Comedy is art, and Drew Michael’s HBO special defies you to define it

The first time I saw Drew Michael perform live, the experience at QED in Astoria felt surreal, like an out-of-body experience.

So seeing his comedy, devoid of an actual audience, performed in a virtual void on HBO, doesn’t come as any shock to me. It might you, though, when you see his first HBO special Saturday, whether or not you’d previously seen his Comedy Central half-hour or watched him live in a comedy club.

Michael told me on the phone last week that he and Jerrod Carmichael, who made his directorial debut with Drew Michael on HBO, both took issue with the way that traditional stand-up comedy looks and feels on television.

“I just don’t think you can capture that energy on film. The things that make a live show exciting just don’t translate to your TV,” Michael told me. “When it’s live you don’t know where it’s going to go! It could all fall apart…(in comparison), when it’s on TV, you know it all got approved. With the medium, it’s not something dangerous.”

Taking away the audience and having him deliver a monologue in a black void introduces an element of, if not danger, then at least suspense.

“That was the North Star for our planning,” he told me.

In truth, the soundstage production counted some two dozen workers, from camera operators to craft services to other crew, but Michael couldn’t actually see anyone as he spoke to camera.

“It was wild, man. It was definitely an experience I never had before. I had to learn how to trust, not just myself…trust the work i put in, and trust the people around me to capture it,” he said.

Actress and model Suki Waterhouse is the only other onscreen contributor, and even that doesn’t make sense in a traditional stand-up comedy setting. “I thought her energy was great,” Michael said of Waterhouse. “She was super engaged and super determined.”

They worked with a script but diverged from it. He’s not even sure what made it into the final edit. “We were just trying to have a conversation that felt authentic,” he told me. Michael told me his interactions with her have multiple intentions to them, but he prefers if you figure those out for yourselves.

Same goes with even trying to classify his special as comedy.

“No. I don’t care. I don’t care what anything is called,” Michael said.

“I don’t even think that’s food for conversation. Who care what anything is? Genres only exist as a marketing ploy. What’s a thriller? It goes back to video stores like Blockbuster. Horror has a more of a unique element to it. But what is Get Out? Is it comedy? Is it horror? There are walls that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.”

“You hear athletes talk about who’s the greatest point guard. It’s not up to me.”

That comedians themselves enjoy debating whether certain types of performers or performances are legitimate stand-up amuses and amazes him, too. See also: Hannah Gadsby, Nanette.

“Who gives a shit?!” he said. “Well, good! Why should something be limited by anything. If there are limitations to the definition of stand-up, then fuck it.” Why? “Embrace the fear. I don’t hold onto anything like that. If someone says this isn’t stand up, i don’t care. That’s all for marketing, so people can have some pre-conceived notion of they’re about to watch. I think there’s people who’d watch this (on HBO) who wouldn’t normally watch comedy.”

Labels, he continued, are “antithetical to art. It’s not constructive to build borders.”

“It’s a thing. Do you like it? Cool! Is Jackson Pollock painting? Well, whatever. It still looks good at MoMA.”

Michael spent a year working as a writer at NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Talk about genre-defining. What did he learn from that experience? “The biggest thing I learned was the difference between what people on the outside think happens, and what actually happens. It’s very much opined about, and theorized about, and conjectured about. When you get inside the room, and seeing the nitty gritty of it, it’s really eye-opening. The greatest thing I got was being in the room and the education from that. I don’t know if writing for (Weekend) Update made me a better writer. But learning how things work, what the process is, what the layers of politics and influence, and how all that actually works as a machine was invaluable.”

Drew Michael premieres Saturday night on HBO.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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