Someone once told me that the best rooms for comedy are the worst rooms for a fire. They ought to be tight and cramped, with low ceilings and minimal lighting. They’re places where the laughs can bounce off the walls and echo, filling the room. Most of my favorite comedy clubs are in basements or down weird hallways that make you feel like just being there is a secret and a privilege.
Lil Rel Howery’s new HBO special, Live in Crenshaw, playfully ignores this conventional wisdom. The special was shot in a high-school gymnasium, and I can’t think of a place with higher ceilings or more light. There is a small stage set up in the center, with bleachers and chairs on all four sides. Before Howery takes the stage, the special opens with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a.k.a. the Black National Anthem, followed by a step-team performance. In my brief conversation with him, Howery referred to the vibe of the special as a “comedy pep rally.”
Setting Live in Crenshaw at Susan Miller Dorsey Senior High School in Los Angeles was director Jerrod Carmichael’s idea. Howery was unconvinced until he saw the huge floor-to-ceiling windows. He envisioned filming the special in the late afternoon to catch the sunset. In the finished product, which was shot entirely on film, the viewer can watch the sun slowly setting in the background as the special progresses.
While Crenshaw is a street, not a place, Howery wanted people around the country to understand immediately where he was. “When you say ‘Crenshaw,’” he recently explained on Instagram, “people understand that means black. Not Baldwin Hills, not Leimert Park … I did it to pay homage to the people I performed in front of, to the community.” Having the right audience was a huge priority to him. “If I’m going to shoot it in L.A., I want to shoot it for us,” he said, “in front of us, and as a black community.” This also meant that HBO’s budget for his venue — a budget built for renting out a big-name theater — went to Susan Miller Dorsey Senior High School instead.
Carmichael took a similarly bold detour from the traditional comedy-club setting when directing Drew Michael’s 2018 special, which he seemingly shot in an eerie black void. Nontraditional comedy specials aren’t exactly new, but Carmichael’s choices seem to be leading a wave of dramatic departures from the form. In recent years, we’ve also seen Maria Bamford’s 2012 The Special Special Special, which was filmed in her living room; her 2017 special, Old Baby, moved between multiple venues. Jenny Slate and Gary Gulman’s specials from this year took a docu-style approach, while Aziz Ansari’s Right Now and Chris Rock’s Tamborine opted for confessional intimacy. Elliott Morgan’s recent special Holy Shit was filmed entirely in one take.
“Jerrod understood what was the best show for [me],” Howery recently explained. “Doing that show in that gymnasium … reminded me of all those old shows that I’ve done that got me to where I’m at. The mason halls, the gymnasiums, the hole-in-the-wall lounges … It was just these shows you would do that people just came out because they really needed to laugh.”