Welcome to our series On the Verge, where our contributors highlight comedians they feel are ready for their next big break. Whether they’re already working in television or still waiting to land their breakout gig, these are just some of the comedians we’d like to see more of over the coming years – ideally with a show, film, or other comedy project of their very own.
For some time now, I’ve held the opinion that people who are excessively into Bill Burr comprise perhaps the worst fanbase in all of comedy. Taking nothing away from Bill Burr himself, I am perpetually frustrated by his fans, who deify him to no end and place him on a pedestal as the only comedian willing to embody transgressive stances and stake out contrarian claims. Putting aside the problematic implication that contrarian perspectives are cause for celebration in and of themselves, it’s also just blatantly untrue. Bill Burr may undoubtedly be the most well-known comedian who exemplifies these sensibilities, but he’s certainly not some sort of last remaining vestige of a dying breed. Of the hundreds of other comedians whose standup could be described in similar terms, one in particular who stands out is Drew Michael.
To be clear, the assertion that Drew Michael is “on the verge” isn’t strictly accurate. With a writing gig at SNL, a recent guest appearance on The Carmichael Show, and an episode of Comedy Central’s The Half Hour under his belt, the Chicago-born comedian is quite evidently doing fine. And yet, while I think that his name should be mentioned right alongside comedians like Jerrod Carmichael and Bo Burnham as one of the most original, gifted voices working in standup today, Michael continues to fly under the radar, celebrated by those who know his work but virtually unknown by comedy fans at large.
Part of the problem is that the best encapsulations of Michael’s work are two relatively obscure comedy albums, available for purchase and accessible on Spotify, but not exactly ripe for viral consumption. Across these two albums, Lovely and Funny to Death, Michael makes a convincing case for himself as a savant of the form, oscillating at will between material that is confessional and vulnerable in nature and brash comedy that artfully seeks to point out frustrating and hypocritical inconsistencies in human behavior.
On the latter of these two albums, Michael takes a moment in the middle of a set filled with ambitious premises and elaborate set-ups to deliver a rare one-liner: “I get depressed, I feel disconnected from other people, know what I mean? Uh, if you don’t know what I mean, that is what I mean.” It’s a clever joke, to be sure, but it also happens to serve as a fairly accurate microcosm of Michael’s comedic persona as a whole. In a 2014 interview with The Chicago Tribune, Michael traced the origin of this disconnect to a hearing loss he sustained as a child, stating that this had a large role to play in shaping his comedic perspective:
I spent a lot of time in my head, because I couldn’t hear real well […] I would always kind of go back into my head and think about stuff, and I kind of acted like this observer, you know? That’s basically what comedy is: Looking at something we see and going, “Well, what is that really about?” And everyone goes, “Oh, yeah, I never thought about it that way.” And then, you know, you make a joke about a penis or something.
It is precisely this skewed point of view that makes Michael’s comedy so compelling to watch. Even without his knack for tying his points together with great jokes, I could foreseeably see myself listening to him just to see how he filters even relatively well-tread subject matter through his unique lens. In the below clip, Michael manages to make a point about dating that is simultaneously so relatable and unique that you momentarily forget that every comedian who has ever graced a stage has made some boring observation about the same topic:
Complementing his ability to find novel perspectives in familiar territory, Michael also takes an ambitious approach towards larger societal issues, perpetually expressing points of view that exist outside of mainstream thought. He’s been vocal in the past about his belief that comedy has suffered from a discernible homogenization of political perspectives, and he evidently seeks to combat this problem by being as honest as possible regarding his personal beliefs. His closer in the following clip is a good illustration of this ambition, as he takes the audience on a long, rambling tangent to share his thoughts regarding a replacement for the modern, neoliberal economic order:
You can certainly disagree with him about the merits of a resource-based economy—it may even distract you from the joke if you have strong opinions on the subject—but it wouldn’t bother Michael either way. His goal as a standup isn’t to form consensus but seemingly to use his platform to say something honest and inspire critical thought. The risk of alienating people is apparently an occupational hazard that he’s not at all concerned with:
Comedy sucks b/c everyone is in the same “community.” Imagine how awful hip-hop would be if Tupac acted nice so he could do Biggie’s show.— Drew Michael (@drewmichael) June 16, 2017
As Michael continues to grow and refine his act, he’s gradually cut out the shock value-dependent humor that sometimes plagues comedians of his ilk. Jokes from his first album, like one about Hitler being better than Martin Luther King—“Between the two of them, Hitler really tried to end racism”—can unquestionably be funny, but don’t typically illuminate anything more profound. As he pivots further towards this latter goal, continues to perform in venues like The Comedy Cellar in New York City, and builds on the opportunities he’s already been afforded, it’s only a matter of time before he inevitably breaks out into the mainstream. Much like Jerrod Carmichael was considered “a comedian’s comedian” until one day he suddenly wasn’t, Drew Michael is just one nebulous step away from experiencing a similar transition.
Hershal Pandya is a writer based in Toronto, whose writing has appeared on popular websites like Pigeons & Planes, Pacific Standard, and The Hill.