It’s been a tough few weeks for Netflix. The streamer lost subscribers for the first time in over a decade and its market value took a battering, losing over $50 billion in one day after its disappointing first quarter earnings.
Laughter, they say, is the best medicine and the streamer will have plenty of those over the next ten days as it gets ready to launch its Netflix Is A Joke festival, a major statement of intent to the comedy community that will see over 330 comedians take to the stage at 288 live shows across Los Angeles with 250,000 tickets sold.
The company has put together a wild collection of jokers – two years on from when it was originally scheduled and subsequently pulled because of the pandemic.
There are those that you’d expect to be at such an event, from Adam Sandler, Aziz Ansari and Kevin Hart. There are those that are coming in pretty hot such as recent Oscars host Amy Schumer and The Closer’s Dave Chappelle and the possibility of a show from Chris Rock.
There’s the likes of Gabriel Iglesias, who has become the first standup comedian to play Dodger stadium and will host the largest Netflix comedy special taping ever, and Taylor Tomlinson, who has broken through with her latest special Look At You. Then there’s those that presumably Netflix would love to work with in other capacities such as Larry David and Conan O’Brien.
Netflix’s head of comedy Tracey Pakosta, in a wide-ranging interview with Deadline, says that the festival gives the streamer a chance to flex its comic chops. “The festival is truly a celebration of comedy. Only Netflix could do something like that and elevate these voices in that big of a way,” she says. “I get to see how all of these muscles are flexed and also how excited the talent is to participate in it. It’s just become such a big company-wide event, not only a comedy event.”
Pakosta laughs off the idea that the event, which is being led by VP, Standup and Comedy Formats, Robbie Praw, is just a canny way of impressing those stars that it is currently not working with.
But she admitted that standup – Netflix is filming around a dozen shows to air on the service after the event – is a good entry point for future scripted stars.
She said that there is “immense opportunity” for comedians to work across the genres and highlighted the path taken by Michelle Buteau, who originally had a stand up special on the service and now hosts reality series The Circle, starred in feature film Always Be My Maybe and recently scored a series order for scripted comedy Survival of the Thickest.
“AN OPPORTUNITY I COULDN’T PASS UP”
Pakosta joined Netflix at the end of 2021 from NBC, where she developed series such as The Good Place and Superstore and rose to Co-President, Scripted Programming.
Before that she had been head of comedy at Universal Television, where she oversaw comedies such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and worked for Bela Bajaria, who is now global head of TV at Netflix.
Pakosta says that the job was an “opportunity that I couldn’t pass up”.
“I’m very happy I made this shift. One of the things that was a big difference is that at NBC there was very clear brand. We knew what we were targeting. At Netflix, we’re entertaining the world. The ability to do and tell multiple stories and be in business with incredible talent that want to tell their stories is the big difference,” she says.
Pakosta also has a number of new big-ticket comedies launching soon.
Mike Myers’ The Pentaverate, a six-part limited series that sees the Wayne’s World and Austin Powers star play eight characters, launches on May 5. The series, which is about a secret society and stars Jennifer Saunders, Ken Jeong and Keegan-Michael Key with Jeremy Irons narrating, is also getting a premiere at Netflix Is A Joke.
Pakosta says Myers is doing what Myers does best in the show, which she called “wildly creative”.
She is also excited about Blockbuster, a comedy set in the last Blockbuster store in America starring Randall Park, Neil Patrick Harris’ return to comedy series television with Uncoupled from Darren Star and Jeffrey Richman and That ‘90s Show, a sequel series to the Fox comedy (“I still have my high waisted jeans and I’m hoping that show will be a big hit for many reasons”).
It will be interesting to see whether Blockbuster, which is quite on the nose given Netflix’s corporate history with the video chain, can replicate the success of Pakosta’s previous workplace comedies such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Superstore. “I called them work family shows because that’s what family was for us at NBC. But I am really excited to continue to bring that over to Netflix,” she adds.
When you speak to anyone involved in the comedy business in Hollywood about Netflix, once they stop talking about the company’s stock price, two things come up: pilots and multi-camera.
Netflix does not order pilots. Pakosta admitted that she “found it a little scary at first” given that she had spent many years going through the traditional pilot process, with the exception of Mike Schur’s The Good Place, which came with Ted Danson and Kristin Bell attached.
“Going straight-to-series is truly about that authentic voice,” she says. “I jumped right in. It’s about trusting your gut and your instinct on something and really betting forward.”
At Netflix, she said creators come in with a “much more fully realized idea” because they know it’s all or nothing. She uses the example of Unstable, its upcoming comedy starring Rob Lowe and his son John Owen Lowe from Santa Clarita Diet creator Victor Fresco. “We knew a lot about their relationship and they came in, we sat down and talked through how that show would unfold over the course of the season,” she says.
Ordering pilots feels like a conundrum to the streamer, which has long talked up the freedom that it gives creatives. On the one hand, spending money on pilots that don’t go anywhere can feel like a waste of money. But on the other hand, fixing any problems that a pilot might spotlight, feels like it would help create more, longer-running hits.
Does Pakosta expect the no-pilots strategy to ever change? “We haven’t talked about pilots at this point,” she says. “I’ve been in the job for 18 months and we probably will continue to evolve our process going forward on many fronts. Right now, I’ve wrapped my head around the straight-to-series of it all and I want to do the best shows in that way that I can.”
The other scripted comedy conundrum is the balance between multi-camera and single-camera.
Netflix has tried and largely failed in the multi-camera arena. While The Ranch and Fuller House have had long runs, and, more recently, The Upshaws from Regina Hicks and Wanda Sykes, has performed well, recent high-profile multi-cam cancellations include Kevin James’ The Crew, Gabriel Iglesias’ Mr. Iglesias, Jamie Foxx’s Dad Stop Embarrassing Me! and Pretty Smart.
Even James is apparently going single-camera for his next project after striking a development deal with the streamer, although Pakosta says that this project is in the very early stages “so it hasn’t really come into focus what that is”.
“His movies, which are extended single camera comedies, do extremely well on Netflix,” she adds. “I can actually see him winning in either.”
Many have attributed these multi-camera issues to the aforementioned lack of pilots or the fact that Netflix is searching for broad shows in super-niche times.
Pakosta says that That ‘90s Show has “the opportunity to prove going straight-to-series on multi-cam will work for Netflix” but she admits it’s difficult to find the next Chuck Lorre.
“Even at the broadcast [networks] it was really hard. It’s really hard to do multi-cam well. There are certain people that really know how to do it, and certain talent that really loves it and wants to do it. But it’s hard for everybody,” she adds. “You’ll see that the goal is to just create a wide breadth of comedy offerings that are incredibly funny and give people choice.”
A number of Netflix’s big-ticket comedies are coming to an end including Grace and Frankie, which is the streamer’s longest-running original show, Dead To Me, the Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini-fronted black comedy from Liz Feldman and teen comedy Never Have I Ever from Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher.
She also admitted that it hasn’t made decisions on Steve Carrell’s Space Force or Will Arnett’s remake of Murderville.
Unlike a broadcast network, which needs to find specific replacements for its schedule, Pakosta isn’t feeling the stress of these exits. “Those shows set the bar really high for us. They were they’re all incredible shows and we have great things coming up. It’s much more of a holistic conversation than just plugging a show in to fill another,” she says.
There is also a healthy pipeline of laughs to come.
Mo Amer, who is one of the kickoff comedians for Netflix Is A Joke, has a scripted series in the works, Mindy Kaling has a workplace comedy inspired by the front office of the LA Lakers, Ricky Gervais is teeing up a couple of new projects post-Afterlife.
There’s also comedies in the works with the former President of the United States and one of the country’s hottest rappers.
Higher Ground, the production company founded by President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, is working on a scripted comedy about four middle-aged Black women from Houston, TX with The Upshaws creator Regina Hicks and has sketch comedy The G Word launching soon in addition to other projects.
“We do have a lot of conversations with [the Obamas] and their team at Higher Ground about comedy. If we find something that has the right tone and a story that they truly want to embrace, we’ll be excited about that,” she says.
The streamer also signed a first-look deal with Megan Thee Stallion, the rapper who featured on Cardi B’s hit single WAP, and is working on a comedy series. “It’s very early stages. She came in and she pitched something loosely based on her life growing up, and we got very excited about it. We think she’s special,” she adds.
There’s bound to be a few more ideas emerging from Netflix Is A Joke as well.