Standing Out From Under the Shadow of Netflix: How Seeso Has Had a Real Impact in the Evolution of the Hour Special

Rumors are swirling that the days may be numbered for comedy streaming platform And while many in the business questioned whether there ever was room in entertainment for an all-comedy network, a loss of NBC’s digital comedy arm, could be a big loss for comedy as an industry.

Everyone knows that 2017 is a great time to be a comedy fan. Clubs, festivals, social media, podcasts, radio, movies, traditional television and now streaming services offer more outlets than ever before for performers to hone their craft and for fans to access an endless variety of programming. And in this golden (or some say platinum) age of comedy, the stand-up special has reached new prominence with hours and half hours being churned out weekly. At the top of the hour special pyramid sits streaming giant Netflix with a seemingly unlimited budget, and the apparent ability to seduce even the most reluctant performers back to the stage. More traditional outlets like HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central continue to perform well, but always seem to be playing catch up to the stand-up candy store Netflix has been putting on display.

But peeking out from the shadow Netflix has cast over everyone, the newest and smallest platform- Seeso- has managed to stand out from the crowd somehow, pushing its way into the market by finding the unfulfilled niches, overlooked gems, and helping to develop raw talent ready to break. Seeso has spent its inaugural year and a half shining a spotlight on innovative new voices, providing a stage to respected veteran comics with smaller but fiercely loyal followings, and fostering new creative approaches to the comedy special, and in the process, Seeso has unexpectedly become a real player in a very crowded market.

This week’s rumblings and rumors that Seeso may not be sticking around for the long haul were set off by the recent and sudden departure of Evan Shapiro who helmed the streaming service since its inception just a year and a half ago, and gave us our first introduction to the workings at Seeso. Sources at indicate that the folks at Seeso are continuing with business as usual, for now, but Shapiro’s departure combined with NBC’s efforts to “trim the fat” in other digital areas, implies that there may be a dark cloud hovering over the platform. If Seeso’s future really is in doubt, that’s a bad thing not only for the service’s subscribers, but for all fans of creative and unique comedy, and we’re hoping that NBC isn’t looking to pull the plug on the venture just yet.

Seeso, for the uninitiated, is NBC’s fledgling comedy streaming platform. Officially launched in January of last year, the project was looked at with a healthy dose of skepticism by many comedy fans at first. The service offered access to syndicated shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Saturday Night Live, back catalogs of older comedy favorites (Caroline’s Comedy Hour, Monty Python) new original programs like The UCB Show, Hidden America with Jonah Ray, Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, Night Train with Wyatt Cenac and What’s Your F@%king Deal?! and of course, original hour specials.

We spoke with Seeso’s outgoing head honcho Evan Shapiro earlier this year (before he was an outgoing honcho) specifically about the impressive ground Seeso has covered in the area of the stand-up special.  He seemed proud with what they had accomplished so far, and optimistic about the direction they were heading. “We try to have a voice that’s different. We try to have a mix of new artists and established artists,” He added, “We’re also cultivating people who have very, very passionate followings. Even if it’s not two million Twitter followers- Even if it’s a small community, we just want to know that there’s a following that’s going to show up for them.”

Seeso’s focus in its first year was to put out a large, varied catalog to appeal to a multi-faceted audience. In fact, between May and September of last year, the service put out a new series every other week, and that’s not counting stand-up specials. That breakneck pace was an effort not only to establish themselves in a marketplace already laden with streaming services, but also to let comedy fans and comics alike know that they were committed to highlighting lesser-known talents and giving a chance to creative, unique products.

A no-bullshit policy in signing talent and moving through to air dates helped. “We’re not going to put you through the ringer of development hell,” Shapiro said. “We may not pay as much as some of the other folks, but you’re going to get your stuff made and seen quickly,” he said. “We’re artist friendly, in that it’s not like we don’t give notes, it’s that we always take the approach of ‘We want to help you accomplish the content you want to accomplish, not an agenda we’re sending out.’”

Seeso has believed in taking calculated risks since day one. While other outlets invest money in surefire hit specials from market tested names like C.K., Schumer and Seinfeld, Seeso jumps in with specials like Joey “CoCo” Diaz’s Socially Unacceptable and Laurie Kilmartin’s revolutionary, genre-bending 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad which we called the “Comedy Special That Just Made Seeso a Major Player”.

Kilmartin’s special stood out for its dark and unorthodox subject matter, as well as its wildly innovative format- part documentary and part stand-up performance.  It was brilliantly performed and produced, and was probably the first stand-up special that will make you cry as hard as you laugh. “I think that show embodies who we are in a nutshell,” Shapiro told us about Kilmartin’s special. “We’ve worked with Laurie’s managers on a couple different things including What’s Your Fucking Deal? They came to us with the show, which had been shot, but they said they wanted to build around it, just allowing her the space to do what she wants to do. With a set that’s unparalleled in its uniqueness because, you know, unless your father’s dying you’re not really going to write that show; then to go back and actually do the documentary portion at the start, which– I had watched it obviously as it was being cut. Then I sat down over the holidays and watched it with my wife and my two daughters and we spent the first 20 minutes crying.”

With Joey CoCo Diaz’s special, there wasn’t a documentary element per se, but it was meant to be watched in conjunction with a companion piece- an interview Seeso did for their podcast. More importantly, Diaz is a force in comedy right now, and his voice is one that is absolutely ready to be preserved with a recorded hour. And his fans went crazy for the hour, which had been a long time coming. Diaz is a perfect example of the type of artist who can go unnoticed by networks despite having electric material, and a rabid following. Shapiro admitted Diaz hadn’t been on his radar at all. “I barely knew who Coco was and that’s on me, not on Joey,” he said. Shapiro quickly found out Diaz had a killer act and was selling out huge houses. “That’s a pretty good indicator if you can sell 1000 seats in a middle of nowhere town? You have a following.”  He continued. “What I love about Joey is that he’s gotten to a point in his career where he’s very happy with who he is,” he said. “Those are the types of artists that I think are, you know, he doesn’t need a television show to make him feel good about the content that he’s making. He feels very comfortable in his own skin, and it shows up on stage and his audience just really responds to him.”

“I think if you look at what Joey did and what Doug Stanhope did for us. They are giving voice to this band of anger that’s happening across the United States right now. In a way that’s differentiated from a lot of other folks who were doing it.”

And while not every decision has paid off, even the hours that fail to connect seem to have been worthy risks, turning over rocks, and kicking up dust.

Shapiro told us that in addition to providing a stage for more seasoned comics like Nick Di Paolo, Janeane Garofalo, Rory Scovel, Gina Yashere, Stanhope, Diaz and Kilmartin, he also envisioned Seeso would act as a sort of incubator for up-and-comers, where they gently help performers who have interesting ideas along until those ideas are ready to be brought to fruition. “You talk to them and you keep talking to them over the course of a year, following them and watching the stuff they add to the jokes,” Shapiro said of the process. “Giving whatever advice they feel like they want to ask for, and then you’re there when they’re ready to birth that set. That’s really gratifying.”

In the case of Jena Friedman’s special American Cunt, Friedman had done a rough run of the show and sent it to Shapiro, who felt that it was strong, but needed to be honed. “She [Friedman] did a kind of low-res shoot of American Cunt over in England… and I kind of went back to her and said ‘Look, I feel like there’s a great set here and if you want to do it as a special that’s great,’” Shapiro originally told Friedman last year. “I think there’s more you want to try to say and I think if you can kind of make the hour about that, that will be significantly more poignant.”

Friedman took the advice to heart, honing the show down to a fine point and coming back to Shapiro reinvigorated. “Then, by the time we shot it at The Slipper Room, it was just as tight an hour as I’ve seen somebody do in a while,” adds Shapiro. “She’s an important voice and I think we’re yet to see everything that she can do.”

That is exactly what the platform has excelled at doing; finding unique voices and showing comedy fans something they’ve never seen before. To that end, they’ve also brought in performers like Ian Harvie, who made history with the platform as the first transgender comedian to release a comedy special. The special, called May the Best Cock Win, perfectly encapsulates what Shapiro said his team wanted to accomplish. “He’s really brilliant, and part of the attraction was the fact that, here’s a voice that hasn’t been represented in a stand-up special ever,” said Shapiro of the move. “You sit there as a middle-aged white dude and you wonder what you have in common with this guy who kind of came out to his parents twice, first as a lesbian and then as trans, and yet you feel the universality to the struggle that he’s going through that is much more applicable to people around the country than you realize.”

It seems that Seeso has capitalized on caring about comedy as an art form as well as a commodity, and Shapiro told us that idea would remain the guiding force of the platform. “We very much look at ourselves as catering to a certain voice and a certain audience,” he said. “If you want to see the range of stand-up comedy, a full spectrum of voices in stand-up comedy? Nick Di Paolo’s Inflammatory and Gina Yashere’s Ticking Boxes next to each other are as different as can be, almost two different art forms.”

None of this is to knock the approaches taken by other networks, or to suggest they abandon their strategies in favor of the Seeso model. The fact that the platform may be fighting for its life with its parent may indicate that the risks taken are a little too artistic for their own continued existence. But there has to be a way to sustain a model that knows how to find what’s missing in what’s being offered to fans, and fill that space. Focuses on elevating lesser-known or underutilized talent and fostering an environment where boundary-breaking ideas can come to fruition by taking bigger risks, is a worthy endeavor, and exactly what “digital arms” of larger more commercial enterprises are supposed to be for. By bringing more variety to the comedy table, Seeso elevates its own status as a player in the market, and also elevates the industry as a whole. We’re hoping that rather than bowing out, NBC takes this opportunity to ramp up their interests in the digital comedy space and help Seeso to gain the expanded visibility it deserves.

“We feel like we’re telling a story about comedy and comedians that no one else is doing. Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s not necessarily something everybody should be doing,” Shapiro said, adding, “We want to be the home to this particular type of storytelling.” Hopefully, that tradition can live on.

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