Netflix is spending a fortune on stand-up—but nobody streams these comedy specials on HBO

Stewart is one of the few comedians HBO is willing to splurge on.
Stewart is one of the few comedians HBO is willing to splurge on.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Sykes/Invision
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Former The Daily Show host Jon Stewart is returning to TV for his first stand-up comedy special in more than 20 years—and it’s airing on HBO.

The specials serve as somewhat of a coup for HBO, which was once a leader in live comedy but now only releases a handful of stand-up specials a year. The premium cable network has been driven out of the market for A-list comedians by Netflix, which is spending lavishly on top-tier talent like Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Amy Schumer, and Louis CK.

Rock’s two specials and Chappelle’s three reportedly cost Netflix $20 million apiece, for a whopping total of $100 million. And Netflix reportedly spent another $100 million on Seinfeld’s pair of specials, combined with his full series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. That’s roughly what HBO spent on the entire sixth season of Game of Thrones.

Netflix released 25 stand-up specials last year, and is releasing one per week in 2017. HBO released just three stand-up specials in 2016, according to Polygon. And it has so far announced four this year: Three from Silicon Valley star TJ Miller, Jerrod Carmichael, and Chris Gethard that have already been released, and another due out next month from comedian George Lopez.

But the thing is, practically no one watches, according to HBO’s president of programming Casey Bloys. “As a category, stand-up specials account for less than 1% of usage on Go and Now,” he said at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, the Hollywood Reporter reported, referring specifically to its streaming services, HBO Go and HBO Now.

HBO Now had more than 2 million subscribers in the US, the company said in February. And HBO overall had an estimated 34 million US subscribers across pay-TV and digital as of the first quarter of 2017, SNL Kagan estimated.

“It’s hard for me to pay exorbitant prices,” Bloys said. “When prices come down, or when it makes sense again, it’s relatively easy to get back in. We’ll wait it out.”

At Netflix, even lesser-known acts fetch a hefty pay check. They earn anywhere from $3-10 million, Variety reported, and higher profile comedians land $10-20 million. That’s a lot, but less than the cost to develop a high-end drama like The Crown, which Netflix paid $130 million for.

At HBO, stand-up isn’t worth that kind of splurge—unless you’re someone like Stewart.