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.”

Then I got an email from the festival saying he had asked me to open for his show the next night. I was like, “Alright, I’ll do it.” Then we ended up hanging out and he’s the nicest person on the planet. We actually had so much in common. We got along super well. I really came to respect his opinion, and as I’ve gotten to know him over the last four years, his work speaks for itself. He speaks for himself. I think he’s a true visionary. He’s a remarkably talented individual and if I can say this, I think his talents haven’t even begun to show themselves in their truest form yet. I think he has a lot coming out in the future that will be a more accurate representation of how talented he is.

I spoke to Caroline Hirsch, the owner of Carolines on Broadway, about the East Coast/West Coast divide in comedy. There’s a lot of chest-bumping, and more of a jokey talking point.

It wasn’t even East Coast/West Coast, it was just me versus not me. I heard people touting somebody who was not me and I was like, “Fuck that guy.” I don’t think it had anything to do with where that person was or where I was. It was one of those things where, especially when you’re coming up and you have something to prove, or when you’re younger, I thought I had a chip on my shoulder. It can serve you in some way, but hopefully you mature and grow out of it. There definitely was a competitive element to it in that instance. I was like, “I’m better than him.”

It’s the same thing you hear with basketball players. You hear about a basketball player, who’s clearly not the best player in the league, saying they’re the best player in the league. You have to believe that in order to have the confidence to try, so I think that’s kind of the same thing. It can get that way with comedy sometimes. People go back and forth in hip-hop, saying “I’m the greatest.” I always believed that I was capable, and now that all that stuff has kind of come to pass and me and Jerrod are friends, it’s fine.

You said you started touring and working on this material about two years ago. When did Jerrod get involved?

I recorded a half-hour for Comedy Central, and then I recorded an hour-long album back in June of 2016. Literally, the second that ended, I got rid of all that material and started building this hour. Sometime early last year, I came to him and said I wanted to do this special. I already had a concept for it, so we started having these brief discussions, then we waited for his special to come out before things really picked up. Sometime last summer, HBO came to see me in Brooklyn and again in New Jersey. Around August or September of last year, they gave it a lose green light and things really picked up from there. I knew I wanted to do something with him. I forget exactly when, but at some point he was going to produce, and then he was like, “Who do we want to direct?” I said, “I want you to do it.” He’s like, “I’ve never directed anything in my life.” I said, “Well, I’ve never done an hour special before, so why don’t we just start there?”

One of the more striking things about watching this special was the lack of an audience. I watched it by myself, so without an audible, onscreen audience laughing at your routine, I was the only one present. So in a way, any silence was due to my not reacting to something. It was awkward, but it was also enlightening. Was that something you thought about when developing the concepts behind this special?

I don’t know if that was the reason we did it. I think the reason we did it is because we felt it was the truest way to do what we were trying to do. I think you always start with intention, but then we were also aware that once you build out from that original concept, you can realize and understand the dynamics behind it all. I think that was one of the things we really liked about it, the idea that it puts you and the audience in an engaging position. You can’t watch this passively, which is something that I tend to not like… when things can be watched passively.

I like to be engaged. When you have the audience’s laughter, whether it’s in a live stand-up special, a late night show, a sitcom or something like that, I think one of its functions is not just telling you where the funny parts are. It also acts as a surrogate reaction for you, so you don’t have to do it yourself. They are doing the laughing for you, so you can just sit there and passively absorb this thing. You can maybe be on your phone or computer, talking to somebody, and it’s happening in the background. Done this way, it’s alive on its own. It makes you complicit. It’s on you. There is no surrogate reaction system happening here. Honestly, it’s not that there’s no audience. It’s just you are the audience. It’s being watched by somebody, whether it’s watched by a group of people in a room or an individual on their computer. But it just those people on the spot and asks them, “What do you think?” It’s not about what anyone else thinks. Everyone tries to murder on their album recording or special taping, but that doesn’t matter here because people are going to watch it, and they’re going to think what they’re going to think anyway. They’re going to respond to it individually, apart from an audience. We essentially tried to create something that spoke directly to the viewer and asked them directly to decide whether it was interesting, funny, good, bad or whatever. It’s on you.

It almost empowers the audience, in a way. Like you said, the surrogate laughter is not there. There’s no other laughter or response to cue someone who’s watching at home. I found myself spending more time thinking about what you were saying than I would have if I had heard laughter that wasn’t my own.

Laughter is totally contagious. A packed room is more likely to get a house laugh than a smaller group of people. Steve Martin talks about it in his book, where he says it’s better when people are packed close together. If it’s dark, you’re not aware of your physical space. You’re a little uncomfortable. You’re a little cold. All of that goes into it. It’s a sort of biometric contrivance, and lots of laughs in a show doesn’t necessarily translate into memorability. I’ve seen rooms full of people laugh for an hour straight, and the second they get out the club, they forget what they heard or the name of the comedian.

You also have the converse, where the laughs aren’t super-heavy, but the audience will never forget the person they saw or what they were talking about. The most talked-about special of the last year was one where there were zero laughs during the last 20 minutes. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be an attempt at humor, or an attempt to be interesting. I don’t think you should get away with bullshit, but at the same time, that’s not the only thing that stays with people. It’s probably the worst indication of what was said, actually.

What kinds of audience responses are you expecting to this? Or, are you expecting anything at all, or just leaving the field open?

I have no expectations because I don’t want to put a limit, or a hope, on what I want. It’s really not about what I want. Obviously, there’s press and promotion and stuff like that, but as far as the creation of the thing goes, I’ve done everything that I could do to contribute to something. So we’re essentially waiting to hear back from the other side of the conversation. We created this thing and we’re going to put it out, and now it’s really up to people. I assume that the reaction will be wide-ranging. I think some people will think it’s great, and some people will hate it. Some people won’t get it, and some people will get it and think it’s bullshit. I don’t know. I’m not even putting an expectation on it because I think that takes some of the fun out of it.

‘Drew Michael’ premieres Saturday, August 25th at 10 pm ET on HBO.