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Jokes aside, how does a comedy special get made?

Nikki Glaser in her latest special, Perfect, which was produced by John Irwin.
Nikki Glaser in her latest special, Perfect, which was produced by John Irwin.

In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

A comedy special certainly lives or dies on the strength of a comedian’s jokes. That’s undeniable. What’s also true, though, is that there’s more to it than that. What’s the comedian wearing? How do they represent themselves? What’s the audience like? The setting? The lighting? And how do we get into the special? And out of it, especially if there are commercial breaks?

A good number of those variables are the responsibility of a producer who takes a comedian’s vision—“red curtain! Me in a suit!”—and translates it to the small (or big) screen. John Irwin is one of the best, having worked on specials for everyone from John Mulaney and Nate Bargatze to Artie Lange and Tracy Morgan. A professional who got his start working on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and MadTV, Irwin got his first taste of special production working on a segment for David Cross’ Let America Laugh before working with Bob Saget, D.L. Hughley, Jim Norton, Dave Attell, and Nick Swardson. He’s also produced specials for Patrice O’Neal, Daniel Tosh, Norm Macdonald, Hannibal Buress, Matt Braunger, Todd Barry, Demetri Martin, Chris Hardwick, Anthony Jeselnik, Steve Rannazzisi, Chris D’Elia, Kevin Hart, Patton Oswalt, Neal Brennan, Trevor Moore, Trevor Noah, and David Spade. In other words, this dude knows his stuff.

Irwin’s latest project, Chris Hardwick: Funcomfortable, premieres this Saturday night at 10 p.m. Eastern on Comedy Central. The A.V. Club talked to him about how that—and all the specials he’s worked on—came together, as well as how he helps put the funny on screen.

The A.V. Club: Let’s say you get a call from Chris Hardwick, because he has an upcoming special. What’s the process for you? Where do you start?

John Irwin: Basically, it’s trying to realize and accentuate their vision of what they want their show to look like.

One of my first jobs was Saturday Night Live. I used to do Def Comedy Jam, and I was working on stuff like Def Poetry and Paul Simon’s Concert In The Park. So my background has really been live event-type television, and live-to-tape television. So to me, in stand-up specials, it’s always about the connection between the comic and the audience, and making sure that that connection is realized as fully as possible.

To that end, when we shoot the show, it’s about making that experience for the audience and the comic as seamless as possible. You’re really putting on a live performance. The comics feed off of the energy of the audience. It’s a very symbiotic experience for those guys.

Backing up, when I get that call from the comedian, the first thing we figure out is what they want, where they want to shoot it, and how to make sure we’re going to a city that they either have some kind of connection to, or they feel like they have a really powerful fan base in. The city is always a big consideration, and finding the right venue, and making sure we’ve got something.

When I did John Mulaney, who’s from Chicago, his special was at Chicago Theatre. Three thousand people. I mean, that’s a massive event. And then there are other comics who want to shoot in a 300-seat venue because it feels more intimate. It’s really fleshing out that aspect of it and what’s going to play to what they’re looking for.

Then we dig in trying to figure out what the set’s going to be, meaning the background. Do they want something that looks like it’s more on the classic, timeless side? Or is it something that’s more themed? So there’s that process.

And then there’s figuring out the graphic open, and making sure their comedic set is pretty much where it needs to be, which it almost always is, because they’ve been working on it for months. And it’s shooting it. That’s the process in a nutshell.

AVC: Why would someone want to shoot in a big theater versus a smaller club?

JI: They’re such totally different experiences, and I think that most comics will run the spectrum. In other words, you can have a comic who has played giant arenas for years, and then decides that, for their stand-up special, they want to do something that’s small and intimate, versus the opposite. The flip side of that is John Mulaney. He has just been slowly working up to bigger and bigger venues. There’s certainly a rite of passage that occurs when you get to a point where you can shoot your special in a place like Madison Square Garden or the Chicago Theatre, where you’re playing to thousands of people. But that’s not to say that in a couple of years from now John Mulaney might want to do his next special in a room of three hundred people. It’s really just a personal choice.

AVC: Maybe Amy Schumer would want to do her next special at a jazz club. Who knows?

JI: Sarah Silverman shot her last special she did for HBO in a tiny little room.

AVC: Where did she do it?

JI: She did Largo in L.A.

AVC: What kind of challenges does that present for you? If you want to shoot in the Chicago Theatre, is it a bigger scale production? Do you have a crane at the Chicago Theatre that you don’t have at Largo?

JI: For me, the challenge always is whatever the location is, wherever the city is, how do we really put the comic in the best possible light? Ironically, the challenges are incremental, believe it or not. The difference between going into the Chicago Theatre and going into Largo—of course, you’ve got more crew, and there’s a little bit more that goes into setting up at the Chicago Theatre, but not a huge amount. That said, if you were going to go into Madison Square Garden and do a 20-camera shoot? Those types of shows are more few and far between now, though, because the days when HBO spent crazy amounts of money are sort of behind us now.

What people have realized is that with these types of shows, it’s really about shooting it in a way where you are connecting me at home to the comic on stage. Where people make mistakes sometimes is that every once in a while you’ll overshoot it, you’ll get too artsy with it, and it becomes more about the director and the camera work than it does about the stand-up. If I’m at home, and the cameras are cutting, or the angles are so crazy, it’s distracting me from being able to follow the comedy, and then we’ve lost the war.

AVC: How stylistically challenging can you get with a comedy special? Does it have to be a guy on a stage?

JI: We’re always trying to push the limits on that, but the reality is that you can’t get that stylistic. When you do, a lot of times the special suffers, because if you’ve got that camera angle that’s shooting from the floor, and has the comedian tiny in the corner, you’re not able to focus on the comedy.

We always shoot with film cameras now. Some of them we actually have on dollies, so they’re slightly moving. Sometimes it’s sort of unperceivable to the person at home, but it just creates energy. We’re always trying to figure out ways to shoot these things more cinematically, to bring more energy to them, to make them more interesting from a shooting standpoint, but we’re always walking that fine line to make sure we don’t do anything that is going to impede on being able to follow the comedy, because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the comedian up on stage being funny and you at home being able to totally focus on the comedy. If you have a set that’s so crazy or busy or you’re doing crazy stuff with lights or cameras, that’s going to detract from your ability to focus on the comedy.

AVC: What are the challenges working on something for, say, Comedy Central, where you have to be conscious of how commercials will work into the show?

JI: That’s really been the standard. We’ve done tons for Comedy Central, and now with Netflix, we’re able to do it without commercials.

We’re always cutting two versions. When we do them for Comedy Central, we’re also doing what’s called the extended version, or the uninterrupted version with no commercial breaks, and then we do the commercial break one. You just kind of figure out where to put those act breaks in without it being too disruptive to the flow.

AVC: What kinds of ideas do comedians come to you with? Do they say, “I want it to look like a French New Wave movie,” or do they say, “I just want to wear this suit”?

JI: Everybody always comes in in a different way. Some people come in and say, “I have no idea what I want. I know that I want it to be moody.” A lot of times, I kind of have to draw a feeling out of them, and then I have a set designer start working on it, so sometimes we work from very little. Other times, like with Chris Hardwick—he was extremely specific about what he wanted. So that always makes it pretty easy.

It’s the same thing to a certain extent with the graphic open. A lot of times, they’re like, “I have no idea what I want. I just know I want something that’s fast and features the title.”

I think that’s part of the fun of all of it, trying to figure it out.

AVC: You said that you make sure that the material is where it needs to be for the special. Do you go and see the sets in advance?

JI: Yeah, I do. And, look, their material is always pretty much there.

AVC: What’s the actual night of filming like?

JI: First we load in the audience. The set is usually in darkness, and we have music playing when they come in. Then we’ll send out the warm-up act for—I kind of have it down to a formula—like six or seven minutes. And then literally, as soon as the warm-up guy finishes, within a minute, we’re announcing the headliner and they’re going out. That way we keep the energy up. The worst thing you can do is have the warm-up guy go out and then have the audience sit there for three or four minutes. It just deadens the energy.

AVC: Is that something you learned from experience?

JI: Yes. [Laughs.]

We’ll shoot two shows in a night. One show’s always going to be better than the other.

AVC: Do you just pick one show, or do you cut the two shows together?

JI: We’ll generally pick the show that feels the strongest. That’ll be the base show. We’ll then pull anything from the other show that came off stronger in that version, and pull that into the second show, and then we’ll just edit from the second show.

Most of the time the second performance is the better one, for two reasons: The comic has already done the first one, gotten the nerves out, and in their mind that one is in the can and they’re done. Now they can go out there and just have fun. And generally the later audience just has more energy. They’ve had a couple drinks. It’s always a more exciting performance.

AVC: What makes a good special audience and a bad special audience? What don’t you want from people? You want them looser, I imagine, but not drunk.

JI: There’s a very simple formula for it, and that is that you basically want a comedian’s fans. It’s that simple. That’s an absolutely critical piece of the equation—just making sure that the people that are there are there because they love that comic. You’re not just pulling random people off the street.

AVC: No bachelorette parties?

JI: Comedy is super subjective. You may love Sarah Silverman, but not be such a fan of Jeff Ross. Who knows? The point is you’ve really got to make sure that the audience is there because they love that comic. And, of course, you just make sure that people aren’t going be screaming, or aren’t going to be doing any other craziness.

AVC: What’s the worst thing that’s happened while you’ve been filming a special?

JI: Crazy things can happen, but you can go in and mitigate most of that. The only thing that I’ve ever had happen is that in 2010 we were shooting Daniel Tosh in San Francisco, and for no reason whatsoever, the fire alarm went off in the building. It wasn’t pulled. It was a malfunction. He just stopped, we got it turned off, and then he picked it up. If you’ve done you’re homework and you have the right people working and all that, there really shouldn’t be technical issues.

AVC: How big is a crew for a special like Chris Hardwick’s, for instance?

JI: In total, there are probably like 50 people involved.

AVC: Is that including post-production?

JI: All-in. Honestly, I’ve kind of lost track at this point.

AVC: Are you helping people pick out clothes? How specific are you getting? Does Chris Hardwick ask you what suit he should wear on stage?

JI: Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It’s all over the place. Some comics want help with everything, some comics need very little help. Certainly, day of, we’ll look at the outfit on camera and make sure there’s no issues.

Certainly, Chris Hardwick, who’s more of a veteran of television and stand-up, he’s more decisive about what he wants. A newer comic, if this is his first stand-up special, he’s going to have questions about a lot of stuff.

AVC: How long is the editing process and post-production in total?

JI: It can vary. In theory, the post-production shouldn’t take more than about three weeks. Depending on the comic’s schedule, sometimes it can take two months, if they’re super busy and can’t totally focus, which can happen.

AVC: Are they contributing to editing?

JI: Yeah, they’re extremely involved. Since it’s their material, they have final say of what stuff stays in. They’re authoring it to a certain extent.

AVC: When, let’s say, Nate Bargatze comes to you, does he already have a deal in place with Comedy Central? Or do you guys shop the special around?

JI: Most of the time, these guys already have a deal in place. Sometimes they’ll come to me before that’s set up. But I’d say 90 percent of the time these guys already have everything, whether they’ve got a deal with Comedy Central, HBO, or Netflix.

AVC: You’ve done so many of these that it seems like you’re the guy to come to at this point.

JI: Hopefully! There is a fair amount that I don’t do, because there’s not enough money.

There’s a couple different ways to do these things. Some of them are done super low budget, and some of them are done a little bit more expensively. We’re on the more expensive side, just because I try to keep them at a certain standard.

AVC: What are trying not to do?

JI: It’s really about being able to hire the right people and being able to shoot it the right way. You can go out there and shoot these things with an iPhone, no joke. So there’s a pretty wide spectrum. For me, there’s a fair amount that we don’t end up doing because we just can’t make the dollars work.

I just don’t want to shoot stuff that everyone’s not going to be really happy with. I hear horror stories. A lot of times, when you do them cheaper, it actually effects the comedian’s experience day of. You have a smaller crew, you have fewer people out there. That’s where stuff starts to go wrong. I want everybody to have a good experience.

The other big difference is the final product. When you have the great lighting designer and the great DP and the great cameras and the right audio and all the right elements in place, the whole thing just looks and comes off way better. That said, the other one works, too. It’s really just a personal preference for the comedian as to what they want.

AVC: What would be your dream special? Do you want to shoot one in space? Have you tried to convince someone to do something really out there?

JI: I don’t know if I have an answer for that question, strangely enough. I’ve done so many of these that I feel like they’re all really exciting. The challenge on every one of them is to make them go off without a hitch and look amazing. Those are the two mandates, if that makes sense. I think the fun thing about them is every one of them ends up being special in their own way. I know that sounds kind of, whatever, but...

AVC: No, it’s true. They’re all perfect snowflakes.

JI: Oh, I don’t know about that.