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The Prestige Comedy Special is Here to Stay

In Good Form: Rothaniel and the Breaking and Re-Making of a Form



Jerrod Carmichael is in his blue period.


This is the second essay in "In Good Form," a series that close-reads the formal elements of popular culture. This piece was originally written in 2022.



If we’ve learned one thing in this era of reboots and retellings, it is that nothing is ever truly gone.


Not low rise jeans, not Gossip Girl, not even Bennifer. Sometimes, the thing that makes a comeback hasn’t even been gone long enough to be duly missed, as with the recent Game of Thrones prequel. Sometimes its return is actively unwelcome. See exhibit A, the Grammys’ recrowning of Louis C.K..


In the domestic box office, only three of the 25 top-grossing films of 2023 were not sequels, reboots, or otherwise based on existing property. Of those three, only one, the Disney/Pixar property Elemental, cracked the top ten. Another was the Taylor Swift Eras Tour film, and I honestly can't even decide whether or not it counts.


I often think of art as a quilt. In quilting, any given creation is the scraps and cuttings of all the fabrics that came before, sliced up and threaded by hand into a new pattern, a new shape. For a long time I didn’t make things because I didn’t think I could find something new to say; now I’m convinced that there is nothing new to say, only the way you say it. Shakespeare rewrote folk stories and myths, and then we rewrote Shakespeare, on and on for half a millennium. Judas kissed Jesus in the garden, Lear cast out Cordelia, and then Kendall Roy ripped up those note cards in that tempest of a press conference. It makes perfect sense to me.


So it is surprising when you see something that so thoroughly unmakes the quilt, that shows you its seams and makes you watch as it pulls the threads out one-by-one. Defoe and Fielding show us what a novel can be, and then Joyce breaks it apart. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin gives us the magic of cuts as a baby carriage careens down a staircase; only a few decades pass before Hitchcock does away with them in Rope. In 1910, Mary MacLane breaks the fourth wall and narrates a series of love affairs directly into the camera in her film Men Who Have Made Love to Me; more than a century later I watch Fleabag do the same and sob on my couch as she finally walks away from it.


In recent years, nothing has captured this feeling of unmaking feeling quite so much as Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, which turns the comedy special on its head and breaks it, refusing to laugh. Nanette cracks open the form to show us what lies beneath. It argues that, regardless of what we’ve heard, laughter is not the best medicine; rather, it is a bottle of snake oil.


In Nanette, Gadsby draws a contrast between storytelling and comedy. The difference, she says, is that jokes need two parts, a beginning and a middle, a setup and punchline, while a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. “In a comedy show there’s no room for the best part of the story, which is the ending,” she says. “In order to finish on a laugh, you have to end with punchlines.” Nanette lays out the rules, and then refuses to play the game. Gadsby has decided, she says, that she needs to quit comedy, so as to reclaim the power to tell her story with an ending. It is a refusal to belittle herself, to use herself as a punchline. “You’re on your own from here,” she tells her audience.


Nanette is brilliant, and nearly impossible to follow up. I tend to think, however, that good comedy often is tripartite. Even in a traditional sense, the best jokes are not simply setup and punchline, but rather setup, punchline, and tag. The tag is a punchline’s punchline, what comic Mike Birbiglia has referred to as the device that “builds out the metaphor of the whole thing,” allowing audiences time to catch up to the comic, to fully inhabit the metaphor of the joke. Birbiglia, whose collaboration with Ira Glass has expanded and refined his comic sensibility, organizes specials that blur the line between storytelling and joke-telling, reminding us that most of the best joke-telling is storytelling. Birbiglia’s work is often predicated on traditional joke premises — the notion of the ignorant, schlubby clown, the bumbling-yet-well-meaning father. One joke early in his 2019 special The New One pokes at the tendency of parents to call their children geniuses: “My nephew spits yogurt on his shirt,” he says, “And my brother’s like, ‘He’s a genius!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not seeing that.’” But the joke’s tag is delayed, only arriving at the end of the show, after Birbiglia has walked us through the birth of his daughter and his journey into fatherhood. “We took Oona to a department store, and she spots this couch. Oona loves the couch,” he says and imitates his daughter: “She goes, ‘Couch!’ ‘Wug!’ ’Piwwow!’” Then he looks out at the audience, theatrically proudly, and says, “She’s a genius.”


Birbiglia’s punchline situates himself as the butt of the joke, as Gadsby’s work laments. But his work is effective because it prioritizes the tag, drawing out the space between punchline and follow-up. With the special’s long reflection on fatherhood situated between the joke’s punchline and tag, he displays for us his own growth, as a father and as a man. The tag illuminates that the original punchline is essentially a misrecognition, nuancing and enhancing the show’s broader storytelling. It reveals the setup for the misdirection it is.


As a format, the setup-punchline-tag progression works a little like the way Michael Caine’s character describes the anatomy of a magic trick in Christopher Nolan's 2008 film The Prestige. First, there is the pledge; the magician shows you something ordinary — a bird, a deck of cards, a man. Second, the turn: the ordinary thing is made to do something extraordinary. And of course, the prestige, the finale. Because, as Michael Caine’s character says in the film, making something disappear isn’t enough — you have to bring it back.


The prestige. The thing that brings us back. The return to equilibrium, and the stunning pleasure of that return.


 

There is also another form of prestige that haunts Gasby’s and Birbiglia’s specials: that nebulous thing we call prestige television. This label, initially applied to masculine, antihero-centric dramas like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, typically connotes capital-S Significance. Prestige TV is shorthand for a formulaic collection of aesthetic, structural, and thematic markers that proclaim a kind of seriousness, some assertion to make about the world and our place in it. Prestige is casting Matthew McConoughey and Woody Harrelson in HBO'sTrue Detective. It’s the desaturated color palette and ascetic negative space of Apple TV+’s Severance. Unfortunately and incomprehensibly, it is Netflix and FX both writing blank checks for Ryan Murphy. Indeed, prestige is perhaps best illustrated in the Netflixification of its formal signifiers: in the faded colors and lush costuming of The Queen’s Gambit and the dual timeline and soaring score of Lupin, each so precisely, algorithmically crafted. 


The rise of streaming services has contributed to the dilution of the prestige aesthetic. Prestige television has been enhanced, exacerbated, and ultimately enervated by the rise of streaming services, the stratification and categorization literally codified in streaming algorithms. Standup is not immune to this influence. Indeed, some comedians seem to utilize these aesthetics to distinguish themselves from the massive noise of streaming, which has enabled a real proliferation of standup specials in the last decade or so. Birbiglia’s The New One, for instance, combines a sparse set with a barrage of props in the form of baby products—toys, bottles, bibs, etc.—that represents the overwhelming messiness of new parenthood. Both Carmen Christopher's Street Special and Maria Bamford’s Old Baby subvert formal expectations; the comedians perform sets in different spaces and for different crowds, whose interest varies wildly. Neal Brennan’s 3 Mics takes trisected comedy to a more literal level. The special features three microphones for three different types of content: “one-liners,” “emotional stuff,” and “stand-up.” And other specials like Julio Torres’ My Favorite Shapes, Moses Storm’s Trash White, and Tig Notaro’s Drawn have experimented visually with what we expect from standup.


Another symptom of prestige-era comedy is the docu-special. Vulture comedy critic Kathryn VanArendonk has written at length about this spate of shows, which intercut performance footage with documentary material. VanArendonk connects this trend to the era of prestige, to the Netflix-ification of the documentary form: think sleek productions like Making a Murderer, Wild Wild Country, or even Cheer. “They position comedy specials in the same push for prestige aesthetics happening elsewhere in TV and on streaming platforms,” she writes, “surfing on the assumption that documentaries are a higher art.”


I too find the insertion of documentary footage tiresome, unnecessary. What is missing from VanArendonk's analysis, though, is any mention of Nanette. This docu-special trend began, arguably, with Gary Gulman’s The Great Depresh and Jenny Slate’s Stage Fright, both released in 2019 -- a year after Gadsby's anti-comedy set. The docu-special, I think, is an artifact of a post-Nanette comedy world. Where Nanette deliberately unmakes itself, revealing to us the lie that serves as a crack in the joke’s foundation, the docu-special anxiously assures the viewer that this material is true, that the rug won’t be pulled out from under them.


The many iterations of the prestige special, much like those of prestige television, vary widely in quality. Some succeed enormously; in others, formal or visual innovations come across as gimmicks, obfuscating the craft of the set itself. It is imperative to note that Notaro and Torres, whose specials are some of the strongest in this batch, are both gay; so is Gadsby. This trio is of particular interest to me, because their work quite literally queers the standup special. Their work not only challenges proscriptive and compulsory heterosexuality but also encourages us to question our own sense of humor—to ask what we find funny, and why.


 

In the year's since Gadsby's special -- even through the release of two subsequent specials, Douglas and Something Special -- I have been on the lookout for something as fascinatingly new as Nanette.


Watching Jerrod Carmichael’s 2022 special, Rothaniel, it struck me as a kind of cousin to Gadsby's work.


Though it does not ooze with the novelty of that hour, it in many ways functions as a coda to Gadsby’s special. It is a special that dwells on truth and vulnerability, and on the cost of that truth and vulnerability. It is also, not for nothing, quite funny. But its humor is not the thing that makes it so extraordinary.


The special is directed by Bo Burnham, Carmichael’s longtime friend and collaborator. Burnham directed Carmichael’s 2017 special 8 as well. That hour is a feat of artistic, cinematic filming. In 8, Carmichael stands on a circular stage in the center of New York’s Masonic Hall. The camera slowly circles him throughout, approaching him from this way and that as he monologues. It’s a visual flourish I’ve only seen one other time, in Ramy Youssef’s 2019 special Feelings, which I was not surprised to learn was directed by another Burnham collaborator, Christopher Storer, who shot and co-directed Burnham’s 2016 hour Make Happy  — itself another entry in the pantheon of work that unmakes the form. At the end of Make Happy, Burnham essentially calls it quits on standup. “Part of me loves you,” he sings, “Part of me hates you / part of me needs you / part of me fears you. / And I don’t think that I can handle this right now.”


In 8, the venue acts as a supporting character, lending reverence and, yes, prestige to the special. Rothaniel was filmed in a much smaller venue, the Blue Note Jazz Club, just around the corner from the famed Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. The special begins with a quiet jazz number, anchored by a piano. Burnham’s direction here is perhaps more thoughtful than in 8; as his his camera followed Carmichael through the snowy streets of Manhattan, I felt like I was watching the Peanuts Christmas special as much as anything else. Blue Note is a notable setting both for its intimacy and its comedy-adjacent location, but in the special, the club all but disappears. Rothaniel is beautifully lit; blue lights gleam on and from Carmichael’s skin and jewelry, enhancing the show’s reflective tone. While most specials are shot primarily from the audience perspective, tracking the comedian with full-body shots and punctuational medium close-ups, Burnham here relies on tight, almost invasive filmmaking. He intersperses close-ups with medium long shots of Carmichael’s seated form, which come fewer and farther in-between as the special progresses. Like Gadsby and Birbiglia, Carmichael in Rothaniel deviates from the snap-snap-snap delivery of traditional standup, opting for an approach that is more Moth Story Slam than Comedy Central Presents.


None of this, however, is what makes the special feel so fresh.


More than its pace, more than its careful, beautiful aesthetics, the heart of Rothaniel is Carmichael’s profound relationship with his audience. One of the most impressive tricks of both Gadsby’s Nanette and Burnham’s Make Happy is the way the comics maintain ownership over their audience even as they perform a precarious balancing act, walking the fine line between needing the audience and resenting it. “This tension, it’s yours,” Gadsby tells her crowd in Nanette. “I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like.” Burnham, too, turns a mirror back to the audience. “I can sit here and pretend like my biggest problems are Pringle cans and burritos,” he sings, “but the truth is, my biggest problem’s you.”


Carmichael, however, is a comedian who openly loves his audience; his work is best when he is interacting with the crowd, feeding off of it. “You can talk, you guys,” he tells his audience at the beginning of 8. “I know you got on suits and shit,” he says, noting their attire, adding, “I hope you feel comfortable.” For all its beauty, however, the setting of 8 discourages audience interaction. The room is big, and audience responses are nearly inaudible. Up onstage above them all, Carmichael seems untouchable, and you can feel the audience’s anxious tension, their reluctance to give him the participation he welcomes.


Rothaniel remedies this. Carmichael conducts his set from a low stage, seated in a metal folding chair. The chair itself is utilitarian, painted dark gray; it is the kind of chair that anyone who’s been a helpful teenager at a church function can hear upon looking at it, that soul-wringing squawk of the joints as they unwillingly unfold. The chair is a symbol of what is to come, of Carmichael’s own unfolding. Whereas Carmichael’s vantage point in 8 is panoptical, the center of the room and the audience too, this chair telegraphs a different relationship with the audience. And as the hour ticks on, the wall between audience and performer crumbles. The audience becomes part of the show, integrated slowly and cleverly into its premise.


 

Carmichael starts his special by telling his audience that he has lied to them. About a lot of things. His first name, for one, is not Jerrod, but something he regards as much more embarrassing. In one way, perhaps this hour is not entirely unlike the trendy docu-special; Carmichael, too, is intent on proving to us that his jokes are true. But the approach he takes is different. Just over 20 minutes into his set, Carmichael transitions from a long bit about family infidelity. He has just walked the audience through the absurd experience of bringing his mother to a hibachi dinner before his father spills the beans: “Yeah, my mom’s about to be fucking destroyed,” he says, “But this is a great trick!”


The real trick here, though, is the way this joke sets Carmichael up to destroy us. He walks us through his father’s confession. “And once that was done,” he tells us, “I was left alone, feeling like a liar. Because I had a secret. One that I kept from my mother, and my father, my family and friends. And you — all of you. Professionally, personally.”


A pause, and then:


“The secret is that I’m gay.”


If there’s one thing you’ve heard about Rothaniel, it is likely this, his coming out. Carmichael’s reveal is that middle piece of the prestige, the first turn. It is the first volta in the show, where a set that is ostensibly about family secrets and lies is refined and Carmichael zooms in on himself.


VanArendonk argues that the docu-special cheapens the trick of the stand-up set, ultimately doing the comic a disservice. Part of the immense skill on display in stand-up, she says, is the comedian’s ability to hold an audience’s attention for a significant period of time. One of Carmichael’s greatest strengths is his ability to own and manipulate silence. That strength is on display throughout Rothaniel, but particularly in this turn. After he spills his secret, Carmichael waits for a long moment. He is giving the audience some time to process, and to react, which they do; eventually, a slow round of applause jumbles clumsily together. Burnham’s directing here complements Carmichael’s mastery; in key moments the camera steadily trains on him in close-up, as unrelenting as his silences.


This candidness is new for Carmichael. I initially came to this special skeptical. I didn’t connect to 8. Maybe this is because I felt its rhythm lacked the appropriate joke density; more likely, however, it is that as a viewer, I felt a distance from Carmichael that made connection difficult. I will not condescend to his craft by presuming that his having been closeted is the reason for this. But the point stands all the same -- I wasn't completely with him in that hour. Throughout 8, though, Carmichael repeatedly owns his ambivalence toward not only the present moment but also toward life more broadly. “I wish I felt things,” he says. “I want to care. I want to feel strongly about things.” He adds: “I tried to care. I really did. It means a lot to me that you know that I tried.”


He is operating on a different register in Rothaniel. Part of this change, as I’ve noted, is a reflection of the venue; he is closer to the audience, almost one of us. Part of it, too, is this newfound candidness. And part of it, again, is the increased audience participation. Throughout the show, Carmichael works his audience, in and out of comedic moments. After his reveal, he tells the audience that though his Black female friends have embraced his coming out, “they don’t like that I had a white boyfriend.” The audience groans, a veritable Greek chorus. One woman, audibly and disbelievingly, says, “Wowww.” There is both judgment and cheek in her tone; we cannot see the speaker, but we can practically hear her wagging her head and tsking. “What?!” Carmichael responds, gleeful, as the audience laughs. “She feels…” he pauses, and looks at the audience for confirmation. “You heard her say ‘wow’? That’s the sound of a Black woman who feels doubly betrayed.”


The reference to betrayal is a joke, to be sure, but it also betrays Carmichael’s anxieties about his own truthfulness. He is certain that his confession has changed how the audience perceives him. He wants to know what they are thinking. Perhaps more so, he wants to know what he is thinking, and to that effect he uses the audience as an enabling device. These little comedic back-and-forths have opened a space for them to speak into without feeling intrusive. Whereas past Carmichael specials have felt reserved, reined in, here he gifts the audience with comfort, and this cracks the show open. He tells us that his mother hasn’t fully accepted that he is gay, and audience contributions grow increasingly thoughtful, probing. “But you gave yourself so many years,” someone says at one point. “Why don’t you give her that time?” “Do you wish you didn’t tell her?” another person asks. “Do you think a lot of that guilt is your dad’s guilt?” “Do you think without your mom’s approval you’ll be okay?”


It is a testament to Carmichael’s mastery and charisma that the audience is able to intuit when to ask questions. Laughter is allowed to peter out, silences to draw out. “She’s been rewarded for staying quiet,” Carmichael says of his mother, “So she gives me nothing.” This nothing is the angriest Carmichael gets in this hour. So much of the show is about silences. About how they can shield us, hide us, from the truth of ourselves and others. That struggle is on display even within the set; Carmichael vacillates between reflection and deflection. “I’m sorry,” he says at one point, “But that laugh was fake.” He adds, “I wish this moment weren’t so weird.” At times he is visibly uncomfortable, fidgeting, looking down. At times, he hides his face in the crook of his arm, denying both audience and camera. The patter of the traditional comedy set is set aside. But the camera’s focus remains steady, unflinching, and so does the audience’s. They demonstrate a different kind of silence. In contrast to the empty-full spaces that separate Carmichael and his mother, the show’s silences are productive, creative, fertile. They reveal the nebulous angst and tension that lies just beyond speech, which one cannot quite put into words.


 

Like Nolan’s film, Carmichael’s special is a magic trick. Those opening minutes are a pledge: Carmichael promises a standup show, no bells and whistles, albeit one in which he is sitting, not standing up. Then comes the volta, the turn, the reveal. Carmichael comes clean to us, and what began as one thing shifts into another. His periodic quips lend the show lightness, a prestige in miniature, reining in the heaviness of his confessions. But as the hour wears on, they grow fewer and further in-between. The performance breaks down, though it is unclear to what extent. What is pre-determined? Are there plants in the audience, or is their apt questioning a true reflection of Carmichael’s deft hand? What is a meditation on or metaphor for performance and art? Most comedians need their audiences; but here, that need takes on a new dimension. Rothaniel is visually compelling, to be sure, but it doesn’t need to resort to prestige TV tricks like documentary footage or filming in the round.


Great comedy need not be prestige TV. There is much to be said for the steady rhythm of the more traditional standup show; the skill it takes to master a conventional hour, to master language and transitions and delivery. There is an under-appreciated sophistication in good physical performance, in knowing when to lean in and when to act out. John Mulaney, for instance, is a virtuosic physical performer; his use of a corded microphone in 2018’s Kid Gorgeous is a masterclass. Recent specials from Beth Stelling and Sheng Wang, as well as the massive success of everyman comic Nate Bargatze, have modeled that, off-trend as it may seem, standard comedy is an advanced art. Gary Gulman, too, works in this mode:The Great Depresh is arguably the only example of a special that utilizes documentary footage effectively, but at its heart that special is a remarkably traditional delivery of nontraditional content. Gulman manages a spectacular feat, wringing laugh after laugh out of the profound darkness of his mental illness. In truth, perhaps all good comedy has a little bit of magic to it.


When I speak of "prestige standup," I am not talking about the incorporation of archival footage or the thoughtful incorporation of slow pans. Nor am I speaking of the jaded darkness that haunts much prestige material. Yes, there is something to the notion of a seriousness in the form as I conceive of it — a hallmark of prestige comedy is the extended intervals between jokes, the long stretches without laughter. Birbiglia and Gadsby do this. Interestingly, Burnham’s trick is perhaps the opposite; he sneaks in moments of blink-and-you-miss-it seriousness amidst a rapid-fire succession of jokes.


But the real mark of a prestige standup special is the way it combines some of the features of prestige television with the tripartite nature of the prestige magic trick, which provides such a useful way of conceptualizing storytelling. It is the return of something left behind, and the accompanying reveal. Sometimes this return is a release. Sometimes it is bewildering. Every once in a while, it is deliberately dissatisfying. In Gadsby’s prestige, she brings back the moment of lightness we felt earlier at a joke, and she reveals it for the ruse it is, pulling the punchline apart.


Often, the prestige, like the tag, enhances the payoff, the catharsis that comedy does so well. Gadsby’s special is so effective because it denies the viewer the catharsis of the punchline. The audience is left holding the heaviness of what she has set up for us. The tension, as she has said, is ours to own. There is still a sense of return to this, though: the punchline, like Birbiglia’s, is a ruse. It is just that in Nanette, the punchline disintegrates entirely.


Carmichael is admittedly self-conscious about his special’s turn, its divergence from his traditional material. “Even this moment,” he says, acknowledging this, “I’m like, alright man, I should probably think of a joke.” But what Carmichael is looking for in Rothaniel isn’t laughter as much as it is understanding. He’s told us that the show will only work if we feel like family; ultimately, the audience is a surrogate. We are giving him the openness and patience his mother cannot, or will not, give. It is unclear whether his candidness is selfish or generous. Or maybe it is his mother who is the surrogate; perhaps that relationship is itself a metaphor for the one between audience and performer. That back-and-forth, the duality of the thing, figures the Blue Note as an apt setting: Carmichael is performing a kind of jazz, an improvisational weaving together of his jokes’ existing patterns and melodies with whatever his co-instrumentalists, the audience, throw at him.


Just once, near the special’s close, Carmichael looks directly into the camera, acknowledging an audience beyond the Blue Note. “What do I want from her,” he muses, speaking about his mother. He looks down. “I know she’ll see this,” he says, and at this, after an hour of fidgeting and avoiding, he looks directly into the camera. At us. At her. It is a startling moment; sitting beside me on the couch as we watched, my boyfriend said aloud, “Woah.” In 1910, Mary MacLane breaks the fourth wall and narrates a series of love affairs directly into the camera, and more than a century later, this.


Watching from my living room at home, this wall-break felt stunning, momentous. If Carmichael’s fidgeting and indecisiveness had begun to wear, in this moment he regained complete control over me. There is yet another beat of that masterful silence, which hooks the audience, at home and in the room. Carmichael allows the silence to build with an intent to rupture it, and into that hefty silence he opens his hands, unveiling his prestige and delivering his punchline. To tell you what it is would be to spoil the pleasure. Suffice to say, as it turns out, making something disappear isn’t enough.


You have to bring it back.

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