How the stand-up special became a work of art
Photo: Jerrod Carmichael in 2017 8.
End times fun, Marc Maron’s apocalyptic 2020 Netflix special, opens with the comedian considering his role. He begins by telling the audience “It’s my job to… think of fun things”, but he seems uncertain. The camera films him from behind, between two wooden slats at the back, like a pair of binoculars looking through parted blinds. Instead of portraying Maron as an all-knowing truth-teller, the late director Lynn Shelton – Maron’s former partner who also directed her 2017 TV special, too real – chooses to shoot him as a justified paranoid, a man who acts as if he is being watched because he is. Throughout the special, Shelton’s cameras are active, tracking his every move. its frequent but arrhythmic cuts never leave the viewer too comfortable. The marriage of Maron’s deliberately crafted and thematically cohesive hour of comedy and Shelton’s visual storytelling isn’t what makes End times fun funny, but that’s what makes it special special at a time when the form is beginning to be approached by actors and adopted by the public as an artistic achievement in itself.
Stand-up promotions have not always been very interesting. In a recent New York Time Profile, Marty Callner, the director credited with pioneering the classic stand-up special look on HBO in the late ’70s, described his work as “reportage.” (“If a comedian is doing something physical, it better be shot head to toe,” he explained. “If he makes a poignant point, it better be on a close shot .”) Some comedians deviated slightly from the default. ; five of the most revered specials of all time – Richard Pryor live concert (1979) and Live from the Sunset Strip (1982), Bill Cosby Himself (1983), by Eddie Murphy Raw (1987) and that of Martin Lawrence you are so crazy (1997) – were produced on film rather than tape, giving them a more cinematic quality. (The structural and visually unique 1990 cult classic by Sandra Bernhard, Without you I am nothingwas also shot on film.)
But these are exceptions to the rule. HBO specials continued in Callner’s style, even after he left them in the ’80s and networks like MTV and Comedy Central began banking their own well-lit half-hours. Even the most popular comedians did specials sparingly. Jerry Seinfeld released his first special (Confidential stand-up) in 1987, and his second (I’m telling you for the last time) in 1997. Despite the decade between shoots, the specials both attempt to faithfully recreate the live-action experience. The goal of a special for many comedians was to advertise live, not to burn or recycle material before audiences had a chance to see it in person.
Then, around 2007, Louis CK helped pioneer a different approach: he pledged to create a new stage every year. (Since Shameless that year, CK released eight specials in total.) At the same time, following in the footsteps of concert films like The Original Kings of Comedy and queens of comedy, a number of black comedians have taken to self-producing and often self-distributing specials at a rapid pace. (Katt Williams, for example, filmed ten specials before its Netflix debut in 2018.) Digital cameras have gotten better and cheaper, and the ability to stream video online has helped realize the potential of stand- up as on-demand viewing instead of an appointment. Netflix, which began producing original stand-up content in the DVD era with Zach Galifianakis’ 2006 special, Live at the Purple Onion, responded to public interest by buying more and more. The first decade of the 2000s wasn’t exactly a period of artistic evolution for the special, but the rapid rise in special manufacturing created an audience aware of the form’s traditional tricks, tropes, and pitfalls, which was ready to get the joke when the comedians started having fun with the form.
One of these actresses was Maria Bamford, whose 2012 The Special Special Special! took place not in a 1,000-seat theater but in his home for an intimate and intense audience consisting only of his parents. One year later, with Comedy Central Live at the Fillmore, Kristen Schaal flipped the idea of the special as a promotional tool for live tours by not only intentionally bombing during filming, but talking about the poor quality of her set in interviews on the special. The following year, in Netflix One of the GreatChelsea Peretti mocked the special cut photo of the standing audience cutting things like dogs and herself dressed as a clown.
But it wasn’t until 2016 with Bo Burnham’s Netflix special, Make happy, that the special opened as an ambitious form. Burnham and his co-director, Christopher Storer, pulled material from two live performances, as is usually the case with special recordings, but they also used footage filmed without an audience. In Kanye’s Burnham parody, “Can’t Handle This,” the comedian begins by singing about silly, mundane problems (“I can’t put my hand in a Pringle can”). Halfway through, there’s an intense close-up crane push as Burnham explains that his real problem is his audience and the expectations they bring to a performance. “Part of me loves you / Part of me hates you / Part of me needs you,” he sings, appearing to make eye contact with an audience that isn’t there. With the start of the next lyric – “Part of me fears you” – Make happy returned to recording with an audience, a choice Burnham later explained was not made to lessen or erase his stage fright, but to emphasize it. A year later, Burnham directed Jerrod Carmichael’s HBO special, 8. Rumor has it that the live tapings were going terribly, but when seen on television, the tension between the comedian and the audience told a specific story about discomfort and uncertainty. In both projects, Carmichael and Burnham deprioritized the live stage experience in service of their goals for the filmed play.
Burnham (who wrote, directed and edited the 2021 films Inside) and Carmichael (who published Rothaniel this year) didn’t exactly start a revolution. The actors were influenced by the lighting choices and tonal experimentation of Burnham and Carmichael’s specials (in addition to the specials they did in the years that followed: Chris Rock’s TambourineDrew Michael’s Michael DrewLil Rel Howery’s Living in Crenshaw) more than their radical approach to live audiences. In HBO My favorite shapes, Julio Torres showcased his bizarre riff on prop comedy using a Memphis-style galactic treadmill and imaginatively filmed vignettes on some of the shapes. by Adam Sandler 100% Costs was shot over numerous shows, in dozens of locations, to create a special that feels deliberately put together. In Miami nights, Hannibal Buress launched a traditional stand-up about loss and a recent arrest with trippy sound effects and visuals. Tig Notaro released a special cartoon featuring an animated audience and an animated version of the spider who was there when she recorded the audio. Instead of featuring her own stand-up comedy, Jo Firestone’s version of a comedy special meant setting up a documentary about the senior comedy class she teaches, performing live for the first time. It is common for comedians to work closely with their directors (or direct themselves) to ensure that their special is visually and conceptually distinct; see Catherine Cohen The twist…? She is magnificent (Steven Brill), by Maria Bamford old baby (Jessica Yu), by Judah Friedlander America is the largest country in the United States (Friedlander), Aziz Ansari Right now (Spike Jonze), Hasan Minhaj reunion king (Storekeeper), Neal Brennan’s 3 microphones (Brennan), by Ray Romano Right here around the corner (Michael Showalter), by Gary Gulman The great Depression (Michael Bonfiglio), by Ramy Youssef Feelings (Storekeeper), Moses Storm’s White basket (Storm and Lance Bangs), Drew Michael’s Red Blue Green (Michael), some of the Dave Chappelle (Stan Lathan) specials, and all of the Mike Birbligia (Birbiglia, Seth Barrish) specials.
It doesn’t always work. Just because a special looks cool, weird, or different doesn’t mean its formal choices best serve the material (take, for example, the frustrating rise of docu-comedy specials). As Shelton did for Maron, some directors, thanks to an intimate knowledge of their subject, know how to perfectly marry the gaze of the special to its actor and to their material. But the work and growing influence of Carmichael and Burnham suggests something even more exciting: when a comedian deliberately thinks about the form of his material and special should take from the start – when they recognize that, holistically, the choices made both behind and in front of the camera can communicate a part of themselves to their audience that a live performance cannot – the definition of a comedy special extends far beyond the promotion of the tour and a simple recording. In this form, it is a work of art. And what’s more special than that?