A man stands on a darkened stage. We’ve heard his voice before, talking to another person — female, British — over a neutral, purple-tinged background. But now he’s addressing us, pacing in a tight close-up, about relationships, patterns, larger arcs, insecurities, fears. He’s a little manic, bobbing and weaving, hands moving somewhere around 120 mph. “My therapist, I told him my whole life story, really opened up to him. He said it was some ‘commitment thing’ …. So then I had to stop seeing him.” Wait, was that a joke? Is this a bit? This is a bit, right? Is it? “So, what now?” he asks. Yes. What now?
He keeps going, talking about suicidal people — “suicide-adjacent” people, really — and his hearing problem (as the sound drops out, muffled and muted) and wondering “if we can eat animals, why can’t we fuck them?” and a long, drawn-out monologue, taken to its logical conclusion, about why he’s his mother’s “type.” Occasionally, we see the face of the young woman he’s chatting with on some parallel line, beaming into the screen as if she’s been Skyped in directly to your laptop or living room TV. Often, she’s interrupted in the middle of a sentence, as we cut directly into another of the gentleman’s rants. You almost wouldn’t know you were watching a comedy special, because, and this is important, there is no audience. There is no laughter. There is only one man, one microphone and the joke equivalent of one hand clapping. If an hour-long stand-up set falls in the forest and no one hears the part about how hard dating is, did it really even happen?
These are a few of the thoughts that go through your mind as you watch Drew Michael, the beautifully disorienting, borderline performance-art HBO showcase that began airing on August 25th and has, over the past week, suddenly turned the person stalking that darkened stage into a name. “This may be the most polarizing comedy special of the year,” said no less than the New York Times the day before its premiere, and the 33-year-old comic had been prepared for a love-it-or-hate-it reaction. Just maybe not quite this much love and hate all at once. “It’s been a little disorienting,” Michael says, sitting in a conference room several days after the special’s first airing. “You hear the phrase ‘overnight success,’ and you don’t think it’s literal, but …
“We shot this back in May,” he continues, “and I was sort of emotionally prepared to be done with it. But I wanted to engage with people after they saw it, so I couldn’t quite let go of it. I … [takes a beat] I had to wait three months to get a laugh.”
Which is, well, partially true. A comedian with two albums (2013’s Lovely and 2016’s Funny to Death) and a Comedy Central half-hour under his belt, Michael had been workshopping what would eventually turn into Drew Michael for months in New York clubs and on the road. (A journalist friend who covers stand-up has talked about seeing him perform part of the routine in front of an audience and absolutely killing with it.) He knew the material worked; he wasn’t, as he says, “trying to pull a ‘these jokes aren’t landing, so we’d better not bring in an audience’ thing. It wasn’t an evasion of any kind. If we’d grabbed any crowd from New York or Los Angeles and shot a straight-forward special, it’d have done OK. But I wanted something that was a little more true to what I was trying to say with it. Something that would interweave a narrative into the stand-up … something with the real-world side to what you’re hearing about.”
Meanwhile, as Michael was in the exploration phase of crafting his individual hyperneurotic bits into a whole, Jerrod Carmichael released his 2017 HBO special, the groundbreaking 8. The two comedians went back a ways, having first met at the Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival in 2014; he appeared on Carmichael’s sitcom in a bit part, and Jerrod had brought HBO executives out to see his friend perform. The plan had been for Carmichael to produce the special; they had been brainstorming ideas when, out of the blue, he asked Michael who he wanted to direct it. “I just blurted out, ‘Why don’t you direct it?'” he says. Carmichael thought about it for three days. Then he came back and declared, OK, yes, I’m going to do this.
What comes next is where it gets really interesting. Over dinner one night, they began spitballing how they wanted to portray the sensation that viewers weren’t just watching a well-honed set but someone who seemed lost within his own mind. Michael had wanted a space where you could “feel the tension of the audience but you couldn’t see them.” He thought maybe they could stage it in an intimate black box theater, or perhaps, like 8, in the round. Carmichael said that no matter where they filmed it, he saw the man that would be on that stage being in a void. “That was the word: a void,” Michael recalls. “Then he told me, ‘I need to shoot you without an audience.’
“I mean, who the fuck does that?” he adds. “So I just immediately said: Yes.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking,” Carmichael laughingly admits a few days later, calling in from L.A. “I mean, this was an idea I’d thought about doing for myself, you know, for one of my own specials. But his comedy … it’s made for this kind of thing. You’d hear his bits and you’d think, ‘Oh, he’s performing this for himself.’ He’s not really doing this for anybody else. It’s all in his head. He’s stuck in a loop in there — so why not put the viewer in there with him as well. I wanted to capture that.”
Alongside 8‘s executive producer Christopher Storer and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (Manchester by the Sea), the two men began mapping out a strategy and magpie-ing influences left and right. Carmichael mentions French movies and Gaspar Noe. (“I made Drew watch Love,” he says, referring to the director’s 3-D pornographic epic from 2015. “And [Jacques Demy’s] The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I was obsessed with the colors in that movie.”) Michael mentions Lars von Trier, James Turrell’s light installations, Bob Fosse’s Lenny and jazz musicians.
They also had the idea of having him play off one other person: a woman who’d represent the sort of deep connection Drew was trying to make but was seemingly incapable of sustaining. She also had to be someone who could call him out on his fake-intimacy bullshit. (How, exactly, that’s accomplished is something best discovered on your own.) It just so happened that, after Carmichael had seen the comic perform this material in Santa Monica, he’d met up with a friend who happened to be hanging out with British actor Suki Waterhouse. “We all ended the evening drunk at a bar, with a bunch of us singing ‘Natural Woman’ around a piano,” he says. “She was the first call we made. Suki totally got it. She brought real life to it.”
There was the concept of trying to represent that aforementioned “void” in a visual way. “Capturing nothing … it’s a task,” Carmichael says. “How do you make ‘nothing’ interesting for an hour, y’know? ‘This shot needs more nothing.‘ One of my favorite moments of making this was talking to Jody about how we’d make this seem more empty, and I’d brought in something that would reflect light in order to give the darkness around Drew more depth. And he just said, ‘You realize that this is something, and it kind of negates the whole nothing aspect …’ I was like, this is an actual conversation I’m having right now. Ok, so let’s find a new angle for nothing, I guess?”
And then, at the center of it, is Drew, a guy doing a skewed and singularly personal riff on what happens when you let good, bad and ugly thoughts spiral into humor — it’s observational comedy reimagined as an internal nightmare, an incredible melding of fucked-up form and content. To read the description of Drew Michael on the page is to be tempted into writing it off as a high-concept gimmick. (“You thought this was a gimmick at first? Ah, well, that’s just because you’ve lost faith in humanity,” Michael deadpans.) To see the special, however, is to realize that this is something bigger than the sum of its rants and nothingness. It’s both a scathingly honest set about one man’s vulnerabilities and a self-critique about a medium whose practitioners mistake telling jokes for actual self-examination.
Which, given that timing is everything in comedy, means that Drew Michael happens to be coming out just as stand-up is having a slightly meta, kicking-the-tires moment about such things. It’s hard not to view the special through the same lens as Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes and Hannah Goldsby’s gamechanging Nanette, two extraordinary hours that force you to think about what mining your life experience to make strangers laugh means to the people who do it. Michael loves those specials. He think they’re brilliant. He hopes people don’t just lump all of this work together, however, in the name of some sort of easy trendspotting exercise.
“I mean, I do think that whenever any art form becomes familiar, it establishes patterns,” he says, after taking a few seconds before launching into an answer. “And what this means is that artists get to try to make something interesting by subverting those expectations. You can do that with stand-up now. You just don’t wanna make it hoax-y: ‘Hey, look, I’m doing something different! I’m shooting a special on a jet-ski while being chased by a shark!’
“But what’s interesting to me is that if you look at those two specials,” he continues, as the velocity of the conversation begins to accelerate, “is that they’re shot pretty traditionally. Cameron’s a little less so, but Nanette is shot in an opera house. It’s what they’re saying, and the comments on their content, that’s so radical. They’re voices for people who have felt under-represented and voiceless. It runs counter to the established narrative, which, let’s be honest, is a shitty narrative written by guys who look like this.” He points to himself.
“I’m not going to tell their stories; they aren’t mine to tell,” Michael says. “I can not mess with the content of my act. But I can mess with the form. And that, to me, was where I could get creative and give you something that felt like it was going against the status quo. All of the conversations Jerrod and I and everybody else had about how we were going to do this, they were organic choices we were making. I was never the funniest kid in my group growing up, you know. But I knew I could find something funny inside an idea, even if that idea was fucked up. And that’s what we wanted to try and represent here.”
Michael also knows that whatever he does next, it’s now going to be judged by the standard he and Carmichael set. Experimental will now be considered his normal. He’s fine with that. They both wanted to make a special that wasn’t just a filmed event — both separately talk about TV stand-up being unique from club stand-up, and Carmichael notes the two initially bonded over frustration about “the unwritten rule being a stand-up special is just this one-sided thing. You have cameras, and a crew; why not be creative?” As for the risk of a “polarizing” reception: Like Oscar Wilde said, it’s better to be talked about then not talked about, right?
“Think you’re thinking of Kanye, my man” Michael says, before launching into a verse from “Father Stretch My Hands Part 1”: “‘Everybody gonna say something/I’d be worried if they said nothing.’ I mean, Wilde, Kanye West … six of one, right?”