comedy review

Drew Michael Gets in His Own Way

Drew Michael in Red Blue Green. Photo: Elizabeth Sisson/HBO

It is a little glib and reductive and unfair to lots of comedians working today to describe the current moment as a post-Nanette world. Not everything has to refer back to that one Hannah Gadsby special; lots of comedy this year is operating on a different wavelength entirely. It’s also true that a stand-up special can be about the potentially painful feelings a comedian has about their audience, and it can probe the damaging feedback loop between self-lacerating humor and pervasive self-loathing, without necessarily being in conversation with Nanette.

And yet, it’s difficult to think about Drew Michael’s new HBO special Red Blue Green in any other context. In some ways, that’s to Michael’s benefit. There is now a language for the kind of work he’s doing (my colleague Jesse David Fox calls this post-comedy), and it’s helpful when audiences already have some familiarity with artistic precursors. It’s easier to accept and digest work that can be categorized. So much of comedy is about creating (and then troubling) a sense of shared ground between the comedian and the audience. Red Blue Green has the advantage of working inside a genre that already exists: It’s a comedy show that pulls apart the central precepts of a comedy show and becomes something serious and sincere. Michael questions his relationship to comedy, expresses regret about jokes he’s made in the past, and asks what the role of comedy should be for him personally and for the art form more broadly.

All of that is true! And at the same time, Red Blue Green suffers from exactly the same thing that it benefits from. It is valuable because we know Nanette; it is underwhelming because we know Nanette.

Part of the issue is aesthetic. Michael is also the director of Red Blue Green, and for at least one element of the special, that feels like a very smart decision. There’s a particularly canny surprise that comes at the end, a well-calibrated reveal that plucks at ideas of authenticity and performance. Without giving it away, it’s a reveal operating in the same general playground as Gadsby or, even closer, Bo Burnham’s Inside. But it’s got enough of its own flair, and it’s played with just the right amount of spectacle (which is to say, not too much), that it gets the idea across.

For most of the special, though, the direction is more of a hindrance than a help. Michael’s material builds to a crescendo, a revelation about how he thinks about masculinity, strength, and vulnerability in relation to his work as a comedian. Visually, though, it is presented with every single I am a serious, authentic, hard-core dude signifier it can muster up. It is gray, gray everywhere, except for all the places it’s brown and misty with the occasional lens flare. Michael stands in front of a gray brick wall, and the audience sits close to him, with the camera swooping in and among the seats. He is not a performer on a stage, embracing theatricality and all the silly dramatics of a red curtain and a proscenium arch. He’s a real dude. The special’s final move punctures this to some extent, but when it comes, it’s too late. The dominant memory of the hour is Michael standing in what looks like a postapocalyptic warehouse, casting aside fun in favor of hard truths.

For roughly the first half-hour, the special’s Dark and Broody Dudeliness is more of a distraction than anything else. Michael’s jokes circle around ideas about what is and what isn’t okay to say in comedy, but with a refreshing absence of cancel-culture whining. It is a demonstration of thoughtfulness even when it lands on pretty familiar images, like his jokes about Titanic or his focus on the divide between coach and first class on an airplane. His material about the empty power-coddling comedy of Jimmy Fallon is the high water-mark of the special. It includes a dead-on Fallon impression, as well as the phrases “Guy Smiley, useless puppet-fuck of a person” and “Jimmy Fallon, professional napkin.” The setting and the direction choices smack of so much masculine overcompensation that they nearly undermine the real bite of Michael’s critique, but in this section of the special, it’s more a style complaint than a substantive frustration.

It’s really in the second half that the aesthetics (and the fact that Nanette already exists) get in the way. Michael modulates away from comedy as societal truth-telling toward comedy as a way to avoid emotional truths: What value do any of these jokes have, he wonders, if his own personhood isn’t in them? The jokes are all a system of avoidance, a way for him to dodge the things that actually have the most meaning for him. “I think if you want to make progress, you can’t take that left turn at a punch line,” he says. “And I’m up here, and I want to bring you in. That’s where this is going, that’s the next step,” says Michael. “But it’s hard because I don’t know if there’s a show down there.” He feels like he needs to “mine [his] own life for sadness, and then contort it into a balloon animal for you, so you don’t feel ripped off.”

The next part is a Big Moment, a sequence where Michael picks up his phone and reads a joke aloud from it. Or, it’s not really a joke. It wears joke clothing, but it’s a declaration of how comedy can be a crutch and how the real art is self-reflection, emotional honesty, and doing the therapeutic work. In lieu of laughter, music swells. The camera comes in close, shooting Michael from below, reverently, lovingly. The scene also cuts to audience-reaction shots, capturing their faces as they look up at him, their faces awed, almost beatifying. The stark, colorless gravity of the show’s production design turns into an exclamation mark. See how important this is! Look how meaningful!

It is all those things. It’s sad and important and meaningful. But the trouble of Red Blue Green is that it fails to translate this moment of resonant personal breakthrough for Michael into something that creates meaning for his audience. His last special in 2018 was shot without an audience — a formal experiment that doesn’t fully work, but it’s fun to watch him wrestle with the idea. Here he’s invited the audience back, but rather than play to them, their role is mostly to gaze at him. Their wondering faces are meant to be proof of Michael’s achievement. Beyond that, it’s not clear why Michael needs them there.

The result is a special that feels not entirely one thing or another, but also much of it is more familiar than maybe Michael intends. If it’s a comedy special, the first half is solid, and the second half fails to navigate its transition into enacting the thing while also commenting on it. If it’s a one-man show about therapeutic breakthroughs, then Michael excels at the “one man” part of it and does not quite land the “show” element. In either case, however vital the hour is to Michael himself, Red Blue Green does not manage to escape from the long shadow of its very famous and better-balanced “what if comedy but also dismantling comedy” predecessor. In its final surprise, Red Blue Green almost finds a way for Michael to escape his inward-looking regard. It’s too bad that surprise comes at the end; a show that takes place after that moment of revelation could be great.

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Drew Michael Gets in His Own Way