Less than five minutes into his new HBO stand-up special, Jerrod Carmichael: 8, the 29-year-old comic makes a darkly hilarious and somewhat sympathetic joke about Donald Trump. A strained hush falls on the room, punctuated by the occasional laugh. “That too dark? That too much?” The Carmichael Show‘s creator asks with a smile. As their timidity breaks, the comedian admits “It’s gonna get way heavier than that.” Sure enough, he peppers the rest of the hour’s prepared routines with conversational exchanges between stage and audience. Some of these connections may qualify as “uncomfortable,” though considering the room’s theatre-in-the-round design, they’re utterly unavoidable. And it’s a wonderful scene to behold.
8 feels less like a traditional stand-up hour and more like a conversation one eavesdrops on while sitting at the bar. “That’s well put, what you eavesdrop on at a bar. I like that,” Carmichael tells us. “That was the intention.” Bo Burnham, a friend and fellow comic who directed the new special, agrees. “A lot of these are made by the same people, the same production companies, and create the same results. But I think specials should be as unique as the comedians are. Just because you’re big enough, or lucky enough, to get a one-hour special doesn’t mean you should be in a 1300-seat theater with bright footlights and a screaming crowd. That might not be the best, clearest or most creative vehicle for whatever your stand-up is.”
While the director found influence in Jonathan Demme’s concert films, Carmichael’s approach drew inspiration from Whoopi Goldberg’s HBO specials. “Jerrod referenced Whoopi a lot,” says Burnham. “She did them in the three-quarter round, I think, in a little place in New York on Broadway. People sat on all three sides of her, on floor. That was a really great reference for us, and Jerrod said, ‘This is what I want it to feel like.’ I totally understood what he meant. It was beautiful. In every shot of Whoopi, there’s the audience in the foreground and in the background. They were the backdrop in every angle. We wanted to try to do that with Jerrod’s special. Usually, with speaker-oriented stages, the audience is on one side. But with this, Jerrod is in the middle of all these people.”
Hence why they situated 8 in the New York Masonic Hall’s Grand Lodge Room — making them, according to a venue spokesperson, the first comedians ever to film a stand-up special there. 8 also excludes the boisterous audience, introductory announcement, and concluding bow of typical specials. Instead, it begins simply with a series of paced, artful shots of the hall’s interior and a slow pan on Carmichael, sitting alone in a dark room and fidgeting with his smartphone. Suddenly, everyone watching at home finds themselves in the first routine.
“We were trying to make something as unique as watching Jerrod on stage,” says Burnham. “Watching Jerrod, for me, is such a unique experience. It doesn’t feel like anything else. So we really wanted to try to make the special not feel like anything else. Because trying to put the round peg of him into a square hole would just be boring. It just doesn’t work for his comedy.”
In the stand-up comedy world, touring and top-billed performers generally get to know one another after frequent meetings on the road. Often these acquaintances remain professional, but for Carmichael and Burnham, who’s three years younger, it transformed into a friendly camaraderie that doesn’t always revolve around work. “We’ve been friends for a few years,” says Carmichael. “He’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. I genuinely think he’s a genius. And truthfully, he’s just an amazing friend to have.” Throughout this admission he can’t stop giggling. Burnham laughs just as much when asked why. “Yeah, we’re laughing at the idea of each other having to describe our friendship. I think that’s what we’re laughing at.”
Friendly banter notwithstanding, their admiration for each other is very real. “We ran into each other in a movie theater, I think,” recalls Burnham. “We’d seen each other’s stuff mutually and just really hit it off. When I was coming up in comedy, a lot of the people around weren’t my age, but Jerrod was. He became my first really close friend in the stand-up world. My first peer, really. He’s the best.” Not only does Carmichael agree, but he also maintains their friendship and mutual respect for one another paved the way for what would eventually become 8 — especially when Burnham, who co-directed his previous special Make Happy, came onto the project officially.