How the stand-up special became a work of art

Photo: Jerrod Carmichael in 2017 8th.

end time fun, Marc Maron’s suitably apocalyptic 2020 Netflix special, begins with the comedian taking his role into account. He begins by telling the audience, “It’s my job to… think of fun things,” but he sounds uncertain. The camera photographs him from behind between two wooden slats in the backdrop, like binoculars looking through open blinds. Instead of portraying Maron as an omniscient truth bearer, the late director Lynn Shelton – Maron’s former partner who also directed his 2017 special, Too real – decides to shoot him like a justified paranoiac, a man who pretends he’s being watched because he is. During the special, Shelton’s cameras are active, tracking his every move; Her frequent but arrhythmic cuts never let the viewer get too comfortable. The marriage of Maron’s deliberately conceived, thematically cohesive hour of comedy and Shelton’s visual storytelling isn’t what makes it end time fun funny, but that’s what makes it so special Special at a time when form is being approached by comedians and embraced by audiences as an artistic achievement in and of itself.

Stand-up specials weren’t always much to watch. In a new New York Times Profile, Marty Callner, the director credited with developing the classic stand-up special look at HBO in the late ’70s, described his job as “reportage.” (“If a comedian is doing something physical, it’d better be a head-to-toe photo,” he explained. “If he’s making a poignant point, it’s better to be up close.”) A few comedians deviated slightly from that Default from ; five of the most revered specials of all time – Richard Pryor’s Live in concert (1979) and Live from the Sunset Strip (1982), Bill Cosbys Self (1983), Eddie Murphys Raw (1987) and Martin Lawrences You are crazy (1997) – were produced on film rather than tape, giving them a more cinematic quality. (Sandra Bernhard’s structurally and visually unique cult classic from 1990, Without you I am nothingwas also shot on film.)

But these were exceptions to the rule. HBO specials continued in Callner’s style even after he ditched them in the ’80s, and networks like MTV and Comedy Central began collecting their own brightly lit half-hours. Even the most popular comedians made specials sparingly. Jerry Seinfeld released his first special (stand-up confidentiality) in 1987 and his second (I’m telling you for the last time) in 1997. Despite the decade between recordings, both specials attempt to faithfully recreate the live experience. The goal of a special for many comedians was to do live stand-up advertising and not burn or recycle any material before the audience had a chance to see it in person.

Then, around 2007, Louis helped CK initiate a different approach: He vowed to do a new special every year. (Since shameless This year, CK has released a total of eight specials.) At the same time, they follow in the footsteps of concert films such as The original kings of comedy and The Queens of Comedy, a number of black comedians, began self-producing and often self-distributing specials at breakneck speed. (Katt Williams, for example, filmed ten specials prior to his Netflix debut in 2018.) Digital cameras got better and cheaper, and the ability to stream video online helped unlock the potential of stand-up as an on-demand viewing rather than an appointment-based viewing experience to use. Netflix, which began producing original stand-up content in its DVD days with Zach Galifianakis’ 2006 special, Live in the Purple Onion, responded to audience interest by buying more and more. The first decade of the 2000s wasn’t exactly a period of artistic development for the Special, but the rapid increase in Special making created an audience aware of the traditional tricks, tropes and trappings of form and prepared to get that Joke when comedians started having fun with the form.

One of those comedians was Maria Bamford, whose 2012 The special special special! did not take place in a 1,000-seat theater but at her home before an intimate and intense audience that included only her parents. A year later at Comedy Central live at the fillmore, Kristen Schaal turned the idea of ​​the special as a promotional tool for live tours on its head by not only deliberately bombing during filming, but also speaking about how poorly her set was doing in interviews about the special. The following year on Netflix One of the greatsChelsea Peretti poked fun at the stand-up special audience cutaway shot by cutting to things like dogs and herself dressed as a clown.

But it wasn’t until Bo Burnham’s 2016 Netflix special, Make happy, that the special broke out as a form of claim. Burnham and his co-director Christopher Storer sourced the footage from two live performances, as is customary with special recordings, but they also used footage shot without an audience. In Burnham’s Kanye parody spoof “Can’t Handle This,” the comedian begins by singing about silly, worldly problems (“I can’t put my hand in a Pringle can”). Halfway there’s a crane rushing into an intense close-up 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, seemingly making eye contact with an audience that isn’t there. With the beginning of the next song lyrics – “A part of me fears you” – Make happy returned to taping with an audience, a decision Burnham later explained was not made to alleviate or eliminate his stage fright, but to emphasize it. A year later, Burnham directed Jerrod Carmichael’s HBO special, 8th. The rumor was that the live tapings did terribly, but when seen on TV, the tension between comedian and audience told a specific story of uneasiness and uncertainty. In both projects, Carmichael and Burnham put the live stage experience aside in favor of their goals for the filmed play.

Burnham (who wrote, directed and edited in 2021 Inside) and Carmichael (the published Rothaniel this year) didn’t exactly start a revolution. Comedians were influenced by the lighting choices and tonal experimentation of the Burnham and Carmichael specials (in addition to the specials they directed in the following years: Chris Rocks tamborineDrew Michaels Drew MichaelLil Rel Howerys Live in Crenshaw) more than their radical approach to live audiences. At HBO my favorite shapes, Julio Torres presented his wacky prop comedy using a Memphis-style galactic conveyor belt and imaginatively filmed vignettes over some of the shapes. Adam Sandlers 100% Fresh was filmed at dozens of venues over the course of many shows to create a special that feels intentionally put together. In Miami nights, Hannibal Buress threw in a traditional stand-up set about loss and a recent arrest complete with sound effects and funky visuals. Tig Notaro released a cartoon special with an animated audience and an animated version of the spider who was there when it picked up the sound. Rather than showing her own stand-up, Jo Firestone’s take on a comedy special meant putting together a documentary about the senior comedy class she taught, performing live for the first time. It is common for comedians to work closely with their directors (or direct themselves) to ensure their special is visually and conceptually unique; see Catherine Cohen’s The turn …? She is gorgeous (Steven Brill), Maria Bamfords Old darling (Jessica Yu), Judah Friedlanders America is the largest country in the United States (Friedlander), Aziz Ansaris At the moment (Spike Jonze), Hasan Minhajs king of homecoming (stock), Neal Brennan’s 3 microphones (Brennan), Ray Romanos Right around the corner from here (Michael Showalter), Gary Gulmans The Great Depression (Michael Bonfiglio), Ramy Youssefs feelings (stock), Moses Storm’s garbage white (Storm and Lance Bangs), Drew Michaels Red Blue Green (Michael), some specials by Dave Chappelle (Stan Lathan) and all specials by Mike Birbligia (Birbiglia, Seth Barrish).

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 the frustrating rise of docu-comedy specials, for example). As Shelton did for Maron, some directors, thanks to an intimate knowledge of their subject matter, know how to perfectly match the look of the special with its comedy and material. But Carmichael and Burnham’s work and their growing influence suggest something even more exciting: when a comedian consciously reflects on what each makes of their material and Special should engage from the start – when they realize that decisions made both behind and in front of the camera can convey a part of themselves to their audience that a live performance cannot – the definition of a comedy goes Specials far beyond tour promo and uncomplicated recording. In this form it is a work of art. And what’s even more special than that? How the stand-up special became a work of art

Lindsay Lowe

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