Spring 2018

Beyond the Brick Wall and a Microphone

In their deceptively simple takes on the standup special, directors approach their subjects from the inside out

By Paul Brownfield

"You have to get into their psychology and find what gives them confidence," says Liam Lynch about directing comedians like Sarah Silverman. (Photo: Courtesy of Steven Agee)

Beginning with the 2005 theatrical release Jesus Is Magic, Liam Lynch has directed all of Sarah Silverman's comedy specials. It's why Lynch tends to know what Silverman will need even before he knows what form their latest collaboration will take.

His metaphor for this is matrimonial. "You're really planning a wedding. It's this one-day, or possibly two-day, event," Lynch says of the deceptively straightforward challenge of directing a comedy special. "You have to, as a director, get into their psychology and really find what gives them confidence so that they have their best performance."

When Jesus Is Magic was released more than a decade ago, it was meant to announce not only Silverman's brazenly impolitic jokes but also her comedic range. There were fantasy musical interludes and backstage characters, providing a template for the pilot of Silverman's subsequent Comedy Central series The Sarah Silverman Program.

In Jesus Is Magic, there is a noticeably large picture frame, with sparkles behind her. A Speck of Dust, her special that debuted on Netflix last year, goes the other way—a curtain, a stool and less showy lighting.

The choice for both director and comedian is whether the basics—comic, microphone, stage—call for additional visual elements or so few that the focus is de facto on the performer. In A Speck of Dust, the latter prevailed. That's because the show was filmed at Largo at the Coronet, where Silverman appears monthly.

"She wanted it to look like Largo always looks; she didn't want it dressed up," Lynch says. "The idea was to also document Largo as a place."

Lynch shot A Speck of Dust over two nights, with six cameras, including one tucked at the back of the house with a very long lens for close-ups. "I don't want the crowd distracted by cameramen, and I don't want her to really even see them," Lynch explains.

Still, the space's existing lighting needed help. "They had, like, three lightbulbs hanging in the background, up high, so I designed lights coming down at all different depths. Because I'd be shooting on long lenses, I'd get a real sense of depth and softness behind her so everything doesn't flatten out."

(Top & Middle) Chris Robinson says his work with Tiffany Haddish is "about connecting with the audience." (Bottom) Shannon Hartman shares a laugh with comedian Roy Wood Jr. (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Middle) Nacelle Co./ Showtime; (Bottom) Andrew Thomas Clifton)

Less Is More

Given their seeming ubiquity lately, and the inherent limitations of the form, how does a director make a comedian's "special" live up to the very title of the genre?

As varied as the performers are in persona and stage presence, certain artistic considerations prevail behind the camera. No. 1: Know your comedian, their offstage predilections and onstage rhythms. Make the viewing experience feel seamless; a lot of what directing a special involves takes place in the editing room, cutting among multiple performances of the same hour-long set. Think of the specialas a story, and try to get the comic to structure the hour accordingly. Ultimately, however, it's probably best not to try to reinvent the wheel.

"You can have an artsy angle, but with joke-telling, it doesn't land as well if I'm not shooting them from the front," says Shannon Hartman, who directed four 2017 comedy specials, including Roy Wood Jr.'s Father Figure, on Comedy Central. The special was shot at a black box theater in Atlanta that seats around 500. Hartman used eight cameras and added some lighting elements "as architecture," but again, Wood wanted things stripped down.

"They work on this material for a year or more," Hartman notes of the stakes for a comedian about to do a special. "It's a lot of pressure to nail the essence, to make them happy, so they feel good about material they've been working on so long."

For his part, Chris Robinson—who directed the 2017 Showtime special Tiffany Haddish: She Ready! From the Hood to Hollywood!—says standup comedy has "a very analogue, human patina. It doesn't have to do with technology at all. It has to do with people congregating in a room."

He points to some lasting advice he got from Ben Stiller: When shooting comedy, "Just let the person work within the frame. No camera tricks, no great camera moves. It's about connecting with the audience on that joke."

Robinson watched Haddish work for weeks; he also went back to certain seminal comedy specials, including the 1987 concert movie Eddie Murphy: Raw. "Although there was so many amazing visual things there, you kind of set that up with your production designer, with your wardrobe, your costuming, and it all comes from a real place because the comics are themselves," explains Robinson. "From Raw we remember Eddie wearing that suit. I didn't remember what the stage looked like. It was very simple."

Robinson shot From the Hood to Hollywood! at the Ebony Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles with seven cameras, but he and Haddish "had a long talk" about staging. "We just wanted it to feel, for lack of a better word, beautiful. Her special tackled a lot of harsh imagery."

It's not just that Haddish jokingly thanks everyone who paid taxes in California between 1990 and 1999 for getting her here, it's that she's framed by a silver, rococoish curtain and opulent, low-hanging chandeliers.

Michael Bonfiglio takes a less-is-more approach in his work with Jerry Seinfeld. (Photos: (Top) Netflix; (Bottom) Courtesy of Michael Bonfiglio)

Seinfeld the Storyteller

Michael Bonfiglio (Jerry Before Seinfeld) also subscribes to the less-is-more approach. "One of the beauties of standup comedy," he says, "is that one person standing on a stage can transfix an audience. I think the more bells and whistles you put on that, the more you're getting away from that art form. People have done some very innovative things in the form, but I don't know if it always works."

Bonfiglio didn't know Seinfeld—not personally, anyway—before directing him in Jerry Before Seinfeld. Having signed a reported $100 million deal with Netflix, Seinfeld wanted to use his first Netflix special to revisit all the material he wrote as a young comic in the 1970s, leading up to his debut on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1981.

Bonfiglio was a somewhat unlikely candidate for the project. His work includes From the Ashes, a feature-length documentary about the American divide on coal's future as an energy source. But the director had also begun collaborating with Judd Apatow on a documentary about the folk-rock band the Avett Brothers (May It Last, released this year), and Apatow recommended Bonfiglio to Seinfeld.

Tonally, Seinfeld was intent on avoiding overt nostalgia or anything to do with the sitcom that made him famous. "I really encouraged him to be more of a storyteller in this one than just joke-joke-joke," Bonfiglio recalls. "The special is incredibly dense with jokes, but it's all kind of couched in him telling a story. He never talked about, 'When I was a child in the '60s.' He came up with that new material, and then used that as a framework for the old jokes."

The nexus of Seinfeld's world was The Comic Strip on the Upper East Side. While an ideal locale for the special, the club itself presented Bonfiglio with his biggest directorial challenge: a low-ceilinged room with his lone character up against a static brick wall. To give the visuals some depth, Bonfiglio and his DP, Sam Levy, managed to strategically place five cameras in the room, including a handheld that Bonfiglio ultimately found untenable. At the back of the house, on a dolly, was a "poor man's jib," to make the viewer feel as though he was in the room"—an effect Bonfiglio felt was important.

If Jerry Before Seinfeld could only be done at The Comic Strip, Dave Chappelle had just as powerful a motivation to shoot his Netflix special, The Age of Spin, at the Hollywood Palladium. It was the site of Richard Pryor's seminal 1982 concert movie Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip.

It's worth noting that Live on the Sunset Strip was Pryor's 17th comedy album. Chappelle has similar rock-star status, comedic stagecraft and creative output. The Age of Spin was the second of four Chappelle hours in 2017, the first called Deep in the Heart of Texas, shot in 2015 at Austin City Limits, while the other two are Equanimity, shot in September at the historic, 2000-seat Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., and The Bird Revelation, an accelerated effort that seized on the Harvey Weinstein scandal that exploded in October. The latter was shot in the cramped, 70-seat Belly Room of L.A. Comedy Store in late November and delivered two weeks later.

"We had probably two weeks to set up the shoot," says Chappelle's longtime director-producer Stan Lathan, who adds that their intent was "to be as intimate and inside the experience as possible."

Lathan has known Chappelle since he was a young D.C.-based comic braving the stage of Def Comedy Jam, the hip-hop-meets-standup TV franchise that Lathan developed and produced with founder Russell Simmons.

As Lathan notes, Def Comedy Jam pioneered the collapse in physical space between audience and performer, with a thrust turning the stage into something like a boxing ring. At the Hollywood Palladium, a ballroom, Lathan and Chappelle emptied the space to create a mini-stadium, complete with a thrust that takes Chappelle, who tends to walk the stage for blocks, anyway, out into the house.

"There are networks that believe audiences should be heard and not seen," Lathan says. "That goes against what I personally feel is part of the TV experience. He's performing for these people, not for these cameras. Why don't we see that along with him?"

For Equanimity, Lathan used 10 Sony 4300 cameras: "three jibs, two handhelds, four peds and a Steadicam, which gave us a 360-degree look at the theater. Instead of relying on typical audience cutaways, we included Dave in those shots whenever possible."

Jessica Yu (Top) and her subject, Maria Bamford (Bottom), played with the idea that comedy could be performed anywhere; (Photos: (Top) Max Gerber/Netflix; (Bottom) Courtesy of Jessica Yu)

Seeking Connection and Meaning

Maria Bamford is more apt to place her hands on the invisible wall between performer and audience and wonder what the wall is and why it's there. Bamford performed her 2012 special—called The Special Special Special!—in front of a live audience that consisted of her parents on a couch ("You've known her from birth!" went the intro).

Old Baby continues this conceit of mocking a comedian's deep need for validation, or what director Jessica Yu calls Bamford's penchant for "playing on the idea of comedy being something that could be performed anywhere. She wanted it to reflect that approach, and her sense of wanting to build community."

Yu didn't have to leave her house to get to know Bamford's set for Old Baby, because Bamford performed the entire show in Yu's kitchen, just the two of them. They met first as friends, through Bamford's artist husband. Yu, whose TV directorial work includes drama (American Crime) and comedy (Parenthood), directed an episode of Bamford's Netflix series Lady Dynamite.

As they discussed venues for Old Baby, Yu says, she thought it would be fun to bookend the special with Bamford performing in front of a mirror at the beginning and end in an artificially created stadium.

"Everything in the middle, that really reflects how she performs her comedy now," Yu says.

In each location—a living room, a bookstore, a bowling alley, all in Bamford's Eagle Rock neighborhood—a papier mâché mock-up of Bamford's dog is somewhere in the frame. Bamford did about 20 minutes of her set at each location, and the entire set at the downtown L.A. Novo Theater, where Old Baby concludes.

Laughter, throughout Old Baby, is not guaranteed to validate—what emerges as powerful is Bamford's naked use of standup for connection and meaning. "Is that what a relationship is, is it just continuing to show up without any guarantee? I can do that!" Bamford deadpans. She is standing on her front lawn, performing for four people sitting on a bench. She gets a reaction, but it has an awkward social context compared to the sanctioned laughs she gets in a theater, describing her experiences at a psychiatric hospital or likening her penchant for filling out self-help manuals to "a 25-year game of emotional Sudoku."

"I think she's fascinated by how a joke can have a different feeling in a room of 10 people and then be huge in a stadium," says Yu.

Stan Lathan has worked repeatedly with Dave Chappelle. (Photos: (Top) Lester Cohen/Netflix; (Bottom) Mathieu Bitton courtesy of Stan Lathan)

Cherry-Picking the Most Telling Moments

When it comes to a special, "one night only" is a misnomer. Typically, the hour is a fusion of moments, joke to joke, of a comedian's set over successive performances. Hartman has learned that comedians tend to hit their groove toward the end of the first show and the beginning of the second. When she began directing comedy specials, seguing from music documentaries and concert films, she went back and studied the work of Marty Callner, who has shot HBO specials by Chris Rock, Robin Williams and George Carlin. "He likes a lot of angles," Hartman says. Also, "More coverage is better coverage."

This helped with Wood's Father Figure. Her Steadicam operator in Atlanta, accustomed to working in film, had some issues staying on a comic who was only making gradual, lateral moves for the better part of two hours. "They're used to moving forward and backward, and this is more of a dolly move," Hartman says of film vs. comedy special. "It's a different set of muscles. It's a constant left, right, horizontal move. What we ended up with was a rocking boat."

When it's all assembled in the editing room, instead of being obtrusive, comedians can point to things that only they might notice, such as hearing nuances in the way a joke hits that a director might miss. Lathan says he edits a cut of Chappelle's specials and then brings him into the editing room. The director knows to leave wiggle room so they can cut among shows, shaping the performance.

"There's some nights, especially with Dave because he's so spontaneous, where the direction will shift a little bit based on a specific kind of response from an audience," Lathan says. "Or something that might have happened that day in the world that has a connection to something that he's talking about."

Unlike Chappelle, Silverman tends to stand bird-like still onstage, and the intonations and beats in her material are crafted word for word. For Lynch, it's a matter of where he wants the camera to be on the punchline.

"For Sarah, it's all about face expressions," Lynch says. "That's why they're so many close-ups on her."

Silverman did two shows at Largo, and Lynch estimated that he shifted between the two nights some 70 times in making the final cut.

"You're really trying to capture a comedian's timing. It's an editing thing more than a directing thing," says Lynch, who has Silverman with him when he edits. "Even if you're not actually extracting any time out of it, your cuts, if they get too busy during a setup for a joke, or if they cut out too soon on the delivery, there's hang times that you want to keep before you switch shots that feels like part of the joke." He adds: "It's a total feel thing, a comedic feel thing."

Lynch had crowd shots for coverage but decided, convenient as they are, not to use them. "You're making that decision, are you a person standing in the aisle, looking at the crowd and then looking over to the stage, or do you want to feel like you're in a seat in the crowd?"

One camera was stashed in the lighting booth, looking down at a miniaturized Silverman on the stage. Compared to crowd shots, it felt original and right. The show he was directing, after all, was called A Speck of Dust.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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