Drew Michael’s first HBO stand-up comedy special opens with a banal, late-night conversation via FaceTime, the first of many interwoven through the special. Michael is nowhere in sight as the bright, electric-blue light of the screen slowly morphs into a fluorescent white. It’s as if we’re witness to a James Turrell light installation rather than a stand-up special. The conversation we’re listening in on is one from the past, between Michael and presumably his then-girlfriend (played by the actress and model Suki Waterhouse). It’s meandering and aimless—just a normal, raspy-voiced late-night chat about nothing. So begins what undeniably is a stand-up special, yet an unconventional one that straddles the line between performance art and comedy. One that, at a time when the conversation about stand-up’s worth and utility is swelling, reimagines what a stand-up comedy special can be.
Simply titled Drew Michael, the special has a dreamlike aura, doing away with almost all the trappings of a traditional stand-up special that we’ve come to recognize. Directed by the similarly pensive comedian Jerrod Carmichael (making his directing debut), the special almost entirely shows Michael standing in a dark, cavernous void that makes it look like he’s stuck at the bottom of a well. There’s no audience, no stage, no microphone, no laughter. The lighting dims to a dark blue and purple during riffs on darker subjects (suicide, intimacy issues) and brightens during sillier ones (Michael’s hearing disability, the pointlessness of having abs). Sound effects punctuate words and entire jokes.
Michael paces and even walks off-camera while performing, and Carmichael’s direction shows him at a number of angles from above, below, up close, or from afar. The hyperactivity of the camera underscores the special’s theme of intimacy or, rather, Michael’s inability to be intimate. Once we feel like we’re getting close to Drew, the camera pulls away. At times, it almost seems like we’re watching Michael talk through his problems with himself in a mirror. At other times, Carmichael pulls away, putting the viewer in the nosebleeds of a theater for an extended rant about herpes. Sometimes Michael isn’t on screen at all, like when he FaceTimes his ex-girlfriend and we see the calls from Michael’s perspective. Altogether, the special feels like spying on a fever dream of Michael’s instead of watching a performance of his newest material.
As aggressively different as Drew Michael is, the material itself rides the wave of personal, confessional material intermingled with more “traditional” stand-up bits that have been on the rise over the last couple of years thanks to shows like Mike Birbiglia’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and Neal Brennan’s 3 Mics and stand-up specials like Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. In Drew Michael, a riff on why dating is so hard for the comedian turns into an extended bit on why it would be so much easier if he could just date his mother instead (“She’s single too, not that it matters”). He offers his opinion on why suicide jokes are more offensive to “suicide-adjacent” people rather than suicidal people. And he riffs on how his therapist coming to the conclusion that he has commitment issues made him leave that therapist, a sequence of events turning into a feedback loop of his intimacy and commitment issues (“It’s like going to an AA meeting and being like, ‘Finally! Some real drinking buddies!’”).
Drew Michael is not a special that will make you throw your head back or grab your stomach from laughing too hard. At its best, the material makes you smirk and appreciate the former “Weekend Update” writer’s ability to craft a joke with economy (although the best bit may be a visual callback to an earlier one on closed captioning). At its worst, it gives off the vibe—especially given the fact that there’s no audience and that Michael is standing in an empty room—of a spoken-word performance at an open mic night. But the material is almost secondary. Drew Michael has much more on its mind than making its audience laugh. What is has to say brings a much-needed sense of self-awareness to a medium that too often can feel self-important. And unlike almost any other special over the past couple of years, it subverts our expectations of what both stand-up and the stand-up special is supposed to be.
Drew Michael works as a meditation on the idea of the hubris involved in doing stand-up as well as the medium’s contradictions. In Nanette, Hannah Gadsby’s excellent, critically acclaimed, “comedy-destroying” (!) special, she concluded that stand-up as an art form was far too restricting, its reliance on self-deprecating humor serving to cut down the comic’s self-worth and therefore limit honest expression. Alternatively, Michael acknowledges that the mere act of getting onstage and relaying your problems to an audience contains some level of hubris and self-indulgence. The inherent truth behind stand-up is that the performer believes that they have something worthwhile to say and, what’s more, that that “something” must be heard by a paying audience. It’s just one person on a stage talking about how they see the world with no opportunity for dissent. In the most interesting moment of Drew Michael, however, the comedian’s self-indulgence is met with the unavoidable fact that in real life, expression is a two-way street.
In the final minutes of the special, at the end of a rant about his own frustrations with his intimacy issues, he simply resolves that it’s something he has to reckon with. “So what do you do about it? You just try to be honest,” he says slowly, in that tone of dramatic finality that stand-ups use to signal to the audience “here’s the momentous ending.” That would be the kicker for most shows, but here, Waterhouse appears, bathed in dark blue light and offering an aggressive counterpoint, if not a rebuke, of the past 50 minutes of stand-up comedy. “It’s just been watching you jerk yourself off, and I’m really sick of it,” she says. “It’s the same dynamic as all your relationships. You come in here and say whatever you want, and then you leave. Like a fucking pussy.”
The critique lingers for a minute, and we see Michael with a blank face, attempting to process it. And then the special ends.
The self-aware turn that closes Drew Michael feels less like an attempt to absolve itself of criticism than an attempt to comment on the contradictions that lie at the heart of stand-up and the form’s potential ability to grow. Gadsby may believe that stand-up is too limiting as a form of self-expression, but it may also be true that her definition of what stand-up is is too limiting. Drew Michael does not feel just like the culmination of years of touring and refining bits, but like a comment in a longer conversation about stand-up comedy’s ability to be self-aware and emotionally honest. Drew Michael argues that the stand-up special can aspire to be more than a concert film, that it can be more than just watching an audience watch a performance. That it can begin to capture someone’s thoughts, whether right or wrong. That it can encapsulate someone’s anger, whether justified or unjustified. Drew Michael argues that the stand-up special can make us think, cry, fume with anger, disagree, and also, hopefully, laugh.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.