This May Be the Most Polarizing Comedy Special of the Year

A scene from the new special “Drew Michael.” There’s no audience to play off.

The safe move for Drew Michael, a well-regarded 33-year-old comic, would have been to make a typical debut television hour, stringing together his funniest jokes into a tight set performed in a packed theater. Instead, he took a risk, not to mention a stand in a simmering battle over the artistic future of the comedy special.

As specials have proliferated, stand-ups have increasingly pushed these shows’ boundaries. Ali Wong’s “Baby Cobra” and Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” leaned on narratives with twists and a thematic through-line. Introductory scenes have become more cinematic. (See John Mulaney.) And it’s become common to draw laughs through visual or audio elements, like the narration broadcasting the inner thoughts of Demetri Martin in his witty new Netflix special, “The Overthinker,” transforming stand-up into a double act starring his public and private selves.

Such ambition is the sign of a maturing art form, but it’s also elicited a grumbling backlash, with some rightly saying that some of these innovations are distracting gimmicks, at odds with the timeless simplicity of the art of stand-up. The patience of such purists will be tested by “Drew Michael,” this comic’s daring new experiment (debuting on HBO on Saturday) and the most radical reinvention of the special yet.

Mr. Michael has taken apart the building blocks of stand-up and refashioned them into a fragmented and meditative psychological drama, a sarcastic club set improbably aiming for the feel of the French new wave. The tone is sober, even solemn, and while there are some good comic bits, they serve as a means to create a moody snapshot of the corner of his psyche that specializes in sabotaging relationships. This will seem impossibly pretentious to some, thrillingly subversive to others. (I am the oddball who falls in both camps.)

His most significant departure from convention is dispensing with the audience. Mr. Michael speaks directly to the camera, sometimes pacing on a stage, at other times appearing in close-up, set against a black void, telling jokes followed by silence. It’s impossible to overstate how much we have been conditioned to find things funny because other people are laughing — comedy is deeply social — and it requires extraordinary confidence in your material to tell jokes without the safety net of a response.

Adding to the degree of difficulty, Mr. Michael’s comedy belongs to the tradition of Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K., making provocative, even reckless arguments while generally keeping you on his side. He aims to give voice to those weird, messed-up thoughts that other people have but keep to themselves.

During 49 minutes onscreen, Mr. Michael defends contracting herpes as a life choice: “A lot of my friends got married. I got herpes. At least mine is going to last forever.” He also argues in an aside that “Sept. 11 was just Occupy Wall Street done right” and, in a virtuoso bit of comic rhetoric, takes the Freudian theory of the Oedipus complex — that all men want to sleep with their mothers — and makes a very funny logical case for it. These are all jokes, it must be said, but subtract the laughs, and they seem less like only jokes. Unlike so many other comics who wallow in their wrongness, Mr. Michael isn’t looking just to create unease. He is fleshing out a character — his own — and is doing so by inviting you to look (and laugh) hard at his reasoning and the dark, even ugly side of what’s behind it.

Mr. Michael’s central subject is his own failure at romance. Early on, he says he doesn’t know how to make a relationship work, and that all of his follow the same dysfunctional pattern, detailing his phobia of commitment. This is familiar territory for single-guy stand-up, which is partly what justifies his unusual tactics. For while we have seen many comics skewer themselves in ways that slyly let themselves off the hook, Mr. Michael goes further than most to make himself unlikable and his arguments ring hollow.

Instead of describing the dynamic he has with women, he shows us, juxtaposing his monologues with phone conversations between him and a girlfriend, played by Suki Waterhouse. Framed in close-up, Ms. Waterhouse delivers a heartbreaking performance, doing a lot with a little, portraying a sensitive woman at that stage when a crush is turning into something more serious. We catch her with her guard down, facing a man whose barriers are always up.

They do have chemistry, and while Mr. Michael is a more limited actor, their flirtation effectively captures those overheated, intense moments of falling in love. When telling jokes, he digs deep into ideas, but with her, he’s guarded, coy, evasive. Alternating with his stand-up, the conversations at first complement and play off the jokes, but then the dialogues comment on, and eventually overwhelm, the comedy. These scenes not only give us another perspective on his thoughts on relationships, but they also refute them, to devastating effect.

Mr. Michael has a perpetually adolescent, sardonic attitude, and he subtly mocks his own arrested development with some of his jokes. “Remember when we were kids, and brussels sprouts were the worst thing, and now we all love them,” he said. “Sellouts.”

Ms. Waterhouse’s character tries to match this tone, but it’s a stretch. Their humor operates at different frequencies. Occasionally, in between monologues, a buzzer sounds; that she is wearing a hoodie and he is often pacing only add to the boxing-match mood.

The stand-up Jerrod Carmichael, who has produced or starred in some of the most imaginatively shot specials himself, directs these scenes elegantly. His compositions are crisp, and his sound design precise. (Mr. Michael discusses his hearing impairment, and, at one point, the volume is lowered to reflect his perspective.) The slick cinematography is so meticulous, the look so polished, that the special can come across like a perfume commercial.

You might conclude that these scenes are just a more elaborate way to get at the same old comic self-deprecation. But Mr. Michael is committed to something more than laughs, so much so that some of his choices come at the expense of humor. He wants to use the tools of narrative movies to turn a stand-up persona into something more three-dimensional. And he succeeds more than he should. He hits emotional notes that stand-up rarely does, an impressive feat for a cerebral comic who, by his account, has trouble being vulnerable.

This is a heady special whose insight is that intellect divorced from emotional engagement can be corrosive. At the end, Mr. Michael tells the camera that he’s just trying to be honest. Then you hear his girlfriend interject, the camera shifting its focus to her. “That’s the funniest thing you’ve ever said,” she says.

What follows is not a punch line but a punch out.

In Other News

This May Be the Most Polarizing Comedy Special of the Year

A scene from the new special “Drew Michael.” There’s no audience to play off.

The safe move for Drew Michael, a well-regarded 33-year-old comic, would have been to make a typical debut television hour, stringing together his funniest jokes into a tight set performed in a packed theater. Instead, he took a risk, not to mention a stand in a simmering battle over the artistic future of the comedy special.

As specials have proliferated, stand-ups have increasingly pushed these shows’ boundaries. Ali Wong’s “Baby Cobra” and Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” leaned on narratives with twists and a thematic through-line. Introductory scenes have become more cinematic. (See John Mulaney.) And it’s become common to draw laughs through visual or audio elements, like the narration broadcasting the inner thoughts of Demetri Martin in his witty new Netflix special, “The Overthinker,” transforming stand-up into a double act starring his public and private selves.

Such ambition is the sign of a maturing art form, but it’s also elicited a grumbling backlash, with some rightly saying that some of these innovations are distracting gimmicks, at odds with the timeless simplicity of the art of stand-up. The patience of such purists will be tested by “Drew Michael,” this comic’s daring new experiment (debuting on HBO on Saturday) and the most radical reinvention of the special yet.

Mr. Michael has taken apart the building blocks of stand-up and refashioned them into a fragmented and meditative psychological drama, a sarcastic club set improbably aiming for the feel of the French new wave. The tone is sober, even solemn, and while there are some good comic bits, they serve as a means to create a moody snapshot of the corner of his psyche that specializes in sabotaging relationships. This will seem impossibly pretentious to some, thrillingly subversive to others. (I am the oddball who falls in both camps.)

His most significant departure from convention is dispensing with the audience. Mr. Michael speaks directly to the camera, sometimes pacing on a stage, at other times appearing in close-up, set against a black void, telling jokes followed by silence. It’s impossible to overstate how much we have been conditioned to find things funny because other people are laughing — comedy is deeply social — and it requires extraordinary confidence in your material to tell jokes without the safety net of a response.

Adding to the degree of difficulty, Mr. Michael’s comedy belongs to the tradition of Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K., making provocative, even reckless arguments while generally keeping you on his side. He aims to give voice to those weird, messed-up thoughts that other people have but keep to themselves.

During 49 minutes onscreen, Mr. Michael defends contracting herpes as a life choice: “A lot of my friends got married. I got herpes. At least mine is going to last forever.” He also argues in an aside that “Sept. 11 was just Occupy Wall Street done right” and, in a virtuoso bit of comic rhetoric, takes the Freudian theory of the Oedipus complex — that all men want to sleep with their mothers — and makes a very funny logical case for it. These are all jokes, it must be said, but subtract the laughs, and they seem less like only jokes. Unlike so many other comics who wallow in their wrongness, Mr. Michael isn’t looking just to create unease. He is fleshing out a character — his own — and is doing so by inviting you to look (and laugh) hard at his reasoning and the dark, even ugly side of what’s behind it.

Mr. Michael’s central subject is his own failure at romance. Early on, he says he doesn’t know how to make a relationship work, and that all of his follow the same dysfunctional pattern, detailing his phobia of commitment. This is familiar territory for single-guy stand-up, which is partly what justifies his unusual tactics. For while we have seen many comics skewer themselves in ways that slyly let themselves off the hook, Mr. Michael goes further than most to make himself unlikable and his arguments ring hollow.

Instead of describing the dynamic he has with women, he shows us, juxtaposing his monologues with phone conversations between him and a girlfriend, played by Suki Waterhouse. Framed in close-up, Ms. Waterhouse delivers a heartbreaking performance, doing a lot with a little, portraying a sensitive woman at that stage when a crush is turning into something more serious. We catch her with her guard down, facing a man whose barriers are always up.

They do have chemistry, and while Mr. Michael is a more limited actor, their flirtation effectively captures those overheated, intense moments of falling in love. When telling jokes, he digs deep into ideas, but with her, he’s guarded, coy, evasive. Alternating with his stand-up, the conversations at first complement and play off the jokes, but then the dialogues comment on, and eventually overwhelm, the comedy. These scenes not only give us another perspective on his thoughts on relationships, but they also refute them, to devastating effect.

Mr. Michael has a perpetually adolescent, sardonic attitude, and he subtly mocks his own arrested development with some of his jokes. “Remember when we were kids, and brussels sprouts were the worst thing, and now we all love them,” he said. “Sellouts.”

Ms. Waterhouse’s character tries to match this tone, but it’s a stretch. Their humor operates at different frequencies. Occasionally, in between monologues, a buzzer sounds; that she is wearing a hoodie and he is often pacing only add to the boxing-match mood.

The stand-up Jerrod Carmichael, who has produced or starred in some of the most imaginatively shot specials himself, directs these scenes elegantly. His compositions are crisp, and his sound design precise. (Mr. Michael discusses his hearing impairment, and, at one point, the volume is lowered to reflect his perspective.) The slick cinematography is so meticulous, the look so polished, that the special can come across like a perfume commercial.

You might conclude that these scenes are just a more elaborate way to get at the same old comic self-deprecation. But Mr. Michael is committed to something more than laughs, so much so that some of his choices come at the expense of humor. He wants to use the tools of narrative movies to turn a stand-up persona into something more three-dimensional. And he succeeds more than he should. He hits emotional notes that stand-up rarely does, an impressive feat for a cerebral comic who, by his account, has trouble being vulnerable.

This is a heady special whose insight is that intellect divorced from emotional engagement can be corrosive. At the end, Mr. Michael tells the camera that he’s just trying to be honest. Then you hear his girlfriend interject, the camera shifting its focus to her. “That’s the funniest thing you’ve ever said,” she says.

What follows is not a punch line but a punch out.

In Other News

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