Drew Michael recorded his debut HBO comedy special, the eponymous Drew Michael, without a live studio audience. Three years later, he’s back for his second special on HBO, and this time he’s telling his jokes and monologues to a captivated crowd. But there’s still a twist? Of course there is.
The Gist: You’re forgiven if you still don’t know much about Drew Michael as a comedian. Enigmatic has been part of his brand, even before he left his native Chicago for New York City to pursue his comedy career in his late 20s.
Michael began to find success around 30. A half-hour Comedy Central special premiered in 2016, followed by a year writing on Saturday Night Live. Michael appeared on an episode of The Carmichael Show in 2017, playing a character named “Drew.” Jerrod Carmichael has been behind both of Michael’s HBO specials, directing his self-titled debut in 2018, and executive-producing this hour, too. Michael took a big risk and a bit of blowback from his fellow comedians by performing that first HBO hour largely in a black void, straight to camera without any audience in the room. Perhaps he was merely ahead of his time? Perhaps we’d all get used to front-facing camera performances? Or he just knew how to self-quarantine before the rest of us? Or perhaps it’s all just a gimmick.
Regardless, this new hour finds Michael performing to an actual audience in a warehouse setting, dressed in drab, dark colors and bathed in an equally dramatic, dark greenish-gray light?
The opening credits not only choose an all-lowercase format, but also play tricks on the viewer, what with the title “red blue green” filled in by mismatched colors. Everything is askew. On purpose. Again. As Michael grapples with a childhood of hearing loss, parental neglect, and how it’s affected his personal and professional relationships up until now, when he’s determined to change all of it.
What Comedy Specials Will It Remind You Of?: In terms of self-reflection on comedy and art and wondering what’s the point of it all, Michael’s approach at times may remind you of Bo Burnham, or even of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette in terms of revisiting old jokes to reveal hidden truths behind them. But stylistically, Michael performs much more in the vein of a one-person show.
Memorable Jokes: When’s the last time you really thought about the romance at the heart of the blockbuster movie, Titanic? Michael confronts the realities for Jack and Rose, and what it says about our own conceptions of romance and love.
He also lays into Jimmy Fallon with a devastating impersonation of The Tonight Show host, to which Michael can only conclude in a bit of self-awareness: “I’ll never get asked to do the show.”
And then there’s an elaborately staged climactic moment in which Michael attempts to confront his own emotional and professional shortcomings — within the context of a classic joke set-up — by reading the punchline off of his phone that turns into a lengthy confessional rant, complete with musical score. That’s punctuated by one final plot twist.
Our Take: Michael has talked onstage and in his previous special before about growing up with hearing loss, and about his failures to connect in romantic relationships.
After going more in-depth this time around about how unprepared he felt for grown-up life, with a series of pointed jokes that puncture our own bubbles about what that should even look like, his climactic confessional reveals that Michael’s early comedy career essentially amounted to trolling. He cops to saying a bunch of wild things onstage in his 20s in an attempt to set himself apart from his colleagues so he could feel special or different or unique as a performer, all of it overcompensating for how he felt worthless and ashamed as a child because he couldn’t connect with others or even sometimes literally hear them.
Where does that leave us, the viewers?
But in dismantling our culture’s celebrity worship and social media phoniness, Michael does dig into our deeper uncertainty (without even getting into the psychological impacts from the pandemic!) in a way that shines a harsh light on our insecurities and how we can find ourselves exploited by actors promoting faux activism or white guys celling certainty and CBD oils in their podcasts. Where does that leave Michael, though? Is he just another snake-oil salesman, or is he truly special, in a league with icons he name-drops such as Michael Jackson, Sir Isaac Newton or Steve Jobs? Michael remains at least aware enough of his own shortcomings to not place himself at their level, but that’s not about to stop him from brooding. Or from pointing out that entertainers themselves must entertain some form of psychopathy to demand an audience, himself included.
Perhaps if all of those men, and all men in general, just went to therapy and confronted their own defects and insecurities? That’s one suggestion Michael makes that we could take to heart.
Our Call: STREAM IT. To his detractors, Michael offers: “You can get mad. You can think I suck. You could not like me. But! Counterpoint: Who are you?” I’m just one critic. Who still believes Michael has a commanding presence that cultivates our attention, even if some or even much of it turns out to be built upon artifice.
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.