If you've ever seen a stand-up comedy special on TV, the image they were creating should come to you immediately. Artful footage of stand-ups might date at least to Lenny Bruce, but, as a TV genre, this milieu begins with "An Evening With Robert Klein" in 1975.
Said Klein, now 72: "Nobody really did an hour of comedy onstage on TV before I did it on HBO. If you had accomplished something in your career, the most you could generally hope for was maybe eight minutes on a talk show. The trick was to take advantage of the medium, give people a better seat than the people who were there, which, that first show, meant capturing me patrolling a stage like a tiger. Marty Callner, the director, was terrified. He needed close-ups, and I didn't stop moving."
Callner himself, who is now in his late 60s and never stopped directing stand-up specials, said the genre took off with then-fledgling HBO because productions were cheap, money was scarce and viewers watched. He told me about shooting Steve Martin for a 1976 special because the comic asked for $5,000 less than HBO's intended hire, Norm Crosby.
He said his only regret with the form he helped develop is that it's become a form: "If a sameness settled in, it's because the formula is applied to too many (different) comics, not because comedy's bad." Larsen at Comedy Central doesn't disagree: "I fear (the formula) gets stale. Today's comics, who grew up with Internet shorts, they read comedy in new ways, and we are obligated to reflect that." He cited Sarah Silverman's recent HBO special, shot before an audience of 39, as the genre's latest seemingly-minor-actually-major innovation.
"The trend is toward intimate, unique," Larsen said. Barry himself just released a stand-up show (via Louis CK's website) shot with hand-held cameras, centered entirely on unprepared audience interactions.
But John Irwin, who began his career as an assistant to Lorne Michaels and has made dozens of stand-up specials (including Buress' first, O'Neal's "Elephant in the Room" and upcoming Comedy Central specials with Patton Oswalt and Tracy Morgan), said: "I may be traditional, but I think (stand-up specials) can quickly grow cluttered and cheesy. You can't go too far outside the box before you screw with the point. It's about the person, and all the hard work nobody sees, that should be invisible."
The afternoon before filming, hours before the first show, Buress paced the stage in a Bulls hat and track pants, saying gibberish and cliches into the microphone, sounding like a comic imitating a comic, giving Raboy in the basement ("video village," they called it) and lighting guys above something to rehearse with. "Ever notice," he started, then trailed off. "Racism is out of control," he began, then trailed off. He stopped moving: "What if I freeze up? Like Eminem, 'Eight Mile'-style! 'He's choking how, everybody's joking now ...'"
Then the ballerinas arrived.
A half dozen strolled out, to rehearse a bit where Buress pretends to rap and decides that he needs ballerinas pirouetting around him. Even if the stand-up TV special format has stalled, Buress wanted to meet it halfway. He provided the producers with a set list. He moved a closing joke about stopping traffic in New Orleans to the head of his show at the request of Marshall, who liked it as a way of introducing Buress' absurdist bent. But he also told me before his performances that "an hour of stand-up can get boring straight through, so it's not bad to add elements."
For his first Comedy Central special, he let the network make the major decisions, and this time he wanted to show more ambition. So he brought in a DJ, and ballerinas.
"You never see ballerinas in, like, life," he said into the microphone, to no one.
In video village, a warren squirreled away in one of the basement green rooms, Raboy and Marshall sat at a bank of monitors, many showing Buress in close-up because, as Raboy explained, "Hannibal's a close-up guy, a lot of his material plays on his face. A lot of (directors) like big crane shots, but I like big stuff to establish the scope then stay close." He turned to the center image. On it, a woman walked out on stage with two sets of clothes on hangers, both dark and cool, but one more casual than the other. Buress went with a mix, a sport coat and jeans. Larsen, seated on a couch, said, "That looks great," and Harris asked: "Are there no other options?" A ballerina wandered in with a bag of popcorn and listened.
"Tom, can I see the ballyhoo?" Raboy said, asking the lighting director to show off the opening light design.
Showtime was creeping up. All that remained was an audience, and that was Samantha Black's job.
Samantha Black is a professional audience coordinator. If you have ever seen a Comedy Central stand-up special, rest assured: She arranged that audience just so. She meets with the comics, asks who they want in the front rows, what message they want to project (Buress wanted diversity, youth), then seats accordingly. She is a friendly woman with a necklace made of wine corks.
"I cast on the fly," she said, smiling. Forty-five minutes before Buress' first set, she grew intimidating: "Load-in's starting," she said in a huff.
For the next 25 minutes, she did not stop moving. Ushers brought her groups of three and four and five at a time. She playfully grabbed guys by their collars, pointing them toward seats. She walked to back rows and found handsome, young, hip-looking couples and led them to the roped-off rows down front.
"How many?" she asked a young guy, scanning his face.
"Five," he said.