There’s more than one way to make a comedy special. While some opt for the traditional method of packing out a theatre for an hour with nothing on stage but a stool and a mic, there’s been a surge of more offbeat directorial styles in recent years. This year’s most talked about special, Bo Burnham’s Inside, abandoned the live concert model due to the COVID-19 pandemic and instead was directed, shot, and edited by Burnham entirely from his guest house for a unique viewing experience more akin to a string of music videos than his past specials. While Burnham’s particular comedic style adapts well to these once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, it’s a format most couldn’t replicate. The live element of a stand-up show is essential to the overall experience, and it’s the one aspect that’s incredibly hard to capture on film.
Filming a great stand-up special is like trying to capture lighting in a bottle. Whereas unconventional, sketch and prop heavy pieces like Inside or Julio Torres’ My Favorite Shapes thrive with a more cinematic structure, traditional stand-up is harder to authentically recreate. Stadium shows are a slog as a 30 second joke takes five minutes to tell so as not to get drowned out from the laughter of thousands in attendance after every line. Cable broadcasts are subjected to momentum-killing edits that cut to commercial mid-joke, and then there’s the arthouse specials directed by style-over-substance “auteurs” full of dutch angles and lens flares. While most of us were introduced to stand-up this way, once you’ve seen it live, you can’t see it on your screens in the same light ever again.
The setting for a good comedy special is tied closely to what makes a great live show. The best venues have no cheap seats (or cheap producers, but hey, that’s another discussion) opting for intimate spaces with low ceilings. Any slight discomfort from rubbing elbows is worth it for the energy created in the room. Though seemingly one-sided with the comedian doing all the talking, the audience is still giving back to the performer. It’s a mutual transaction with both sides feeding off each other’s energy. On video, you can’t feel that. When you’re not actually a part of something that requires an interaction, there’s a disconnect.
Live shows are like snowflakes: no two are the same. You can recycle all the same elements you want, but each is its own unique experience shared only by those in the room that day. It is the ultimate you-had-to-be-there experience. Filming before a live audience should be the key element in replicating that feeling, yet it often makes your absence only feel more palpable. Regardless of the approach, things get lost in translation when filming.
When I try to find traditional stand-up specials I connect to the most, it’s the few I was lucky enough to attend the taping of. Like looking at photos from last year’s birthday party, the memories of that night flood in, filling all the cracks around the jokes like glue. I remember what I drank, what I ate at the restaurant next door with every familiar laugh I pick out. My second tier belongs to specials that focused on a show instead of an individual comedian. Comedy Central’s short-lived series The Meltdown or Splitsider’s A Night at Whiplash film hit all the right criteria because these were existing weekly shows. As a namesake of their respective scenes, all the pieces were already there, just add cameras and polish. There was no need to manufacture a vibe because there was one already built in. It feels less like a reenactment than a snapshot. And though I’ve never attended these shows or lived in these cities, it calls back to that feeling of staples I frequent in my own scene.
It’s of course not an impossible task, as we can’t be everywhere. John Mulaney’s New in Town remains a revelation and for many their introduction to the form. Stand-up shares many similarities in that sense with theatre. They’re first and foremost live events, the marquee ones typically isolated to major cities. Some think it’s not for them at all only to find they just haven’t seen it done right. While cable and streaming is significantly more convenient and offers a front row view, all the recovering theatre kids I know insist it’s still better to see the touring version of a play live than watch the Tony-winning cast on Disney+.
Maybe I’m being overly sentimental about watching the same H&M hoodies tell Tinder jokes in dive bars with indoor smoking and carpeting, but if you’ve only seen comedy through a screen you’re only getting half the experience, and it’s one that can’t be underestimated. It’s sadly still a bit dangerous to do right now given the nature of live entertainment, but when the rains and strains subside, make a point to seek out your local or nearest comedy scene because there is no substitute. You really just have to be there.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.