Christopher Storer On The Filmmakers That Inspire Stand-Up Comedy And Capturing Intimacy On Film [Interview]

(You can find Part 1 of our interview with Christopher Storer here, in which we discuss his collaborations with Bo Burnham, Chris Rock, Hasan Minhaj and Jerrod Carmichael, and why everybody loves Nanette. Our conversation continues and concludes below.)

In Drew Michael, the Christopher Storer-produced stand-up comedy special (if one can even accurately label it stand-up comedy), comedian Drew Michael performs a deeply troubled routine within the confines of a black-box theatre space, without the presence of a live audience. The camera, directed by Jerrod Carmichael, gets uncomfortably close to Michael, trapping viewers within his very thought process, turning it into one of the most must-see media experiments this year.

Drew Michael, which aired on HBO in August, plays with sound to mirror Michael's partial hearing loss. It amplifies even his mildly frustrated gestures before cutting to a new setting entirely: a close-up of Suki Waterhouse, playing Michael's long-distance girlfriend, amidst a Skype conversation with the comedian. The special deconstructs the physical context of comedy, placing us in the proximity of the comedian's creative process as he struggles to love himself (and his mother — and, in an oddly existential sense, the very concept of a mother). It then abruptly takes us as far away from Michael as possible, allowing us to see him through the eyes of someone else as they're falling in love with him.

Drew Michael is a head-trip to say the least, and it joins Storer's already immense experimental repertoire. He directed Bo Burnham's what and Make Happy and Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, in addition to producing Chris Rock's Tamborine and Jerrod Carmichael: 8, all of which we discussed in part one of this interview. However, comedic experiments aren't Storer's only forte. He also recently directed Netflix's The Comedy Lineup, in which a diverse roster of sixteen up-and-coming comics perform fifteen minute sets. Storer, in order to let the comedy take center stage, reverts to a more traditional style of shooting each individual special; fittingly, he's currently working on Ramy Youssef's upcoming series Ramy with Hulu and A24, a traditional narrative, before returning to stand-up comedy.

Between all these wildly divergent comedic efforts, from Hasan Minhaj speaking directly to the camera, to Drew Michael's stand-up in which he's off-screen half the time, to Bo Burnham's famous food-centric Kanye West send-up — a piece that begins as spoof but ends up a haunting treatise on performing with mental illness — Storer is someone who understands the ins and outs of not only cinematic language, but of comedic language specifically and the façade of the stage, and he loves to play with their limits.

Two things became clear during my interview with Storer. One, that creating stand-up comedy is a chaotic process. And two, it's worth taking seriously. As cinema, or as television, or however one chooses to define it.


Who are some of the filmmakers you and Bo Burnham take inspiration from?

In relation to the stand-ups and the specials, Jonathan Demme is someone we talk a lot about. In addition to being a brilliant filmmaker, he had these side jobs with these amazing concert specials that he put together and concert films. Bo and I always talk about how we feel like those are missing. Remember when those would actually go to theatres and were an event?

Yeah, like Stop Making Sense.

That's sort of missing, and I think that's one of the cool things that Netflix has been bringing back slowly, making these specials feel like events. I think anything that we can do to make them more cinematic is definitely exciting to us.

You and Bo usually have that grandiose approach, but something like The Comedy Lineup is relatively simple. While you're off deconstructing comedy on one hand, you're also presenting it in its simplest form on the other.

The Comedy Lineup is cool because a lot of the performers are, I don't want to say starting out, but the world is sort of seeing them for the first time, and I thought we just need to get out of the way with the camera and just let them do their thing. I think Netflix did a really cool job of putting together a diverse group of comedians that feel radically different.

What's the turnaround time for something like a Drew Michael, between conception and airing?

Drew had been touring this act — or I don't even want to say "touring," he'd been honing and fine-tuning this act for a while. I think him and Jerrod connected early on. When it was time to tailor it for the HBO special, we really started discussing it last November and then we recorded it in, God, I don't even remember. April or May? So we had two days and a lot of it was fine-tuning the act. We didn't have an audience and we're shooting it in this black box. I think Jerrod really put together a specific, brilliant look for Drew's act, and I think our D.P. [Jody Lee Lipes] really helped shape the tone of where Drew was going.

I couldn't help but think of Nanette again, because Hanna Gadsby helps you look at comedy in a new way by looking at what the structure of a joke is, but what you folks seem to do with Drew Michael is to deconstruct the physical context of comedy itself. Like "How does this act change when you take it out of a theatre and remove the audience?" It feels much more serious, even though it's the kind of act you'd find in a comedy club.

I think it's just redefining what a stand-up act can be. Hanna still has lots of funny things in her act, it just takes a turn. I think it really speaks to what a great storyteller she is, that you're so riveted. I think I can say the same for Hasan and Jerrod and Bo. Especially Hasan's special, which has long periods without a joke. And I think for people like Hasan and people like Hanna, whose acts are so ultra-personal, you get to know them through this act. So when a joke hits, it's that much funnier.

Do you have a theatre background?

Not at all. None whatsoever.

These all feel very cinematic, but they also feel like one-man theatre performances that use every aspect of the stage.

That also speaks directly to who I've been fortunate enough to work with. Bo, Jerrod and Hasan [Minhaj], and especially Drew Michael, lend themselves much more to the one-man act or the one person show as opposed to a stand-up hour of telling jokes. I even think [Chris] Rock's new set felt that way. The second half is pretty personal. Chris is such an amazing performer. It doesn't just feel like a comedian telling jokes, it definitely feels like we're watching a play that's very funny. There's this commonality with the people I've worked with, where their act is very specific and very personal, and isn't just a bunch of one-liners. It's thematically very, very sound. (We discuss Chris Rock's Tamborine in [Part 1])

In Drew Michael, the intimacy seems to reach its peak in terms of what you folks have been doing over the years. The camera is as close as it could possibly be, and you're basically within the comedian's headspace.

Drew's is a little bit different because they're long monologues. When Jerrod and I would go watch him live, the thing we noticed was the audience was listening a lot of the time and waiting to get to the punchline. The payoff would come but they'd have to listen for about ten minutes. Jerrod had this great idea which was if we didn't have an audience, [the people art home] would have to decide what was funny. A lot of the times when you watch a stand-up special you hear people laughing, which makes you laugh. If you don't hear laughter and you have to decide for yourself what's funny, there's something kind of challenging about that as well.

It gives you room to process the whole thing.

Yeah, and we're finding that two people aren't laughing at the same things. They're laughing at different spots, or they're horrified by different things, or offended by different things. It's such a cool way to assess comedy.

Like Drew being trapped with his own thoughts, it doesn't give the audience room to escape either.

It really doesn't let you off the hook. While we were making it, Jerrod and I thought people were either going to really like it, or really dislike it, and there won't be much of a middle ground.

With extended sections about how great it would be if there were a universe where f***ing your mom were the norm, I feel like this isn't going to be for everyone.

Absolutely, but then it's so surprising how many people are like "I totally get it." Which, again, is part of the fun thing about working on all these specials. No two people have the same reaction. It's just cool seeing how people digest these.

I've saved this bit for last. So...



Oh, yeah!

I love the Kanye bit in Make Happy, and I've discussed it with countless people. It feels like the only Kanye parody I've seen that really understands the nature of what it's parodying. It feels like it's using familiar iconography to not just explore relationship between the concept of comedian with the audience, but Bo specifically, his relationship with the audience.

One of the reasons I like working with Bo so much, aside from my thinking he's a gifted comedian, is he really is a truly special filmmaker. The first time I heard the Kanye bit was when he was putting his act together. One of our first decisions was we really have to blow this thing out at the end, we have to make this thing look f***ing dope, and humungous, and ridiculous, because the Pringles can was so specific to Kanye, and so ferociously smart. We really needed to match him stylistically too. We really had to work with our lighting guys and Drew [Whede], our D.P., and make sure this one thousand percent looks like Kanye. It's all like a loving tribute to him too. We're obsessed with Kanye, so we wanted to make sure we did that justice.

When the whole thing begins to crescendo, all the lights come in and hit Bo in a way that makes him look regal.

It's iconic, it's this iconic moment of this comedian of this comedian trapped in his own thoughts.

It's almost religious in a way. It's the way Kanye would film himself. It's the way Kanye centered himself in the Power music video.

Especially going back to the audience, where these people are just staring at you doing this thing, there's something f***ed up and weird about that, so we had to make sure it represented that.

Even at the movies, it's like we're gazing up at the Gods of our modern culture, in a way.

We're always very selective about where we shoot these things too. Jerrod chose the Messianic Temple in New York for [Jerrod Carmichael: 8] and just by being in that room, you feel a little off, because it's not the comedic stage that you're used to. There's something disorienting about it. As the special goes on, you get used to it, but you're sort of like "Oh, this is different. We started in the middle, and I feel like I'm watching something I haven't seen before." With Make Happy we wanted to do the same thing, because there are a few shots of the audience just deadpan, staring at Bo. Those are things we designed to bring in that alienating process of being a comedian.

While watching 8, you're constantly aware of the background and the walls of the temple too.

Jerrod wanted to design that special more like a town hall. When you look at it, it almost feels like a senator addressing everyone, like a state of the union speech.

It's interesting you mention town halls, because at one point he interacts with an audience member in a way that's more than just "Hey, where are you from?" It becomes almost like a dialogue about his comedy.

That speaks to [Jerrod's] material being challenging, it's something that really excites me. It's not for everyone. The people that don't like it, really don't like it, but the people that dig it, really dig it. That's a great reaction to get out of people.

Comedy isn't the sort of thing you normally associate with being emotionally engaging, even though it arguably should be.

That goes back to what you were saying about Hanna's too. [Nanette] goes to this place of "Does a stand-up special need to be funny?" Hanna's was the most enjoyable hour of anything I've seen in a very long time, and because it was so personal and so specific to her. It still felt like stand-up.