Comedy is in the slow process of splashing water on its face, taking a long, hard look in the mirror and asking itself why it’s here and what it can do. Those that break through the exhausting release schedule for comedy specials right now do so by deconstruction, and if Nanette was the ultimate deconstruction of stand-up comedy’s content, HBO’s Drew Michael is perhaps the ultimate deconstruction of its form—stripping away its normal trappings to reveal what it does well and where it fails.
Written by and starring SNL writer Drew Michael and directed by Jerrod Carmichael, Drew Michael is a stark, polarizing special that you may fall to one side or the other on, depending whether or not you’re inclined to appreciate how directly the special asks you to reckon with it.
Which it does, in a big way, with Michael delivering his act directly to the camera in a stark black room, with stressful light shifts that weave through the special and give the space occasional dimension. This is, in general, a tense and stressful comedy special to watch, though it is definitely a comedy special, and is frequently hilarious. The context does sometimes make you feel insane for laughing out loud, though.
Michael’s material is actually provocative, instead of the faux-provocative material from comedians that’s just kind of loud. He wants to challenge your preconceived notions of certain subjects, pushing back on the idea that you’d be offended at something like a suicide joke when suicidal people love suicide jokes (“that’s… their thing”), shaming you for trying to take away someone else’s feeling of being seen so you can save yourself some discomfort.
But if that sounds like an aggressive tactic, it is, and the special acknowledges that by interspersing video chats between Michael and his girlfriend. Though they sometimes drag, those moments make you actively nervous as you begin to suspect that the special might be positioning her as being sort of held captive by comedy. This is a special that’s extremely preoccupied with how masculinity affects the power a stand-up has over an audience. As it is slightly dicey to have that come strictly from two men, Michael and Carmichael are careful not to let Michael have the last word. As Michael seethes with frustration through his set, you are left wonderfully uncomfortable. This is the Annie Hall fourth-wall-break taken to its chilling logical extreme, and it’s very necessary.