This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
There is a fine line between the ramblings of a crazy person and stand-up comedy. Remove the lights, stage, and captive audience and, you could argue, the medium itself melts away. Drew Michael’s self-titled HBO special would be the counterargument to that claim.
After a decade of performing stand-up and writing for the likes of Saturday Night Live, Michael realized he had become stuck in a comedy trap that was beginning to affect his personal life on various levels. Drew Michael is his attempt to wrestle his way out of the perverse feedback loop that exists between a performer, their audience, and their relationships.
Shot in a dark studio with no audience, it compensates for a lack of visual and auditory comedy cues with cinematic technique and acting by Suki Waterhouse. At one point, the volume drops dramatically and closed captioning comes on the screen to mimic Michael’s own hearing impairment. It looks as if he’s floating in the empty space, which he kind of is emotionally.
Throughout the hour, it’s not always clear whether Drew is speaking to himself, to Waterhouse, or directly to the viewer, nor is it totally obvious when a laugh is expected, if at all. It’s all a little confusing, but in a way that makes you question some very basic assumptions about comedy.
Is the open and vulnerable comedian trope just a form of manipulation and self-deception? Is audience laughter as much of a performance as telling jokes? If a joke bombs and no one is around to hear it, does it still bomb? Drew Michael doesn’t really answer any of these questions, but it certainly forces an attentive viewer to reflect on them.
Michael also tackles subjects like masculinity, relationships, disabilities, and contracting herpes with a level of personal detail that is jarring, even in a time of Nanette. Sure, it makes you laugh on occasion, though it’s pretty obvious from the general tone of Drew Michael—and this interview—that Michael’s main goal in not yucks; it’s talking about what he wants to talk about, even if it makes people, himself included, uncomfortable.
We spoke to Michael over the phone as he was processing a polarized but predominantly enthusiastic critical response to his special.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: Hey Drew, how’s it going?
Drew Michael: I think well.
Better than at the end of your special? You were in pretty rough shape by the last scene.
Yeah, a lot of energy and focus went into it. As soon as we finished filming, I went into a two-week period where I don’t think I left the couch. I played the new Zelda video game for two weeks straight—I haven’t played video games in eight years—but I needed to do something that’s also nothing. I had been doing stand-up and touring and working non-stop for the last ten years. This was the culmination of all that. I felt drained, like, “I said it.” Now, I just have to wait for the response to come in.
Speaking of response, Drew Michael has been called “the most polarizing” stand-up special of the year. What’s that like?
I can’t speak for everyone involved, but I tend to have that effect in general. When you’re uncompromising in your point of view, you don’t leave a lot of middle ground for people. You’re either totally on board or, like, “What the fuck is this?” It’s not unlike the kinds of experiences I’ve had outside of this special. It wasn’t surprising for me to hear that at all.
As a comic, how do you measure success with no laughs?
Stand-up is obviously geared toward the most immediate reaction. In its traditional form, you perform in front of a crowd and you need a reaction at the end of every sentence, every paragraph, or every bit. But when I perform, I’m the first and last stop for, “Is this good enough?” I think that’s why it’s polarizing. I go up knowing, “This is what I’m going to say, your reaction is not necessarily paramount and does not totally matter to this process.” The people who are on board are like, “Fuck, yeah!” and people who aren’t on board are like, “Fuck this guy!” I tried to tune that out before and after the process and trust my instincts. If I can’t trust my instincts then what’s the point anyway?
How do you define stand-up comedy?
I’ve never had a hard definition of “stand-up.” To me, stand-up is a human being with a microphone expressing themselves for an hour. It doesn’t mean that it has to only be funny or only be one thing; it can be so much more dynamic. If you give a fuck about it, I will give a fuck about it, because it will show. If you don’t give a fuck about it, I can tell, and I only want to hear about something that they give a fuck about. That’s the broadest definition of stand-up I can come up with.
People talking about what they give a fuck about?
Yeah, in a way that’s honest, in the sense that it’s inspired.
And the laughs will follow?
Probably… Unfunny people can be funny if they’re just themselves; when they fail is when they try to be funny. The funniest people I know are people who aren’t comics, they’re just people who are funny.
A lot of comedy purists think that the only thing that really matters is the joke. Have you gotten any resistance from more old-school comics?
Any collective has a certain way of doing things, but I tend to think that, in general, the response of resistance to change usually comes from an internal insecurity over one’s own ability to operate in a changing landscape. On an emotional level, it’s a resistance to the axioms on which they built their identity being rattled. You have to make certain assumptions about life and live accordingly, those are the basic building blocks. If someone comes in and questions a foundational element of your belief system, that’s always going to rattle the cage. You see that in the 80s and 90s, when George Carlin and Bill Hicks were ripping on religion, and we saw how religious groups reacted to that.
Is comedy like a religion for those who practice it for a living?
Comedians hold very tightly to comedy and what it is. It’s very religious for a lot of people. The Comedy Cellar and the Comedy Store, that’s their church and their synagogue in a lot of ways. I’m not being critical because it’s such a source of kinship and community, especially for comics who tend to be very wayward and outsider people. The sense of community is very strong and they’re going to adopt collective ideals. When someone comes along and says, “Fuck that, I’m going to do something different,” whether it’s me or Hannah Gadsby or whoever else, you just have to be resistant to it. But I think it’s all good, it’s all part of a healthy discussion and I think it’s up to every individual to make the change they want to make and adapt or not adapt. That’s true culturally, artistically, and politically.
It’s interesting that you bring up politics. So many comics now are making political statements and jokes about Donald Trump, but your special is completely apolitical.
You are the first person to acknowledge that. In a landscape where everything is so hypercharged and so rooted in political narrative, I made an attempt to focus on something that is not connected to that. Other than one Instagram reference, I don’t know if you can place this special in 2018. I like the idea that it floats and it’s something more fundamental and less about the transient events we’re moving through at the moment.
Is that because you want this special to still work in 20 years?
I’m not chasing longevity, but I know that I appreciate when things penetrate and transcend a moment. It’s not the prisoner of a moment. There’s a reason why people read the Bible, ancient literature, or mythology. Sometimes these things speak to things far more fundamental to the human condition than can be captured inside of a transient moment—culturally or otherwise.
When you remove the laughter from stand-up, it sounds a bit like a crazy person talking to themselves. Your special is funny at times, but it also sounds like a neurotic, inner voice at others.
If you remove the audience entirely and watch it at home alone, it doesn’t so much highlight my isolation as it does your isolation at home. It’s for you to wrestle with the idea of where the connection lies and where the arrows are pointing and what it means.
After watching Drew Michael, I didn’t really feel positive or negative about it, just weird and uncomfortable, like after watching a David Lynch film for the first time.
Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite movies. I had the exact experience that you described while watching Mulholland Drive, I said, “That’s fucking cool,” but I had no idea what it was. I watched it four or five times, then you read about it and talk about it, and then it kind of congeals in your mind. You can’t really half pay attention. For me to hear that you had a similar reaction to watching my special, that’s definitely part of the intention.
One of the main themes I identified was your exploration of masculinity. Is that something you’re wrestling with?
I’m kind of a stubborn curmudgeon in terms of definitions. I tend to shy away from the language that is brought upon us on a subject, but I’m not shying away from the question, I know what you’re asking. I don’t know what you would call it because for me, it’s much bigger than that. It’s not like, “Oh, I need to work on my masculinity.” I’ve always tried to figure out what’s going on with me as a person. Obviously, with me, there’s huge amounts of factors and influences and countermeasures and social conflicts. Specifically, if you’re talking about a certain way of engaging in a relationship or certain dynamic that is traditionally male… Can you expand on the question a little bit?
Sure. Why is now a good time to be exploring masculinity in comedy?
I can’t answer that. I’m not even saying that it is or that it’s not. I really do things from the perspective of my own experience. Obviously, I’m a human being; I’m 33 years old; I’m living in New York. I’ve lived through these years that we’ve all lived through. Culturally, I’m in the same fishbowl as everybody else. For myself, the biggest thing I felt—and I think it’s apparent when you watch the special—I felt a disparity and a similarity between onstage and offstage. The person that I was onstage was being regarded as something I knew that I wasn’t offstage.
Can you explain the difference between who you are, or were, on and off stage?
You could use words like “open” and “honest” and “vulnerable,” words of that nature. I was a particularly guarded person and I don’t like to delve into the details of my personal life. I hit a point where I had been doing stand-up for ten years and I started asking, What do I want and what purposes is this serving? On some level, it allowed me to interact with people uninterrupted and be completely validated by people in a way that was not threatening in any way. Once I dismissed the reaction of the audience—once their laughing and not laughing did not impact me emotionally—they had no access to me whatsoever as a human being and there’s a lot of safety in that.
What’s wrong with being cut off emotionally from your audience?
In an actual interpersonal relationship, whether it’s a friendship or romantic or family, there’s a lot more risk there because there are actual judgements and ways they can let you down or you can hurt them. Your own demons can get the best of you and it will just be bottled up for entertainment. I recognized that when you’re speaking on the phone or interacting through technology and social media and FaceTime. It kind of mimics the experience you have on the stage, where you’re able to explore certain territory without the actual penetrative risk of failure and embarrassment. It’s these illusory portals we have into faux intimacy. One of the ways we protect ourselves is something you might call masculinity; a certain dynamic that we can engage in interpersonal relations that can allow us to maintain the same safety you would have behind a screen or when you’re onstage.
I guess that kind of safety helps when you’re talking about things like contracting herpes.
I always felt like if I actively avoided talking about it that it was shame or me being embarrassed. Exploring it on stage, while some might cower, there is a very, very strong barrier inherent in the medium itself. Yes, you can say these things, but it’s not like having to talk about them to your family or somebody close to you. There is a big difference; doing it off stage is a lot harder than doing it on stage.
Why is stand-up the best medium to explore such heavy themes?
I think the onus is on you to tell me why it’s not [laughs]. I don’t think I’ve ever taken the time to make a joke about something that wasn’t serious because the most serious things are the most tense things that require most relief of tension. I find myself making jokes when the most serious things are happening; it’s a way to cope and reframe it, so it’s not just tragic or painful. Comedy can be all of these things at once and people are exploring that space. I’m not even saying that’s how it has to be because I don’t want to put limits on it.
Has dealing with the issues in this special helped you with your personal life?
Succeeding while talking about failure can be a very dangerous place to live because you can stunt yourself, like, “I can just be this fuck up because it gets me things materially and attention-wise.” I left it on that note as a challenge to myself. That’s why I was so drained afterward; I think I did personally and creatively sever ties with a version of myself that was time to let go of.
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