Drew Michael Tells Us All About His Unique, If Not Downright Odd, HBO Comedy Special

John P Johnson/HBO/Uproxx

Earlier this summer, word spread of a new HBO comedy special that, among other things, did not include a live audience. Even to the most inexperienced of stand-up comedy greenhorns, not making a live audience a part of the taping may seem like a novice mistake. After all, what would the art form be without the presence of at least a few dozen or more warm bodies to react to the comic’s jokes, successful and otherwise? Thanks to former Saturday Night Live writer Drew Michael and rising star Jerrod Carmichael, now we know.

Saturday night, HBO will premiere Drew Michael, the comedian’s first-ever hour special. Unlike his 2016 half-hour special on Comedy Central, and director Carmichael’s own concert film 8 from the same year, however, Drew Michael is an hour steeped in thought as much as it is in laughter. There is no audience, therefore, there is no laugh track. Instead, Michael and Carmichael have created a comedy special — if one can even call it that — that blurs the boundaries of genre while also asking a great deal of the viewer (or viewers) at home. Uproxx spoke to Michael about this and more.

Stand-up comedy writing is fluid, as some comics actually write stuff down, while others perform and repeat. Your HBO special combines stand-up with scripted vignettes featuring the actress Suki Waterhouse. So what was the writing process like for this?

The approach was basically, we didn’t know we were going to do it this way until maybe three or four months before we shot it. I toured the material for about a little less than two years. I was touring it as if I was just building an hour. I knew I wanted to do a special, so I was gearing everything towards that. There was the end goal in mind that this is going to be a special, and then I had this concept that I wanted to explore, which is a narrative with the stand-up that I was building to tell two sides of the same story.

I knew that the stage act was something I just had to build the way I was used to building material, and then as the process unfolded and we started discussing exactly how we were going to capture this, everything kind of congealed and got pared down. Some of the material that didn’t serve what the theme of this was we left alone. I had written a script as well, as a companion piece, and some of that got pared down too. It was always kind of a conceptual. The concept was always there, and the process of refining it not only happened on stage, but also off stage in terms of pre-production and things like that.

How much time did you spend filming this?

It was a two-day shoot, and I think it was maybe eight hours each day. Obviously, there was reset time and things like that, but it was a much more involved production process than normal. I think that it’s also a testament. The final product is much more of a testament to people who are not me as much as it is to myself. With most stand-up specials, it’s the comedian or the performer who gets most of the credit, but in this case, I can’t even accept that, good or bad, it was mine alone. That’s just not the case. Between Jerrod, Chris Storer, Jody Lee Lipes, Sam Lisenco, Corey Deckler, Ravi Nandan over at at A24, all of A24 and HBO, everyone contributed to something that was much bigger than me. It was much bigger than if I had just set up five cameras and shot myself at the Gramercy.

People like to talk about comedy as being a collaborative effort, but you’re right, traditional stand-up isn’t necessarily that.

Totally. We were in good hands. I’m sure you’re aware of Bo Burnham and Chris doing that with Bo’s specials, and Bo doing it with Jerrod on his special, and with Chris Rock and his special. For all of those, that was the first time I had ever heard of the director of a comedy special getting any sort of adulation. I think this is a continuation of what they’ve started. It’s a conversation that Jerrod and I have been having since we met, just in terms of interesting ways to capture stand-up, ideas, performance and individuals. There’s no reason that it needs to be limited to a theater or a comedy club. That’s not to say that that’s not the right choice for certain people. I think it depends on the individual.

You appeared on an episode of The Carmichael Show, but how long have you and Jerrod known each other?

Exactly four years. We met four years ago in Montreal, at the Just for Laughs Festival. I was doing “New Faces” and I think he was touring his hour. I had heard of him because everyone kept telling me that he was the guy from LA. I was in New York, he was in LA. “Who are the people coming up in LA? Oh, Jerrod Carmichael.” So I immediately hated him. Just strictly competitively. I was like, “Fuck this guy!” I watched him and I was like, “He’s not as good as everyone says.” I kind of had this chip in my shoulder about him, and I think it was either after I did my “New Faces” set, or maybe it was at the after party that night, that I ran into him and he was very complimentary. He said he liked my set. I kind of brushed him off, like, “Whatever, I know who you are.”