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Comedian Drew Michael And Director Jerrod Carmichael On Pushing Stand-Up's Boundaries


The first thing you notice about Drew Michael's new stand-up special is what's not there. There's no stage, no audience, no laughter, except for maybe your own - just a comic pacing in a shapeless darkness thinking out loud


DREW MICHAEL: It's too much pressure on the first date. Dinner? Just you and a menu and this person? Good luck. She's like, ooh, what should I get? It's like, I don't care. I don't love you. Chicken.

CORNISH: Drew Michael says this idea came from his director, fellow comedian Jerrod Carmichael. They were scouting performance spaces, looking for one that captured the feeling of a void. But they kept striking out.

MICHAEL: The problem with all the spaces is that they were spaces at all. And so he's - he called me. And he said, listen, I'm going to have - I'm going to pitch you something. And he's like, I need to shoot you without an audience. And I was like, oh, boy.

CORNISH: Jerrod Carmichael says no audience just made sense for Drew Michael's comedy.

JERROD CARMICHAEL: He's never performing for an audience. He's performing for himself. Like, a lot of the thoughts are, like, behind his, you know, eyes. (Laughter) You know, like, it just stays there, and he's performing. And he's just - he would do this if he were in his living room.

CORNISH: When we spoke to the two of them about the special, Drew Michael pointed out there actually is an audience.

MICHAEL: People will say, like, oh, there's no audience. It's like, that's not true. It just wasn't recorded in front of people. Like, you saw it.

CORNISH: (Laughter) You were the audience. (Laughter) You missed that. Yeah.

MICHAEL: You know what I mean? Like, the laughs are happening or not happening the same as they would otherwise. I'm just not with you to know. And I think that - to do it so it's literally just me and you. That's it. And it's up to you to decide what this is and what you're feeling and how you're reacting. And I think that drives the intention of what we were trying to do anyway, in a way that we couldn't have done if we did it conventionally.

CORNISH: I want to talk also about controversial topics, which you both take on in your comedy. Drew, an example of this in this one - I guess - would be about the Oedipal Complex.


MICHAEL: I think that's why the mom sits up front at the wedding because it's like, well, it would have been you, but - ugh. So I had to go find someone I never knew. I had to turn a stranger into the love of my life. I'll love-level, though. Like, who do I love more than my mom? Nobody. Who does she love more than me? Nobody. (Laughter) It is right there.

CORNISH: Listening to this joke, I was thinking about how much we rely on laughter of the people around us to decide, like, oh, is this OK to laugh at?

CARMICHAEL: It's fun to just put that on one individual. A lot of people will watch this alone. And, you know, you're alone in a room, and there - it's not even the illusion of this shared experience. It's on you to interpret the thought, decide if it's interesting enough or, (laughter) you know, funny enough to laugh at.

MICHAEL: I think also it highlights your surroundings as much as it does my own, you know, how aware you are of what's going on. And are you taken out of it by the fact that you can stretch your legs on an ottoman, or there - it's well-lit, or you're not surrounded by other people? You don't hear laughter, et cetera, et cetera. So as much as I think this special highlights my isolation, I think it highlights your own as well as you watch it because we're not letting you off the hook. Like, if you don't laugh, it will be silent.

CORNISH: One thing you both have in common in your comedy - I think - is you're both very vulnerable on stage. Jerrod, you've got this joke that it ends up being about men being relieved about paternity tests, (laughter) basically. But it starts out really, like, pensive and personal.


CARMICHAEL: What am I rebelling against?


CARMICHAEL: Like, why does the idea of, like, love and relationships and things sound so foreign and so [expletive] to me? I don't know.

CORNISH: And you kind of look down and make a comment about, like, why am I this way (laughter)?


CARMICHAEL: I don't know what to - what do I actually believe in?

CORNISH: But male comedy in the past, there has been an element of, like, you stalk the stage like an animal. (Laughter) You know what I mean, kind of?

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Like, beating your chest and talking about, like, women are crazy - am I right? And, like, neither of you are doing that. You're like, I'm crazy. I don't know how to fix it (laughter).

CARMICHAEL: That wouldn't be true to my experience. My life experience has been very analytical, always kind of examining yourself. And, like, those thoughts are - aren't just, like, aggressive, in-your-face thoughts. They're very pensive, in-your-bathroom-mirror thoughts. (Laughter) And I try to apply the emotion I feel around it to the performance on stage.

CORNISH: I think, Drew, the reason I'm asking is because one of the arcs of your show is you being a person who doesn't know how to let your guard down, you being a person who doesn't know how to open up in relationships, and that there's kind of damage from that.

MICHAEL: Yeah. I mean, that's kind of what I wanted to get at with what we made with this special, the idea of somebody saying, oh, you're so vulnerable on stage, or even thinking myself, I am so vulnerable on stage. And yet, when you have this - the disparity between that and the inability to do that when it counts, like in real, honest, vulnerable moments, it's like, oh, OK. Well, then there's something off. There's something inherent in the medium that is allowing me to open up this way or allowing me to explore this way.

And I think ultimately it has to do with control, right? You know, no matter how vulnerable I am on stage or how many - how confessional I get or what areas I drag people into or myself into, I'm still totally in control of the narrative. I'm telling you what I'm thinking. I'm withholding whatever I want, you know. And there's no real emotional risk because there's nothing they can do to hurt me.

CORNISH: So is this still stand-up?

CARMICHAEL: I don't know. I - to be honest with you, like, I thought these thoughts were really interesting. And (laughter) I just wanted to kind of capture it. How you define that - is it stand-up? I don't know. Maybe. It was rehearsed as stand-up. I captured essentially his stand-up act, so yeah, I guess it is.

MICHAEL: You know, I hear people, you know, bring that up. And it's always funny to me because my answer is, who cares? Calling it something or calling it something else isn't going to change what it is when you watch it.

CORNISH: Having had this experience, how are you thinking differently about your kind of return to the stage or building new material?

MICHAEL: It's interesting because, you know, in terms of stand-up specifically, I think, you know, I approached it a certain way over the 10 years that I've done it. And I'm not saying I've reached the maximum capacity of ability, but I feel like I've exhausted that method and that mindset and that perspective and that source to the point where I - there is nothing else to say from there that wouldn't be just repeating itself.

And so I do still have thoughts and ideas, but I think they warrant a different medium, whether that's film or television, et cetera. And I think I don't want it to be so singular anymore. I don't - but stand-up is. It's me. It's hello, you know - I wish I could almost write an act for someone who isn't me. Like, I - like, I don't want to be up there being, like, me - me is funny. You know, it's like - it's a little - it's getting to be a little much for me.

CORNISH: Drew Michael, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MICHAEL: No, thank you so much for asking me questions.

CORNISH: And Jerrod Carmichael, thank you so much for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CARMICHAEL: Thank you for having me.


CORNISH: The new special on HBO is called "Drew Michael."

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER'S "WORST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.