Illustration: James Clapham
In the world of production, a stand-up special is one of the most affordable things you can shoot. All you need is a comic, a mic, and a willing audience.
But these days comedy specials are big business, with Netflix offering some comics as much as $20 million per special. That’s right up there with Chris Hemsworth’s paycheck for Thor: Love and Thunder. If some comedians are earning as much as Marvel leads, it’s not that crazy to imagine the future of stand-up specials might include wildly escalating budgets.
So what would a stand-up special with a Marvel-movie budget look like? Will comedians of the future don capes and blow up metropolises? Or will they dump the money into getting chiseled abs, creating stunningly realistic holograms, and erecting ornate sets that are built to be burned to the ground?
We asked nine comedians to spend $250 to $400 million on the stand-up special of their dreams. Here’s what they came up with.
Photo: Rick Kern/Getty Images
I’m renting the city of Palm Springs and installing hidden cameras throughout the city for their Pride weekend in November. The city of Palm Springs is run by Republicans, and they will sell out a government for anything. I do my entire act as incidental conversations with strangers. I subject unaware gay guys to my observations about what’s wrong with gay marriage or paper straws, but with the power and authority to run and manipulate the city of Palm Springs over the course of four days.
Most of the time, an audience is just there for reaction shots, but in my special the whole focus is the drama of the reaction shot. We follow these people on their journeys after they’ve experienced my joke, when they’re like, “That fat guy would not shut up about Canada.” You know? Giving as much primacy to them speaking back to the joke as to the joke itself. But when we finally come to all of the people we’ve filmed Borat-style and say, “Will you sign this release?” they’re going to be worried that they don’t look hot enough. So we’re probably going to have to spend $20 to $30 million just going through and face-tuning people, making sure that their ab definition looks right, for lesbians making sure that their dogs look as good as possible.
We would have to custom make a leather jumpsuit for me, and that would require a huge number of cows and a great amount of work. But then there’s also the fact that I am astoundingly sweaty and this is Palm Springs. So we’re going to have to figure out some sort of space-age polymer that we can put inside that will wick away sweat.
I’m going to have to be on constantly, so I’m going to have to participate in Kumail Nanjiani levels of physical preparation beforehand. We’re going to need a team of people working on that front, starting six or nine months beforehand. Except so much of my material relies on my persona. I can’t get ripped — it would undermine who I am and fundamentally place into question the entire project of the leather bodysuit. So I’m also going to have to just be calorically bulking the whole time so that I can maintain my own body mass.
There’s always the question of authenticity in something like this, and with these emotional threads that we’re following, there’s the possibility that it might be a little lackluster. So we’re going to need a couple of Pulitzer Prize winners. You know, Spielberg has Tony Kushner. Let’s see if Margaret Atwood is around and have her do some live reality-show producing.
We’re also going to make two of your three Chris’s be gay for pay for the weekend. Evans, Hemsworth — not Pratt — Pine if he wants to, even though he’s DC. It’s for the community, you know? I did go to law school myself, so I would be doing a lot of the work on these contracts. Of course, contracts for sexual favors are highly illegal in the United States, so we’d have to do a lot of this legal work in the Netherlands. I think IMAX is the only way to capture gay-for-pay Chris Hemsworth receiving a hand job at the pool at the Ace while I tell a joke about brunch in the background. You have to be able to capture everything. Essentially we want every frame to be a Renaissance painting.
You do have to build to a crescendo. Possibly my closer is delivered to Lizzo and then I have an organic and cataclysmic interaction with Lizzo. We’ll just tell Lizzo, “Here’s hundreds of thousands of dollars to come perform at Palm Springs Pride” and then I show up and she’s like, “Why does this guy have access? Throw him out!” And they’re like, “We can’t. He owns Palm Springs for the weekend.” Then I talk some shit about her flute playing, and we end up throwing each other in a fountain.
Photo: Andrew Bray
I’m a huge Jim Henson fan, so I would rebuild the set of Labyrinth with thousands of puppet creatures, and I would be David Bowie. In Labyrinth David Bowie’s bulge is like a big character, so I’d want an animatronic bulge that was sort of its own little puppet attached to me. I would want the set to be the most insane magical other realm — this ’80s-synth, crazy fantasy world, with goblins and creatures. Fraggle Rock meets Labyrinth.
The audience is entirely made up of these puppet creatures. I’d want a lot of the budget to go to that. It would be great to cut to these creatures’ responses, and I love to imagine a world where I’m only performing for these goblin creatures.
I’d also want the ability to fly in and fly out, as a punch line. Like if a joke really hit, I’d want to press a button and then just be suspended in the air.
Spielberg is of course directing it, and he brings Jim Henson back from the dead to help do all the visuals. Henson co-directs all the production design, which is expensive, obviously — to resurrect Jim Henson. But we have to.
It would be a Greek-theater-level production with crazy pyrotechnics and an amazing full-synth orchestra behind me. I would also train the whole year to be a JLo-level pop star. In addition to being really funny, I’d love for people to be like, “Whoa! She’s such a good dancer and she’s such a good singer! And she’s so hot!”
I’d also want a lot of money to go toward craft services. I’ve never been to Nobu, so the whole audience gets Nobu. And we have poffertje pancakes flown in. They’re a Dutch pancake — they’re like the lovechild of a pancake and crëpe.
Actually, I’d want the audience to be half puppets, half comics. And anybody that has to sit through 90 minutes of comedy should be compensated. So everyone that comes leaves with a $1,000 check. Because at this point, we’re just hemorrhaging money, so who cares?
You know how the movie Big or even Dance Dance Revolution when you step on different parts of the floor and they light up? At the end of the special, we have a crazy dance party where it’s all like ’90s, “Rhythm Is a Dancer,” and it’s all goblins and comics dancing together. I would want it to be so over-the-top that somehow it feels underground and effortless.
I feel like the budget is a little too much for me. I could probably do it with $80 million. Can I pocket the rest for all my other passion projects, please? I mean, I could build an empire.
I’d spend $10 million on Marvel celebrity endorsements: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson. I’d even get people who aren’t associated with Marvel films: Viola Davis, a former president. If Barack Obama says, “You have to watch this comedy special,” of course people are gonna check it out. Barry never comments on this kind of stuff.
We get Republican endorsements too, because I’m a comedian first, and a person with morals second. I won’t get Donald Trump because that’s too much of a lightning rod. But I’d get Mitt Romney to say he doesn’t like a lot of comedy, but this really made him laugh — almost as much as when he fired all those people. You get someone on the other side. You bring the American political system back together. You’re the great unifier.
The next big-budget item would be locations. I’d want to do it somewhere no one has ever done stand-up before, an iconic space, maybe a government building. Somewhere you’re not supposed to be. The White House! I’d build a replica of the White House, perform at the press-conference podium, and have the audience seated like the press corps. I’d have a watermark that makes it seem like it’s officially endorsed by the U.S. government and then I’d say a bunch of shit that is the complete opposite of what the U.S. government wants you to say. I’d bring up drone strikes. I’d do it all. So then I guess the next big-budget cost is going to be a legal team to get me out of trouble.
For my entrance, I’d come in on an eight-team sleigh of men who work in finance while cracking a whip. It’s a comment on America’s commitment to these financial markets, but it’s also a comment on what people are scared reparations will look like, and it’s also an excuse to get muscular shirtless men to do free work for me: “On Trevor, on Colton, on Chase!”
It would be like a fever dream of a Rick and Morty episode with a very good special in between. It would be as if cutaways in cartoons could happen in real life. Imagine having a bit about velociraptors and then someone in the crowd is mauled.
I want to make sure everyone in the crowd laughs, so everyone who does gets a $100 bill. I’d do that scary crowd-work bit where it’s like, “Do you think you’re ready to get married?” and the couple goes, “We don’t know.” And I go, “If you ask her to marry you, she will get this $100,000 ring. But if you don’t ask her to marry you, both of you are kicked out of the show.”
I’d probably pay Oprah to show up and do a live cameo and maybe laugh a little. Sort of like when celebrities do Japanese commercials: They won’t be proud of it, but they’ll do it.
I’d get five publicists and make sure it’s the first special to ever be on Netflix, HBO Max, Showtime, and Crackle all at the same time. I’d pay to bring Quibi back to life and put it up on Quibi in ten-minute increments.
I’d pay a bunch of money to digital analysts to create a bunch of bots to make sure everyone says it’s the best stand-up special ever. I’d give money to every famous dead comedian’s estate for them to say, “Oh yes, Lenny Bruce would have loved this.”
Also, if you spend this much money on a special, I think you have to show full peen. It’d be a lot of money for a great prosthetic one too, if you’re not blessed. So I think I’d get naked at one point.
I made this special Good Timing for a very, very low budget. I would redo it, but everybody, all 16 seniors and me, would be covered in gold leaf. At the beginning of the special we would buy a cameo from Queen Elizabeth, and she’d say something kind of fun, like, “Keep comedy and carry on!” And then she kind of giggles to herself for a while.
What I would really love is to have an 18-minute Oklahoma-ish dream ballet to the song “Accentuate the Positive,” or maybe an instrumental version of “Timber,” because “Timber” is just a perfect song. I would want the dancing to be done by people that saw a flier that was like, “Do you want to do ballet for the first time?” I think that would be really awesome in the middle.
It’d be pretty much remade shot for shot but then I would want to end with a flight scene. So all these gold seniors are flying through the air, and I would want it to be real, like harnesses attached to some kind of plane. And I’d want it to be clear that we would all be heading south like birds. So we see the Washington Square Park arch and then we see the Freedom Tower.
This is obviously a huge departure, but I’m a big fan of the Disney-as-an-adult phase. And I’m thinking that maybe it’s a two-part special. In the second part, you just fly everybody out private to Disney World, and you just see them reviewing Disney foods. I think that would be really good. You see them eat the dreamsicle churros, the polenta corn dogs. I mean, Disney is doing some really inventive stuff as far as I can tell online, and I guess if you have that much money, you don’t really have to worry about anybody buying the finished special. Right?
Photo: Alex S.K. Brown
It would be a lot like a Marvel movie, because it would be long, there would be a lot of propaganda, and it might be bad. It might be really bad.
I would definitely pay myself $100 million, because I know that I would just get so bullied after the special came out that I would need the money to run away from society.
We shoot it on a cruise ship, and there’s a lot of pyrotechnics. The philharmonic orchestra plays throughout. It’s almost like a wedding. Imagine a very elegant dining experience. Everyone that worked on this special would be treated like a king and fed the most luxurious Michelin-quality food.
I would hire a team of writers that are extremely expensive — the kind of comedians that usually hire other writers. So then they would hire writers, so it’d be like an MLM of comedy writers, where I have a team of writers, they have a team, and then they have a team, and it just keeps going and going. But instead of the money trickling up, it’s just all the millions of dollars trickling down through all of them. So at a certain point the jokes wouldn’t really even be personal to me. They would be broad — which I think is also very Marvel.
I think at a certain point, there’s a medical emergency and then I leap into action. It’s totally fake, but we’re all pretending this is an organic thing that happened, and it makes the special go viral: “In the middle of Joe Castle Baker’s special there was a medical emergency and he saved this woman’s life! She was going into labor and then he was about to deliver the baby right there. But then it was clear to him that she needed to have an emergency C-section. Luckily, he was thinking about pre-med for a long time, so he was able to do it.”
At the end of the day, it’s just, you know, a standard special where I talk about myself onstage and I get paid $100 million.
Photo: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Vulture
I would use the budget in the same way that Marvel movies do: I would get super-jacked. I would hire one of those insane, mean personal trainers. I think it also costs a lot of money to eat properly. I was just informed that LeBron spends $1 million on food every year. So I mean, look, that’s a chunk of the budget right there.
And I would use it for special effects. Imagine the act-outs that you could have if you had a live CGI budget. Riot Games is using hologram technology to create K-pop groups out of video-game characters, so I’m just imagining being able to re-create some of the act-outs that I have to do physically onstage by myself with a whole cast of hologram characters. I could do a very graphic act-out of a sexual experience with a faceless hologram.
Stand-up is such a solitary thing, but if I had the technology and the money to be onstage with different versions of myself it would be really funny. Like Godzilla vs. Kong; I could Godzilla vs. Kong myself. Not even just CGI and holograms — a puppet version of myself, like a huge Jurassic Park animatronic, life-size or bigger. That’s the thing that stand-up needs: a giant puppet version of myself, ten stories tall.
I’d also want to get the audience involved, so I’d make it a theme-park ride, almost. I’d have the 4-D seats: If I’m talking about a joke where someone is throwing a glass of water in my face, everyone gets water thrown in their face. That sort of thing. It would be a 4-D comedy special.
Photo: Sohrob Nayebaziz
Right now I’m working on a solo show called How to Start a Fire. It’s basically about me as a little girl and all the mischief I got into. So I would have interstitials of me as a kid, and I would hire real actors to play me. Any little girl that’s been on Abbott Elementary I want. Honestly, I want the whole cast of Abbott Elementary. I want Quinta Brunson to be a teacher. I want Janelle James as my principal.
You know when you’re on a stage and there’s kind of like a treadmill? I want my whole stage built like that. So I’m constantly walking or making sharp turns, or running. I’d want it to be like in Euphoria when they did the play. So there would be live reenactments onstage that are sort of cartoonish but then we’d cut away to the interstitials with everybody from Abbott Elementary and it’s very realistic.
I would also love to hire the costume designer from Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter, to design everything I wear. Throughout the show, I would be dressed like a little kid and then as I get older, my outfits would change. We’d re-create a lot of the things that I wore for picture day, like terrible poofy dresses, but obviously she would make a cool adult version of it.
At the end of my special, I start talking about the actual fire. You know when you go to Universal Studios, and you do the Jaws ride and there are explosions and fire when you’re in the water? I want that, but in a building. I want everyone in the audience to feel like they’re in an actual fire.
When the actual fire happens, I want my outfit to turn into something that is a reflection of a fire. So if I could wear a kind of mirrorish costume, that would be dope — so it’s like the audience is seeing themselves on fire too.
I would like to donate whatever money is leftover to help aid seniors and their caregivers. Then I’d also want to give part of it to help kids in foster homes, because my uncles were like foster parents to me and weren’t getting paid for it.
Photo: Taylor Steele
I’ve been taking a lot of inspiration from Korean comedy shows. They’re sort of impromptu, and the comedians improvise scenarios along with the audience. So a big part of my comedy now is making the audience read my jokes, or I get people onstage and tell them, “You have to carry a bouquet of flowers in between your ass cheeks.” If I had a Marvel-movie budget, I would escalate that: “Here’s a helicopter. You have to fly it.” Or the whole background of the set disappears and then it’s the Statue of Liberty and I’m like, “You have to climb on top of the Statue of Liberty while twerking.”
Oh my God, I have such a weird crippling fear of becoming Joe Rogan, and I just came up with Fear Factor. I’m like, “I have this idea for a show.” It’s just something Joe Rogan did 15 years ago.
Maybe I should change my answer to blowing my budget on the biggest celebrities. It would be like Punk’d meets Fear Factor. I would love to get Steven Yeun, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom Cruise and then make everything else really low budget. So they’ll be doing this ridiculous show in the smallest room — maybe it’s the second stage at the PIT — wearing Spirit Halloween costumes. I’d have the celebrities participate in the dares and stunts, and I’d make it a contest between the celebrities and the everyman. But, of course, the celebrities get roasted. That’s in the spirit of the Korean comedy show.
Okay, can I say this? Maybe it’s problematic, but I feel like if I had that much money, I would just BBL myself to death. On day one of the premiere, I would not be recognizable. I would just have the biggest lips — like to the point that it’s uncomfortable, that’s how much filler. My butt would look so amazing. There would be no room onstage for the celebrities. I’d BBL myself to inches away from death. That’s my answer.
Photo: Greg Feiner
$250 million? Jesus. I mean, should I try to solve world hunger with that?
Okay, we open in a typical theater with the queen herself, Beyoncé, performing “Partition,” because of my #dropchallenge. Beyoncé and I do the #dropchallenge together. I have a diamond-covered mic — not blood diamonds, the conflict-free kind. Then, Oprah-style, I start giving out gifts starting with my grandma. I get her a live knee surgery, performed by a top surgeon, because she’s only had one knee done, but she needs both. They wheel her backstage because not everyone wants to watch that, but there’s a feed you can tune into and watch if you’re into that kind of thing.
Then we have the entire cast of Selling Sunset take my husband and my mom on a tour of homes to get my grandma her dream house. So it’ll be like multiple shows within a show: I’m doing stand-up, but you can tune into a fully produced episode of Selling Sunset if you want. At the same time, the cast of Queer Eye is also there. So during my performance, there’s wardrobe changes, live hair changes, makeup changes, Bobby is rearranging furniture behind me. Let’s get LL Cool in an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles. My current special, The Intruder, is about an intruder who came to our house three times in a day, and he still hasn’t been caught. So LL Cool J solves the mystery and finds the intruder.
At the end, the audience chooses the Selling Sunset house, and I give whatever money is leftover to the audience members. On the way out, there’s hot fresh pizza that was baked live, so that’s also a feed you can tune into. I call it Everything Everywhere All at Once, and let’s get the Daniels to direct it.
Note: For the purpose of this interview, we told Okatsuka to assume that world hunger has already been solved by Elon Musk.
https://www.vulture.com/article/comedians-marvel-movie-budget-special.html 9 Comedians Dream Up a Marvel-Movie Budget Stand-up Special