Spike Lee needed only three video clips of Jerrod Carmichael to be sold on directing the young comedian's first special for HBO and Funny or Die. "We were ready to do the song and dance and it wasn't necessary," says Anna Wenger, Funny or Die's VP of production and one of the executive producers on the Carmichael standup show. "Spike immediately got it that he was a major rising talent."
Carmichael, who is 26, moved from his native North Carolina to Los Angeles in 2008 to pursue stand-up comedy. He developed his craft at the vaunted Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard where Richard Pryor, Jim Carrey and Sam Kinison had blossomed, and in 2014, the work began to pay off. He appeared in his first movie, "Neighbors," with Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, shot a pilot for NBC (although it wasn't picked up), and on Wednesday, May 7, returned to the Comedy Store to perform his act before Lee's cameras and an enthusiastic crowd.
"He's a young, emerging comedic voice who connects with so many audiences," says Betsy Koch, an executive producer of the special, who first became aware of Carmichael three and a half years ago. "He's good with the club comedy scene and the alternative comedy crowd, and he's never done a special before, which is part of the DNA at Funny or Die and HBO."
Carmichael says he chose the Comedy Store as the setting for his first special specifically, the club's 142-person Original Room − because it was the first room he played in 2008.
"It was Sunday, Aug. 10, an open-mic night, and I went up first," Carmichael says, two hours before shooting begins for the HBO special. "There were no audience members. I was essentially performing for the comics in the back corner and it went really, really fast," he says. "It's important for this [special] to feel very honest, and this is a place that's very important to me."
For the special, Carmichael has put together a 70-minute set that examines poverty and wealth, Beyonce and female empowerment, crime and race. The centerpiece of the show will be a bit in which he riffs on the idea that "talent is more important than morals," he says. In it, he debates the merits of such controversial artists as Chris Brown, Woody Allen and R. Kelly.
"A lot of these (jokes) use certain techniques to highlight ignorance," he says of his carefully planned, casually delivered observations. "There's an element of what do the people want to hear, but you have to get deeper and deeper into what you want to say. You slowly find your perspective by [performing]. Then the things that don't feel honest you leave out."
Funny or Die, the 7-year-old web site that includes Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow among its partners, had only done one previous special for HBO, a show with Sarah Silverman. The new show's goal, Koch says, is to showcase a day in the life of Carmichael at the Comedy Store.
Here's a behind-the-scenes look at the actual day:
6 a.m. A crew of 60 loads in lights, eight Arri Alexa cameras, staging and video equipment, setting up a video village control room in the 400-capacity main room of the Comedy Store. A room that's usually full of tables and chairs has become a sea of snaking cables that to a nine-screen video monitor. Camera dolly tracks are installed at the rear of the room when the special will be shot.
Noon Director Lee and director of photography Matthew Libatique ("Noah," "Black Swan"), first assistant director Randy Fletcher and the executive producers revamp the schedule for pre-taped segments. "It allowed us to go for an hour lunch instead of a half-hour," says line producer Jim Sharon, "and that keeps morale high."
2 p.m. Carmichael, who greets everyone with an embrace, is filmed giving hugs to Comedy Store regulars and his comedian friends for the show's opening. The executive producers find the hugging charming and tell one story after another about how they have witnessed him greeting strangers in clubs and offices with hugs.
4 p.m. After an initial sound check and wardrobe check, Carmichael is given an hour of downtime. Members of his family arrive, he doles out more hugs and then chats with fellow comic Jamar Neighbors, who is part of the bill.
5:09 p.m. Libatique checks the lighting in each area of the stage, calling out the numbers on his light meter as Carmichael does a "cue-to-cue," whispering as he walks through his routine onstage, making multiple hand gestures and often staring at the ground. The dark sweater, jeans and work boots he wears during the walkthrough are the same clothes he will wear for the show.
5:20 p.m. Lee joins Carmichael onstage to pose for HBO promotional photos and for once, the director makes the comedian laugh. In a zipped-up jacket emblazoned with his 40 Acres and a Mule company logo, Lee checks microphones in the four corners of the room to gauge how audience reaction will be register on the audio feed.
5:37 p.m. After an onstage meeting with the executive producers, Carmichael resumes his run-through of stage movements. "No one's nervous," he says with a smile, then threatens to go onstage and entertain the audience by grooving to jazz pianist Dave Brubeck on his earbuds instead of doing his act.
6:25 p.m. The first audience members begin lining up on Sunset Boulevard. Some leaven their boredom by watching the L.A. Clippers-Oklahoma City Thunder playoff game that is being shown at an outdoor bar that fronts Sunset. Inside the Comedy Store, most of the workers are inside enjoying catered Mexican food.
7:31 p.m. Candles are placed on tables and lit. After reviewing the set-up, Lee shouts "Let the people in." The room is three-quarters full within 20 minutes, and the doormen are careful to honor Carmichael's request that no one he knows be seated close to the stage.
8:02 p.m. The camera on dolly tracks at the rear of the room begins shooting. The full house is eerily silent. Argus Hamilton, a Comedy Store regular, warms up the crowd with jokes about a recent trip to Oklahoma. He praises Carmichael extensively, suggesting that everyone in the audience will be talking about this night years from now after Carmichael becomes a superstar.
8:10 p.m. Lee decides the room does not look right and starts getting drinks placed on tables. Crew members and Comedy Store employees start passing trays full of half-consumed mixed drinks and full beers to tables near the stage.
8:20 p.m. Carmichael takes the stage in the low-ceilinged Original Room, and neon signs advertise the names of Robin Williams, David Letterman, Richard Pryor and other comedians who've played there. The crowd greets him enthusiastically as he declares, "hip-hop has ruined me financially." In the next 20 minutes, he covers finances, Hitler, homosexuality and remembering where he was when Jay Z's "The Blueprint" came out. He gets big laughs by taking pity on people who have to eat at McDonald's, questioning the acuity of Beyonce's audience and riffing on the casting of a Hillary Clinton biopic. "Scarlett Johansson might play Hillary," he says. "Talk about an upgrade." Carmichael says that when Bill Clinton learns of Johansson's participation, he announces, "I'll play myself."
9:00 p.m. After getting some groans and uneasy laughs with racial humor, Carmichael loses the audience when he compares the power of Adolf Hitler to Martin Luther King Jr.
9:28 p.m. For a second time, Carmichael pauses during his routine to consult a small notebook that he pulls from his pocket. He winds up his set discussing how street numbers in Los Angeles indicate how far you are from a safe neighborhood – 3rd is good, 118th Street is dangerous. He leaves the stage to cheers, and the audience gets a few more jokes from Hamilton and Neighbors.
9:45 p.m. The audience is asked to stay in their seats until Lee and a crew of eight can set up across Sunset Boulevard to film the audience as it leaves the Comedy Store.
10:10 p.m. Carmichael shoots more footage for the intro while the audience for the second show is ushered into the club.
10:47 p.m. Funny or Die tweets a photograph of Carmichael in the Main Room wearing headphones with a glass of wine on a bar stool.
Midnight Second show ends.
2 a.m. Equipment load-out finished. The marquee, bearing Carmichael's name and the word "love" instead of "live," is turned off.