Why Drew Michael Dropped the Audience for His HBO Special

Drew Michael. Photo: HBO

Comedian Drew Michael toyed with the idea of naming his eponymous new HBO special Watch the Whole Thing. That proposed title speaks to his own self-awareness of the unconventionality of the project, and at the same time serves as good advice for the viewer. If the average person sees Drew Michael in the Stand-up Comedy category and decides to watch based on what they think they know about stand-up comedy, odds are they will be heavily challenged within the first 60 seconds as they hear the dialogue of a fledgling, long-distance couple paired visually with sequential, bright pastel swatches that resemble something from a chillwave album cover.

That dialogue sets the stage for the overarching theme of Michael’s special: relationships. For the performer, it’s about how his personal relationships run parallel to his relationship with the audience. At first this might not seem like a relatable comparison, but given that the special was filmed without an audience and is peppered with recurring cuts to a conversation between romantic interests, one quickly begins to question the nature of their own relationships and whether or not everything they think of as real interaction is just performance. Visually, Drew Michael looks less like a comedy special and more like an indie, art-house TED Talk (in a good way) with help from director Jerrod Carmichael and A24, the folks behind Moonlight, The Florida Project, and Ex Machina. I talked to Michael about filming without an audience, the illusion of “brutally honest” comedy, and whether or not his new special is even stand-up.

I feel like when this special drops it’s going to draw comparisons to what Hannah Gadsby did with Nanette in terms of challenging the form and raising the question, “Is this technically stand-up?” Do you think this is a stand-up special, or would you classify it as something else?
Those types of things I think aren’t up to me. Jerrod and I, we just made it. It’s derived from my stand-up material, and we made something we felt was more appropriate to the adaptation to the film medium. The impetus to all this was that we do stand-up every night, we see stand-up every night, and then when we watch stand-up specials, they tend to feel a little flat. We were trying to figure out what that was. I think part of the issue is that what makes stand-up exciting and interesting is that you’re performing for a live audience, right? The live audience is experiencing something in the moment. They don’t necessarily know that it’s all going to pay off. They don’t know where it’s going to go. Those moments feel more dangerous.

What happens is when you try to record that and show it to people at home, you lose a lot of that element. You lose a lot of what makes stand-up cool. The traditional format is geared toward the live audience and then projected to people at home rather than making something that’s for the people actually watching it. This is one attempt at sort of modifying that and doing something that we thought was not only true to the material but also true to the art form. I don’t really know what to call it, and it doesn’t matter to me. If people want to categorize it to make it more marketable, whatever. It’s a film.

You can film something that feels like pure electricity in the room, but by the time the finished product is released, it’s like, “Man, that’s not what I saw and felt.” It can be because of the way it was edited, where the cameras and mics were, anything, but it misses the mark somewhere. You forwent an audience altogether and just said, “Let’s have me in a room talking.” That’s a risk. Were you worried about how it would turn out?
There’s always a risk when you do something other than the template that exists that people are comfortable with. Personally, that’s not a deterrent to me because I don’t think in those terms. Once the idea was hatched, there was no going back. I couldn’t get out of that mind-set. It wasn’t a matter of, “Should we do this or shouldn’t we?” It was, “Now that we’re doing this, what’s the best way to do it?” We started looking for visual inspiration and what we could do to bring it to life.

Do you remember what that first conversation with Jerrod was like? Did one of you come in with the idea or were you kicking around options?
The short version of it was that I had a concept of interweaving a narrative with my material. We started talking about how to portray that and how to capture it. This was before I had asked him to direct it. We were just kicking around ideas. I said, “When you see my special, what do you see?” We both had the shared vision of me in a void. That was all we knew. We started playing with different theaters and different arrangements — setups to maybe mimic that. We were saying that we almost wanted it to be like there was no audience there. That was our North Star, but we hadn’t gone so far as to say there wouldn’t be an audience.

I remember I was in Minnesota touring and he called and said, “I’m going to pitch you something. You’re going to have to think about it and call me back. Don’t talk about it now. I’ve got to shoot you without an audience.” He hung up the phone, and literally five to ten seconds later I was in love with the idea. I was laughing about how simple and effective I thought it was going to be. I was thinking about how exciting a creative journey it would be trying to fill that space and film something new. From that point on it was full steam ahead. That’s when Chris [Storer] and A24 and Sam Lisenco and Corey Deckler all kind of chimed in creatively. Given all the people who made this possible, it honestly doesn’t feel like it’s mine. It feels like a real communal project that we made.

The void is visually represented well. It’s also interesting to me because sometimes when you’re up there performing in front of an audience spilling your ideas — things you’ve thought about, worked on, and think are funny — but you’re getting nothing back in return, you can’t help but feel like you’re talking into a void. It’s such a lonely feeling.
If you wanted to capture me in a void, you’d either have to shoot on a soundstage or at the Improv in Pittsburgh.

[Laughs.] I started stand-up in Pittsburgh.
That was one of the worst gigs I’ve ever done. I was in front of probably 200 people a night. You asked if I thought if this was a stand-up special — those people didn’t know if what I was doing was stand-up at all. I got more laughter shooting the special without an audience than I did in Pittsburgh.

You were talking about the interwoven narrative concept. You had Suki Waterhouse as a representation of a relationship as well as a mirror to hold up to yourself. She kind of has the last word. Normally, the comic goes out on their big closer. Instead, her character very succinctly questions the validity of everything you say and whether or not you’re even good enough for the art form you’ve chosen to communicate through. It was soul-crushing. Is that how you feel when you write, perform, wake up in the morning? Do you feel like what you do is just masturbatory and self-serving?
Ah, yes. Totally. That was a real moment, a realization. It was sort of the whole inspiration for this hour of material and the special in general — the dichotomy between my personal relationships and my relationship with stand-up and the audience. That’s the reason I wanted to present the relationship arc in conjunction with the stand-up material, because you get both sides of the narrative. There’s always something hypocritical to me about claiming to do this “brutally honest” art form where you are entirely in control of every moment. No matter how confessional you can be, there’s still another side to it. It’s not totally vulnerable because you’re still limiting the scope of what is being seen. That’s not to say that people are being disingenuous. It’s just the nature of this form of communication. There’s a strong similarity between how I relate to the audience in stand-up and how I relate to people in my personal life.

Considering this was shot without an audience, how did you work out the material? I know that before you recorded your last album, you did a series of “An (Exhausting) Evening With Drew Michael” shows where you just kept running your hour to get ready. You learn your beats and develop your rhythm by paying attention to the audience feedback. When you record without an audience, it could be easy to drop weird pauses and tags where you normally got them live, but don’t make sense without a crowd. Once you knew how you were going to shoot this, how did that affect your live shows?
I worked on the material for almost two years. I didn’t know it was going to be this way until a couple months before we shot it. Some of the material doesn’t work for everybody. I think you and I have talked about this before, and you probably get a sense from me that when I’m working stuff out it’s not necessarily for the people right in front of me. It’s for the thing I’m building toward. I knew I was going to put this together into a special of some kind. It wasn’t, Does this work here? Is this killing? It was, Does this work as a whole? There were places that ate it up and connected with it and then there were places like Pittsburgh where it just wasn’t their thing. It was about figuring out the arc of it — the start, middle, end.

In terms of adapting it, I’m always feeding off of what’s given to me. In the case of nobody being there, I just had to feed off of myself. I think it created a loop where I’m shadowboxing instead of sparring. It was new and daring. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing totally. But I trusted myself, all the people around me, and the work we put in. We just let it rip. Hopefully, I did it justice.

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