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.”