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For Drew Michael, Laughter Isn’t the Ultimate Barometer

Drew Michael. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Elizabeth Sisson/HBO

How do you follow up an audienceless special? It’s not a question many comedians have had to think about except Drew Michael, who filmed his 2018 debut, Drew Michael, on a soundstage. The answer is his 2021 HBO special, Red Blue Green. There is an audience, but Michael, through a twist at the end, still finds a way to explore his and his comedy’s relationship to it. He is part of a peer group of comedians all driven to express themselves as well as express how they feel about the medium in which they do so. His work raises questions like: What does it mean for a comedian to make their pain laughable? And how essential are the laughs anyway?

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Michael discusses his relationship to laughter, trying to do something more with the stand-up special form, and what it means for a comedian to share their mental anguish with an audience. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

On Dealing With Sadness Through Comedy

I can make something funny, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. I would do shows, in the past, and certain people would respond to only the emotional tenor of it. In my mind, I’m like, But the word choice is good and the structure is good and that analogy is good, and they’re like, Yeah, but it makes me sad.

I had an ex-girlfriend maybe 12 years ago who I met at a show, and she thought I was funny, blah blah blah. And at the end of the relationship, she was like, “You’re not funny.” She didn’t mean that I was bad at comedy — she was like, “It’s too real. You’re showcasing too much.” That has always stuck with me because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to come to terms with that. There is a deeper sadness that is being obfuscated by wit or cleverness or something like that, so I think the answer is to address the sadness in your life. Don’t try to exploit it and mine it for content, but actually get to the root of it.

The audience is under no obligation to believe me, but that is what I’m doing, and it has had massive implications — some are artistic as well. It has changed how I view my own work and also the work of others and stand-up in general. There’s a lot of sadness and emptiness that gets repurposed in this weird exchange for the approval of, like, tourists or something.

On Laughter As a Stand-Up’s Goal

At first, that’s the goal: Get laughs, because that’s the only way you knew you weren’t wasting your time up there. Then you do enough shows, and you kind of see that generating laughs inside of a comedy show is not that hard.

One of the things that’s nice about Chicago in terms of getting reps and getting better is there are a lot of places within a couple hundred miles you could drive to to feature for road headliners. I remember my first time featuring, I had a great set. I remember thinking, Good luck following that. And then, I won’t say who it is, but this comic proceeded to murder in a way I had never heard before. Just the rhythm of it was so crisp. And it was some of the worst comedy I had ever seen in my life. I was like, I don’t even want these laughs. This has been tainted. Through that process, it occurred to me, Okay, laughter isn’t the metric, because I have seen shit that I think is terrible murder.

I’m not saying I’m the absolute critic, but does it have to be good for it to get laughs? The mechanics of generating laughter is quite simple, especially if you’re in a room of live performance where there’s already an energy that’s prone to it. I’m not saying that it’s easy to get laughs just by doing anything, but if you follow the rhythm and you’re sharp, they’re just in this fit of laughter.

So at some point I became disenchanted. It’s hard to appreciate laughter as its own metric when I see it being generated pretty cheaply. That doesn’t mean you’re like, Okay, so fine, you don’t need laughs anymore. It’s just not like this ultimate barometer. I do think it’s good for getting polished and getting your chops better; I’m not saying that people can’t enjoy that. But I’m there because I have things to say. Whether you think they’re interesting or not, it’s totally up to you, but the impetus is I want to say these things that I’m thinking or feeling, and I’m trying to find a way to say them in a way that is compelling and makes for a good show.

On Making Things He’d Want to Watch

Three years ago, I was hanging out with Josh Rabinowitz, Bo [Burnham], and Jerrod [Carmichael]. And this is right after my special came out, so I didn’t do stand-up for like nine months after that. Bo famously took a five-year break up until Inside, and Jerrod hasn’t performed since 8. Josh hasn’t even put out a special; he’s doing a lot more writing and producing. He’s a genius.

We were talking about a dearth of a type of thing that we wish existed, and I had the presence of mind to be like, “You know, the three of you are three of my favorite comedy brains and none of you are doing it now, so it’s your fault.” It’s like Michael Jordan in his retirement, being like “the NBA has gotten worse.” Not that we all have the same philosophy, and not that we’re all the same, and I don’t put myself on anyone’s level, but I think if there is a shared sentiment, it is commentary. I don’t personally believe in getting out there and talking a bunch of shit about people, because I don’t think that serves anyone. You just try to make the thing that you wish existed. That’s it in a nutshell: Make the thing you wish somebody would make to the best of your ability.

On Red Blue Green’s Twist Ending

The idea came to me before the reason, but I wanted to make sure that the construct was married to the content. If I’m being completely honest, in Red Blue Green, I think we did a better job of that. In Drew Michael, I think the construct and the content were not perfectly married. If I have regrets about it, it’s not that we did something radical, it’s that the audienceless nature and the actual performance are not saying the same thing. I have my own creative regrets about that.

In this case, I wanted to make sure that it was tied to what was being said. There’s a bunch of ways to interpret it. I don’t necessarily want to put interpretations in people’s heads, but I’ll say the entire show you’re seeing me from the left side, and the end of the show starts dealing with this notion of getting to the other side. So just like when you discover certain things about yourself, you find out that the story you’ve been telling yourself is not true. At the moment that that happens, in the special, we are now seeing me from a different angle, and this story that has been told to us visually is upended. If you want to get further into it, it’s like it’s open to even more people. It’s also a somewhat cynical comment on not just like, “Oh, stand-up is a performance,” but it’s also that the audience is onstage too that then the subsequent audience is watching that happen and then you at home are watching that. It’s like this recursive loop, and you’re watching it on a screen. A lot of things that we consume are these recursive iterations of things being infinitely projected to us in the three colors that make up a pixel, which are red, blue, and green.

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For Drew Michael, Laughter Isn’t the Ultimate Barometer