Netflix Renews Wanda Sykes ‘The Upshaws’ for Season 3 as It Creates New Comedy Pipeline for Standups (EXCLUSIVE)

For decades, there was a standard path to sitcom stardom: Start out in standup, get spotted by a network or studio scout, land a development deal and then hopefully star in a hit comedy based on your routine. That pipeline peaked in the 90s, when comedians like Tim Allen, Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano and others were examples of how that pattern worked. Until it didn’t. Ensemble comedies (often single-camera) like “The Office” and “Modern Family” began to overshadow those comic-driven laffers. 

But as streamers entered the scene over the last decade, standup specials became a quick way to build a library of content featuring established, top-tier talent. Now, with standup once again in the forefront, a new kind of comedy ecosystem is forming — with Netflix, in particular, eager to lead the charge.

“I think talent wants their stories to be seen and heard and there are a multitude of ways to do that,” says Tracey Pakosta, Netflix’s head of comedy. “These big arena tours still exist, and that’s one way to do that. And then using the platform to tell stories in a different way.”

Netflix is encouraging its stars do it all:  Comedian Michelle Buteau, for example, is juggling multiple projects at once at the streamer, like her stand-up special “Welcome to Buteaupia,” unscripted series “The Circle” and her upcoming scripted series “Survival of the Thickest.” Ali Wong has multiple standup specials on the streamer, starred in the film “Always Be My Maybe,” is a voice on “Big Mouth” and directed “Sheng Wang: Sweet and Juicy.” Bill Burr fronts multiple stand-up specials and created the animated series “F is For Family.” Fortune Feimster was one of the stars of the Netflix is a Joke festival, fronts Netflix’s Sirius XM radio show, has had multiple specials and will be in an upcoming series with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“We’re looking to develop roasts, other sketch shows and variety shows as well,” says Robbie Praw, Netflix’s VP of standup and comedy formats. “So there are other places to take some of this great talent and create an ecosystem.”

Another standup successfully alternating between the live stage and the TV screen is Wanda Sykes, whose scripted comedy “The Upshaws” has just been renewed for a third season, Variety has learned. Regina Hicks created and runs “The Upshaws” with Sykes, who also stars opposite Mike Epps and Kim Fields. The show, which premiered its Season 2 in June, will return in early 2023 with new episodes; it centers on a working-class African American family in Indiana. 

“The Upshaws” is a multi-camera comedy, which in some ways is indeed reminiscent of the shows that standups starred on in the 1990s. “Most of our audience grew up watching multi-cams, and they are excited to see a format that feels like a throwback, but with fresh stories,” Sykes says. Adds Hicks: “I think people do love the multi-cam when it’s done well. It relies on immediate audience response in the laughter, and you need ‘honest funny’ to make that happen. It rings false to add laughs when something just isn’t.”

Sykes also credits the streamers, including Netflix, for the new boom in standups being showcased in a variety of ways. “It used to be only a handful of the top comics would get hour specials, but since that number has dramatically increased, more comics get an opportunity, and some of them you probably won’t know,” she says. “The landscape has changed and everyone is looking for content.”

Page Hurwitz and Niles Kirchner are also EPs on “The Upshaws.” Besides Epps and Fields as Bernie and Regina Upshaw, and Sykes as Lucretia Turner, the show also stars Page Kennedy (Duck), Diamond Lyons (Kelvin Upshaw), Khali Daniya-Renee Spraggins (Aaliyah Upshaw), Jermelle Simon (Bernard Upshaw), Gabrielle Dennis (Tasha Lewis) and Journey Christine (Maya Upshaw).

Pakosta calls Sykes “a great example of somebody who is an incredible stand up and then we have ‘The Upshaws’ with her. She’s able to do both, and hopefully have her creative juices realized.”

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