Netflix Gives Comedy the Live Treatment. The Results Are Chaotic.

On Friday night, in the premiere of his appealingly chaotic livestreaming variety show “Everybody’s in L.A.,” which runs every night this week, John Mulaney delivered a monologue about his adopted city next to a map that broke it down into a crooked jigsaw puzzle of neighborhoods.

In his distinctive staccato cadence that could sell steak knives or a card trick as convincingly as the premise of a joke, he said, “One thing that unites every part of Los Angeles is that no matter where you go, there is zero sense of community.”

For comedy fans, this past week felt different, because everywhere you went in Los Angeles, Netflix was there, blanketing the city in ads and shows for its Netflix Is a Joke Fest, running through May 12. It’s the biggest comedy showcase of the year (with more than 500 offerings, a 40 percent increase from the festival’s already mammoth debut event in 2022) but also something of a corporate flex. Who else could get Hannah Gadsby and Shane Gillis in the same festival or draw the talk-show titans Jon Stewart and David Letterman to host events? Or recruit Chris Rock to play the Billy Crystal role in a reading of the screenplay for “When Harry Met Sally,” with, as Rock introduced it, “an all-Black cast, like it was originally intended.” (Tracee Ellis Ross doing Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm, but louder, received standing ovations from the audience and onstage participants, too.)

The most newsworthy shift this year was the aggressive move into livestreaming events, following the blockbuster success of Chris Rock’s 2023 special, “Selective Outrage,” about being slapped at the Oscars. (One of that ceremony’s hosts, Wanda Sykes, returned to the place it happened, the Dolby Theater, for a festival show and began by saying this time no one would get assaulted).

For the live events, Netflix picked stars with current buzz. Along with the Mulaney variety show, Katt Williams followed up his viral “Club Shay Shay” interview with a new hour, “Woke Foke,” on Saturday, and Kevin Hart, whom Williams singled out in his interview for criticism, tried to bring back the dormant genre of celebrity roast on Sunday with “The Greatest Roast of All Time,” starring Tom Brady, widely considered the GOAT of quarterbacks. (After livestreaming, the shows can be watched on Netflix, sometimes in edited form.)

As the last half-century of “Saturday Night Live” has proved, there is an undeniable excitement to live comedy, an irreplaceable energy that can create a sense of event. But there are significant dangers, not the least of which is that you can’t cut the boring or unfunny parts. Netflix built its comedy empire on elevating the standup special as an art form to rival film or TV. Highlighting live comedy represents a commercial move for Netflix, spotlighting events that promise unpredictability more than refinement, mess instead of polish.

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