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Between Netflix And TikTok, Comedy Is Booming

Stand-up comedy is booming as Netflix specials and social media make the art form more accessible than ever. 

Grosses from stand-up shows have nearly tripled over the last decade, generating more than $900 million US last year according to Pollstar, with Kevin Hart topping that list at $68.3 million between October 2022 and 2023.

In Canada, Live Nation is nearly doubling the number of comedy shows it promotes year-over-year, according to president of music Erik Hoffman, who said he expects that growth to continue.

WATCH | Stand-up comics say social media is fuelling popularity boom:


Stand-up comics say social media is fuelling popularity boom

Live stand-up comedy shows are more popular than ever, with ticket revenue nearly tripling over the last ten years, and comics in Canada credit the boom to social media.

Comedians and industry experts attribute this largely to the advent of Netflix specials, as well as the growing accessibility of comedy through YouTube and apps like Instagram and TikTok that give comedians a direct way to connect with audiences that aren’t at a comedy club.

“I think ultimately [social media] has helped me a lot, because it used to be that a certain person has to be in a certain room for you to get an opportunity,” said Rachel Feinstein, who has shows at Toronto’s Comedy Bar Danforth this weekend.

“You’d have one man … in the back of the room, and then he puts you in the pictures and, you know, may or may not sexually harass you. And it’s getting a little better now.” 

New paths to success

In the past, comedians would have to work their way up through comedy clubs and in the hopes of being discovered — and even then, few avenues existed to gain mainstream viewership, save for coveted spots on late-night talk shows and big festivals like Just for Laughs.

Social media has also allowed comedians to find niche audiences. Feinstein, who jokes about her firefighter husband in her Netflix special Big Guy, has found a sizeable following among families of first responders, who share her comedy clips in online groups.

A man wearing a tiara and a woman wearing a firefighter hat sit in a bed together.
Rachel Feinstein, pictured with her firefighter husband Peter Brennan, has found an online audience among first responder families. (Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images)

But she says while the digital world has opened up new paths to success in stand-up, it’s also added to the hustle of self-promotion. 

“There’s always gonna be some ball you’re dropping. I have, like, 40,000 unanswered emails.… It’s never ending,” she said. 

“Your comedy can get seen by a lot more people, because there’s more ways for people to see it. But it just makes you always feel like there’s something you should be doing that you’re not doing. There’s never a moment in my life where I’m just sitting on a beach. I’m always like, ‘Oh, f–k, I forgot to post on my YouTube channel.'”

WATCH | Hannah Gadsby in 2018 on the success of Nanette, her Netflix comedy special: 


Hannah Gadsby on the Just For Laughs red carpet

The Australian comedian discusses the success of Nanette, her groundbreaking comedy special.

Self-marketing is ‘inherently embarrassing’

Jacqueline Novak, whose critically acclaimed off-Broadway show Get On Your Knees was made into a Netflix special in January, says it’s empowering for comedians to have more ways to find and build their own audiences, but there is “something messy” about the increased importance of social media.

“We’re all doing our work and trying to make that great. And then we have to run these marketing campaigns as individuals, essentially,” Novak said. “And marketing is inherently embarrassing, marketing is inherently lame, you know. It’s sort of antithetical to what’s cool about an artist.”

Novak, who also co-hosts a podcast, Poog, with fellow comedian Kate Berlant, built her career largely through live shows and word of mouth. She insisted on being involved in every aspect of her Netflix special, even working with video editors and sound engineers. As someone with perfectionist tendencies, she says posting quick and frequent social media snippets can feel paralyzing.

On the other hand, she says, it provides an avenue to be creative and communicate directly to people who might come out to her live shows. Novak compares it to a “gold rush,” where a person can feel like they’re being left behind if they don’t find as much online success as another comedian.

“In an existential way it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s this whole opportunity that you could be capitalizing on for your agenda,'” she said. “And then you can either be excited about that, or you can be like, ‘Oh God, there’s this whole thing that I’m not capitalizing on,’ and feel bad about it.”

Matt Blake, head of comedy touring at Creative Artists Agency, whose clients include Trevor Noah, Jeff Dunham and Katt Williams, says when he started in the business 25 years ago, comedians “had to be anointed” by someone and television or film to take their careers beyond comedy clubs.

‘The internet gives everyone a chance’

Blake says Dane Cook was one of the first to find superstar-level success on the internet, generating millions of fans through Myspace and his own website in the mid-2000s. In recent years, stand-up has spread widely on TikTok and Instagram, while the popularity of podcasts has given comedians even more opportunities to showcase their personalities and connect with potential fans. 

“The beautiful thing is the internet gives everyone a chance,” Blake said.

“If the content’s good, people come and become attracted to it and they share it. We’ve never had greater opportunities for people.”

A woman in glasses smiles at the camera
Actor and comedian Ali Wong, seen here at the 35th Annual Producers Guild Awards in Hollywood on Feb. 25, 2024, made her name in stand-up with successful Netflix specials. (Michael Tran/AFP via Getty Images)

Netflix started buying stand-up comedy specials in 2013 with Aziz Ansari’s Buried Alive, and has since aired more than 350 specials from more than 200 comedians, turning acts like Ali Wong, Hannah Gadsby and Bo Burnham into superstars. The streaming giant continues to invest in comedy, staging its annual live comedy festival in Los Angeles last month with more than 500 live shows.

While it used to be a rarity for comedians to sell out stadiums — and would require a hit movie and a hit comedy album — it’s now less of a rarity, as the sheer volume of Netflix specials has given more comedians a shot at reaching stardom.

“There’s just much more touring, at a much bigger level,” Blake said. 

More comedy venues popping up

Greg Dean, who has been teaching stand-up classes since 1982 and counts Anthony Jesselnik and Whoopi Goldberg among his students, said the social media and Netflix booms have been accompanied by a proliferation of smaller venues to do live comedy.

Toronto has notably seen a number of new independent comedy venues open since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As stand-up becomes more accessible and less daunting, Dean said more people are considering it as a career path they can work toward, which in turn generates more interest in watching other comedians. 

“I think more people are watching because they have a dream that they can do it, too,” he said.

Canadian comedian Jackie Pirico, whose album Splash Pad was nominated for Comedy Album of the Year at the 2023 Juno Awards, says opportunities have definitely grown in the past decade.

But she has also noticed a “stark and troubling” change in the last few years where performers’ follower counts have a direct correlation to their worth as a performer, which affects their booking for stand-up shows, commercials, TVs and film.

“When I first started comedy, I didn’t even have a smart phone. And it was blessed,” she said. “But now we have this pressure to expand our following and gain followers and go viral.”

A woman in a black dress poses for cameras.
Jackie Pirico says social media expectations put pressure on working comedians. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Lack of online savvy can cost bookings, exposure

That can mean doing a “huge amount” of unpaid work on social media, says Pirico.

“Someone can be fantastic on stage, but just not have that drive or have that ability or that interest to be chronically online. And that can cost them bookings and, and cost them exposure, which I think is really sad,” she said.

While online platforms give comedians a chance to try material without necessarily having to face the humiliation of bombing on stage first, Pirico says online comments can be especially brutal, and comedians need a thick skin to exist on platforms where everyone in the world is allowed to chime in.

Andrew Clark, co-ordinator of Toronto’s Humber College Comedy program, says the infinite accessibility of stand-up has also made it harder to know in some ways what will hit with a broad audience.

“Back when there were gatekeepers, at least there was a gate and you could go, ‘That’s the gate. And if I go through that gate, good things will happen,'” he said. “Now, there’s a million gates.”

Still, he says, right now is a good time to be doing comedy.

“Twenty years ago, there were fewer comedians and there were a lot fewer opportunities,” he said.

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