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What Matt Rife’s baffling Netflix special tells us about comedy

Matt Rife’s one comedy rule: Be funny. The problem: He isn’t.

A comedian onstage holding a microphone in one hand and pointing a sarcastic finger at the audience with the other.
Matt Rife performing in Washington, DC, for the Netflix special Natural Selection.
Mathieu Bitton/Netflix
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Comedian Matt Rife’s debut Netflix special Natural Selection may be a hit — the show premiered in the top 10 on November 15 and has stayed there for two weeks — but it’s also causing plenty of uproar among audiences. The controversy started with Rife’s opening joke: The TikTok-famous comic chose a gag about domestic violence to kick off his set. “I just wanted to see if y’all were fun,” he tells the audience afterward.

The topic of whether and how comedy can be “fun” if it comes at the expense of vulnerable groups of people has increasingly become a larger cultural conversation. Rife pushes the question in a thoroughly regressive direction for most of his special, with the majority of his jokes arguably punching down against various groups of vulnerable people. Even when he’s not riffing on offensive topics, the rest of the special is painfully mediocre, drawing overwhelmingly negative feedback from viewers and spawning a cultural discussion about whether Rife’s popularity is primarily due not to his humor but to his pop idol good looks.

It’s worth asking how a relatively low-tier comedian like Rife wound up landing a high-profile Netflix special to begin with — and what it means for comedy and for culture when a standup comedy “hit” on Netflix provokes this much derision.

Matt Rife has been trying to be famous for over a decade

Rife’s opening joke — in which he makes fun of a woman experiencing domestic violence with the punchline, “I feel like if she could cook, she wouldn’t have that black eye” — is the one getting all the attention, but it can’t be overstated that the entire show is a bomb. The domestic violence joke is part of a larger distasteful joke about how “ratchet” the city of Baltimore is (Rife, who is white, leans heavily on AAVE throughout his work). He follows this up with a long section mocking women for beliefs in pseudoscience, portraying this trend, bafflingly, as something only women are into, and something that seems to give him carte blanche to make fun of all women. (“You are in complete control of how your future turns out,” he insists, while scolding women for believing in “crystals.”)

Then there’s a deeply cringe extended segment about children with intellectual disabilities, including a terrible joke allegedly stolen almost verbatim from the late comedian Ralphie May. This is followed by a straightforwardly homophobic riff teleported in from the ’90s about (gay) monsters in the closet. If you can make it through all that you’re treated to ... a long description of Rife masturbating in the shower. And so it goes. None of it is remotely funny, and the reaction from the public has been overwhelmingly negative. Currently on Rotten Tomatoes, just 16 percent of the audience gave Natural Selection a favorable review, with the word “unfunny” popping up again and again in user reactions.

Rife responded by liking tweets from people coming to his defense, even if their defenses only made him look worse. He also responded, more publicly, by doubling down on the offensiveness. On November 20, Rife posted a response to the backlash in an Instagram Story: “If you’ve ever been offended by a joke I’ve told — here’s a link to my official apology.” The link, which read, “Tap to solve your problem,” led to a link to purchase a protective helmet for children with special needs. This response inevitably led to more backlash.

As part of the widespread response to Natural Selection, people across social media recycled other moments when Rife bombed hard and offended harder. There’s the June 2023 episode of Tana Mongeau’s podcast Cancelled, in which he defended his comedy by claiming that “people only hate somebody they’re jealous of.” (“Are people jealous of Osama bin Laden?” Mongeau asked.) Or his February appearance on the podcast Stiff Socks, when he made an obscene joke deriding women with big clitorises.

Then there’s this deeply cringey 2015 segment from MTV’s Wild ‘N Out, in which Rife, then 19, brashly hits on then-18 Zendaya, first with a crass racialized joke (“You’re mixed, I wanna be Black”) and then by grabbing her chin, evidently shocking her and provoking backlash from the other comedians onstage. The teenage Rife from nearly a decade ago seems wedded to a hip-hop aesthetic, even sporting an awkward blaccent. It’s a far cry from the more polished, Noxzema-commercial version of Rife we see today, but the difference clues us into just how long Rife has been “almost famous” and the ways in which his career trajectory shifted alongside comedy culture itself.

It took TikTok to make Matt Rife happen. Media hype — and women — did the rest.

A native of central Ohio, Rife started performing professionally when he was a teenager, signing with his longtime manager before he even graduated high school. Despite this promising early start, Rife struggled to maintain a career, veering between stints on multiple MTV variety shows and small featured roles in sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

That all changed in 2022, a few years after Rife began an aesthetic glowup. (He has admitted to getting dental veneers but has vehemently denied having other forms of cosmetic work.) He began posting snippets of his crowd work — portions of a standup routine when the comic interacts with the audience in extended improv exchanges — on TikTok. In July 2022, a clip of Rife engaging with a woman in the audience who broke up with an ER worker went viral, ultimately racking up over 40 million hits. From there, Rife’s standup segments, usually his crowd work, became a TikTok mainstay, and overnight, Rife became a comedy sensation.

As Rife’s fame skyrocketed, journalists seemed to be helpless against his physical beauty. It’s difficult to find a profile of Rife after 2022 that doesn’t lead with a description of him as hot, sexy, or handsome. “Rife has a whole heap of that disarming charm, a razor-sharp wit that he can wield at a moment’s notice and a head of hair and a smile that he treats with the delicacy of a Fabergé egg,” crooned the Dallas Observer.

“He honestly looks like an AI-generated teen idol,” mused Vogue. “A cut-out of his visage belongs in a locker somewhere.”

All this attention given to his looks makes sense in part when you understand just how much of his popularity is driven by straight women who flock to his performances for a chance to flirt with Rife during the act, or just to be charmed by him. Nearly all of Rife’s most viral TikTok moments feature him interacting with women in the audience. (“Will trade husband for Matt Rife,” reads the T-shirt of a woman photographed in the Times profile.) These segments got so popular that, earlier this year, Rife released an entire self-produced special devoted purely to crowd work built around the prompt of “red flags,” which primarily involves him giving cheeky relationship advice to women. But this dynamic also makes it harder to stomach the tenor of much of his comedy outside of this crowd work, especially when it’s coming at the expense of his primary demographic.

Rife has stated clear rules for “good comedy.” But can he follow them?

As part of the backlash to Rife, numerous TikTokers circulated a clip of veteran standup comic Anthony Jeselnik’s October appearance on Theo Von’s This Past Weekend podcast. In the clip, Jeselnik discusses the art of “getting away with it” (paraphrasing a quote often misattributed to Andy Warhol) as a comedian: If you can make it funny, you can get away with being offensive. The TikTok users were making a clear connection to Rife, implying that the core problem here, even beyond his willingness to offend, may be just that Rife’s comedic material just isn’t funny.

Ironically, Rife himself has made similar points to Jeselnik — applied to backlash against other comedians. On a 2021 panel hosted by The Wrap to discuss cancel culture and its impact on comedy, Rife claimed total ignorance and obliviousness to political debates surrounding comedy (“I see both sides incredibly evenly”), and complained about “people taking the internet as an avenue of revenge ... You don’t get context or intent.” Rife came to the defense of comedian Tony Hinchcliffe, an LA shock comic who opened an incendiary 2021 set with a slew of heinously racist slurs and insults against Peng Dang, the comic who’d just gone on before him. Speaking of Hinchcliffe as a friend, Rife argued that the deeper context to the set had been lost in a swell of online outrage and that Hinchcliffe’s real offense was being unfunny. “If you’re gonna be offensive, that’s fine,” he said.

As his comedy hero Dave Chappelle often has, Rife insisted that “there’s a line you’re allowed to walk as long as it’s funny.” (Rife further ingratiated himself to Chappelle during the growing backlash over Chappelle’s anti-trans rhetoric by hailing him as a defender of free speech.) While speaking primarily in defense of comedy as a space to offend, Rife offered up a take on the topic that boiled down to “let’s all be good to one another,” but went on to suggest that comedians who apologize after facing backlash are merely sanitizing their public feeds and burying their true selves.

“You deserve to say what’s funny to you,” he insisted. “By definition, if it makes one person laugh, it’s funny.

“Is it worth making the people you want to make laugh — is it worth it to offend these [other] people? If those people already probably aren’t going to like you no matter what, regardless of this one joke you make, it might be worth it, might not.”

Rife’s new special, however, has drawn backlash from many of his fans, not just haters — a fact Rife seems unwilling to acknowledge. Even as he appears to be deeply annoyed by the public’s reception to his comedy — he was last seen possibly getting into an unnecessary social media spat with a plastic surgeon — he sports a kind of effortless white-guy imperviousness to both serious critique and calls for self-reflection.

Should Netflix comedy specials have higher barriers to entry?

This leaves us with something of a startling, broader question: Is TikTok, the platform that’s almost singlehandedly responsible for Matt’s success — well, that and his cosmetologist — actually good for comedy? By allowing Rife’s schtick to be whittled down into easily shareable bite-sized clips, reliant on the spontaneity and interactivity of organic audience interactions, TikTok obscured just how unprepared Rife was for larger fame and public scrutiny. It’s not just that he’s a bad comedian; he’s an unproven one. Had TikTok not artificially inflated his level of talent, Rife’s established comedy efforts would not have garnered massive amounts of attention, much less a Netflix special.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the format of TikTok is at fault. We know thanks to the ongoing legacy of Vine that short video formats can lead to comedy magic. Rather, there seems to be a cautionary tale at work here in terms of the nature of culture as it appears on TikTok: Judge not a book by its cover, nor a comic by his 30-second interactions with gregarious drunk white women.

What this means for the industry of comedy is harder to say. Whether it’s due to hate-watching, curiosity gaps, or to new audiences flocking to embrace Rife because of all the controversy, Rife’s Netflix special holding on in the top 10 for two weeks means that it’s a hit by any standard. That means Rife will undoubtedly be back with an even more regressive schtick next time, with plenty of mockery for all the woke scolds. That’s how these things usually go, after all — and with increasing frequency, they go that way on Netflix.

What’s more significant, perhaps, is that the Matt Rife effect has established that there is a TikTok-to-Netflix comedy pipeline. Netflix may be flagging in the streaming wars, but the importance of a comedian landing a Netflix special can’t be overstated. In 2019, the company claimed that almost half of its entire user base of 150 million viewers had watched at least one comedy special on the platform. That’s an unbelievable potential audience for a comedian, especially one like Rife whose cultural footprint prior to this moment is negligible.

The cultural rush to uphold Matt Rife as the industry’s new model of a modern career breakthrough is somewhat understandable. He’s kind of like a dewy-eyed, Sim-faced NFT: hyped like a creative revolution, but useless outside of a computer. The enormous audience that comes with a Netflix special also means it’s doubly important to make sure that the comedians who receive that enormous global audience are, well, actually good at comedy.

In Rife’s case, it seems that in all the hoopla, no one bothered to check.

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