The Matt Rife Blowback Shows the Painful Transition From TikTok to Netflix

koblizeek/Shutterstock avni design/Shutterstock VartB/Shutterstock s_maria/Shutterstock @matt_rife/TikTok Remix by Caterina Cox

Most stand-ups agree that you need some kind of social media presence in order to build a lasting career and following in modern comedy. Apps like TikTok and Instagram aren’t just ideal places for great one-liners and brief clips from killer sets, they’re also where most contemporary comedy fans — particularly younger fans — are finding new talent to follow.

In a recent Variety piece, comedian Taylor Tomlinson equates posting jokes to social media with doing radio spots before club gigs in another era: It’s a pre-requisite in order to sell tickets to the actual performances, where the real money is made. 

But in some cases, comics’ internet followings vastly outpace the growth of their careers in the real-life brick-and-mortar world of comedy clubs and small theaters. For these folks, posting jokes to Instagram or quick sketches on TikTok functions less like a commercial for their live shows and more like a viable comedy career unto itself.

The Joke in Question

Take the case of TikTok breakout Matt Rife. After 11 years on the comedy club circuit, Matt Rife posted a quick video to TikTok in 2022 of himself doing crowd work in Phoenix, Arizona. In the clip, Rife questions a woman in the audience about a recent break-up, and discovers she’d been seeing an emergency room doctor. “You broke up with a hero?!” he asks. The clip had around 20 million views in just a few days. 

Today, Matt Rife has over 18 million TikTok followers, mostly on the basis of these sorts of clips, featuring jokes or other on-stage antics. Unlike some other kinds of social media followings — which have proved ephemeral and unreliable in terms of actually producing pass-through traffic — Rife’s success on TikTok has genuinely translated into a huge boost for his real-world comedy career. When he announced his first world tour earlier this year, all 260 dates across three continents sold out in just 48 hours. In a development more reminiscent of a Taylor Swift sale than a comedy tour, he actually shut down the Ticketmaster website.

Rife now faces a strange moment of transition. He’s already very famous, arguably among the most popular stand-ups of 2023 among 20-something fans. Yet he’s also still having a “breakout” moment of entry into the mainstream comedy world. Just last week, Rife’s first-ever Netflix special — “Natural Selection” — debuted, introducing him to a new and wider comedy audience. And so far, there has been a bit of tension.

In one joke, toward the beginning of the special, Rife recalls a trip to Baltimore, Maryland, during which he noticed a restaurant server with a black eye. He then makes a domestic abuse joke, tying her injury to that old trope about a husband hitting his wife because of her lack of kitchen skills. 

The joke led to a round of social media condemnation, prompting an additional response from Rife. In an Instagram story, he invited anyone offended by any of his jokes to click on a link to an “official apology video.” Instead, the actual link lead to a page selling helmets for people with disabilities or special needs.

It’s a Different World

Not all kinds of jokes appeal to all kinds of audiences, of course, and a comedian offending some fans certainly isn’t limited to the worlds of TikTok and Instagram. Dave Chappelle built his audience in a pre-social media world and hasn’t been immune to these kinds of stories. Still, the Matt Rife controversy does highlight a frequent situation when comedians attempt to move from social media fame into more conventional, Hollywood-friendly forms of content creation. 

Most notably, appealing to fans on TikTok vs. Netflix brings with it some immediate demographic challenges. TikTok audiences lean much younger than their Netflix counterparts, and so they’re going to have different tastes in jokes, and also less sensitivity to material that older generations might see as “hacky” or played out. 

In a New York Times profile earlier this year, Rife notes that Dane Cook had a significant impact on his approach to comedy and sensibility. Older audience members might pick up on the similarities, and dismiss Rife as a Dane Cook clone, while younger fans who are unfamiliar with Dane Cook’s comedy feel like they’re seeing something entirely fresh and new.

Though Rife is also a touring comedian with extensive experience on the road, it’s also worth considering how wildly different the formats and metrics for success are between a TikTok video and a successful Netflix special. Platforms like TikTok and IG prioritize grabbing your audience’s attention immediately, say by opening with big energy, flashing on-screen text, or even saying something unexpected or shocking. Netflix specials run much longer, requiring a very different approach to time management and expectation-setting.

TikTok clips are also quick, designed to stand out for people and grab their focus as they flick through a multitude of other options. You’re essentially just making a first impression, and then it’s up to the potential new fan to seek out more. 

But a performer getting up on stage for an hour is making an entirely different demand on their audience. It’s no longer just making a first impression, but more akin to asking someone out on a date. You’re taking up a lot more of their time, and the expectations in terms of added value are much higher. A quick, maybe questionable domestic abuse joke might be enough to grab some eyeballs on TikTok or maybe even a chuckle, rage click, like, or a follow, but that same joke at the top of an hour-long special sets a very different tone, and might not be enough to win over new fans and convince them to stick around for lots more, similar material.

It must also be noted, as The Times pointed out, that some of Rife’s appeal may be aesthetic. He’s a good-looking guy, and this may have given some TikTok and Instagram users reason to pause over his videos and pay closer attention than they otherwise might have. Rife is definitely aware of this; he named his first YouTube special “Only Fans,” because it was a frequently searched term alongside his name.

There is Hope!

Experience tells us that this moment is likely not insurmountable for Rife or anyone else who grows a following on social media first. Viral podcaster Bobbi Althoff had a public backlash moment against her satirically aggressive interview format in October but has remained a frequent internet presence and continues to land major guests. 

In 2019, another popular online comic and podcaster, Shane Gillis, was hired by “Saturday Night Live” and then immediately fired before his first episode, after an old clip of him making offensive jokes about Chinese people resurfaced. 

Gillis returned to the internet and started the popular YouTube sketch series “Gilly and Keeves” along with friend John McKeever, which now counts over half a million followers. He’s had enough success to land his own Netflix special earlier this year, “Beautiful Dogs,” which debuted back in September. It received some light backlash of its own, particularly from Australians who were upset about jokes suggesting they “do nothing” and have “zero exports.”

Still, Gillis’ path demonstrates that, even when the initial meeting between internet comedians and the mainstream doesn’t go well, there’s hope for the future. It’s too soon to count out Matt Rife entirely. Though he might want to avoid Baltimore for a while.

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