. Comedy is the only business Praw has ever known: He was raised by a comedy-nerd family, and his first job out of college in 2004 was working in the programming department at Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival. In the 12 years that followed, Praw rose the ranks at JFL to VP of programming and developed deep relationships with some of comedy’s biggest names before they were names at all, such as Ali Wong and Bo Burnham. Those are relationships he has built on since taking on the role of director of original stand-up-comedy programming at Netflix, working under Lisa Nishimura. Last month, he was promoted to vice-president of stand-up and comedy formats, officially becoming Netflix’s No. 1 comedy guy, overseeing stand-up specials, sketch series including I Think You Should Leave, and shows like Murderville and the upcoming Greatest Roasts of All Time.

Eight days after the Netflix Is a Joke Fest, Praw looked back on the past six years and how his approach to bringing comedy to at-home viewers has changed.

Let’s start with the festival. Besides it being a nice thing to do, why do it?
First of all, it was an investment in the space. The genesis of this was that three or four years ago, we had bought this special, this comedy hall of fame called The Hall that we just taped, and we were thinking how great it would be to do a celebration of comedy around it. I have a background in the space, so it was something that I was excited about doing — specifically in a city like L.A. You would think that there would’ve been, at some point, a massive comedy festival in L.A., but it has never happened.

Before COVID, we had sold like 50,000 tickets out of the gate, then canceled three weeks later, which felt really stupid at the time. I think it became a unique situation to bring comedians together for the first time who haven’t seen each other throughout the pandemic — kind of putting together a comedy camp. One of the things that I was the most blown away by was how much comedians enjoyed the festival and the time together.

And it did well enough that you’re like, “We’ll do this next year”?
I don’t know. It was successful, and we’re really proud of it, but right now this is not built to be a yearly event. We certainly have interest in doing different things live in the future.

Comedians attend a brunch hosted by Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos at the Netflix Is a Joke Fest in Los Angeles. Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Netflix

How did you get the Netflix job in 2016?
Lisa Nishimura, who was overseeing docs and comedy at the time, would come to the Just for Laughs festival every year, and eventually we had a conversation. Quite frankly, I’d just had my first kid and wasn’t that eager to come over, because I was pretty happy in Montreal. Even though I was overseeing the festival, the thing that I enjoyed doing the most was working on New Faces or launching new talent. As Netflix started to emerge in the stand-up space six or seven years ago, and with Lisa reaching out, I was really excited about the opportunity to work with some of the comedians that I’d worked with forever and having the ability to put them on a bigger platform. What we do in stand-up at Netflix is very, very special. We work with most of the big names. Even the folks we aren’t working with anymore — their specials are on Netflix and they’re going to be there forever.

When you started at Netflix, you all declared, “We’re going to release a special every week.” What was your buying philosophy then, and what have you learned since?
We didn’t have the library at that point, so there was a real, exciting opportunity to quickly build and offer a lot of stand-up on Netflix. But I don’t think we had as much of a sophisticated take on exactly what comedy our members specifically responded to, so we learned a lot in those years.

There weren’t a ton of huge comedy specials when you started. It wasn’t really a thing many comedians were aspiring to before 2000, and even until the mid-2010s, only a small number of comedians were getting them. I had heard that Comedy Central would give a comedian around $15,000 just to keep them in the Comedy Central orbit. What was it about Netflix as a platform for specials that was different?
Something that I’ve always appreciated at Netflix, since the second I started, is that your stand-up special could be next to Stranger Things or Ozark or House of Cards — whatever the hit of the moment was. Over the years, our members — who might otherwise not have been big stand-up fans — found stand-up.

I think leaning into a lot of different voices introduced people to stand-up for the first time. The moment my wife fell in love with stand-up was when she was introduced to Ali Wong — who I love as well, but there was a different connection. When Ali launched Baby Cobra in 2016, we had just had a kid, and my wife was able to truly see a meaningful experience onscreen. Not every special is for everyone, certainly, but it does allow folks to find their favorite comedian, and that’s a really powerful thing.

Baby Cobra. Photo: Alex Crick/Netflix

Something I’ve heard from comedians and managers is that stand-up proved to be really popular after people finished binging something serious. Bert Kreischer has talked about how Netflix told him that most people just watched the first 30 minutes, so he put his closer 30 minutes into his special. Can you confirm that?
People do watch our specials — often all the way through. But you could go to any club around the country right now and see a big headliner do 90 minutes or you could see somebody do seven minutes, and those are two very valid versions of the art form. Sometimes you like a shorter version of something. Sometimes, rather than a comedian constructing an evening for you, a comedian’s take on a specific thing may be a vital, important piece of comedy. We’re striving to do both.

We’ve now entered the Dave Chappelle portion of the interview.
Oh, great.

Dave has put out six hours in five years on Netflix — plus 8:46 and those Instagram specials complaining about Chappelle’s Show and not getting paid enough. Chris Rock has released five hours in his entire career. Did you think all of Chappelle’s hours were ready to release? Especially since it was leaked that these specials lose money for Netflix.
I believe that Dave is one of the most important stand-up comedians of all time. Certainly, he’s the most popular stand-up comedian of this moment, and we’re thrilled to have this partnership with him. His specials have been extremely well received. I mean, I don’t know how many Emmys, Grammys … he got the Mark Twain award.

Our members both love his specials and watch them in big numbers. Complete his specials in big numbers. He has some of the highest Rotten Tomatoes scores when his specials are released. So yeah, we obviously work with Dave because Dave is one of the top-regarded stand-up comedians of all time, and we definitely hope to continue working with him.

After protests broke out inside Netflix over The Closer’s material, Ted Sarandos commented, “We have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” He later said that comment was an “oversimplification.” Do you think content on screen causes real-world harm?
We would never … I mean, if we felt like we were putting something onscreen that was causing real-world harm, we would not be putting it onscreen. That being said, content of all kinds elicits reactions and that’s why we all love art. This is a special that, obviously, had a lot of reactions to it. But in the end, I was fairly proud to work for a company that would allow important artists the ability to have creative expression.

Did the protests inform or expand your perspective on how these things are received or your own responsibility for them?
I just really believe in the notion of creative expression. Specifically when it comes to an artist like Dave Chappelle, I think it’s really important that the person in my job is giving someone like Dave the ability to express himself. I’m proud that we stood by that.

The Closer. Photo: Netflix

Netflix has 15 politically incorrect stand-up subcategories like “Cynical Politically Incorrect,” “European Politically Incorrect,” and “Irreverent.” Why the dedication to this?
I don’t think we have any dedication to that. We have comedy for everybody, and certainly some stand-up comedy is on that bleeding edge. But we have tons of different types of specials in any given week. We have a special coming out from different artists that I don’t think would be categorized in that way. It’s a testament to our members and people generally having different tastes; that’s what that is.

You don’t feel like you’ve been doing slightly more in that area?
I don’t think so.

This is not to be like, “How dare you do it at all?!”
No no no no, I’m not taking it that way. I actually just … It’s something we should look at, but no, I don’t think that’s the case. It’s possible that maybe some of those specials get a little more attention in the media, but I don’t think that is necessarily an accurate assessment of how we’re programming. Certainly, some comedy falls in that lane, but I wouldn’t say that’s a specific concentration.

Four years ago, Jason Zinoman asked you this, but he was told you couldn’t answer it. There’s one very famous comedian you all used to work with named Louis C.K. If he was interested, would you buy his next …
Sorry, could you spell that? Sorry.

Yeah. So C as in C, K as in K.
Oh, okay. Cool, cool, cool. Yeah, I mean, we have no plans to work with Louis right now.

What sorts of considerations, research, and conversations go into someone like Jeff Ross being actively featured in the festival — seemingly part of the development pipeline — but someone like Chris D’Elia not being there at all, even though he was previously a part of the Netflix family?
It’s obviously a tough question. Every situation is different, and we do an appropriate amount of due diligence on making some decisions. We try not to be reactive.

I mean, generally, first thing’s first: We’re for creative expression. We have a lot of people who have discussions on every special that we do and every person that we work with, and I think we make the best informed decisions. That happens across the board — on every single selection on the slate. Obviously, I’m responsible, but we discuss things as a group, then what we put out into the world speaks to the decisions we end up making.

How do you measure the success of a special beyond numbers?
I mean, everything — from the amount of folks who watched it to the amount of folks who rewatched it, to the amount of conversation there was about it, to the fact that it then went on music-streaming services and was in the top ten, to the Grammys, the Emmys. You love when people love something. It’s hard to define, and that’s something that was unquestionable about Inside: People loved it. It’s one of my favorite things that we’ve ever put out.

Years ago, Chris Rock said a lot of specials aren’t special anymore. He said this years before you even got this job. He calls them “okays.”
He calls them “normals.”

Yes! That’s what it is.
I don’t want to be responsible for a Chris Rock quote, but I think that’s what he calls them.

And back when you first started at Netflix in 2016, your line was that no one complains about how many albums people put out …
Oh, gosh. Shit. I was about to give you that line.

Yeah, I know. I carve out the answers so you don’t repeat yourself. But you’ve said stand-up is ideally a live art form — hence the festival. So what makes an hour of comedy something that needs to be filmed as a special?
What makes it a special is the artists that we’re choosing to work with. That’s usually the place it starts. Giving our trust to them to make an hour (or half hour or whatever it is) something that is truly special. But it’s not really a process that I feel like we own. It’s really very artist-driven. Ronny Chieng shooting his last special in that restaurant — that’s not something that we suggested. We want artists to be performing in a context that they’re excited about, and it’s a process that they lead.

How did Inside come together?
Fairly early in the pandemic, Bo reached out to express that he was going to do Inside. Somewhere around Christmastime, he had sent me around 20 minutes of it. Some of it didn’t even end up in the piece. But he was genuinely working on it like it comes across — for two years. I’ve been working with Bo since he was 17 and I was 27 at Just for Laughs. I think he’s one of the most special artists in the world.

Inside. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

You told Jason Zinoman that there would be a little bit more curation of comedy specials now — that employees have been instructed to spend members’ money wisely — which seems to imply that you have less money to buy them. In general, how will certain downturns affect your approach?
Listen, budgets are always fluid, but we just invested in one of the biggest festivals ever put together — let alone in comedy. We have 12 specials or something coming out. Maybe it’s not exactly that number, but the amount of specials we have this year is a very large number with some of the biggest stand-ups in the world. What I was speaking to in that article is that we need to have a better sense of what our members want.

Can you speak to anything you know that they love?
Our members love Gabriel Iglesias. They certainly love Bo Burnham. They love Dave Chappelle. They love John Mulaney. Bill Burr.

You’re naming famous comedians. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] No, I know. I do think another thing our members love is discovering the thing that other people don’t know about — like a Taylor Tomlinson, a Hannah Gadsby, or a Ronny Chieng. That has always been part of the lifeblood. Ali Wong was the first key example of that. And by the way, it happened with Bo — the comedy world knew Bo really well, but truly, I think the world opened up to him.

What did you learn from the Mo’Nique experience in terms of balancing numbers and the legacy of the comedian?
First of all, Mo’Nique broached a very important conversation that deserves to be talked about, and I’ve been a huge fan of hers forever and hope I get to still work with her at some point. Every negotiation with every artist is a snowflake, so it’s very rare that we have a negotiation that ends on day one. They typically take some time to figure out.

I think that we have great empathy in this space. This is not like you have hundreds of workers and scriptwriters and directors; usually, a special ends after a culmination of somebody doing material that is very personal to them. So obviously, the least fun part of the job is figuring out compensation, but we figure it out. And again, budgets are fluid, but I think that on the whole, we’re doing a pretty good job at it.

It seems like Netflix has shifted a lot of its focus and buying strategies around international appeal — like finding the next Squid Game. Comedy has always had a hard time translating internationally. What have you learned about international stand-up or the appeal of American stand-ups to international audiences?
We’ve never seen more comedians touring other places in the world, and certainly, I’m proud of the role that Netflix has played in that. But the core audience for stand-up, typically, is more geographically based. That’s why we try to have a subset of different folks around the world — my team hates when I say this, but heat-seeking missiles to audiences that really want that. We’re not necessarily looking for the Squid Game of stand-up; we’re looking for something that you will specifically love and tell your friends about.

Recently, I read that Netflix is interested in live-streaming technology. How do you think it might work with stand-up or comedy in general?
Having been through this festival and that great live experience, it would’ve been something to capture some of it. But it’s definitely early days on that conversation.

Can you give any broad strokes of what the future holds for the stand-up special? What you might like to see more or less of?
My answer’s lame but … funny first. We’re buying all sorts of different things, but the thing that excites me the most in comedy is when people have really funny material that folks see themselves in — and giving our members and comedy fans the ability to be distracted. That’s part of the joy of doing this live thing.

Seeing that in person again was very special. The audiences were ravenous for comedy, and it’s why you spend your life doing what you do — because it’s an under-talked-about genre, in a way, and a very important thing. Laughter is a key human emotion that is how many of us can contextualize our entire lives, and it’s important. So the thing that gets me excited is when I sit down and watch a special and I laugh my ass off.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Man Behind Netflix Comedy’s Curtain