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Drew Michael and Stand-Up Tragedy

by Andrew Ochoa, Features Editor

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“I’m afraid that if I let someone in past the walls that I built up for myself that they’ll see parts of myself that I haven’t accepted or I don’t like… It’s all fear. So I push people away and it’s not in fun ways. I’m not like rolling them down the sidewalk in an office chair. Sometimes it’s harsh. This is something I have to reckon with. But it’s just because I’m afraid of the alternative. So what do you do about it? I just try to be honest,” Drew Michael says, closing out his comedy special.

The lights come up, Michael walks off stage to his ex-girlfriend who scathes him for using stand-up as therapy. He has no response, the screen fades to credits.

Advertised as a standard HBO comedy hour only without a live audience, Drew Michael is, in fact, more like a short film about stand-up itself.

Interspersed with FaceTime conversations between Michael and Suki Waterhouse, the actress portraying his girlfriend, the special forces you to consider the inception of any joke it contains. With a setlist ranging in topics–from suicide to therapy to insecurity–the hour is as funny as it is uncomfortable. The lighting is often from the top down, giving Michael an almost eerie look. The camera shoots from extreme wides at times, showing an almost entirely black soundstage with Michael small in the corner of the frame. Michael shouts his punchlines into the camera and empty soundstage which, as the lack of audience makes clear, are more often than not directed at himself. Needless to say, Drew Michael seeks an audience looking for something dramatically different rather than outstandingly funny.

Comedian and head writer of Saturday Night Live, Michael Che, is an outspoken fan of outstandingly funny specials. Through an Instagram rant, he coined the term “stand-up tragedy,” urging Netflix to categorize this new wave of specials deconstructing their own medium as an entirely different genre. “I dont wanna have to ‘survive’ a comedy special. I wanna laugh. Lets not make this what it’s not,” Che said in an Instagram post.

The stand-up set spurring Che’s post was Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. The critically-acclaimed special brought the comedian, virtually unknown in America, into the spotlight. Throughout the set she details an incident of sexual assault, discusses her experience as a gay woman, and, much like Drew Michael, deconstructs the often negative role comedy has played in her life. The special also received backlash for bordering on a one-woman show, with jokes being placed mainly in the first half hour. The rest is dedicated, ironically, to convincing the audience that it is essential she quit the profession all together.

By the end of 2018, Netflix will have released 62 stand-up specials in one year. With dozens wringing out the laughs left in premises outdated ages ago, this trend of “stand-up tragedy” seems to come at the request of an audience wanting humor supplementing perspective rather than the other way around. Critics of the genre claim redundancy, that every open-micer now has a pseudo-intellectual Trump joke to satisfy the crowds wanting biting commentary rather than well-written material. However, perusing Netflix previews show that this seems true of any subsect of stand-up. A punchline about an overbearing wife or dull observations of day-to-day minutiae already fill hours upon hours on the streaming platform. So this oxymoronic comedy less focused on humor may have its trend-chasers like anything else, but if there is any space attempting to save stand-up from endless rehashes of the same jokes, this is it. Even if it’s at the cost of less laughs, and more empathizing.

“Maybe it shouldn’t be called stand-up. Maybe it’s categorized wrong, but it works for some people and for some people it doesn’t. It’s not a rule… it’s just you and the thoughts and that’s it,” Jerrod Carmichael said. Contrary to the concerns had when anything new arrives in culture, two types of art can exist at once. And be popular at once. Much like the blockbuster and arthouse films that thrive across the theater from one another, Drew Michael and Jerry Seinfeld can share space on your Netflix que. A gathering with friends will always have an irreverent hour of jokes, while an evening needing a thought provoking nightcap has something of its own. A step inside Drew Michael’s brain can be jarring and divisive in the modern comedy world, but it can only lead to larger, more interesting space for stand-ups.  

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Drew Michael and Stand-Up Tragedy