Drew Michael doesn’t mess with half-measures.
The stand-up comedian who has writing credits at Saturday Night Live and appeared in an episode of The Carmichael Show is trying to doing something completely different right now, and he’s succeeding wildly. The comic has released two full hour albums and a half-hour Comedy Central special, but for his latest, he’s breaking every mold. Given a self-imposed challenge to re-invent his approach, the consummate performer has decided that, instead of going bigger, he’ll go much, much smaller. And the bounty is plentiful.
Drew Michael is a few days away from releasing the comedy special Drew Michael, which is directed by Jerrod Carmichael, on HBO. If I didn’t call it a “comedy special” in advance, you would never ascribe such language to it. It’s a direct address hour of experimental theater that’s most easily compared to a YouTube video essay, but with narrative asides that break the very rules of what we’re expecting from individual serving comedy doses.
Drew Michael is a borderline experimental film, where a comedian speaks directly to the audience, and what he conveys veers between the pre-prepared on-stage line and the hidden, never performed detail about a personal darkness. Between all this exists a sort of loosely threaded storyline about love and loss and attempting connections in situations where they may not be possible—especially if you are the man you are.
It’s a singular achievement, and recently Paste was able to talk to Drew Michael about breaking all the rules.
Paste: Tell me about the genesis of this project, and its origin… and, I guess, just why?
Drew Michael: I started touring and working on this material a year ago. I started building the concept that was loose about injecting a narrative into it. I thought out the arcs and how they would intervene and then I started talking to Jerrod [Carmichael] about it and then we talked about the vision of what we saw. We had a shared vision of capturing me in a void. So, how do you create that? What kind of venue serves that purpose? How do we create the feeling of having an audience without having an audience? I was enamored with this direct address idea. So we needed to figure out the best way to do it, and we just needed to figure out an aesthetic.
Paste: How long was the shoot?
Michael: Two days. Which is nothing but is also more effort than the standard comedy special.
Paste: Let’s get into the narrative arcs. You’re not in the entirety of your own stand-up special. How do you part with, I guess, that precious attention in a format that is normally about soaking up everything the audience can focus on?
Michael: I wrote these larger scenes and then we paired them down to these smaller moments, and then my partner would be conveyed through these late night moments of Skype or whatever. And it would be focused on her instead of me, because that put you further into my head. So we just tried to capture moments and counter-balance that against stream of conscious stuff.
Paste: Part of your special is about having dealt with hearing loss your entire life, and asking other people to accommodate you. Members of my family are losing hearing and it’s made me very aware of these kind of requests. I’d like to apologize for being akin to the guy you went to college with, who thought subtitles ruined a movie, even though that meant you couldn’t experience the film.
Michael: Obviously it involves some awareness on both sides. I need subtitles, but also I’d like to say: I don’t know how some people are picking up on anything without subtitles. Like, when I watch Game of Thrones I know everyone’s name. I don’t think people watching it regularly have any idea. It’s proper nouns that we don’t have access to. They’re like “So last time the Blonde Chick…” and I’m like “Oh, you mean Cersei Lannister?”
Paste: You get to have the smugness of a book reader without having read the books?
Michael: Yes. Dammit. Hadn’t thought of that.
Paste: I didn’t have subtitles on my review copy of your special. I thought that was… is that irony?
Michael: That’s incredible. I wouldn’t have been able to watch my own special.
Paste: You get into a section about suicide and how suicide can also be an incredible joke, or more specifically, that people that die can deny the world access to an incredible punchline. It’s a great bit, but there are a lot of comics that try to cover suicide, and it often veers into just forcing therapy onto the audience. How did you workshop this kind of material to avoid it veering into a deep abyss?
Michael: When I started doing it on the road, it was often off by half a note. And I’d fall on the wrong side, and then it was slightly too far. Anything I do that’s honest, I can say with impunity. I have confidence in that bit. You might not like it as a bit, but you can’t deny it as an honesty.
Paste: We live in a time where people might take comedy out of context and then that becomes the only thing that people know about your work. Is any part of you worried that the only part of your special that people will come to know is the moment where you claim that “9/11 was Occupy Wall Street done right”?
Michael: If that’s all that people know about this special, that would be great. If that’s the only line that lives, I would think that was amazing. I wouldn’t even care. That’s such an aside, but it is true to that moment. I went through all this work to make a crazy elaborate special and then they take only that from it? Great.
Paste: You have a bit about how abs should be a reflection of the good works people have done. In that, we should have a physical reflection of being not-shit folks. Who do you think should have the most abs right now?
Michael: Who do I think is the best person in the world? Anyone who is trying to be famous is obviously knocked out of the running. The best person right now is probably someone’s neighbor that no one else knows. The best people on the planet are people that no one knows. Everyone in entertainment slash anyone who is a model on Instagram is automatically cut out.
Paste: Where was your starting point here?
Michael: So much of this is not inspired by stand-up specials. It’s inspired by modern art and concert film and music videos. It’s Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noe. We figured a lot of it out with color wheels on the day of the shoot.
Paste: Just before watching your special, I watched a series of video essays about parasocial relationships—which is the study of directly addressing an online audience and having them believe that, by the end of experience, they know you and the two of you are friends. And your special, with its solo performance and direct address, seems to play into this heavily. Was some version of this a part of what you set out to make? Are other people a distraction to true comedy?
Michael: I cannot speak to any of that. I’m one person. A lot of people are offering their visions, and that’s a more complicated vision that it used to be. I’m just trying to comment on what is and where I am. This is about the connections of my relationships on-stage and my relationships off-stage. There’s a misnomer that connecting to personal revelations like this is accidentally connecting to a performance. As a comedian, I get undeserved credit for engaging with the honesty of the moment. I can be “brutally honest” in stand-up and then in a relationship—something is off, there.
Paste: I interviewed Sam Jay for Paste, and her new album is closer to a Kendrick Lamar album; or a mix-tape that captures a day in the life of the artist. Brandon Wardell just did an ASMR comedy album in a studio where he whispers crowd work to no one. Are we re-entering a period where folks are willing to do disconnected sketch-type work because we’re all bored of the standard stand-up special format?
Michael: I can’t speak to their choices regarding this cultural moment. There’s a saturation, but I do see an inability to capture what’s cool about stand-up.
Paste: What did you learn in the process of making this sepcial?
Michael: We all went in without knowing what we were going to make. We put our heads down and I did a performance that trusted everyone around me. So I learned a lot about collaboration here. You know when someone wins an award and they thank all these people and everyone is like, “Who are these people? We don’t care about these people?” I see now that those people are the entire project.
Drew Michael premieres on HBO on Saturday, August 25.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.