In difficult times, one thing most of us crave is uncomplicated, instantly gratifying comfort. Often this is snacks, and just as often it’s telly. Streaming figures have rocketed since the Covid-19 pandemic: time spent on subscription streaming services doubled in April 2020, and 12 million people joined a new service last year. The majority signed up to Netflix (which had 13 million subscribers in 2020) and Amazon Prime Video (7.9 million), with Disney+ (4.3 million) overtaking Now TV (1.6 million) in third place. Likewise, last year’s iPlayer views were up by more than 30% on 2019.
The other thing people need in a crisis is a laugh, either to distract from the horrors or to render them absurd. Being able to find humour in something is, in a way, wrestling a sort of control over it. “When things aren’t all good in the world, people often want to escape, and comedy performs that function on a basic human level,” says Lynsey Atkin, ECD at 4Creative, Channel 4’s in-house agency. Brooklyn-based creative production studio And/Or agrees: “There’s an appetite for things that are light, comfortable and nostalgic and feel like an escape.”
This need for distraction is something that mainstream TV has picked up on: as early as spring 2020, Channel 4 director of programmes Ian Katz stated he was looking for shows that “cheer people up”, while the BBC stated its intent to appeal to viewers’ sense of “fun, mischief and provocation”. Such channels are likely also feeling the pressure from Netflix, generally seen as the go-to for streaming stand-up. But Amazon Prime has been hot on its heels since before the pandemic, launching its first series of original stand-up shows in summer 2019, and making 22 – as many as Netflix, which consistently puts out around seven new shows each quarter – by the end of that year. So how are each of the channels setting out their store to capture the market for comedy?