Deconstructing Comedy With Christopher Storer, Director Of 'Make Happy' And 'Homecoming King' [Interview]

There's a joke a few minutes in to what, Bo Burnham's 2013 comedy special (now on Netflix) that's almost elegant in its simplicity. The comedian, then twenty-three, begins talking about how he hates video editors before the special cuts abruptly to later in the routine, skipping over the bit entirely, as if the filmmakers, not the comedian, are in control. Whatever form the original joke may have taken on stage, its eventual end-point was the audience at home.

Such is the nature of the modern stand-up special, a form that is by no means new, but one that's being constantly fine-tuned and experimented with as we plunge further into age of new media. Burnham is known for his hybridization of comedy and musical performance (and for directing recent A24 feature Eighth Grade) though few know his equally influential co-director on what and Make Happy, Christopher Storer, an unsung hero of the comedy special and one of Eighth Grade's producers.

In addition to co-directing Burnham's most popular routines, Storer also helmed Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King for Netflix last year, in which the former Daily Show correspondent returned to his hometown of Davis, California for an emotionally riveting monologue. It checks all the boxes of stand-up comedy (including and especially the fact that it's hilarious), but like Burnham's specials, Homecoming King uses the entire toolbox of the stage to create a uniquely compelling one-man theatre experiment about immigrant and first-generation experiences, rife with perfectly timed lighting cues and interactive screens. It's one of a kind, and yet, it fits right in with the rest of Storer's work, which also includes the stellar comedy anthology The Comedy Lineup for Netflix.

Storer and Burnham's creative circle has expanded in interesting ways. With Storer producing, Burnham went on to direct Chris Rock's 2018 Netflix special Tamborine, a personal piece about Rock's divorce, as well as Jerrod Carmichael: 8 the year prior, an HBO special that begins in-medias-res in a cult-like setting. The denim-clad Carmichael preforms in the middle of a circle of besuited onlookers, as he attempts to connect with both an audience that feels foreign to him, and a world whose issues evolve faster than his empathy can keep up with. In turn, Carmichael went on to direct Storer production Drew Michael, which aired on HBO on August 25, an experiment that Storer and I discuss further in Part 2 of our interview (which will be published tomorrow). In Part 1, we begin by talking about the one comedy special on everyone's lips...


I feel like right now, there's no real way to talk about stand-up comedy without bringing up Hanna Gadsby's Nanette. Have you seen it?

I have. I thought it was great!

It seems to have started a whole new conversation amongst the general public in terms of deconstructing what stand-up comedy is.

Yeah, it's interesting too because a lot of comedians are sort of discussing this, whether it's in their act or in the television series they're working on. And I've been fortunate to work with people like Bo [Burnham] and Hasan [Minhaj] and Jerrod [Carmichael] who are always challenging that and — I don't want to say re-creating it, but tearing it apart and exploring what a stand-up special can be, which I think is something we try to do with our work.

While there's no way to be absolutely certain of why it's happening, it does feel like everyone's recalibrating their approach to art and comedy in terms of what the role of the comedian is in the current American political climate.

Of course. Our world is changing pretty quickly these days. A lot of these comedians tour their acts for a while before they get to record a special for Netflix or whoever, and what's interesting is people are trying to get these things out faster so they can respond in real time.

In Hasan's special, there are moments when he's addressing a camera that's right up in his face. In all the stuff you've directed and produced, the relationship between the comedian and the audience always seems to come into play somehow.

It's always a fun thing to play with, because whether I'm directing or producing, the one thing I always like to talk about with the comedian is "How we can help? How can we support your act with the camera?" I never want to do something where the camera is obnoxious or takes away from the comedian. It's first and foremost about the person's act. Using Hasan as an example, he gets into some heavy shit, and I think it's stuff people were very interested in. In his point of view. So we were sort of like, "How can we really let this soak in and let people know that this isn't necessarily a funny portion of the show?" but we also want to keep your attention. So when having these moments when Hasan is speaking directly to the camera or we had an extended long-take, I've found that audiences seem to be hooked in a little more to what he's saying, because it wasn't covered traditionally.

There were also jarring changes in how he was lit.

I'm really lucky to work with my D.P. Andrew Wehde and our lighting designer Marc Janowitz. I think they always approach it from a cinematic point of view instead of a stand-up special point of view. A lot of times that means lighting it as if we were shooting a movie and not like we were lighting a concert or a standard special. And I think that helps make those light changes that much more noticeable. I think you can feel those a little bit more. Hasan had those huge bright screens behind him that were hard to shoot in 4K without making someone feel nauseous. We had a lot of pieces that we had to balance camera-wise and it really turned out beautifully, I think. When those light changes do happen, you really do feel them.

Between you and me, I've seen that special like four times, and I've shown it to everyone including my parents.

That's awesome, because Hasan's a dear friend of mine. I was really honoured to work on that. One of the cool things about Netflix is that people keep discovering that, which is really nice, even though it's come out almost a year and a half ago now. I still hear nice things about it, where someone just discovered it for the first time. It's kinda cool. I'm so glad you dug it. Hasan's special is also proving to be pretty cool because people are learning about something that they don't know that much about, and it's a little more digestible because it's Hasan and because it's funny.

The use of the screens was really interesting too, we talked a minute ago about the relationship between the comedian and the audience as a whole, as a nebulous thing, but in an act like Hasan's there are inherently different audiences. There are people who are familiar with what he's talking about culturally, and there are people who have to be brought into it. The moment where Hindi text comes up on the screen, "Log kya kahenge?" ("What will people say?") isn't translated immediately and you can hear half the audience deflate because they know what it says.

Hasan could be an amazing History and Ethics teacher. He has an incredible way of explaining and relating to an audience. So when he's talking about these deep cultural things that he grew up with and around, his usage of the screens really helped audiences that weren't familiar with it soak it in a little bit more, but it also felt that much more relatable to people that were familiar with it. As soon as they saw it, they were like "Oh shit, I know exactly what that is." But it was a cool reaction to see that, because it's so specific to Hasan and how he grew up. It was really cool to see the impact it had on other viewers. We heard so much from kids who said "That felt the same way that I grew up, and I never felt like a comedian was speaking directly to me." That's a pretty cool thing to get from a stand-up special and another thing we heard is a lot of families watch it together, which is really nice, because you don't hear that much when it's a Netflix Original stand-up.

I love the moment where the camera's behind Hasan and you introduce the idea of Jon Stewart through this long shadow on the audience.

That's all Hasan. That was Hasan's idea, and going back to Andrew Wehde and Marc Janowitz, that was all them figuring out how to make that register on camera. That was actually one of the more difficult parts of the special, believe it or not. Getting that shadow to appear on that crowd was not easy, especially when you're shooting these things live. It's funny, Bo Burnham and I talk about this a lot. I think there's this misconception that these specials are just phoned in and easy to direct, but every time we do one of these we're like "Oh my god, never again!" These are so stressful!

Five years ago, you directed Bo, then Bo directs Jerrod, and Jerrod goes on to direct Drew Michael. You guys seem to have an interesting creative osmosis where everyone is experimenting just a little bit more.

Jerrod and Bo, the three of us are very close friends. We all have the same tastes and the same goals with these things, which is "How far can we push this A) without getting in the comedian's way and B) while still being true to the material," and we've also had such a good experience collaborating with the comedians. Like working with [Chris] Rock. Rock really trusted Bo and understood what Bo was going for and really loved Bo's vision. So then it was up to me to just get all the pieces together. It was such a positive experience.

How did you and Bo first come to work with each other?

Bo and I met, let's see, shortly before what, and we just really got along. We met and really liked each other and had the same sensibilities. He wanted to direct his special, what, and wanted a co-director because he was going to be on stage, so we started putting that together. He's one of my best friends now, and we bounce everything we're working on off each other. I think it's as simple as we generally like the same things. We're bored by the same things, and we love the same things.

When you say you like the same things, is that in terms of creative decisions or influences?

I think we like the same creative decisions, but more than that I think we like the same styles and the same filmmakers. I think we appreciate the same comedians. We have a similar bar of storytelling. One of the things we like to make sure of when we're working together is we like pushing things as far as they can go as long as it's at peace with the material.

On Chris Rock's Tamborine [directed by Burnham] and a lot of the Comedy Lineup stuff [directed by Storer], you guys do something that a lot of stand-up specials tend to avoid, and that's using long lenses, which makes it feel really intimate even though comedy is supposed to be broad. 

Yeah, they're more cinematic, which is really cool. It lends the special a really nice look, but there's something isolating and scary about being a stand-up. Being in front of a room of people and entertaining them. Bo and I directed his Make Happy special and one of the ideas that he had from the beginning that I thought was so cool was making the audience almost look a little scary, almost from the point of view of the comedian. Like when you look out at a sea of people and you're like "Holy shit. There are a lot of people just staring at me right now." And again, that sort of goes hand in hand with deconstructing the idea of a stand-up special. Most of the time specials attempt these reaction shots of people laughing, but Bo, Jerrod and I always talk about how we can mess with that a little bit. How can turn that on its ear just slightly without being obnoxious?

If you don't mind my bringing up Nanette again, the only time they pull all the way out, which stand-up specials usually do when an audience is clapping or laughing uproariously, hers ends up pulling out at the most serious moments, as if to show silence and a wave of tension washing over everyone. You guys have a similar moment towards the end of Make Happy, where's this pan across the audience, but it's not a funny moment.

One of the other things we also always try to do is, I think it's always cool when you show the crowd listening. Hanna's is an incredible example. She's such a powerful storyteller. She hasthat audience. They are hooked, and they're riveted by her material. And it's this amazing thing where you can show the audience participating in the show by actively listening and not just sitting there laughing like the usual shots we see a million times in these things.

What you guys seem to do with light and sound is bring out the internal mindset of the comedian. The intro to what seems to be a medley of depression and confusion.

I think that's exactly right. That's also a lot of what was happening in Bo's material then. Certainly, with Make Happy that's what he was getting at. We really leaned heavily on Marc Janowitz, our lighting director to bring that out as much as he could. A lot of times that involves much more cinematic lighting. His job gets very difficult with the short windows that we have to produce these things. Him and Drew [Wehde] have to work very closely together to make sure the lighting reads on camera. A lot of this lighting will read in an auditorium but lighting for a show versus lighting for TV is crazy different. So we have a whole day beforehand where we're trying to make sure the lighting director and the D.P. and our crew get on the same page.

The atmosphere in Tamborine feels warm and welcoming, but at the same time there's this grandeur to it because of the way the lights are designed, it feels almost like a chandelier.

That was 100% what Bo was going for. As gifted a comedian as Bo is, he's even a stronger filmmaker, because he has such a specific vision of these things. That's exactly what he was going for with Tamborine, this warm, intimate vibe of the theatre, but also because it's Chris Rock, there needs to be something grandiose about it. So him and Marc put together that amazing stage and the lights above. That has such a gold hue to it, and Chris just looks so cool in that t-shirt on stage. It was a way that we hadn't seen Chris before. It seemed a little more stripped down, but more humungous at the same time. I thought it was such a cool fit.

Jerrod Carmichael: 8 also has such an interesting setting, because you have Jerrod who's in jeans and dressed really casually, but he feels very out of place in this ornate room full of people in suits. 

Absolutely, that's by design, that's Jerrod. That's 100% Jerrod. I think Jerrod wanted to feel a little bit like a fish out of water. Bo had such a specific way of how he wanted to present it. He starts it mid-thought, which I thought was brilliant. And the way it was captured, him and Drew [Wehde], they piggy-backed two cameras together on three dolly tracks. Each set of cameras always had the same movement. They were always in sync with each other, and it gave it this nice intimate feel, but I also think Jerrod's act can be challenging. So there's something challenging about the way that it was shot. You can't look away from it.

Jerrod can't seem to look away either, because there are cameras always moving around him. It doesn't seem to stop.

It's always hovering around him and it's also catching the audience trying to see where Jerrod is going with some of these jokes. It's not a traditional set, and I think he really likes to play with the audience's expectation of comedy.


In Part 2, we discuss shooting Jerrod Carmichael: 8 in a Messianic Temple, Storer's cinematic influences, the incredible experiment Drew Michael, and Bo Burnham's Kanye West parody.