Why comedians make intimate comedy specials: 'We want to be heard'

·5 min read
Jerrod Carmichael illustration
Jerrod Carmichael illustration

This story is part of a USA TODAY series looking at the evolution of comedy and what the industry’s future looks like in a changing world.

“You're comfortable? … This only works if we feel like family," Jerrod Carmichael told the audience at the 200-person capacity venue as he began his recent HBO stand-up special.

"Rothaniel," the comedian's third special released in April, grabbed the attention of the comedy world and casual stand-up viewers alike – without a sold-out stadium venue or a larger-than-life concept aiming to appeal to as many viewers as possible. It felt like a raw quasi-therapy session: unpacking Carmichael's emotional process of coming out as gay to his family as he – in real time – came out to the rest of the world.

His performance is emblematic of a greater shift over the last few years in how some top and rising comedians are approaching their craft: Many are getting intimate with the content and scope of their comedy specials.

"Rothaniel" in many ways echoed Hannah Gadsby's “Nannette” from 2018: both deeply vulnerable, personal takes from queer comedians on some of their most painful life moments, littered with jokes.

"I've been trying to be very honest because my whole life was shrouded in secrets," Carmichael explains in the special of his decision to come out. "And I figured the only route I haven't tried is the truth. So I'm saying everything. Here's everything. I feel OK."

Bo Burnham, Aziz Ansari use location to emphasize intimacy

Wanting to share personal truths is a sentiment that many creatives drew from the COVID-19 quarantine. Some also took the opportunity to reimagine the venues and mediums in which their jokes were presented in their final form: See Bo Burnham creating, filming and editing his 2021 musical variety special “Inside” from his home, the intimate comedy club setting in “Rothaniel” and Aziz Ansari's "Nightclub Comedian," and even Sarah Cooper’s 2020 Netflix special, "Everything's Fine."

Comedy is “always an art form in search of a venue,” comedian Mo Amer tells USA TODAY.

"There is no place it can't be performed," he adds, noting that "Nanette" was performed at a large venue but felt intimate.

"It's always been that way for me. I've always come from a true honest experience, and to me, that's the essence of what great stand-up is. Great stand-up not only makes you laugh but also makes you think."

What's OK to joke about? Personal experiences vs. making fun of others

Introspective comedy isn't an entirely new concept (Richard Pryor and George Carlin are widely regarded as great stand-up "philosophers"), but the past few years have brought identity politics to the forefront. The pool of comedians earning mainstream recognition is more diverse than ever, which has prompted personal stories that represent more of the world and, with them, a debate on what topics are acceptable to joke about.

"There’s so much streaming comedy now that you can find any kind you gravitate toward," says Mike Bent, a comedian and comedy professor at Emerson College in Boston. "On the other hand, new voices are being heard and you’re seeing that there’s value in that and a market for that."

This generation of comedians is more empathetic, which Bent welcomes, adding that no trend is without pushback. And plenty of pushback was found this year following high-profile stories of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars over a joke about his wife and Dave Chappelle being attacked onstage over a transphobic joke. Both posed questions about what comedians can and can't joke about in the current climate.

'Tired of being someone else's joke'

LGBTQ community members and experts have highlighted how jokes about marginalized groups delivered from an outside perspective in the wrong way can lead to violence toward those groups.

Moe A. Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist, believes comedians have permission to talk about a group because they’re a member of the group, have a "close personal relationship" with someone who is, or have done "a lot of the cultural humility work to understand" what they’re talking about.

Can America take a joke? Yes. Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock incidents are part of a continuum, experts say

"We’re experiencing a moment where people are standing up in the larger community, larger culture outside of comedy and saying ‘we don’t want to be oppressed. We don’t want to be marginalized. We don’t want you to talk about us. We want to be seen. We want to be heard,'" Brown says. "People are pretty tired of being someone else’s joke.”

After much tense debate about what comedy should (and shouldn't) be, where do we go from here?

For a glimpse at the comedians of tomorrow, take a step into Bent’s classroom: Emerson is the first U.S. college to offer a comedic arts major. When quarantine forced classes to be held virtually, students performed their shows via Zoom. And they were much more inclined to get personal than in years past, Bent says.

"I tell my students it’s the responsibility of each generation of comedians to change around, mix it up a little bit and put your stamp on it. The pandemic made people want to be themselves a little bit more."

Contributing: Kelly Lawler

Where to stream introspective comedy specials

  • Jerrod Carmichael, "Rothaniel": HBO Max

  • Bo Burnham, "Inside": Netflix

  • Aziz Ansari, "Nightclub Comedian": Netflix

  • Sarah Cooper, "Everything's Fine": Netflix

  • Dave Chappelle, "8:46": YouTube

  • Patton Oswalt, "Annihilation": Netflix

  • Hasan Minhaj, "Homecoming King": Netflix

  • Maria Bamford, "Weakness Is the Brand": Amazon Prime Video

  • Taylor Tomlinson, "Look at You": Netflix

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jerrod Carmichael, Bo Burnham comedy specials are going introspective