What if comedy specials didn’t have to be funny to be good? Your mind is blown right now, I know. Yes, funny is the ideal, but a special that does nothing at all to make one person laugh might also be someone else’s very favorite thing. Someone’s “good” is always someone else’s “terrible.” What that leaves any comedy fan with, though, is the depressing sense that there is no such thing as an artful, well-made special that exists outside our own personal filters. Just as frustrating, it then seems as though comedy specials have no inherent craft or appeal beyond the straight content of what a comedian says onstage. How grim! (Infomercial voice:) There has to be a better way!
What if, instead, there was a way to think about the art of the comedy special on its own terms, related to but not the same as the actual content of a joke? What if we thought of comedy specials as the result of a massive, almost overwhelming series of choices, and we were able to think about the special not just in terms of whether the jokes were good but also whether those 100 other decisions were made in the service of best presenting this comedian’s work?
Think of it like a kid’s birthday party: If you go into it with a shrug, then sure, superficially, all the decisions are easier to make because they’re not particularly important. “I don’t know, it’s a kid’s party!” you say, standing in the aisle looking at dozens of paper plate options. “It doesn’t matter, just pick one!” In an ideal world, though, a party for a 5-year-old dinosaur fan would look different from a party for a 12-year-old proto-punk. Knowing the goal and deciding on a theme does narrow the options for what will work, but it also makes every decision a way to work toward a larger goal. The theme is unicorns! Get the pink glittery plates and the rainbow napkins.
So what does this look like in a comedy-special context? Just like a kid’s birthday party, where you’d want to decide what kinds of plates to get and what activities to have and which favors to give out, comedy specials are a series of questions and choices.
What do you want this comedy special to feel like?
Is this comedy special going to feel immense, celebratory, like a career culmination? Then it’s going to need a large venue, bright and vibrant lighting, lots of wide shots to communicate scale and scope, and probably lots of audience presence through both visual markers and beefed-up crowd noise. Chris Rock’s Bigger & Blacker (1999) is designed to convey the idea of that title: a huge stage with shots of Rock striding across it, commanding the whole space. Is the comedy special going to feel casual, loose, undemanding? Then it’s Ray Romano’s Right Here, Around the Corner (2019), shot as two back-to-back drop-in sets at New York comedy clubs. That decision about mood filters down into everything from clothing to backdrop to the angle of the close shots. Maybe it’s going to feel like a cabaret. Maybe it’s going to be one of those cancel-culture, free-speech, angry-dude specials. Maybe it’s going to be bleak as hell, one of those comedy specials that make people say, “I laughed a lot, but it was so dark.” Those do not have to have plug-and-play comedians-on-a-stage-somewhere designs! The cabaret and the angry-dude specials might both use the color red, but the best way to present either of those moods would be with very, very different shades of red. Everything flows from that first articulation about what the special should feel like.
How much money do you have to make that happen?
Ah, yes, here comes the reality. Sure, you could hire an actual horse and put a horn on it for your unicorn birthday party, but who has the budget for that? What that means, in comedy-special terms, is that many of the decisions may be out of a comedian’s or a production team’s control. Specials filmed in batches (with multiple comedians performing in the same space with the same production team, like Comedy Central Presents or Netflix’s The Standups) cannot be bespoke in the way that might, in a perfect world, have offered the best presentation of the material. Specials that are self-funded or made with the barest shoestring budget likely can’t afford as many camera operators or a well-known director or a fancy set built specifically for this performance.
It’s a bummer. It’s also the same problem that faces all art that isn’t, apparently, season four of Stranger Things. So you control the things you can still control: what you’re wearing, whether you get any input on the edit, the title, the way you move around the stage, whether the stage has any props, whether you sit on the stool. Choices on this level can’t replace “I decided to film a special in the Temple of Dendur” or whatever, but making a decision is always better than shrugging it off. (Someone please do a special in the Temple of Dendur. I know they rent that thing out for parties.)
Let’s break down how those big mood and budget elements actually play out in some concrete examples:
Where will the special be filmed?
There are two questions buried in this fairly straightforward idea. The first is about what kind of venue the special will be in. If you’re Kevin Hart in 2019 and you want to make a special that signals you’re a huge deal, you film Irresponsible in a massive arena. If you’re Kevin Hart in 2020 and you want to signal that you’re still a real person with feelings in spite of a pandemic and some recent Oscar-related PR problems, you film a special in what looks like the living room of your house. Theaters have a different weight and scale than comedy clubs. Some theaters look fancier than others; some small theaters may communicate intimacy better than a club-size space.
The other question implicit in “where” is more about the audience. A special filmed in North Dakota might have a different crowd than a special filmed in Georgia, and the way an audience reacts is one of the most vital elements of mood-setting a special can create. Lil Rel Howery and Mike Epps both have specials playing in front of majority Black crowds, but Howery’s Live in Crenshaw (2019) is not in his hometown and Epps’s Indiana Mike (2022) is. They are both effective, carefully considered presentations of a performer’s relationship with their audience, but they’re also palpably different vibes.
How many tapings?
Will the special be edited together from only one show or from several performances? Most specials use multiple performances to make sure it captures the best possible version of a joke (a trope Bo Burnham plays with in 2016’s Make Happy). But there’s always the chance that sloppy editing can make the final result worse (see the most recent Aziz Ansari special) or simply result in an unavoidable, hilarious continuity problem. The most entertaining recent example is Leslie Jones’s Time Machine, in which she removes her false eyelashes halfway through one of the performances. As a result, the second half of the special cuts back and forth between Eyelashes Jones and No Eyelashes Jones.
Colors! Angles! Movement!
This stuff is vital, but it often comes down to who gets hired to create this production. Choosing a director to make your comedy special look like every other comedy special — but who will do it very, very competently! — will likely mean there’s little visual distinction between this and dozens of other specials. Maybe that’s the goal! But if it’s not, then working with a director who can bring in ideas can really, really change the final result. There are dozens of related decisions here: stuff about where to put cameras, how wide a wide-angle shot should be, whether the action should feel static or dynamic, what color purple is too royal or too pastel, how to capture audience reactions. Steven Brill’s direction of Cat Cohen’s The Twist … ? She’s Gorgeous captures Cohen’s tone by emphasizing close-up shots that are sometimes in profile or even from behind the piano. Lynn Shelton’s direction of Marc Maron’s End Times Fun uses sudden cuts to a handheld camera that emphasize Maron’s ranting, slightly unhinged comic persona. One comedian recently told me they prefer to work with camera operators who have experience shooting golf because they’re skilled at capturing fluid movement.
Let’s talk about the audience.
The question of the audience comes up often at many decision points. (Location, potential continuity in tapings, what happens if your act has crowd work, what happens if you’re Natalie Palamides performing Nate, on and on.) But the audience deserves its own category because how a special presents the audience is its own whole ball of wax.
Consider the audience-reaction shot. It’s an undeniably helpful tool in editing, allowing the special to cut between multiple tapings or takes of a joke or a particular moment of physical awkwardness without creating blatant continuity problems. But the audience-reaction shot can so easily go awry. They can appear self-congratulatory (Look at this woman weeping with laughter!) or even smug; they can distract from the comedian’s performance; they can have a boomerang effect where instead of replicating the feeling of a live show, they reinforce just how staged this all feels.
There are other options. Nikki Glaser’s Bangin’ (2019), directed by Nicholaus Goossen, shoots from within the audience, which captures the presence of a crowd without (metaphorically) pointing a big red arrow at them. Jerrod Carmichael’s 8 (2017), directed by Burnham, is shot in the round, meaning the audience is always present by default. And even without any visible audience presence, great sound design can allow the audience to be present and participatory. Laughter and other audible responses can often be a much more elegant way to demonstrate a joke is funny than the awkward sudden pan to someone in the crowd slapping their knee.
How is this going to get edited?
All the questions about mood, movement, audience presence, color, number of tapings, camera angles — editing is where the vague ideas about all of those things actually come to fruition. If the goal is to have a special in which the audience feels present and alive, but the edit only uses wide shots framed around the edges of the stage so it looks like the comedian is standing inside a hermetically sealed box, then something gets lost in translation. Editing can change everything. The most famous example is Carmichael’s 8, which was apparently a miserable experience during the taping and is totally transformed as a finished product.
What are you going to do with the first 90 seconds?
The classic choice, the one invented by Marty Callner in the very first comedy special, is to have a camera follow you out from backstage. Familiar variations include starting outside then coming in through a stage door, finishing a phone call with a loved one then going onstage, and having a pumped-up rock-and-roll entrance like a boxer entering a ring. Maybe you can’t control any of that because this is a smaller production. So do you come and wave? Do you stride onstage and do a little dance? Do you thank people up top or do a shout-out to this particular city or begin by berating them? Whatever you decide, the main point is that your mother was right: You never have a second chance to make a first impression.
What will you wear?
This is a nightmare of a question. No outfit will signal the exact right comic persona to the exact right group of people in a way that will age or not age in exactly the right way. Nevertheless, nudity can really distract from stand-up, so clothing has to enter the equation at some point, and it can do so much to establish a special’s mood. The John Mulaney formal-suit option is one way to go. The Michael Che very fancy hoodie is another possibility. There is a storied history of comedians performing in leather suits. You’ll notice those are all male examples, though. For women, and for anyone who’s not dressing to advertise “I’m a dude,” the questions are endless: Heels or no heels? Pants? (Skinny or wide?) Jeans? (Black or blue?) Dress or skirt? Professional but not a waitress? Casual but not sloppy? Which jumpsuit says “I’m pulled together but in a relatable way”? The best-case scenario is when an outfit somehow escapes the material limits of clothing and achieves its own level of symbolic costumed meaning, à la Ali Wong in Baby Cobra (2016). But how can you make that happen? I have no advice here. Consider possibly just wearing whatever you would normally wear but a $400 version instead of the Old Navy verison.
Will there be a stool?
Symbolically, this decision can stand in for a million other ones. Lav mic or stand mic? How elaborate is the set? Are you a PowerPoint Slides comedian? A props comedian? How much of the material is act-outs? What about music?
Still, a stool is also just a stool, and there’s something pleasantly small about it as a decision. Where so many of the other choices are tricky, nuanced, sometimes career-definingly difficult calls, the stool is beautifully simple. Some comedians sit; some do not. Some comedians hump their stools; some use them as tables. If everything else is beyond your control, let the stool be the line in the sand. Being the master of your own stool destiny may not be the difference between a good comedy special and a great one, but the road to designing a comedy special with thought and vision and daring has to start somewhere. If everything else fails, there’s always stools.